Saturday, April 23, 2016

Article on the Travelling Post Office in Queensland



The Queenslander, Saturday 11 August 1894, 9p. 266-7

Traditions of the good old early days of Queensland's history—although they date only from the time of Separation in 1859, just a quarter of a century ago—tell us that "fetching the mail" from the nearest Post Office was quite a red letter day in each month, or each quarter in many instances, for the hardy squatters who pioneered the East and West Moreton and Darling Downs districts. And when it is borne in mind that in the year 1860 the total number of post and receiving offices open in Queensland was only fourteen ; that the aggregate number of letters, newspapers, and packets posted and received during the whole year was represented by the comparatively nominal figures of 534,200 ; that the expenditure of the Postal Department for the period of fifty-two weeks was but £12,067 ; and that the land mail routes traversed no more than 1970 lineal miles, it will be readily understood that mail day was indeed a day of days. For in addition to letters, newspapers, and packets, did not the mailman bring novels, charming love stories, from Slater's Library, for the girls ? Yes ; and many a Queensland matron of to-day is wont to recall happy memories of the days of yore, when she rode mile after mile through the bush to meet the letter—no, the book-carrier. 

Let us, however, turn from the time gone by to the present age, and mark the progress wrought in twenty-two years. In such a case as this figures should be given, for they speak more eloquently than words. In 1891 the expenditure of the Postal Department was £210,465 ; 383 post offices and 568 receiving offices were open ; the aggregate number of 30,160,907 letters, newspapers, and packets were posted and received ; and the land mail routes extended over 27,960 miles, which entailed upon mailmen the duty of travelling in one year over 5,191,672 lineal miles of road and rail. In all verity, such expansion is stupendous ; and were no other Queensland statistics available than those of our Post Office for the years 1860-1892 they would, in themselves, be sufficient to prove the marvellous rise and progress of this colony. And these figures should be laid before " Mad" Wilson of the Investors' Review—they are an ample justification for being " braggart"!

Notwithstanding the wondrous—nay the prodigious—growth of the Post Office, the responsible officers demonstrate their perspicacity by keeping pace with every requirement for the rapid manipulation of the mass of mailed matter which is daily, hourly, poured into the head office. And in this respect it is note-worthy that the system of sorting in the Brisbane office is more efficient, more expeditious, than that followed in any other office in Australia! This high state of efficiency is owing to the fact that none of the many sorting rooms in Southern capital cities is so replete with up-to-date appliances for hanging the open mail bags in the best mode—i.e., in a fivefold circle—as the one under notice. But, in all probability, the Travelling Post Office attached to mail trains combines more practical utility and efficiency for the rapid distribution of mails than any other factor extant. Of course this assumption only applies when the T.P.O. is utilised by the powers that be to perform its legitimate functions—that is, when manned by officers whose duty it is to receive, sort, and deliver mails while en route. To the credit, however, of the Queensland postal authorities, all such work is performed on this side of the border ; although no precedent was established by our Southern neighbours. As a matter of fact, it is understood, New South Wales
and Victoria merely uses their T.P. offices as vans for the receipt and delivery of mail bags already " made up" in the head and stationary depots. In other words, loose letters are not received, sorted, and delivered by her T.P.O. officials while travelling from station to station, but are carried on to the central office, whence they are forwarded, possibly back, to their destination by the following outgoing mail.

Bent upon acquainting Queenslanders with the really admirable system carried out on board the T.P.O., the writer approached the chief officers of the General Post Office with the view of obtaining permission to spend a night in one of the mail bag laden vans. Alas ! no person in that department has authority to grant such permission ; the authority is vested in those autocrats known as the Railway Commissioners. Yet not wholly in them, for even they are powerless to grant to any one permission to travel on board the T.P.O.— that authority is the prerogative of the Postal Department. To make this paradox clear, it may be said that the Railway Commissioners are impotent without the consent of the Post-master-General, and the latter is equally impotent without the acquiescence of the former. Through such a complication a trail of red tape being scented, and having no desire to put the country to the expense of a special Cabinet meeting to consider the application of a " pen bucketer" to travel on the T.P.O., nor desiring to waste reams of paper in a correspondence that might have some finality about a.d. 1909, the writer determined to dispense with all formality and do "a night on the T.P.O." nolens volens, so far as the dual authorities were concerned. Therefore, for obvious reasons, it need not be here stated how and when—the reader has already learned why —it was done. Consequently it must suffice for those who read, for the Postal Department, and for the Railway Commissioners, to know that the task was accomplished on a certain night and day, the dates of which will never transpire—at least, not through "Australian Native."

The Southern mail closes at 5 p.m. daily, except Saturdays ; and one day, a few minutes prior to the hour mentioned, an individual witnessed the sorters, with hands as quick as eyes, unerringly shying letters with amazing rapidity into one or other of the many canvas receptacles hanging open mouthed, five deep, around the aforesaid iron circle. 

Shortly afterwards the same individual saw the V.R. branded carts, with their freights of bulging bags, emerge from the precincts of the G.P.O. yard ; and, later, watched the uniformed officer of the T.P.O. tally the number of bags received into his van while it was drawn up at the Melbourne-street railway platform. And a close inspection showed that the officer placed as it was received each bag in its proper position for delivery. The next proceeding was to compare the tally with the waybill, and all being correct the latter sheet was duly signed and the officer thereupon became responsible for the due performance of his duty in trans-porting the load either to its respectively addressed destination or to the end of his section of the journey. "

Any more going on ?" was the loud cry of the railway servants ; and half-a-minute be-fore the train was due to leave an excited breathless gentleman rushed to the door of the T.P.O., thrust a letter into the hands of the officer in charge, and demanded: "
Weigh that and tell me if it is over-weight !" " No, sir," came the quick, courteous reply.
"but the letter will require the extra fee of twopence if you wish to post in on the T.P.O."
"All right ; put a stamp on it ; and take the twopence out of that."
"That" was a £1 note ; and the officer rapidly counted out the change, 19s. 10d.
Ugh ! Without a "thank you !" the gentle-man (?) hurried away simultaneously with the station-master's order, " Stand clear !"

The guard blew his whistle, waved his arm, and the overland mail train for Sydney puffed out of the station at 6.25 p.m., and entered upon her journey through the darkness of the night.

Now the work of the T.P.O. officer—whose name for this occasion shall be Mr. Lacecap— commences in downright earnest. Some twenty-five to thirty bags, bearing the printed address of the T.P.O., had been thrown upon the floor of the carriage, instead of being hung upon the iron frames as were the others, which bore such addresses as Thagoona, Nobby's Crossing, &c., and these bags lying upon the floor   were opened one by one and the letters deftly sorted into pigeonholes, each representing one of the forty-five roadside railway stations through which the train passes before reaching the border. The newspapers were kept separate from the letters, and sorted into iron receptacles fitted above the framework on which the mail bags were hung.

For nearly twenty minutes Mr. Lacecap, with rapt attention and with seeming automatic though swift movement, continued the work of sorting ; then, as the train almost imperceptibly slowed down, he affixed an iron ring or hoop to the mail bag addressed " Corinda," and when the platform of that station was reached No. 1 bag was despatched and No. 1 bag was received. The contents of the latter were immediately sorted ; and less than two minutes after leaving Corinda another hoop was affixed to another bag, which was a few seconds later despatched with a shoosh ! to the Oxley platform as the train dashed through the station at full speed. Clank ! a rattle of iron, and Mr. Lacecap coolly reached from the darkness without the doorway of the van a mail bag with iron hoop attached.

“The outgoing mail from Oxley," quote he."
How did you get it ?"
" With our fishing rod," was Mr. Lacecap's jocular reply.

To enable my readers to understand the modus operandi of the apparatus, or "fishing rod," it may be as well at this juncture to explain it. As the majority of efficient appliances are extremely simple in their action, so is this invention for picking up mail bags while the train travels at a high rate of speed. The apparatus attached to the exterior of the mail carriage appears, when not in use, to be a bar of iron shaped like a harpoon ; but when this iron bar is pushed out by the operator from the interior of the van it assumes the shape of a zigzag, the iron harpoon forming the bottom section. Upon the upper side of the harpoon, near the centre, is a steel spring which, when in operation, opens to the middle iron rod of the zigzag thus forming a complete triangle. Upon each station platform near one end is erected a strong post, upon the top of which is fitted a revolving wooden arm, and at the end of the arm is a T piece. These posts are built and placed with mathematical exactitude ; and when the afore-mentioned iron ring, with a mail bag dangling thereto, is hung upon the extremity of the T piece the barb point of the T.P.O. harpoon pierces the centre of the space within the ring, the upper rim of the material hoop dashes upon the steel spring, the rush of the train carries the ring over the spring-guard, and hey, presto ! the mail is picked up and securely held within the triangle. The officer pulls in the apparatus, thus bringing the bag within easy reach of the van doorway, and hauls it in to be forthwith opened and sorted.

It is gratifying to mention in connection with the picking-up apparatus in use on all the T.P.O.'s throughout Queensland that the harpoon and spring design was perfected and presented to his department by Mr. J. S. Cumberland, one of the three officers in charge of T.P.O.'s on the Southern line. And it is a matter for congratulation that since the adoption of Mr. Cumberland's device mail bags never miss being picked up, unless the iron hoop breaks, a contingency that comparatively seldom arises ; whereas the appliance previously in use, which was only a T shaped piece of iron, as often as not dropped the bag, through the rebound, after first jerking it off the station post.

After this necessary digression we may re-join Mr. Lacecap within the car. Shoosh ! goes the mail bag for Wolston, and clank ! the Woolston mail is received on the tick of 6.50 p.m. Then, at intervals of from one to eight minutes, during which time the officer continued to sort, sort, sort, get ready the mail bags to be despatched, and receive and open the ring bags that the harpoon whisked off the posts, the Goodna, Redbank, Riverview, Dinmore, Bundamba, and Booval mails respectively were despatched and received, and at 7.25 the train came to a stop at Ipswich. At once the doorway of the T.P.O. was besieged by clamorous persons of both sexes, and such cries as " Please register this letter, Mr. Lacecap," " Lacecap, old man, give us a penny and two tuppenny stamps," " How much will this take?" were heard, and throughout the brief stay Mr. Lacecap was kept busy.

Directly the train resumed the journey from Ipswich the elaborate service of the T.P.O. became more apparent. Letters posted but a few minutes before, whether addressed to Russia, India, China, Canada, to some out-of the-way corner of the globe, or only to the next station, were immediately dealt with and placed in readiness to be either sent forward to Sydney or despatched at a roadside station a few miles distant. For instance, the mail bag received, say, at Walloon is opened and the contents instantly sorted, so that should there be letters for, say, Thagoona or Rosewood they are placed in the proper bag and despatched forthwith. Consequently letters do not lie "dead" in the T.P.O. At Grandchester the officer was enabled to clear up odd packets and put them away in their proper receptacles ; and ere Laidley was reached Mr. Lacecap had a full minute's leisure to prepare the bag and ring for despatch. Then another shoosh ! another clang ! and the Laidley outgoing mail was quickly opened, and sorting recommenced. Forest Hill, Gatton, and Grantham were served in turn, and the train dashed into Helidon, there to remain five minutes.

Sort, sort, sort ; despatch and receipt mails at Murphy's Creek, Spring Bluff, and Harlaxton kept Mr. Lacecap fully occupied until Toowoomba was reached at 11.15. Here, even at such a late hour, the people crowded around the door of the T.P.O. as though no post office existed in the town ; and letters, newspapers, and packets were literally poured into the van. On the resumption of the journey at 11.25 the mail matter was first stamped with the T.P.O. stamp, and then sorted in time to allow Mr. Lacecap to get to the Charlton bag ready. Wellcamp, Westbrook, Wyreema, Cambooya, Greenmount, King's Creek, Clifton, Clifton Colliery, Hendon, Rosehill, and Mill-hill each effected an exchange of incoming and outgoing mails within the two and a-half hours taken for the run across the Darling Downs to Warwick, which station was entered a few minutes after 2 a.m. As at Ipswich and Toowoomba, the mails were delivered to an official from the local office, who in turn despatched his outgoing bags by the T.P.O.

Having sorted the Warwick letters a short time after leaving behind the "Chicago of Queensland," Mr. Lacecap had comparatively little to do, Dalveen and Stanthorpe—the train stopping at the latter place—being the only stations at which mail bags were despatched, although small mails were received from Silver-wood, Maryland, Glen Aplin, and Ballandean. And as Wallangarra, the border, was not reached until dawn of day, 5.20 a.m., we had ample time to partake of a cup of coffee, eat a sandwich, and have a chat.

"Your billet is not a sinecure, Mr. Lacecap," the writer remarked, " and you must have good nerves."
"A man must not possess such commodities as nerves if he would properly perform this sort of work ; for mistakes are not allowed in this department," was the significant reply. " Or," he added, "if one does happen to make a mistake, it is sure to be traced to the man making it, and he is called upon to explain, perhaps three or six months afterwards."

"Do you ever miss a station?"
"No ; because in normal seasons the train runs on time ; and by long training and observation we know the exact spot we are travelling over even on the darkest nights."
"By what means?"
"By sound ; every bridge as it is crossed has a distinct sound of its own, and the same explanation applies to culverts. But if by any chance one were caught napping, the whistle on the engine, which is blown before passing through each station, would arouse him to his sense of duty."
"The T.P.O. manipulates an enormous mass of mail matter in the course of a year, eh?"
"I can give you the figures."
"Here they are," and Mr. Lacecap read:—
"During 1903 the three vans on this line received, posted on one or other of the vans, 44,180 letters, 219 registered letters, 16,584 newspapers, and 8019 packets ; while we received in bags from stations en route 649,614 letters and 9261 registered letters, and despatched in bags 694,455 letters and 9480 registered letters ; in all we received 24,063 separate mails and despatched 25,836 separate mails."

"Do these figures include English and foreign mails ?"
"No. As is well known, the public avail themselves largely of the opportunity of posting English letters at the last possible moment ; and in 1893 the three vans directly received, in the aggregate, 20,094 letters, 1371 packets, and 12,360 newspapers for transmission to British and foreign ports."

A refreshing sleep (though on the floor of the van, there being only one comfortable couch) of some five hours prepared us for the return trip, and at 11.25 a.m. the Sydney mail train arrived, bearing a large mail from England. A second-class carriage was requisitioned for the through bags in addition to the van space ; and it was noted that both the New South Wales T.P.O. man and Mr. Lacecap kept an extra vigilant eye on the tally. At five minutes past noon the train started for Bris-bane ; and now the hitherto unmentioned assistant to Mr. Lacecap, an official whom we may christen Mr. Silverbutton, became very much in evidence ; for had he not travelled up to assist in sorting the English matter addressed to " the T.P.O., Wallangarra" ?

"The London Post Office," said my in-formant, " is instructed by Queensland to send all letters addressed to any station on the Southern line to the T.P.O., and as we sort all such letters on the down trip we deliver as we go the English mails to every station from the border down to and including Corinda ; therefore time is saved, and the letters are not carried on to Brisbane there to be sorted and returned."

Feeling that an outsider would be in the way, and hinder the rapid sorting of some twenty to twenty-five bags of mail matter, I left the van at Stanthorpe and travelled to Bris-bane in another and more comfortable carriage of the train. But the information gleaned was sufficient to enable the writer to say that the functions performed by the T.P.O. are in every respect equal, save as regards money orders and P.O. Savings Bank business, to those performed in the head office, though necessarily on a smaller scale. And the thanks of the whole community are due to the postal officials for inaugurating such a perfect system of distribution of mail matter, and for maintaining the abnormally high state of efficiency of the Queensland Travelling Post Office.

And a further article:

The Queenslander, Saturday 26 January 1889, p. 171
The Travelling Post Office

The travelling post office on the Southern and Western Railway is very much used and appreciated by the residents between Brisbane and Wallangarra and from Toowoomba to Roma. Since the opening of the railway to Sydney the travelling poet office, or T.P.O. as it is more familiarly called, has been utilised for the collection and forwarding of English and foreign correspondence direct to Sydney instead of as previously through Brisbane and thence by sea, thus saving at least a day, not a small matter to business people. This gain, however, was in one direction only, and the desire to make the T.P.O. the channel for the distribution of foreign correspondence en route to Brisbane was not so easily accomplished, as the limited number of officers who could be employed could not possibly deal with the whole of the English mail for Queensland, and the London office could not see its way to fall in with the arrangements proposed for dividing the mail.

It is, however, satisfactory to learn that the difficulties have been overcome, and on the 15th instant the General Post Office received, ex the P & 0 Company's R.M.S. Carthage, a separate mail of ten bags containing nearly 1500 letters, forty-one of them registered, 310 packets, and about 2400 newspapers, addressed to various persons and places south and west of Brisbane, and these were all distributed before the train arrived at the Brisbane station instead of passing, as heretofore, to the General Post Office. to be sorted and forwarded by the return train at 7 p.m., too late for delivery until the following day. It will be seen that, thanks to the travelling post office, the residents on the Downs, &c, receive their British and foreign news at the same time as, or before, the people of the metropolis, and can post for the outward mails at a later hour.

And one more

Queensland Times Thursday 17 January 1889, p. 5


Dear Sir,-Will you kindly allow me space, in your valuable journal, to draw the attention of the proper authorities to the negligent way in which Post-office boxes on trains are cleared of letters at Toowoomba and other stations?

I will here give you an instance of an important letter which was posted, on a Friday morning, in the train going West, for a town which the said train would reach the same day, some two or three hours before sunset :-The letter, as well as other letters, was not delivered at its destination until the Thursday following, being, in all, about five days after time, bearing Brisbane post-marks, showing that the letters were not cleared at Toowoomba, and consequently carried right back to Brisbane, where they were ultimately cleared.

This is only one case, and I know of several others of a similar sort. In some instances the letters were not delivered at all-perhaps still travelling in some of the Post-office boxes or guard's vans.

Trusting, Mr. Editor, that I have not taken up too much of your time and room,

I am, yours etc


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