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Post Offices and Postal Services

Melbourne's first post office was a crude bark hut with mud chimney in Collins Street. Its first postmaster, E.J. Forster, was appointed in 1837. In the immigrant city the post office provided the main means of communication. Settlers eagerly awaited letters bringing news of developments on the other side of the world, although coming by sea, such 'news' would be months old before reaching its destination. The 1850s gold rush brought an influx of people to Victoria, and a rapid increase in the volume of mail. However, the advent of the telegraph from 1854 made communications more immediate.

The General Post Office (GPO), which opened on 1 July 1867, reflected the city's growing affluence. It quickly became a focal point, with its tower used to display flags alerting Melburnians to the arrival of new mail. Distances measured from the GPO determined insurance rates and taxi zones, and its impressive new tower, installed in 1890, housed the clock that provided the time signal for Australia's broadcasting network. The Postmaster General was also responsible for the telephone services that began when the Melbourne and South Melbourne offices of a local business were connected in 1879. The first telephone exchange was opened in Melbourne in 1880, and by 1884 nearly 8000 calls per year were being handled.

Suburban post offices served as communications hubs for their local communities, selling stamps, 730 of which emanated from Victoria before the Commonwealth took over the responsibility in 1912. From landmark buildings in local shopping strips to humbler agencies in smaller settlements, post offices served as bases for telegram boys and 'posties', who, astride department-issue bicycles, dodged suburban dogs to deliver good and bad news across the metropolis. The postmaster, like the bank manager, was a pillar of the local community, empowered to witness official documents and generally guide local residents through their interactions with government bureaucracy.

The introduction of airmail in 1914 and the Teleprinter Exchange Service (Telex) in 1954 decreased the city's isolation, but technology would also, over time, diminish the role of the local post office. The first automatic postal station in Australia was established in Melbourne in 1962, and in 1972 the Melbourne mail exchange was the first to operate electronic letter preparation line machines, capable of processing 25 000 letters per hour. In 1975 the Postmaster General's Department was renamed Australia Post, which today handles over four billion articles per year nationwide. Despite the protests of many residents, under the new regime most Melbourne suburbs have seen the local post office replaced by a licensed agency, which offers a wider range of retail services. Postal deliveries, reduced from eleven to five per week, are now co-ordinated from automated regional mail centres, with the 'postie's bike' replaced by a motorcycle enabling the deliverer to cover a much wider area, and the arrival of the fax saw the demise of the telegraph delivery service. Relics of the past can be seen in the Post Office Museum, established in the former Richmond South Post Office in 1972.

Alistair Harkness