Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Lost Post Offices of Australia - Wollombi (2325)

"Last week we noticed that at the meeting of this body several communications from his Excellency the Governor were read over. We cannot forbear saying a few words with reference to one of these letters. It conveyed permission from his Excellency to the Council to hold their future meetings in a wretched looking hovel, bearing the dignified name of post office, with the proviso that their meetings should in no way interfere with the duties of that establishment. Now to us of the township, who know the building in question, this gracious offer with its stipulation appears highly ridiculous; and we will venture to say that this murky looking affair would never have been honored by the Governor's notice had he been rightly informed of its appearance and history. We will give both in as few words as possible. It is one of a group of old ruinous road-party huts, which have been allowed to remain, a standing disgrace to the township ; it is composed of slabs, with a mixed covering of thatch and bark, and it has served in its time for a constable's barrack, a bawdy house, and a gambler's hell. Such is the concern which no doubt misrepresentation induced the Governor to offer for the accommodation of the Council." The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser 29 June 1844

It would seem that the locals at Wollombi were not happy with the state of their local Post Office in 1844!

Back in 1818 Governor Lachlan Macquarie decided it was time to open up the rich fertile land on the Hunter River around Wallis Plains (present day Maitland) and Saint Patricks Plains (later known as Patrick Plains or Singleton as we know it today) to free settlers. After several attempts, including a track that roughly followed the present day Putty Road through Bulga to Singleton, the route that was eventually selected by the government was a route that was surveyed in Heneage Finch in 1825 and roughly follows the present day Great North Road. This new 240 kilometre road was commenced in 1826 and using convict labour, was finally completed in 1836. The road, although better and easier to travel than the previous attempts was still steep and rocky in parts but it levelled out into rich pasture land at Wallumbi (Wollombi). Wollombi quickly became an important overland transport hub to the Hunter River port of West Maitland and an easy trek to Patrick Plains (Singleton).

The future of Wollombi seemed assured.

During the construction phase, as the road came north from Wisemans Ferry, various locations were sought to site the convict camps and one of those places happened to be on the banks of Wollombi Brook,  where soldier settlers (veterans of the Peninsular War), free settlers and emancipists had already began to take up allotments. The first sale of village allotments  took place in July 1838 and the first Post Office was established 1st January 1839 with a weekly mail service to West Maitland with Mr John McDougall appointed Postmaster.  Mr McDougall was an interesting choice as Postmaster as he was a former convict overseer on the Great North Road and was in charge of Iron Gang 7 from 1830 -1834. However his tenure as postmaster was quite brief as the it seems that Augusta Dunlop, eldest daughter of the new Police Magistrate, David Dunlop, took over the role of Postmistress in 1840.

As the town grew so did the services with the telegraph (3/3/1860), Money Order Office (1/7/1866), Government Savings Bank (11/12/1871) and then Wollombi finally gained official status (10/7/1882). Although the services provided expanded, it seems the building did not and there were many calls to upgrade the Post Office. In early 1892 tenders were called for for the erection of a new two storey building and in June 1892 the successful  tenderer was Elliot & Halliday who won the contract to construct the new Wollombi Post Office for £1852 (SMH 2/6/1892). Although no one seems to really know when the building was completed, it seems construction was well under way by September 1892 (The Maitland Mercury 13/9/1892) and seems to have been completed by September 1893 (Richmond & Windsor Gazette, 23/9/1893).          

Despite the boom years of the 1840's, the town was doomed by technology and it came in the form of the Sophia Jane, a steam powered ship that could do the run from Sydney to Newcastle in 8hrs and then travel up river as far as Green Hills (Morpeth). The next blow was the arrival of the Great Northern Railway at Maitland in the 1860's which meant that stock and produce ceased to use the old convict road to Sydney. The Post Office then lost it's official status in 1934, however the town still survived and the Great North Road served as an alternative road north. Then in 1945, with the building of the road bridge across Hawkesbury River at Peats Ferry, even vehicular traffic stopped using the winding hilly convict era road and this signaled the end of Wollombi as a vital transport hub. 

Today Wollombi is a quaint village, that is steeped in Australia's convict history, with many fine buildings that have stood the test of time, including the former Post Office, which is still standing after 120 years of service to the community and looks like doing so for quite some time to come.

I'd like to thank Newcastle Historical Society , Newcastle Library, The National Library of Australia & Neil Hopsons book 'The 'NSW & ACT Post, Receiving, Telegraph & Telephone Offices' for all their help and information


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Anonymous said...

The post office was still in operation in my childhood there in the early 1980's. It did not cease operation until the general store reopened across the road and took over. Great article though - I love that quote at the top!

Anonymous said...

When the Wollombi General Store reopened in the 1980s, the PO totally closed for good, but the General Store is only a postal agent, not a post office. You can buy stamps and send/receive mail there, but not other PO services.

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