As we anticipate the good cheer Christmas cards and parcels will soon bring, there’s no better time to remember 200 years of the Australian postal service.
Story By Patricia Maunder
‘Letters! Letters!’ was the cry. They were produced, and torn open in trembling agitation. News burst upon us like meridian splendour on a blind man. We were overwhelmed with it: public, private, general and particular.
In today’s world of telephones and email, it’s difficult to comprehend what letters meant to Australia’s first European settlers, especially in 1790, when Captain-Lieutenant Watkin Tench wrote these words. When the Second Fleet’s Lady Juliana arrived with those precious letters, it had been well over two years since Sydney’s first colonists had had any contact with the outside world. Though they were near starvation, the cry was not for food but letters.
This year, Australia’s postal service celebrates its bicentenary, marked from the appointment of Isaac Nichols as the land’s first postmaster. By the time he began bringing order to Sydney wharf’s mail collection in 1809, other colonies were springing up around the continent. There, and for many years to come in growing numbers of isolated towns and homesteads, mail was a crucial emotional link to the outside world, at times as important as that delivered by the Lady Juliana.
Nichols ran Australia’s first post office out of his comfortable house on Circular Quay, but many that followed were humble affairs. Western Australia’s first postmaster, for example, took charge of a mere box in a Perth storehouse in 1830. The young postal clerk sent to run the Ballarat goldfield’s post office in 1852 discovered that it was nothing more than a tattered tent, open at both ends so that the mail blew away.
However, within a few years of such makeshift arrangements, more permanent post offices were usually built. One of the first signs that the British style of civilisation had arrived was the establishment of a post office, which increasingly became monumental and elaborate structures that still dominate many towns around Australia today.
While the first postmasters and clerks worked in difficult conditions, it was nothing compared to our pioneering posties, who were instrumental in establishing transport routes across difficult, sometimes deadly, terrain.
The overland Melbourne-Sydney mail run was the longest in the British Empire when it began in 1838. The journey took 12 to 14 days for intrepid posties such as John Bourke who, on one trek north, had a particularly bad run of luck. Hostile Aborigines speared his horse just as he reached the Murray River, so a frightened Bourke stripped and swam across with the mailbags. Attacked by wild dogs upon reaching the bank, he clambered up a tree, where he remained for some time.
Eventually, he was spotted by a settler, who aimed his rifle at Bourke. “Don’t fire!” the unfortunate postie reportedly cried. “I am Her Majesty’s Mails!” Apparently, the settler replied: “Don’t think much of your uniform!”
Bourke was just one of Australia’s early mailmen who encountered all manner of impediment and danger, including flood and drought, to get the mail through. Others include Henry Packham, known as ‘the Fizzer’, whose Northern Territory mail route was a long and lonely 1600 kilometres. He was immortalised in Jeannie Gunn’s book We of the Never Never:
The Fizzer was due at sun-down, and at sun-down a puff of dust rose on the track, and as a cry of ‘mail oh!’ went up all round the homestead, the Fizzer rode out of the dust.
Yet another legendary outback postie was Tom Kruse, who famously drove the Birdsville Track mail route from 1936 until 1963. The longest mail run in the world, stopping at isolated homesteads up to 7000km apart, it’s operated by plane these days – something pioneered by the likes of Charles Kingsford Smith.
This story excerpt is from Issue #68
Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2010