Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Lost Post Offices of Australia - Singleton (2330)

Singleton Post Office holds one of the most unique claims to fame in Australian postal history, it was the first country Post Office to have Private Letter Boxes installed. The new 40 box installations were supposed to be installed in time for the opening of the new Singleton Post Office, however, construction delays denied this event for nine months, and eventually they were ready for use on the 7th August 1879. These boxes were based on an American design, which had a copper alloy frame and doors to ensure security and according to the Maitland Mercury each of the boxes had an individual key and "that the little locks are marvels of ingenuity". So how much would you pay to have access to your mail 24/7, how about £1 per year (plus 5s key security)!

The delay in the Private Letter Boxes did not dampen the enthusiasm of the Patricks Plains community when their purpose built Post Office was finally completed at 25 -27 George St (the New England Hwy) Singleton and officially opened on the 16th November 1878.

I doubt whether Singleton had ever witnessed such a pompous and officious affair than this auspicious occasion and when the Postmaster, Mr Joseph Kelf, officially declared the Post Office open for the business at 12pm, the speeches commenced. The longest of course went to the local MP, Mr W.C. Browne MLA for Patricks's Plains, who was deputising for the Postmaster-General and during his sonorous speech declared -

"The people of the district of Patrick's Plains would appreciate the conveniences provided for them in this commodious building, which was an ornament to this important and rising town, and a credit to the architect who had designed it."

The architect was of course James Barnet, who designed this Post Office in his usual ' Victorian Italianate' two storey design, which featured beautiful arched colonnades and slate roof. The interior of this wonderful building was also enhanced with solid cedar tables, cedar cupboards, leather upholstered stamping table, ten hanging pendant lamps and various table lamps. The total cost for this wonderful building, including the land, was £3,670 ($3.2 million), which was an extraordinary amount for any similar designed Post Office of the period (e.g. Campbelltown PO was built for £2400).

Through the years there were various additions or alterations to the building as the community continued to  grow and prosper. Then, in 1924, for some inexplicable reason Walter Vernon was commissioned to design a new front verandah and he came up with the ugliest design ever imagined. Walter Vernon did not show any empathy at all for Barnet's original design and came up with a Federation style verandah and roof line, that totally destroyed the flow of Barnets Italianate architectural beauty.

The poor citizens of Singleton were burdened with this monstrosity for another 50 years, until on the 26th August 1974, after two years of construction and $191,200, the current Post Office was completed in John Street. This new building once again heralded a new lease of life for Australia Post as the ugly old George Street building had become cramped and being right on the highway, it was difficult for customers to access due to the increasing traffic flows. This was such an important event, the local paper, The Singleton Argus, even dedicated a 4 page spread to the official opening, which was quite an honour indeed.

Part of the newspaper supplement included the history of postal services in the Singleton area and highlighted the area's rich postal history. This history dates as far back as 1829 which was when the first Post Office was established at Darlington on Benjamin Singleton's property and located in The Plough & Horse Inn with Mr Alfred Glennie appointed Postmaster (Alfred Glennie also served as Clerk to the Patrick Plains Chamber of Magistrates at the same time).

The town of Singleton was proclaimed in 1835 and blocks of land were quickly snatched up for £13.13.5 ($19,500). With the increasing population came the pressure for better postal facilities and so on the 1st December 1841, the Darlington Post Office was then renamed Singleton, with  local Singleton shopkeeper, Mr G. Lloyd, appointed Postmaster. This was a trend that was continued until 1st September 1862 when the Singleton Post Office was at last to become an Official Post Office, although it still was still separate from the Telegraph Office (which had arrived in 1861).

The Post Office continued to move, much to the dismay of the locals and when the Telegraph and Post Office were finally combined in January 1870 the Post Office was moved from Campbell Street to John Street, which caused a flurry of Letters To The Editor, complaining of  "this thoughtless proceeding on the part of the Government - a proceeding on a par with the rest of the pettyfogging retrenchment transactions of the Robertson Administration". Mr John Nesbitt was then appointed the Postmaster, a position he held until Mr Joseph Kelf assumed the position after a fire nearly destroyed the Singleton Post Office on the 20th June 1876. Mr Kelf proved to be a very popular Postmaster with the local community and they were saddened when he left to take up a new position in Bourke in June 1901. Their gratitude was so great that they gave him a proper farewell (attended by 50 guests), a silver tray and hand drawn certificate to show their appreciation.

Today the former 1878 James Barnet/Walter Vernon designed George St Post Office is still standing, however, it wasn't renovated to its former glory and is now used as low cost accommodation with all the ambience that goes with a building located on a major highway. This heritage listed former icon of the Hunter Valley can never be restored to reflect it's former Barnet inspired beauty as the indignities inflicted by Walter Vernon make that a thing of the past and today his federation inspired alterations make it a sad sight to behold.

I'd like to thank the Singleton Council Library and The Newcastle Family History & Historical Society for all their assistance in compiling this blog.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Scars On The Landscape - Greta

Most of us have seen those old gritty films that feature coal mining, movies like "How Green Was My Valley (1941) & "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980), they are just two that come readily to mind. Both these films portray a hard working life in the Welsh and Kentucky coal fields, where the countryside was as hard as the miners that dug for the black ore.

However, here in the Hunter Valley, while the miners were as tough and as gritty as any miners in the world, the country was, for want of a better word .... nice. 

There was no bitingly cold snow laden winters or towns trapped in dank valleys where the sun rarely shone or where misery was worn like a shawl that wrapped itself around generations of mining families condemned to work in the pits

No, the Hunter Valley coal mines, even from the time of the first pits, right through to today can be considered a rather pleasant working environment, mining accidents not withstanding.

Now while the coal industry had been a thriving concern in Newcastle and the Hunter region since the early 1800's, it was a discovery of a few precious lumps on the banks of Anvil Creek (21 kilometres north of Maitland) that was to establish the Hunter Region as the worlds leading supplier of high quality low ash coal.

The honour of that find goes to William Farthing whose tenacity proved correct when in 1861 he obtained a lease on Anvil Creek and commenced operations in 1862 (which was known as Farthings Pit). From these small beginnings, helped along by the arrival of the Great Northern Railway 1869 and then by the geological findings of Sir T.W. Edgeworth David who declared in 1886 that this area was sitting atop some of the richest coalfields in Australia, the small rural village of Greta quickly expanded with at least eight coal mines beginning operations in this small area by 1910.

It hard to envisage today that this sleepy village  at the height of mining operations, had over 7,000 inhabitants and the town boasted no less than 11 hotels! As with al these towns the local Post Office played an important role in the towns development and Greta was no different. The local Post Office began operations as a non official office in 1874 at Anvil Creek and then in early 1877 it was operating from the new  £1800 ($1.5million) Farthings Platform ( which was then renamed Greta Railway Station in 1878) and was still called Anvil Creek Post Office (are you confused yet?). However, eventually commonsense prevailed and Anvil Creek Post Office was renamed Greta in October 1886. Then in 1889 with the mines around Anvil Creek closing and most of the population moving closer to the Greta township the Post Office at the railway station was closed and transferred to High Street (New England Highway) and was made an official Post Office with Mr M.J. Sheppard appointed Postmaster. The original Greta Post Office is still standing today, however the Post Office (which then became non official, or LPO, in 1979) has changed locations, now co-located with the newsagent next door and still providing the Greta community with postal services as it has done for over 120 years.     

As for William Farthing, well his mining ventures didn't flourish as he'd hoped they would, mainly due to fires that ravaged his pits in 1871 and so he settled into the Greta district, ultimately becoming the local Magistrate for both Greta and Branxton Courthouses. On the 6th August 1886 William Farthing died suddenly while sitting in front of the fire with his wife Lillias, he was aged 68 years old. While others went on to claim higher honours for achieving less, William Farthing should never be forgotten for his contribution to the Hunter Valley and its mining heritage.    

Not much remains of Greta's extensive mining heritage, no grand memorials, sculptures or dedications and mines such as Anvil Creek, Farthings Pit, Leconfield. Whitburn and Central Greta are now just scars on the landscape. Today it is difficult to see where these mines once operated, where proud men worked and died, however, these old mining ventures can give up subtle clues to their proud heritage ... if you know where to look.

I'd like to thank the online resources of the Newcastle Regional Library & especially the excellent contribution by the late John Delaney  -

P.S. There is a small dedication to the 36 miners who died whilst working in the various Greta pits and also to the one miner shot dead by the police during the Rothbury Riot. This small, but important memorial is located in Water St, outside the Greta Arts & Sports Community Hall.

William Farthing and his wife Lillias are buried in a small unpretentious plot in the Presbyterian section of the East Maitland cemetery.  

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Winters Day In The Bay

June in Newcastle can be get rather cold, so it is tempting just to sit inside, put the television on and wait for the warmer weather to arrive, however some winter days can be just magical.

This Saturday was just on of those special mid winter days, the sun was shining, the temperature hovered around 19° and so Jude and I decided to head off to Port Stephens for lunch at Shoal Bay. Shoal Bay is a wonderful little hideaway and has one of the best takeaway shops that can be found in the area, Aussie Bobs.So making sure I packed my Canon  400D we headed off on the 30 minute drive to the Bay. As well as lunch, since it is also whale migration season (June - October) it is sometimes possible to spot the whales from the headlands and so that is why I preferred the 400D, with its 75 - 300mm telephoto lens as it is ideal for bringing long distance shots into focus.

After our big lunch we decided that it might be a good idea to go for a walk along the bay and just see what we could find on our little adventure, plus walk off those calories. What we did find was the entrance to Tomaree National Park and the walking trail around to the old WWII gun emplacements at Fort Tomaree.

Since it was only a 1 kilometre walk we were well kitted out for our bushwalk, camera, check, a three quarters full bottle of Coke, check, one packet of chewy, check ... so off we went.

The old emplacements are accessed by a relatively easy walk and are well worth the effort. The guns were two 6" Mk.VII BL guns (the same as Fort Scratchley) and were installed in 1942 to cover the entrance to Port Stephens to deny the Japanese Navy easy access to a deep water anchorage, from where they could launch an invasion on Newcastle. The guns, unlike those at Fort Scratchley, were never fired in anger and while the guns have long since been removed, there are still the emplacements, plus other remnants of Australia's WWII history that are still in place and are worth exploring.

On the return journey I noticed that there was a track that led up to the 155 metre summit and it was only a 260 metre walk to the top. Now, this isn't mountain goat country, as it is a well formed path with steps and walkways that allow easy access to the summit, however it still requires a bit of effort to make it all the way to the top. Once you make it to the summit (which was also the WWII radar site), the vista is spectacular, with uninterrupted views north to the Myall Lakes, south to Newcastle, and along the Karuah River that  lazily meanders westward.

The Tomaree Headland is also a great spot to do some whale watching and we were lucky enough to see a couple of these wonderful mammals putting on quite a display as they continue their migration northward to the warmer waters around The Great Barrier Reef (especially The Whitsundays). There is always something special about these displays which can captivate you for hours and makes you wonder how that we humans nearly hunted these wonderful mammals nearly to extinction early last century!

It certainly was a great way to spend a winters day, only next time I go on one of our walking adventures I think I'll pack something a bit better than a bottle of Coke and some chewing gum ... not exactly the best way to bushwalking!


Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Lost Post Offices of Australia - Waratah (2298)

What an honour it must have been for 17 year old John Banfield to be appointed the Postmaster at the Waratah Post Office when the Post Office achieved its official status on the 23rd June 1877. Initially he was paid a salary of £52 per annum ($46,000), but what he wasn't so pleased about  was that the Postmaster-Generals Department was charging him £1 per week for board and lodgings!

Reluctantly, the Postmaster-General did eventually agree to double his wages after young John made representations to him about how the low wage was making it hard to make ends meet.

Waratah was another one of our Hunter towns that was basically founded on the coal boom of the 1800's (the town did exist as early as the 1820's with small scale mining and brickmaking being the main employment) . The colliery at Waratah (established 1862) was made more attractive when the railway from Newcastle arrived in March 1858 making it easier to use that infrastructure to transport the black gold to Newcastle wharves and also to their own coal loaders located at Port Waratah.   

As was the fashion of that period the Postmaster-General on the decided to place a Post Office at Waratah Station with station master, Mr Pat Dwyer, appointed the first Postmaster on the 1st February 1860. For his extra postal duties Mr Dwyer was paid £12 per annum ($13,000), plus commission on stamps sold, not a bad little earner even today!

Although the mine wasn't a real success in tonnage, Waratah began to thrive as a residential suburb and when Mr Thomas Grove opened up the new Hanbury Estate, both area's, Hanbury and Waratah started to boom as people took advantage of property close to Newcastle with easy access to the railway. As the town grew so did the Post Office, with the addition of money order facilities (1868) and a Government Savings Bank facility (1871).

In 1877 after the then station master (and Postmaster) Mr Mattingley was transferred, the Postmaster-General decide to amalgamate the Telegraph and Post Offices to save costs. The telegraph which arrived in 1863, initially was separate from the Post Office and so in 1877 the Post Office was moved into the Telegraph Office located in Cross Street (now named Tighe Street), with young John Banfield, the former Telegraph Operator, now appointed as Postmaster. The building was cramped and the accommodation deemed unsuitable, when the next Postmaster, a family man, Mr William Harris became the next Postmaster in November 1878 (this was a position he held for the next 35 years!). New rented premises were then obtained in High Street in January 1879 as an interim measure whilst a brand new purpose built building was constructed.

The site selected was on the Cnr of Turton Road and Station Street and Government Architect James Barnet designed the single storey building of a simple design with cement rendered walls and hipped corrugated iron roof (which dismayed the local council), at a cost of £1050 . The contract was awarded to W.H. Galbraith and on the 1st March 1881, Waratah welcomed it own, purpose built, Post Office (the mail room addition occurred sometime in 1901)    

Waratah Post Office, after 115 years of service eventually became part of Australia Posts property rationalisation and in 1996 this wonderful 19th century building was sold off with the Post Office transferring operations to the Waratah Village Shopping Centre and becoming just another retail shop, albeit a very busy one,  in another bland shopping centre.

The bond between the Post Office and they community they serve becomes severed with every one of these asset disposals, with the memory of past deeds and tribulations lost, while we pursue the lure of the easy dollar. It may surprise some to learn that Waratah Post Office turned 150 years old this year, but on Monday the 1st February 2010, this momentous fact passed unnoticed by everyone and so it became just being another day in a suburban shopping centre.

Congratulations to Waratah Post Office on celebrating their Sesquicentennial this year.

Many thanks to the Newcastle Library, the Ralph Snowball Collection & the Newcastle Family History & Historical Society 

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Lost Post Offices of Australia - Mayfield (2304)

 In 1881 Mr John Schoely decided it might be a good idea to subdivide some of his property in an area of what was then know as North Waratah. He called his new estate Mayfield, naming it after his youngest daughter May and sold the blocks in large 'on site' auctions with no interest finance. The Mayfield Estate was marketed as a prestegious suburb, with Hunter River frontages, vineyards and easy access to Newcastle either by a 4 minute walk to Waratah Station or a 20 minute sulky drive to the city. Indeed the suburb did flourish, with many prominent citizens moving out to this very exclusive area of Newcastle, at one stage it was even described as 'The Toorak of Newcastle". That was until the arrival of the BHP Steelworks in 1915 and then the modern phrase of "hero to zero" is more appropriate.

Funnily enough though, the Post Office wasn't a strong feature of the towns early development, mainly due to the fact that there was already quite a substantial Post & Telegraph Office operating at Waratah which was close by and servicing the needs of the nearby colliery, so although the Mayfield citizens weren't initially happy with the arrangement, they had to wait until the population grew to accommodate an expansion of postal services.

A Post Office & Money Order Office did eventually open in Mayfield on the 15th October 1910, when Mr A.Clendinning was appointed Postmaster. Unfortunately I have been unable to locate where this first Post Office was located and which will require further investigation in the future. A Mr Ellerton was then mentioned as the next Mayfield Postmaster when he built a new Post Office (combined with his General Store), which opened on the 21st March 1921 on the Cnr Kerr St & Maitland Rd. This was quite a unique building in Mayfield for ALL the materials used inthe construction came entirely from Mayfield and cost £900 to complete. Mr Ellerton is quoted  as saying that he was happy to use local products, even though it cost him an extra £100 in building costs!

On the 11th August 1925, Mayfield at last became an official Post Office with Mr A.C. Battey appointed the Postmaster.

It was between this time and 1938 the Australian Postmaster-General constructed a purpose built Post Office on the Cnr Elizabeth St & Maitland Rd. I tend to think it was around 1938, because from what I can gather a new automatic Telephone Exchange was also listed as beginning operations at Mayfield and so I assume this was at the same time as the new Post Office, but again much more information is needed

After around 30 years of operation, the Postmaster-General once again decided to upgrade its premises and left the old premises vacant (the Police service eventually annexed  the site as the Mayfield Police Station was already operating next door). On the 8th December 1969, the Post Office moved into the brand new building at 125 Maitland Rd (opposite Valencia St) which at the time at a cost of $105,360 to build. These premises were once again refurbished in the early to mid 1980's, with a new street frontage and contemporary colour scheme and it was one of many Australia Post properties that were upgraded to update its staid public image.

However times move on, those cosmetic changes that were fresh and dynamic in the 80's, are now over 20 years old and make the premises look tired and dated.

Mayfield Post Office, now called Mayfield Post Shop, is still operating, serving the good citizens of postcode 2304, as it has done for nearly 100 years and while many changes may have taken place, the one constant in all the turmoil of change is the Post Office, the rock that the suburb of Mayfield is built around.

Congratulations Mayfield Post Office on a centenary of service! 
I'd like to thank the staff at NCC Library & the staff at Newcastle Family History Society for all their invaluable assistance.