Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Lost Post Offices of Australia - Morpeth (2321)

"Passing by the race-course last Sunday evening we were sorry to see a number of young men engaged playing at cricket, in the vicinity of the church; and, knowing how strongly a due observance of the Sabbath, and public feeling in general, was against such a mode of spending the Sabbath ....."  - .Letters to the Editor, Maitland Mercury, Saturday 12th April 1845

circa 1940's
One of the pleasures of researching our postal history is that it gives you an opportunity to go back and look at how the local newspapers recorded the issues of the day. Although the above letter didn't deal with postal issues, it does give us a glimpse into Morpeth life during the first half of the 19th century. 

Morpeth itself was an important inland transport hub in the early settlement of New South Wales with it's access to the Hunter River system made it vital link in sending fresh produce to Sydney. Although the area was known since 1797 when Lt Shortland navigated the river, it wasn't until the convict gangs (under military rule) and then the cedar getters plying the river that really opened up the opportunities for further development. In 1821 Lt. Edward Close chose to take up his land grant in the area known as Green Hills and began farming on the rich alluvial river flats. The high ground near the family home became known as Morpeth and due to the erection of wharves at Morpeth to send produce back to Sydney a town quickly established itself. So quickly did the town grow that agitation for postal facilities began as early as 1836, as inhabitants were very much inconvenienced to have to pick their mail up from either Hinton or Maitland. Then in August 1838, as reported in the Sydney Gazette, came the following good news -

"MORPETH - Mr Raymond, the (NSW) Postmaster (- General), has recommended to the Government a Post Office should be established at the thriving village of Morpeth at the head of the navigation of Hunter's  [sic] River"

original letter receivers are still in place 
The first Postmaster, according to the Official History of NSW Post Offices, was Mr J.Chastel, a storekeeper who operated the post office from his premises close to the current Morpeth bridge. The big problem for most of the early Morpeth Postmasters was usually the rate of of pay/commission, which was low and was paid six months in arrears, which meant that meeting the day to day costs were a constant struggle, according to Mr A Larrymore (Postmaster in 1842). Several residents held the position until1860 when it appears that the Post Office finally achieved official status with Mr John Broker appointed the first 'official' letter carrier on the princely sum of  £120 ($13,000) per annum (plus £0/2/0 ($11.00) per day for his horse). 

The Post Office and Telegraph Offices  found themselves combined in the Court House in 1862, however run separately, as was the norm in those early days. It appears that the Post Office and Telegraph Office didn't amalgamate until the appointment of Mr D.Bell in January 1870, when both offices were located in the 'new' Court House ( built in 1866). This arrangement lasted a year and the offices were once again split with the Post Office moving to a new site in Swan Street with Miss Anne Larrymore in charge.

circa 1907
In 1872 the farce continued when Mr Charles Wakely became both the Telegraph Master and the Postmaster, but operating from different sites. As the town continued to grow so did the needs for better postal facilities and in 1878 the Morpeth Municipal Council applied for a more substantial Post Office building to meets the needs of a growing community. The NSW government obliged and commissioned James Barnet to design a Post Office to reflect the status of Morpeth. Once again Barnet designed the Post Office in his usual Italianate style, with corrugated iron gable roofs, arched windows, stucco details, string courses, mouldings to arches, key stones and pediments. However there was no clock tower included in the design and when quizzed by this lack of respect to the town of Morpeth the Postmaster-General replied that if the council want a clock they will have to pay for it! As would be the case today, the council said thanks, but no thanks! 

Mr Robert James of West Maitland was awarded the contract for the construction with the corner stone laid on the 17th  March 1880 and the building was officially opened on the 27th November 1881. The final cost for the building was £1882 ($1.5 million), but excluded the price of the original land purchase for £200 ($170,000) from Mrs Dickson.

As part of the Australia Post rationalisation and post office restructuring during the 1990's  Morpeth Post Office once again lost its 'official' status, however it continued serve the Morpeth community but now as a Licensed Post Office (LPO). 

The Morpeth Post Office has ridden on the fortunes of the town, from the heady days when the town was a important river town and a vital transport link in the early development of the colony of NSW, through to today where the town now is a major tourist destination trading on its wonderfully restored 19th century architecture. However, after 129 years of service to the Morpeth community, the Post Office has moved out from its stately abode on Swan Street, as the owner has now listed this iconic James Barnet designed building for sale with an asking price of $889,000. The Morpeth LPO is now located in a modern shop just off the main street and while losing its claim to being the longest continuous trading Post Office from the same building, they are still providing postal services to the Morpeth community, as has been the case for over 170 years!

As for playing cricket of the Sabbath, I think that game in 1845 could have signalled the beginning of the end for strict religious observance on Sundays .... who knows? 

I'd like to thank Maitland City Library, Newcastle City Library & the online resources of the National Library of Australia for their assistance in the research of this blog


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