The Bendigo Post Office
Following is a series of video interviews with Peter Brooks, Architect for Heritage Victoria.
The Post Office and boomtimes in Bendigo
Bendigo Post Office would not have been possible in the form it is now without the gold rush and without the huge increase in population and activity that happened on the goldfields. Bendigo was one of the largest gold centres in Australia and in fact there was gold mining occurring right up to 1954. There had been a break between the depression of the 1890s and the pre-Second World War period, but the Central Deborah goldmine started up again and actually didn't close down until 1954.
So it was one of the richest goldfields in Australia and it was on that golden wealth that civic pride was built. There was a desire amongst the population to express their wealth and the fact that they'd made it in terms of being a civilised community. The way you did that in Victorian times was to have civic buildings which were impressive in their scale and in their detail, and the boom times of the 1880s was really the only decade that that sort of an approach was possible.
Bendigo Post Office : a significant heritage place
Bendigo Post Office is a special building and probably could only be compared in Victoria to the GPO which was twenty years earlier. It is a much more flamboyant building than the GPO - the GPO was in a more classical style, a restrained style. That reflected the fact that the head of the Public Works department - which controls public buildings in Victoria - took the view that public buildings should be restrained and fairly simple. When he departed the Public Works Department in 1878, there was much more scope for the architects within the department to trial the styles and to become more showy.
Bendigo Post Office reflected this in the decoration, the detailing, its size, its grandeur, the fact that it's approached by many steps, it's an elevated building in the most important part of the town. Pall Mall is really the showpiece of the town. It really took up the most important and prominent position. It replaced an earlier post office which is in a simpler style and in fact Bendigo outgrew the post office that it had which had only been finished in the 1870s. It was at enormous cost and it was the source of much pride to the residents of Bendigo.
The Second Empire style was derived from German and French practice. There is a famous building called the Paris Opera which was built in the late 1860s which was really a model for later flamboyant-style buildings. The elements that they chose - and which they in fact rejoiced - in were interesting roofs, manzard-style roofs with scallop tiles rather than just a plain slate roof that you had in the older post offices. It had complicated lead work on the roof, it had wrought iron work, it had lions' heads, it had intricate plaster work, it had Corinthian columns, classical detailing used in quite a showy manner.
Although it's not a stone building - it's a brick building which is Rendered - it gave plenty of opportunity for the plasterers to show their skill. It's those features - and the interior joinery in particular - which is quite magnificent, much more detailed than the joinery you would find in government buildings ten years earlier. So it's a building which shows that it cost a lot of money and it quite proudly exhibits the fact that it was built on golden wealth.
Very often in the Victorian era it was common to group the police station, the court house and the post office, they were the most important civic buildings in a town, and towns eagerly anticipated the time that they would be rewarded with those buildings. You can see in Maryborough today, the grouping, you have post office in the centre, the court house one side, the police station the other side.
You can see the same at Kew Junction, there's the police station, court house and post office on that triangular site, although unfortunately that's no longer used for its original purpose. You can see the idea of grouping the most important buildings which reflected government presence and the fact that government services and gorvernment control were there and were in fact offering security, safety and law and order and communications to the public.
When the gold rush began in Victoria in 1851, there was a huge increase in population and a consequent rise in the number of letters that needed to be sent to and from overseas usually to the United Kingdom. Letter writing was the main means of communication unless you could meet face-to-face and the government rapidly established post offices throughout the state. Letter writing was really paramount right through until telegraph and telephone become available. The telegraph system arrived in Ballarat and Bendigo in 1858, it was first introduced between Melbourne and Williamstown in 1854.
But by 1859, all the major centres in Victoria were covered by the telegraph system - which is the morse code system. It was much more expensive to send a telegram than to send a letter. It would cost you about 10 times the amount the cost to send a telegram which would be 10 words, compared to a letter which was unlimited and would simply take longer to arrive. Post offices concentrated on receiving letters, distribution and taking letters from the gold miners and the people in those towns - sorting them and sending them on. It was an absolutely essential part of the social infrastructure in the colonies.
It might not be obvious today - looking from the street - but the Bendigo Post Office, a very large imposing building, included quarters for the post master and his family, quite palatial quarters compared to some others. It was common in Victorian towns - and metropolitan Melbourne as well – that post offices included the manager's quarters.
In Bendigo these happened to be very spacious, large and impressive - they take up one end of the building and it's on three levels. You had then the main sorting room - which is naturally lit by skylights above - a very impressive space not accessed by the public. In fact the public had very little access to the building. They could approach the building and enter one of either sides. On one side they could buy postage stamps and have parcels and so forth weighed for sending and on the other side they could purchase money orders.
But it should be realised that Bendigo Post Office was not just a post office, it had other government services as well. Banking was available, the local water board used offices were there, the local surveyor had some rooms on the third floor. So many government services were located in that building although it was always called the Bendigo Post Office. In fact I should say it was only in 1891 that the name Bendigo was given to the town. Prior to that it was called Sandhurst. But it certainly was a complex, it really was the government centre. It was the colonial government's centre in Bendigo and it had many more uses than just a post office.