by Alison Bean, Website Officer
Over the weekend philatelists and postal heritage buffs in Australia celebrated Australia Post’s bicentenary. As you might expect of a former British colony, Australia’s postal service was much influenced by Britain’s. Browsing Australia Post’s fascinating 200th Anniversary website I discovered many interesting parallels and connections between the two postal services.
The postal service began in Australia with the appointment of Isaac Nichols – a former convict who had been transported to New South Wales for stealing – as the first Postmaster of Sydney on 25th April 1809. Mail distribution prior to Nichols’ appointment was “haphazard” according to Australia Post’s website. It also says of this period:
“Life was often bleak and lonely for the first settlers as they waited for news from home. It could be many months before a ship was sighted offshore and this was enough to generate near pandemonium on the wharves.”
And so it wasn’t until two months after his appointment that Nichols performed his first duty, which was to board the brig Experiment as it docked in Sydney Harbour and take delivery of the mail. He then took the mail back to his home in George Street, Sydney, and placed an advertisement in the Sydney Gazette to alert recipients that mail awaited them.
The practise of not home delivering the mail was common at the time. In Britain prior to the introduction of free home delivery, letters would often be delivered to a convenient local place, such as a coffee shop. Although the first “letter carriers” (postmen) were appointed in Sydney in 1828 it appears that home delivery was not free in New South Wales at this time, as recipients paid for letters rather than senders. In Britain free home delivery was not granted to every household until 1897 (this was a concession to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria) although by 1859 93% of letters were not subject to a delivery charge.
Another important milestone for the Australian postal service was the introduction of the first public post boxes in Sydney in 1831. These were receipt boxes placed in front of letter receiving houses for the collection of (unpaid) letters. Receipt boxes were introduced in the UK in 1814 and underwent many stylistic changes throughout their existence, such as changes to the angle of the aperture (letter slot) from vertical to horizontal. The boxes introduced in Sydney in 1831 are likely to have been the same as their British counterparts.
The first pillar boxes arrived in New South Wales in the late 1850s, a few years after UK trials had taken place in the Channel Islands. The Postmaster General of New South Wales announced that he would replace the existing receipt boxes with cast-iron letter receivers in Sydney and an invitation to tender was placed in the Government Gazette on 2nd November 1855. The boxes that followed were the famous Bubbs Boxes, which were modelled on those already in use in Belgium and Paris (which had also provided the inspiration for the first British roadside pillars). One of the stamps in Australia Post’s 200th Anniversary stamp issue shows an early Bubbs Box. A slightly different model manufactured in 1870 can be found in the collection of the National Museum of Australia and an image of this and others from the NMA’s collection can be seen on Wikipedia. Flickr shows an image of a similar box manufactured for the Western Australian postal service, bearing the Western Australian emblem of a black swan.
Australia Post’s website also notes that letter sheets pre-stamped with an albino embossing were introduced in New South Wales in 1838, pre-dating the Penny Black by almost two years. There is some debate about whether these letter sheets should be regarded as stamps or postal stationary. Those who feel they are postal stationary note that special letter sheets showing an eagle with the Cross of Savoy were sold in Sardinia in 1819. Either way, the letter sheets were inspired by British postal reformer Rowland Hill. James Raymond, the New South Wales Postmaster at this time, had been in communication with Hill and was much influenced by Hill’s 1837 pamphlet Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability, which recommended the introduction of prepayment for postage using pre-printed envelopes and stamps. But Raymond’s pioneering letter sheets did not prove popular and moves were made to introduce postage stamps. The first postage stamps were released in New South Wales on 1st January 1850. Victoria followed on 3rd January 1950 and other Australian colonies introduced stamps between 1853 and 1860.
Another philatelic first claimed by Australia was the release of the world’s first charity stamps in 1897 in New South Wales. The stamps were to honour Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee with proceeds going to a Consumptive’s Home (images of these stamps can be seen on the Stamps of Distinction blog and Linns.com). It is important to note that Greece had released charity stamps in 1831, although the New South Wales Consumptive Home stamps were the first to include a charity surcharge. Britain’s first charity stamp was issued in 1975 to support health and handicap charities.
I am indebted to BPMA Curator Julian Stray for providing much of the information in this post. The following online resources were also extremely useful.
BPMA: Key Dates in the British Postal Service
BPMA: online catalogue
Australia Post: Our History
Australia Post: 200 Years
Wikipedia: Postage stamps and postal history of New South Wales
Stanley Gibbons Stamp Catalogue: Commonwealth & British Empire Stamps