On this day: Sydney’s General Post Office opens

By Natalie Muller 7 November 2013
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The GPO’s opening on 1 September 1874 signalled the growth of communication and wealth in NSW.

FROM THE MOMENT the first sandstone blocks were laid in the mid-1800s, Sydney’s GPO symbolised the importance of postal services in connecting Australia to the rest of the world. 

Built to meet the demands of the city’s growing population, it served as the centre of NSW’s telephone and mail communication from the 1 September 1874, right up until 1996. Its central location and architectural grandeur make it one of Sydney’s enduring landmarks today.

“The postal service today is very different to what it was,” says Laila Ellmoos historian with the City of Sydney History Program. “When we think about communications now, they’re quite ephemeral…The GPO was a symbol of communications and how important that was to the colony.”

History of Australia’s post offices

Looking at the elegant colonnades, Italian Renaissance Palazzo style, and sandstone carvings that define Sydney’s GPO, it’s hard to believe Australia’s mail delivery services grew from convict beginnings.

The first post office was run from the George street home of Isaac Nichols, a former convict. He served as Australia’s first postmaster from 1809, until his death 10 years later, when the post office was relocated to the site the GPO occupies today, on the corner of George Street and Martin Place.

For a long time, mail services had been unreliable and unpredictable. But the Postal Act of 1825 really got the ball rolling by setting postal rates and regulating mail delivery. Before long, the first uniformed postmen and street post boxes began to appear on the scene. Horse coaches delivered mail around Sydney and to areas including Penrith, Parramatta, Windsor, Campbelltown, Newcastle and Bathurst.

But as the population and ground to be covered expanded, the demand for a bigger post office grew. So, in 1862, the colonial architect James Barnet was given the task of designing the future headquarters of the colony’s communication. According to Laila, it would be the most important building of his entire career.

Post office an enduring centrepiece

Despite the fact that the tank stream (the city’s main supply of drinking water) ran beneath the foundations, the first stage of the GPO was completed before its opening on 1 September, 1874. The structure’s iconic clock tower was added when the second phase of building began five years later.

“It was built in a style based on the principles of classical architecture, so it’s got arches, colonnades, and there are lots of really beautiful, fine carvings,” says Laila. “It’s got the big expanse in front of it, which is Martin Place, so people could go there and promenade in front of it, so there’s a very strong public space element.”

Historically, the GPO was a popular meeting place for Sydneysiders, much in the same way it is today. Various restaurants, shops and a hotel, as well as an Australia Post, fill the space where the state’s communications were once coordinated.

More than 4,415 post offices now operate nationwide, but few of the early colonial buildings are still in public hands. Most now house cafes, restaurants and heritage apartments. According to Post Master General records, the 1857 Little Hartley post office in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, was the oldest post office still in operation at the time of its closure in 1975. The 1893 York post office, inland from Perth, WA, is another one of Australia’s oldest post offices still in operation.