Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

History Revisited - life as postmaster in Armidale's early days

HISTORIC BUILDING: The current Armidale Post Office first became functional in 1880 under the watch of long-serving postmaster John Emblin.
Armidale’s first Post Office was established in March 1843. Armidale was less than four years old. That first Post Master, John Pattison, was entitled to a commission of 20% on postal charges, then one shilling and three pence for a letter to Sydney, plus an allowance of 30 shillings per year for lighting.

As the old currency system disappears in the mist of time, we forget the meaning of these old numbers. When decimal currency was introduced in 1966, one shillings and three pence was equivalent to 15 cents per letter, 30 shillings for lighting $3.

Those values came after years of inflation. Those early letters were very expensive, well beyond the reach of most people assuming they could in fact write.

By the time Armidale’s first Postmaster was appointed, the NSW mail service had been in existence for just under thirty years. On 25 April 1809 ex-convict Isaac Nichols was appointed first Postmaster for NSW.

Envelopes had not yet been invented. Early letters were sealed by folding, often with wax sealing the folds. Postal costs were paid by the receiver.

In 1838, two things happened. One was the start of the overland service from Sydney to the Port Philip settlement. The second was the invention of prepaid stamped letter sheets, a world first, allowing money to be collected from the sender. Some of those sheets carried the insignia Melbourne New South Wales!

In April 1840, the first overland mail arrived in Sydney from the Moreton Bay settlement in, the Sydney Herald Records, “the short space of thirty-nine days.” Ten years later came the first adhesive postage stamp.

Things weren’t always easy for Armidale’s first Postmasters. Money was short, and Government officials in Sydney were not inclined to spend it unless absolutely necessary.

In 1864, local member of Parliament Robert Forster wrote to the Minister for Finance complaining that it was painful to him to be constantly “reminding the Government of the fact that the Postmaster at Armidale, his Wife & 7 children are obliged to Eat, drink, Cook & Sleep in one small room.”

Things did improve. In 1880, long serving (and suffering) Postmaster John Emblin with his wife and multiple children was able to move into a brand new post office on the corner of Beardy and Faulkner Streets, While extended, the building was recognisably that we know today.

In 1889 there was another development. Following continuing complaints from Armidale residents, a second daily mail delivery was introduced to coincide with the arrival of the Northern (Queensland) mail train.

Hard to believe now that Armidale had two daily mail deliveries and that mail from Queensland was sufficiently important to warrant a second delivery.

You have to remember that Armidale families once had interconnections across Northern NSW into Queensland, that New England was once the centre of widespread pastoral enterprises extending into Queensland, that Queensland children came in numbers to Armidale schools.

It was a different world. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 3 June 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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