Network of Our Inland Mails

By Ross F. Howard

The Sydney Morning Herald

3 January 1953

Next Wednesday is the 115th anniversary of the opening of the first major over- land mail service in Australia - between Sydney and Melbourne.

To see that event in perspective, it is necessary to step back a little in time to days when an inhabitant of Sydney Town would make his way towards the tall-masted sailing vessels lying at anchor in Port Jackson.

His mission was to collect mail from Britain - mail that, in all probability, had been posted some eight months earlier.

The year was 1808, the year before the opening of Australia's first "post office," in the office of Mr. Isaac Nichols, near the Queen's wharf, in George Street. Nichols was empowered to collect all mail from incoming vessels.

For 21 years after the first settlement, there were no regular mail offices in N.S.W., and most of the correspondence, consisting mainly of Government dispatches and communications, was carried by mounted constables.

Sometimes, the constables were allowed to carry settlers' letters. If not, inhabitants made their own arrangements.

Isaac Nichols was permanently appointed as postmaster in 1810. Two years after his death in 1819, the population had in- creased to almost 30.000, with little or no improvement in postal services.

Commissioner Bigge, in his report, ordered to be printed by the House of Commons in 1823, wondered how many letters addressed to convicts actually reached their destination.

He suggested the establishment of regular postal communications by horseback from Sydney to Parramatta, and "from thence to Windsor."

In 1825, tenders were called for the conveyance of mails between Sydney and Parramatta, Windsor and Liverpool, and between Liverpool and Campbelltown, and from Parramatta to Emu Plains, and thence to Bathurst.

Charges were to range from 3d to 1/ a quarter ounce, according to the distance.

It was not until late in 1827, however, that practical arrangements appear to have been made.

During 1830, postal services were extended throughout the Colony - north to Port Macquarie, 120 miles from Sydney; to the south, and 238 miles to the west.

Four years later, the services of the mounted police in carrying mails were dispensed with and contracts were let for all inland mails.

The post office at Yass was established in 1835, and linked by a weekly service with Goulburn office, then in its third year of existence. Yass was later to become the junction of the over land mail from Melbourne.

Melbourne was officially named in 1837. Its post-office, under the control of Sydney until 1851, was opened the same year, and postal communications were established with Sydney by sea as opportunities arose.

The need for a more regular service was apparent, and towards the end of 1837, the Government of N.S.W. accepted a tender from Joseph Hawdon to convey mail to and from Melbourne and Yass. Payment was fixed at 1,200 a year.

Hawdon, a pastoralist, and, later, a member of the New Zealand Legislative Council, employed as mailman a young man named John Conway Bourke. A letter cost10d prepaid.

The mail from Sydney was dispatched to Yass via Liverpool, Campelltown, Berrima and Goulburn.

Hawdon's mailman left Melbourne on either January 1 or 2, 1838, and mails were evidently exchanged at Howlong, on the Murray, on January 7.

Both Hawdon and Bourke have left accounts of the journey from Melbourne - Hawdon in the form of a diary, published in book form last year, and Bourke mostly in newspaper reminiscences in his old age.

The accounts are at variance. Bourke claims to have gone alone, setting out on January 1, preceded only by Michael O'Brien, who went ahead to blaze the trail as far as the Goulburn River, where Hawdon was to give final instructions. In Hawdon's version, he himself accompanied Bourke, no mention is made of O'Brien, and the date of departure is January 2.

Dr. A. Andrews, in the Victorian Historical Magazine of March, 1917, cites the differing accounts as an illustration of the difficulties besetting historians. Bourke, he describes as "possessed of a fertile imagination"; Hawdon was "notoriously absent-minded."

According to Bourke, his horse was speared by natives near the Ovens River, but he managed to get his mount as far as Howlong, where the hapless creature became bogged in the clay shallows of the Murray and was drowned.

Bourke stripped and swam the river, only to be set upon by "a pack of 50 dogs." Climbing a tree to escape them, he was at length rescued by the superintendent of Howlong station, a Mr. Weatherall, who was not easily convinced that the near-naked tree climber was, in fact, "His Majesty's Mail from Melbourne."

Despite difficulties, the mail was duly exchanged with that from Sydney. "This service, which was inaugurated 115 years ago, was continued at fortnightly intervals for about a year.

In 1839, the service was increased to once a week.

The overland mail to Melbourne would seem to have run until 1841, when communication was established with Melbourne by the steamer - Sea Horse. In 1843, answers to and from Melbourne could be received by sea in a fortnight.

January 1, 1847, saw the dispatching of the first overland mail from Sydney to Adelaide, a distance of 750 miles. The route was via Melbourne and on to Mount Gambier, where the mail was received by mounted troopers paid by the South Australian Government.

More recent mail services have also presented pioneering difficulties.

In a book of memoirs, published in 1935, Francis Birtles relates the story of "The Aboriginal Express of the Gulf of Carpentaria." An aboriginal, known as Jimmy, walked more than 100 miles and back to collect letters deposited in a biscuit tin, half way across a sun-baked plain. This was the quarterly mail to a little out-station.

Amid torrential rain, and forcing his way through the jungle of Cape York Peninsula, "Mailman Mac," a "wirey little old man clad in dripping oilskins and seated on a big bony horse," led six weary packhorses laden with mail. Frequently he was delayed for more than a week by rain.

Other outback mail services have included the Bicycle Mails of the West Australian Goldfields, the Camel Mail Trains of Central Australia, the Buckboard Mails of North-Central Queensland, and the famous Mail Coaches of Cobb and Co., which operated until as late as 1924.

Mail is still carried by horseback in many inland parts of Australia. Twenty packhorses are used lo carry fortnightly mails and goods between Laura and Coen in North Queensland, on a route that covers 346 miles.

In the far west of N.S.W,, in the service from Tibooburra to Cordillo Downs, the mailman covers a distance of 728 miles once a fortnight, crossing into three States - N.S.W., Queensland and South Australia.

Numerous watercourses and marshes, flooding rapidly after heavy rain, tax the resources of the mailman on the 1,164-mile run from Meekatharra to Marble Bar in Western Australia. Here, progress reports of the mail vehicle are broadcast to settlers by radio.

Whatever the difficulties, whether it be the delivery of mail to our neighbouring suburb, or to the most remote and inaccessible part of this continent, the post office tradition remains firm that "the mails must go through."