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.

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