The painting Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west by the Australian artist Tom Roberts may not seem to have an immediate connection with Britain’s postal service, but it is supposedly the General Post Office (GPO) which attracted Roberts to paint the scene.
Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west by Tom Roberts, c.1885-86, reworked 1890 (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the National Library of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1918)
Bourke Street was then and still is a vital thoroughfare in the heart of commercial Melbourne, and the GPO building was an important focal point in the capital of the rapidly-developing British colony of Victoria. Such was the importance of the mails to the city’s residents that flags where hung from the GPO’s clock tower to signal their progress – from when a ship was sighted off the coast of Albany, Western Australia (more than 1,500 miles away) through to the completion of sorting.
As records in the Royal Mail Archive tell us (POST 29/286B), in 1880 it could take up to 58 days for mails to travel from Southampton to Melbourne. By the time Roberts painted Bourke Street west, a telegraph connecting Australia to the rest of the world had been in operation for more than a decade; this enabled messages to travel between London and Melbourne in 24 hours, but it was businesses which could most afford to use the technology.
Communications between the United Kingdom and the Australian colonies were not just vital for businesses though, they were vital for people too. As a group of Australian and New Zealand colonial leaders who attended the 1867 Inter-Colonial Postal Conference in Melbourne put it in a “Memorial” of their meeting addressed to Queen Victoria:
While the productive capabilities and the commerce of the associated Colonies have attained a magnitude which, it is humbly submitted, entitles them to a foremost place in the consideration of Great Britain, their geographical extent imposes upon them deprivations and hardships which can only be alleviated by new and various means of communication with the rest of the world. The farther the settlement of population advances the greater becomes the difficulty. Thus the enterprise of the colonists in extending the bounds of the Empire, and spreading the lustre of Your Majesty’s name, entails upon them the penalty of their more certain exclusion from British intelligence. In the early years of Australian colonization this virtual banishment was a condition of life to be faced and endured as inevitable; but the Colonies of the present day, as fields of production and as markets of consumption for the national manufacturers have advances to a position which makes their intimate connexion not less important to the United Kingdom than to themselves.
– Postal Conference – Memorial of the Representatives of the Six Colonies of Victoria, New South Wales, New Zealand, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania Postal Conference – to Her Majesty the Queen, c. 1868 (POST 29/151)
Amongst the attendees of the conference was Henry Parkes, then a rising politician and soon to be elected Premier of New South Wales. By the 1890s, the era in which Allegro Con Brio was painted, Parkes was calling for a united Australia, arguing that a central government could make important decisions about, amongst other things, telegraphs and postal services. The points made in the 1867 Postal Conference Memorial about the communication needs of ordinary people must have informed his thinking, and he presumably understood that for the ordinary people and entrepreneurs alike the flags hanging from Melbourne’s GPO clock tower were more than just a colourful addition to the busy street scene Roberts captured and described as Allegro con brio (a musical term meaning “fast and with spirit”), they were an vital signal that news had arrived.
Unfortunately for us those flags are not visible in Robert’s painting, although the GPO’s extensions appear in the girder to the far right of the canvas. The people on Bourke Street, some of whom were no doubt going to or coming from the GPO, are the stars on show here.
– Alison Bean, Web Officer
Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
The History of Australia by Manning Clark, Meredith Hooper and Susanne Ferrier, 1988
National Gallery of Australia – Collection Search – Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west
Royal Mail Archive – Australian Colonies. Postal services with Inter-Colonial Conference at Melbourne, c.1868 (POST 29/151)
Royal Mail Archive – Melbourne-Ceylon mail service. Contract between Victoria and P&O (Peninsular and Oriental) Steam Navigation Co., c.1880 (POST 29/286B)