The Adelaide General Post Office building was the result of an architectural competition won in 1866 by local architects Edmund Wright and Edward Woods. Their design was subsequently modified and the freestone classical building was opened in 1872 with great celebration. It played a significant role in receiving the first message along the Overland Telegraph Line in 1872. The General Post Office clock tower is named the Victoria Tower and was the tallest building in Adelaide into the twentieth century. It was a significant public building for Adelaide when it was built and continues to function as a post office and a city landmark over 140 years later.
Building Design and Construction
The Adelaide General Post Office replaced an earlier and much smaller post office building which had been built in 1851 and stood on a site to the north of the current site on King William Street. When it was no longer able to fulfil the functions as required, an architectural competition was held for a new General Post and Telegraph Office on the site on the corner of King William Street and Franklin Street. The winning design by architects Edmund Wright and Edward Woods was announced in April 1866 (‘The General Post Office and Telegraph Station’, 1866, 3.). However Wright and Woods were asked to alter their winning design and the final building was also influenced by Edward Hamilton, as well as Robert Thomas who had submitted the second placed design. Hamilton became a partner in the Wright and Woods practice not long after, and Thomas was made the Colonial Architect and superintended the work, in which role he reduced the final height of the clock tower. The style chosen for the General Post Office was one which was echoed across Australia, as‘[m]onumental Italianate became the dominant mode in Australian post-offices between the late 1850s and the 1880s’ (Hamann, ‘Post Offices’, 552).
The builders of the stone and brick building were Messrs. Brown and Thompson and the foundation stone was laid by the visiting Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh on 5 November 1867 and witnessed by 3500 people. Although the competition brief specified the cost of the completed building was to be no more than £20 000, in 1872 the cost had reached £53 258, before the clock tower was even completed. The clock and bells had added a further £2038 to the final expenditure by 1876 (‘Bells of Adelaide’, 1929, 5). The General Post Office was opened on 6 May 1872 with great celebration. Some twenty years later in 1891-3, further extensions by the same architects were made with the north wing on King William Street added to house new telegraph and administrative offices.
The General Post Office tower is named the Victoria Tower and stands 158 feet (48 metres) tall, not quite matched in height by the Albert Tower atop the Town Hall across King William Street. With its flared cupola roof the tower that stands on the King William Street and Franklin Street corner of the building was completed only in 1876. Made by John Taylor of Loughborough (United Kingdom), the Victoria Tower bells that chime on the quarter hour were installed in December 1875, with chimes ‘copied from those of Westminster Abbey’ (‘Bells of Adelaide’, 1929, 5). The clock was made to the specifications of Postmaster-General Charles Todd by Joyce and Son of Whitchurch, Shropshire (‘Post-Office Clock’ 1876, 6).
The Grand Postal Hall
Inside the imposing local freestone building, the grand postal hall with its two-storey volume, half-domed roof, and clerestory lighting was a feature not only for its architectural magnificence but also for its innovative planning with discrete offices arranged around it perimeter. These offices included those for ‘money order, ship letter, inland, stamp, delivery, and private box department[s], and also the telegraph receiving office … The telegraph operating room [was] on the upper floor’ (‘The New General Post and Telegraph Office, Adelaide’, 1877, 21). Visiting writer, Anthony Trollope, harboured some reservations about this plan, writing, ‘I went over the building, and knowing something of post-offices, I regret to say that the arrangements might have been improved by consultation with English officials’ (Trollope, Australia, 639-40). The postal hall has been recognised as an early exemplar of planning around an internal public space (‘Adelaide General Post Office’ Commonwealth Heritage List).
The postal delivery service in South Australia began on the ‘25th of May 1839 … the first occasion on which mails were delivered to residents of the city’ (Manning, ‘Essay 16’). This was the same year in which the Post Office Act was passed. Adelaide was an important mail exchange for overseas mail destined for the eastern colonies of Australia that arrived by steamer at Port Adelaide. This role continued to grow in importance after the intercolonial rail line between Melbourne and Adelaide opened in 1887 (Burke, The stamp of Australia, 71), and changed little until the rail line to Perth opened in 1917 and Port Adelaide lost its place of prominence to Perth (Burke, The stamp of Australia, 71). The Postmaster-General and Superintendent of Telegraphs, Sir Charles Todd, became known as ‘one of the most notable public servants of Australia in the nineteenth century’ (Jenkins, ‘Sir Charles Todd’).
Telegraph Offices and Telephony
The General Post Office housed the Chief Telegraph Office, where the first international telegraph message was received along the Overland Telegraph Line (which ran through an undersea cable, then overland from Darwin to Adelaide) on 22 October 1872. This was a significant moment, reducing the time it took to get overseas messages from months to hours. That this was achieved by South Australians was celebrated heartily, and widely praised in the national press: ‘To the people of Adelaide the honour is due of establishing the overland telegraph line to Port Darwin and on all occasions they have shown themselves foremost among Australian colonists in enterprise and energy’ (‘The New General Post and Telegraph Office, Adelaide’, 1877, 21). In 1883-4 a telephone exchange was added to the General Post Offices facilities and in 1894 a new switchboard, made in Chicago in the United States, was installed (‘Adelaide General Post Office’ Register of the National Estate). By 1907-8 a separate telephone exchange building was constructed to the west of the post office to house the increasing needs of telephony. Over the years alterations and additions to the building have reflected the changing nature of postal and telecommunications, but the building maintains an important place in the city of Adelaide.
The General Post Office building has been important to Adelaide’s citizens as a symbol of progress and civic pride, it was the ‘most expensive building constructed to that time by the colonial government in South Australia’ (‘Adelaide General Post Office’ Commonwealth Heritage List). In 1873, Trollope recorded that ‘The one building in Adelaide on which the town most prides itself, - and of which at the same time the colony is half ashamed because of the expense, - is the Post Office. I was gratified by finding that the colonies generally were disposed to be splendid in their post-offices rather than in any other buildings, - for surely there is no other public building so useful’ (Trollope, Australia, 639-40). While Richard Twopeny, author of Town Life in Australia in 1883, described it thus, ‘Of the public buildings, the finest is the Post Office, which, … is, in my opinion, preferable to either the Melbourne or Sydney Post Offices’ (Twopeny, Town Life in Australia, 28). The significance of the Adelaide General Post Office is reflected today by its inclusion on local, state and commonwealth heritage registers.
‘Adelaide General Post Office’, Register of the National Estate ID 6331, Australian Heritage Database, http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/ahdb/search.pl?mode=place_detail;search=place_name%3Dadelaide%2520general%2520post%2520office%3Bkeyword_PD%3Don%3Bkeyword_SS%3Don%3Bkeyword_PH%3Don%3Blatitude_1dir%3DS%3Blongitude_1dir%3DE%3Blongitude_2dir%3DE%3Blatitude_2dir%3DS%3Bin_region%3Dpart;place_id=6331, accessed 21 July 2014.
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