Australia Post – our past
- Australia Post 1800 to 1849
- Australia Post 1850 to 1899
- Australia Post 1900 to 1949
- Australia Post 1950 to 1999
- Australia Post in 2000 and into the future
Australia Post 1800 to 1849
Australia's postal service was officially born on 25 April 1809, when a former convict named Isaac Nichols was appointed to take charge of all mail arriving in what was then called the Colony of New South Wales.
Isaac Nichols quickly opened Australia's first post office at his home in George Street in Sydney. He began advertising in the "Sydney Gazette" (the equivalent of a newspaper in those days) the names of all those who were fortunate enough to receive mail. The people listed could collect their letters from Nichols' home by paying the fixed price of a shilling per letter, with parcels costing more depending on how heavy they were. High-ranking (very important) members of the community received personal deliveries from Nichols.
Early letters were written on a piece of paper which was then folded and secured with a wax seal. Some people had "signet rings" that they used to press their very own "coat of arms", or other special design, into the seal. Envelopes are a more recent invention!
Australia's earliest overland mail routes were operating by the late 1820s, with regular packhorse and coach deliveries travelling from Sydney to nearby townships such as Parramatta, Penrith, Liverpool and Windsor in New South Wales.
Extra mail routes out of Sydney to more townships were quickly established and additional postmasters were appointed. In 1828, Australia's first postmen, then known as "letter carriers" began delivering letters around towns.
The first posting boxes for letters appeared. These were small wooden boxes attached to walls. Stamps were not required in those days, as it was the person who received the mail, not the person who had sent the mail, who paid for the letter.
Sarah Lyttleton became Western Australia's first postmistress when she was appointed to take charge of the Albany post office.
Pre-paid "stamped" letter sheets were introduced in Sydney. This system of pre-payment for postage was the first in the world.
The overland mail service between the Port Phillip District (Melbourne) and Sydney began operating in 1838. In those early days, mailman John Conway Bourke would ride on horseback through rugged wilderness from Melbourne to Yass in New South Wales, where he would exchange mail with the mail coach that had travelled down from Sydney.
Bourke earned an honoured place in Australian postal history when he stripped to cross the flooded Murray River and, on reaching the other side, was forced to climb a tree (with his mailbag) to escape a pack of wild dogs. When he was eventually found, he yelled: "Don't fire! My name's Bourke. I am Her Majesty's mail!"
Distance did little to stop the growth of the postal service in Australia. Mail contractors in Western Australia began a monthly mail delivery from Albany to Perth by horse and spring cart. Mail routes also began to expand from Adelaide to the newly developing South Australian settlements at Port Adelaide, Port Lincoln, Willunga and Encounter Bay.
Australia Post 1850 to 1899
Prepaid adhesive stamps were introduced in Victoria and New South Wales.
The arrival of tens of thousands of fortune hunters from around the world created an avalanche of mail in the Australian colonies during the Gold Rush of the 1850s. The first post office built in a town was often a temporary shed made from tin or wood. However, these buildings were soon replaced by much grander structures, as towns in Victoria and New South Wales grew wealthy from the profits of gold.
The first Australian telegraph message was sent along a 10 kilometre line between Melbourne and Williamstown.
The mail was carried for the first time by train on the regular rail service that operated between Sydney and Parramatta in NSW.
Travelling Post Offices (TPOs), attached to trains, were introduced in Victoria. The TPOs meant postal workers could sort the mail, in a specially designed train carriage, while the train was in transit.
Melbourne's General Post Office (GPO) opened to the general public in 1867. In the early days, customers never went inside the building. Instead, they made their purchases from stamp windows along the footpath while being entertained by the different tunes played by the GPO's bells every quarter of an hour.
Amazingly, about 6,000 horses were travelling up to 45,000 kilometres a week, delivering the mail over vast areas of the Australian countryside.
On 22 August 1872, the final link was made in the Overland Telegraph between Adelaide in South Australia and Darwin in the Northern Territory. Several months earlier, the Overland Telegraph had been connected to submarine cables that linked Australia to Java and Britain, so news from overseas could now reach the colonies within hours. Constructing the 3,200 kilometre telegraph line took two years. It was an amazing achievement that involved working in some of the driest, most inhospitable and isolated locations on Earth.
South Australia's Postmaster General, Charles Todd, oversaw this massive project. The Todd River in the Northern Territory is named after him. The Overland Telegraph also gave birth to a string of great Australian towns, such as Alice Springs (named after Todd's wife), Tennant Creek and Daly Waters.
The first Australian postcards went on sale at the Sydney GPO in New South Wales.
Melbourne and Sydney were finally linked by rail and people began receiving their letters within a day or two of posting them.
Australia Post 1900 to 1949
The Federation of the Australian colonies into one new nation, on 1 January 1901, created a few issues for the nation's postal service. The six separate colonial post and telegraph departments had to be combined to create one national postal service called the "Postmaster General's Department" (PMG).
On 1 May 1911, it was announced that people only needed to pay one penny to post a letter from anywhere in Australia to anywhere else in Australia. The public had been saving up their letters in anticipation of the announcement, and the number of letters posted jumped significantly, particularly in NSW, where postage had previously cost two pence to areas outside a town or city.
In 1911, the PMG launched a national design competition for the nation's first stamp. The Postmaster General at the time, Charles Frazer, personally hoped for a stamp projecting a bold, modern image, and preferably featuring an outline map of Australia. His wish was that every letter leaving Australia's shores should have an "advertisement of the country on its stamp".
After months of planning and revision, it was decided that the first Commonwealth stamps would feature a simple design depicting an image of a kangaroo inside a map of Australia. The kangaroo image chosen had actually won equal second prize in the competition and was designed by Edwin Arnold from England.
The "Kangaroo and Map" stamp went on public display in April 1912, and was immediately controversial. Monarchists were offended that a cartoon kangaroo had replaced the King's head. Others complained that the stamp lacked a sense of design. One newspaper cartoon pointed out that the stamp made Australia look like a wasteland overrun by kangaroos.
The first Commonwealth stamps, featuring the famous "kangaroo and map" design, were put into circulation in Australia to replace the state-based stamp series.
In July 1914, French stunt pilot Maurice Guillaux carried Australia's first commercial Air Mail from Melbourne to Sydney in a Bleriot XI monoplane made from wire, wood and canvas. The epic flight took nine and a half hours flying time over two days and involved seven refuelling stops along the way. Before the days of air traffic control, bonfires guided pilots to their landing points.
Australia's first international "Air Mail" was delivered on 10 December 1919, when brothers Ross and Keith Smith and their crew touched down in Darwin after a 28-day flight across Europe, the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia. This event won the brothers the Australian Government's "Air Race".
Our first regular domestic (Australian) Air Mail service was the Geraldton-Derby run in Western Australia. It began with three aircraft in 1921, but the service got off to a shaky start due to a fatal plane crash.
The delivery of mail by air on the Geraldton-Derby run began again in February, but this time it all ran smoothly.
Mail trucks replaced Cobb & Co horse-drawn mail coaches.
The Smith brother's pioneering flight in 1919, in which they carried the first aerial mail from Europe to Australia, was the forerunner for a new international Air Mail service which commenced on 10 December 1934. This service proved to be so popular that there was barely room for passengers at peak mail times. In the early days, Qantas flew the mail to Singapore, and Imperial Airlines continued on to London. Sending mail from Australia to London now took 13 days instead of 32 days by sea.
Of all the drivers along the dusty, corrugated roads of outback Australia, Tom Kruse was perhaps the most famous. Kruse started working as a mail contractor in 1936, and was responsible for the challenging mail run from Maree in South Australia to Birdsville in Queensland. He often drove without boots and completed the 1,040 kilometre return trip in two weeks.
The Postmaster General's Department (PMG) began the large-scale hiring of women because male employees had been released to fight in World War II.
Australia Post 1950 to 1999
Australia's first ever multi-coloured stamps were issued to commemorate the Melbourne Olympics.
Christmas stamps were released for the first time, making Australia the first country in the world to issue Christmas stamps every year.
Four-number postcodes were given to every suburb in Australia to assist with the sorting of letters by machines.
The PMG was split into two organisations, separating the responsibility for Australia's postal and telecommunications services. The two new organisations were called Australia Post and Telecom Australia (which has since been renamed Telstra).
From July 1975, Australia Post updated its image with the highly distinctive "P" symbol / logo that is so familiar to Australians today.
Posties stopped blowing whistles to announce to people that they had put mail in their letterboxes.
Australia Post introduced its own trucks to carry larger letters and parcels between capital cities and regional centres in Australia, bringing to an end the "mail by rail" era.
Since 1997, Australia Post has been celebrating living role models on its stamps, with the release each Australia Day of a new Australian Legends stamp. Cricketing hero Sir Donald Bradman was the first Legend to be honoured. Others have included Arthur Boyd, Slim Dusty, Rod Laver, Margaret Court, Dame Joan Sutherland and Barry Humphries.
Australia Post introduced its barcode sorters – machines that can "read" barcoded addresses on small letters and then automatically sort them. This was followed by the installation of large-letter sorting machines in the five mainland capital cities.
Another innovation was the worldwide launch of personalised stamps. Posting a letter with your face on the stamp had not been possible until Australia Post introduced personalised stamps for the first time at Melbourne's World Stamp Expo in March 1999. More than 10,000 sheets of personalised stamps were printed at the exhibition, as thousands queued to have their photo imprinted on a basic postage stamp.
Australia Post in 2000 and into the future
Since the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Australia Post has issued commemorative stamps featuring all of Australia's Gold Medal winners. The Sydney Gold Medal Stamps are among the most popular stamps ever issued by Australia Post, with 24 million stamps sold at Australia Post outlets.
More letters were sent in Australia in 2007/08 than at any other time in our nation's history.
2009 and beyond
Australia Post celebrates 200 years of postal services in Australia.
You can get important things done at your local Australia Post retail outlet, such as paying bills, depositing money into your bank account, applying for a passport or purchasing a gift card.
The role of Australia Post's traditional letters and parcels services and the Australia Post retail network has always been to connect Australians to one another. Our postal service will continue to change in the future (as it has always done) but Australia Post is committed to its primary role of connecting Australians to one another.
Images top to bottom: 1) NAA: C4078, N12078; 3) NAA: C4076, HN409; 4) NAA: B5919, 2031; 6) NAA: C4078, N1634B; 7) NAA: J2879, QTH490/A; 8) NAA: C4076, HN16; 15) State Library of South Australia PRG 280/1/8/299; 16) NAA: A1200, L8457; 21) NAA: J2879, QTH244/1; 23) NAA: C4078, N10035.