The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 79
Historical Account of the Buildings in which the Work of the Post Office has been Carried on in Wellington
Historical Account of the Buildings in which the Work of the Post Office has been Carried on in Wellington.
Among all the criticisms passed upon a new country such as this by visitors from older lands, perhaps that roost frequently made is that it has no history. Lying, as it did until just over a century ago, untouched by the streams of eastern and western civilization, New Zealand was inhabited in succession by races whose social development was of such a character that it failed to produce even the most elementary form of written language; and the early history of these races consists only of a mass of vague oral tradition handed down from generation to generation. Thus its story displays nothing that can compare with the history of some of the older countries of Europe, in which are revealed the gradual emergence of a people from a state of barbarism, and the slow development of a civic and national life with settled laws, a fixed and stable political constitution, and a completely organized system of public services.
But although it may be admitted that the lack of such a history of age-long development and progress constitutes a distinct loss, it is none the less true that the discovery, the early settlement, and the rapid advance of many of the newer colonies of the British Empire form a subject which is by no means devoid of an element of interest, or even of romance. As the individual man repeats in the brief span of his life the whole history of the race, so these new countries exhibit an epitome of the progress so slowly and painfully won by the older nations who constituted the pioneers of page 6 civilization. It may safely be asserted that nowhere has this advance proceeded with more rapid strides than in our own Dominion, which a century ago was just emerging from the primitive state of nature, but which now answers to the call of the highest civilization in every department of life—in national and municipal administration no less than in commercial and industrial enterprise.
In a land where the means of transit are so efficient and so widely extended, where the public service is so highly organized, where postal and telegraphic facilities are everywhere enjoyed, where rapid and frequent communication is maintained with the leading centres of the old world, it is indeed difficult to realize how meagre and elementary were the advantages at the disposal of the settlers in the early years of the colony. But if it were necessary to single out a concrete instance of the advance that has been made, what better example could be chosen than the Post Office? Of all the forms of organized service within the State here or elsewhere there is no other which touches the life of the people so intimately or at so many points. Its progress marks the progress of the community; its expansion reflects the spread of settlement; the rise or fall of its revenue is the infallible indication of commercial prosperity or depression. Its history embodies and illustrates the history of the people.
It is the purpose of this pamphlet to trace briefly the growth of the buildings in which the work of the Post Office has been carried on in Wellington, from the time when the first Postmaster, in a Native hut built of toitoi and raupo, disposed of the handful of letters that comprised the mail of those early days, up to the present time, when the extensive and varied work of the chief post and telegraph offices and of the General Post Office is transacted by a staff of 728 officers in a building which ranks among the most page 7 imposing in the Dominion. How steady and uniform has been the progress maintained through all the vicissitudes of fortune that have marked the period 1840-1912 will be shown in the following pages. A note of explanation, however, if not of apology, seems necessary in view of the paucity of the details concerning the earlier buildings occupied by the Department. It is much to be regretted that there is no satisfactory source from which a connected narrative of the early history of the town, and an accurate description of its principal buildings, can be obtained. Most of the material available exists in the disjointed form of personal recollections contributed by early settlers who have now passed away, and it suffers from the added disadvantage of being entirely confined to the pages of newspapers and other ephemeral publications. Even in the information that can be gleaned from these records there is a disappointing silence regarding the position and appearance of some of the earlier post-office buildings. In ordinary circumstances this defect would have mattered little, since it could to a large extent have been remedied by means of the departmental records. These were regularly kept after 1858, the year in which the Post Office was first created a Department independent of the Colonial Secretary's Office; but by a strange mischance even this avenue is closed to the inquirer. The records covering the period from 1859 to 1862 were lost in the "White Swan," which was wrecked on the 29th June, 1862. at the East Cape, whilst conveying the Government records in course of transfer from Auckland to Wellington; while those from 1862 to 1887 were lost in the fire which destroyed the General Post Office building in the latter year. Even those of the local office at Auckland, which would have thrown much light on the early years of the Department, suffered a like fate in the fire which occurred at the Auckland Post-office, on the 19th November, 1872. Thus the scanty material from which the earlier part of this narrative has been constructed has been gathered from scattered references in the annual reports submitted by the Postmaster-General in 1860 and subsequent years, from chance allusions in contemporary literature, and from the personal recollections of early settlers.
When the British flag was hoisted in Auckland, and the Lieutenant-Governor's residence established there on the 18th September, 1840, the population of Wellington already amounted to 1,500. The town had been surveyed and cut up into 1,100 town sections of an acre each; and almost every street which now appears on the city plan had been laid off and named, excepting those, of course, on the land since reclaimed. A plan of Wellington dated the 14th August, 1840, which was printed for the New Zealand Company by Messrs. Smith, Elder, and Co., of London, shows the whole of the 1,100 acres, each section being marked with page 8 an additional number indicating an order of choice for the guidance of the selectors by ballot in England. These numbers are very interesting, since they show the opinions held by the early settlers as to the probable whereabouts of the future town. The "public wharf" is marked off at the bottom of Taranaki Street; therefore, as might reasonably be expected, the acres chosen by the first and second selectors were those extending along Taranaki Street from the foreshore to Manners Street. These are, of course, valuable to-day; but the removal of the wharf, now the Queen's Wharf, to its present position must have been a serious blow to their owners. The third choice was more fortunate, though it was probably derided at the time. It occupied the corner of Manners and Willis Streets down as far as Old Customhouse Street. The opposite corners constituted about the fiftieth choice. The corner at the junction of Willis Street and Lambton Quay included the eighty-fifth and the one-hundred-and-twenty-second choices; while some of the acres having an extensive frontage to Lambton Quay were only just within the first fifty chosen. Cuba Street is shown at only half its present length, and it was evidently expected to be an inferior street, as the acres have their broad sides fronting it, and their narrow sides to Dixon, Ghuznee, and other cross streets. If the selection could be made afresh in 1912 there would be many variations. The completeness of this plan in the matter of streets, Town Belt, &c., is the most striking feature—even the little streets off Tinakori Road and the far end of New-town are clearly marked. Cambridge and Kent Terraces are represented as divided by a "proposed canal" leading into a "proposed basin" where the Basin Reserve now stands.
About 5 acres are reserved for Government House on the spot where that building, now converted into temporary Parliament Buildings, at present stands, between Charlotte and Bowen Streets; page 9 and Mount Cook is reserved for "public buildings"—alas, that it should ever have been proposed to he used as a gaol! Both the Roman Catholic Burial ground and the General Cemetery are marked off and named; but the Botanical Gardens appear as 11"hilly country covered with timber." All the hills were bushclad.
An interesting description of the town and its environs in 1840 is given by one who was then intimately connected with the infant settlement. Mr. C. H. Brees, in his "Pictorial Illustrations of New Zealand," says, 'The character of the country around the port is mostly hilly and thickly timbered; there is, however, some extent of flat land at the valley of the Hutt, and a good portion in the town. Some of the bays on the east side also furnish a few level patches. The population of the Town of Wellington is at present principally confined to the two flats—viz., Pipitea, or Thorndon Flat, and Te Aro; the former is not of much extent, but the latter is of tolerable size, and the greater part of the adjoining land is not very hilly."
Before the end of the following year (1841) the population had increased a good deal, and the people had begun to spread themselves about the district for the cultivation of the land. Farming and grazing operations were in full swing at Karori, Lyall Bay, the Lower Hutt, Porirua, and other places, and very good results were being obtained.
Although in 1840 Post Oilice affairs in Wellington had not attained any great importance, the arrangements necessary for the interchange of communication were carried out with surprising vigour. "We understand." says the New Zealand Gazette of the 11th July, 1840 (published by Mr. Samuel Revans, at Britannia, now Petone), "that a mail between Thorndon and this place will be made up for the first time on Monday next, at 8 o'clock a.m., and a return one from this place to Thorndon at 1 o'clock p.m. The rate to be charged is 2d. for letters and ld for newspapers. Mr. Paton will have the superintendence of it at Thorndon, and Mr. Hunter at Britannia. Should the weather prove unfavourable for the boat, the mail will be despatched on foot." The same paper of the 1st August following says, "The papers for our Thorndon subscribers were sent to the post-office as usual, but, owing to the boisterous state of the weather, no mail was sent on Saturday." page 10 The papers were thus not delivered until the following Tuesday. It would be interesting to know the subsequent fate of this twopenny local post; but its history cannot be traced.
At some time during the same year the Government purchased what is described as a "Native-built building of large size," which, besides providing accommodation for the work of the post office, was also intended to do duty as a Courthouse, and as an occasional place of worship. From the existing illustration of the town at that early period of its history it would appear that the building was of some considerable size and prominence, but the term of its occupancy was destined to be brief. In 1841 the post-office was placed under the charge of Mr. (after wards the Hon.) Walter B. D. Mantell, whose management is noteworthy for the sturdy independence with which he went his way despite the attempts of the officials at Auckland to render him duly submissive. Early in the currency of his Post-mastership, however, the post-office building was destroyed by a fire—the first of that long series which has been so outstanding a feature in the history of the post-office at Wellington. This accident involved the appointment of a Commission, and their inquiry into the catastrophe gives us some idea of the style of building in which the postal business was then conducted. Mr. Mantell in the course of his evidence says, "I found it absolutely necessary from the inclemency of the weather and the dilapidated state of the house to have a stove, the toitoi of which the walls were composed being in such a wretched state that the pigs and other animals were in the practice of finding an entrance there."
What immediate arrangements were made after this disaster to provide accommodation for the work of the office cannot be definitely determined, but it would appear that a building of some kind was leased bypage break page break page 13
the General Government, then situated in Auckland. The failure to provide appropriations for office accommodation was, however, the occasion of much contention between Mr. Mantell and the officials at Auckland. It was apparently a matter of no concern to them that the lease of the office was about to expire. Mr. Mantell's duty was to find accommodation, and if the Government would not pay for it he must. Eventually a house was rented in 1843, after an animated correspondence had resulted, in the administering of a reproof by Lieutenant Shortland, R.N., who held the position of Acting-Governor during the period which elapsed between the death of Governor Hobson and the arrival of his successor, Captain Fitzroy. The building so acquired stood on the spot which now forms the corner of Mulgrave Street and Thorndon Quay, and by a happy chance it appears prominently in the foreground of one of the admirable sketches made by Mr. Brees, who was principal engineer and surveyor to the New Zealand Company from 1841 to 1845. We are thus enabled to gain an accurate idea of the appearance and location of the building, which, unpretentious as it was according to present-day ideas, was nevertheless utilized for the purpose of divine worship and for sittings of the Courts of Justice. In this connection it should be noted that Mr. Mantell acted not only as Postmaster, but also as Clerk to the Bench of Magistrates. The rent paid for the building was £100 per annum, £20 of which was charged against the postal service.
Subsequently the work of the Post Office was separated from that of the Magistrate's Court; but it was evidently considered that the infant Department was not yet strong enough to walk alone. Mr. John Farr Hoggard, who had been appointed as Clerk at Auckland in the early "forties," was now transferred to Wellington, where he practically performed the duties of Postmaster, although the Collector of Customs for the port was nominally in charge. The office in which the postal work was at this time transacted stood in close proximity to the old Customhouse building, then situated at the junction of Parish Street and Old Customhouse Street on the Te Aro water-front. Mr. Hoggard appears to have been to some extent in a position of control over the offices at Lyttelton and Otago; and he was of great assistance to the Governor-in-Chief, whose headquarters were then at Wellington, in making suggestions and giving advice on postal matters.page 14
In 1853 Mr. Hoggard received some measure of reward for his services by his appointment to the position of independent Postmaster at Wellington. In notifying the appointment, Governor Sir George Grey wrote, "It gives me much pleasure to appoint Mr. Hoggard Postmaster at Wellington, an office which he has in point of fact so long filled in a manner which reflects credit on him in every way." Through all the records of this period Mr. Hoggard's personality is distinctly apparent, and the fact that in 1854 his salary was advanced to the sum of £300 per annum shows that his worth was recognised and acknowledged by the Government.
For two years longer the Farish Street office continued to be occupied, but in 1856 an extensive fire occurred. Amongst the buildings which perished on that occasion was the post-office; new quarters were therefore provided for Mr. Hoggard in a building which stood on the site now occupied by Barnett's building in Willis Street. At that early period of the town's history the whole space from the new post-office building to the intersection of Boulcott and Willis Streets was quite unoccupied. The posting-boxes and the sliding window through which delivery of correspondence was effected were therefore on that side of the office.
The next building acquired is noteworthy from the fact that it was the first to occupy the site with which the history of the post-office has for so many years been associated. A photograph of the period shows that at the head of the wharf in Grey Street there stood a small one-storied structure of insignificant appearance. This was the building which, in the late "fifties," sufficed to accommodate the postal work of Wellington.
The year 1854 had witnessed the appointment of the first Postmaster-General in the person of Mr. Petre, who was appointed by Governor Sir George Grey for the purpose of supervising a numberpage break page break page 17
of principal offices and acting as an intermediary between the officers of the Department and the Government. His successor, the Hon. H. J. Tancred, inaugurated in 1860 a series of annual reports on the working of the Department, and in the third of these volumes, that for the year 1861-62, reference was made to the contemplated provision of new office accommodation at Wellington. The Postmaster-General stated that the Provincial Government had provided an excellent site for a post-office, and had made advanced preparations for building an office of a size and character suitable to the town. There seems to have been during the latter half of 1862 a marked display of activity in the erection of buildings for the various Departments of the Public Service. The Wellington Independent of the 27th September of that year says, "The tenders for the erection of the Customhouse. Post-office, and Queen's Warehouse having been accepted a few weeks ago, the enterprising contractors, Messrs. Rollo and Humphreys, C. R. Carter and Gill, have commenced operations with such celerity and promptitude that where but a brief time agone naught was heard but the roll and break of the advancing tide the scene is now one replete with life, bustle, and animation, and the skeleton of a new building fast advancing to completion already meets the view." By the following year the building had been completed and was occupied by the postal staff. In the report issued on the 30th June, 1863, the following reference appears: "At Wellington a new post-office has been very recently erected by the Provincial Government. It stands on the land lately reclaimed from the sea near Lambton Quay; it is centrally situated, and from its proximity to the new deep-water wharf and Customs House it affords every facility for the landing and shipment of mails. The building is of wood; it is conveniently arranged, and affords all the accommodation that will be required for several years. It contrasts strongly with the collection of small, low, ill-ventilated rooms called post-offices elsewhere."
This building, which was destined to form the home of the Post Office for twenty years, accommodated both the postal and the Customs staffs. Practically the whole of the second story and the northern portion of the ground floor was occupied by the Collector of Customs and his officers, while the southern portion of the ground floor served for the transaction of postal business. It page 18 should be remembered that the Telegraph Department was not yet in existence, and that the Head Office staff was located with those of other Departments in the Government Buildings, first at Auckland and afterwards at Wellington. A prominent feature of the new structure was the staff and time-ball, by means of which the public were acquainted with the solar time. This time-ball was subsequently removed to the Railway Wharf, where it continued to be used for many years.
The mail-room of the office was situated not in the main building, but in the older building standing in Grey Street, to which reference has already been made. The accounts of contemporaries indicate that it possessed very few of those facilities which in a more modern age are regarded as indispensable for the proper transaction of post-office work. Delivery of letters was made through the hinged pane of a window which opened on to the street, and the only protection afforded in inclement weather to those who called for their mail was a low verandah erected along the front of the building. For registered-letter business a small room was extemporized by partitioning off a space of about 4 ft., at one end of the verandah. The room allotted for the sorting of the mails was altogether inadequate for requirements, and it is recorded that on occasions when heavy foreign mails were received, they were stored in the coal-shed at the back of the office, and were transferred piecemeal to the mail-room for disposal.
The new building was designed to accommodate not only the staff of the Chief Post-office and the local telegraph staff, which page 21 until that time had been stationed in the building contiguous to the post-office, but also the Post and Telegraph Head Office staffs, which had been amalgamated on the 1st January, 1880, with Dr. Lemon as Superintendent and Mr. W. Gray as Secretary. The Postmaster-General of the day was the Hon. Sir Julius Vogel. The architect's estimate of the cost of construction was £17,000, but the tender eventually accepted was that of Messrs. Barry and McDowall, involving an expenditure of £22,444.
By the 15th February, 1884, the new office had been completed, and it was occupied on the 5th April of that year. The building presented a handsome and imposing appearance, and was rightly regarded not only as the finest structure in the City of Wellington, but also as one of the finest Government buildings in the colony. It had frontages of 172 ft. to Customhouse Quay, 72 ft. to Panama Street, and 69 ft. to Grey Street. The building was three stories high, measuring from pavement to the top of the tower 125 ft. The walls were of brick, 22 in. thick.
There were, however, two defects—the one architectural, the other structural—which gave rise to some adverse comment. The tower, as designed by the architect, consisted of three distinct stories, the first forming the base, the second containing the clockdials, and the third consisting of a belfry with the bells hanging in an open space, the cupola or dome being supported simply by pilasters in order that the sound of the chimes might not be interrupted. From motives of economy this design was not followed, but there was erected instead a wooden tower of two stories surmounted by a dome which, it was generally considered, destroyed the symmetry of the building and retarded the sound of the fine set of chimes. The clock and chimes had been installed by Messrs. Littlejohn and Son at a cost of £850, to which the City Council and the Harbour Board had each contributed the sum of £150. The other, and perhaps the more important, defect was the use of lath-and-plaster instead of brick in the construction of the interior walls and partitions in the building. How slight was the opposition offered by such material to the progress of a fire that had once gained a hold in the interior of the building was only too soon to be demonstrated.
The third story of the new building was occupied by the General Post Office staff, the second story by the Customs Department and by the staffs of the Telegraph Office and the Telephone Exchange. The ground-floor was allotted to the various branches of the Chief page 22 Post Office, and to the telegraph receiving-counter and dispatch-room. On the 28th April, 1887, three years after the erection of the building, a fire broke out at 4.40 a.m. in that portion of the second story occupied by the Telephone Exchange staff, and rapidly spread to the telegraph operating-room and thence to the story above, until the whole building on the Panama Street side was a mass of flame. For some time, however, the advance of the fire was stayed by a dividing-wall of brick which extended across the middle of the building, and hopes were entertained that the whole of the southern portion might be saved. This expectation was soon falsified, for the flames mounted to the wooden tower which surmounted the building and thus found their way past the protecting barrier. The clock chimed for the last time at 5 o'clock, and stopped eight minutes afterwards. By 6 o'clock the fire had forced its way into the centre of the Grey Street portion of the building, and an hour later little remained save four charred and blackened walls and a huge mass of glowing debris. The only rooms untouched by the flames were those of the Chief Postmaster and the Chief Clerk, in Grey Street.
The vigorous salvage operations carried on during the progress of the fire resulted in the saving of telegraph material to the value of £2,000, which had been stored in the laboratory, but the seventy telegraph instruments in actual use and all the telegraphic and telephonic apparatus were totally destroyed. The loss under this head alone must have amounted to at least £1,500. Everything in the Chief Post Office was saved, even the letters in the postingboxes; but of the General Post Office files—records of the greatest importance and value—very little remained. The money-order and savings-bank accounts and documents, which had been stored in the strong-room on the ground floor, and the Customs records, which the fire had somehow passed over, were found to be intact. At first it was hoped that the peal of bells, of which the city was so proud, would be found fit for further use, but an early examination showed that they were irretrievably ruined.
The greatest promptitude and energy were displayed in making arrangements for the continuation of the work of the office. Earlypage break page break page 25
in the morning, through the courtesy of the Harbour Board, the use of the F shed on the wharf was secured, and soon after 11 a.m. money-order and savings-bank business was resumed, and by the luncheon-hour letters were being despatched as usual. On the 30th April, two days after the tire, the private boxes were available for the use of the holders. More permanent quarters were subsequently obtained in a building owned by the Union Steam Ship Company and standing at the corner of Johnston Street and Customhouse Quay, while the Customs Department was accommodated in the Provincial Buildings.
Immediate arrangements were also made for the resumption of telegraphic communication. An operator was despatched to the Lyall Bay cable-station with the messages for the south, while those for northern towns were carried by messenger to the Hutt, and were despatched from that office. Regular communication was resumed with the north at 2 p.m. and with the south at 5 p.m. of the day of the tire. Among the telegraph material saved was a complete set of eight instruments, with the relative apparatus, which had been intended for use at Napier, and these were installed in premises leased from the National Mutual Life Association at an annual rental of £500. The staff of the Superintendent was accommodated in offices rented from Messrs. W. E. Bethune and Co. in Featherston Street, and those of the Secretary and the Accountant in the National Mutual Association's building.
The preparation of the plans for the restoration of the building was commenced at once, and a contract for the work was let on the 4th February, 1888, full advantage being taken of the opportunity thus presented of remedying the defects which had existed in the older building, and of embodying such further improvements in the construction and arrangement of the interior as experience could suggest. The building was materially strengthened by the addition of three brick party walls, one built longitudinally and two transversely, which were carried to a height of 2 ft. above the roof. Special provision was otherwise made to minimize the risk from tire. Johnston's patent wire lathing in the place of the usual wooden laths was used in connection with the interior plaster-work, and a course of concrete 4 in. thick was laid between page 26 the floor-joists. Two water-services on each floor were provided for purposes of fire-extinction, and provision was made for the division of the first and top floors into sections by means of fireproof doors. The interior accommodation was slightly varied where experience had shown that this was desirable, or where an alteration was rendered imperative by the position of the party walls.
The new tower was built according to the original design, and an illuminated four-dial clock, with faces measuring 8 ft. 3 in. in diameter, was placed in position. Both the clock and the set of Cambridge chimes were provided jointly by the City Council and the Harbour Board, while the large hour-bell, weighing more than 29 cwt., was presented by Mrs. S. A. Rhodes in memory of her late husband, the Hon. W. B. Rhodes, the uncle of the present Postmaster-General. Messrs. Littlejohn and Son, the makers of the former clock, were given the contract for the new clock, and the bells were cast in the Lion Foundry at Wellington.
The work of restoration was completed on the 30th April, 1888, and the transfer of the several branches of the Department was carried out on the 1st. June of the same year.
The history of the building from that date until the beginning of the present century proved for the most part uneventful.
By 1900 the lack of accommodation consequent upon the great expansion in the Department's business was acutely felt, and in 1901 it was found necessary to lease the premises formerly occupied by the Colonial Bank on Lambton Quay, and to utilize them for the transaction of money-order and savings-bank business. Additional relief was obtained in 1905 by the transfer of the Customs Department to the newly erected Customhouse, but in less than three years recourse had again to be made to outside accommodation. The Telegraph laboratory, the Mechanician's Branch, and the Telegraph clearing staff of the Accountant's Branch were settled in the fourth and fifth stories of Nathan's Buildings, in Grey and Featherston Streets; while the staff of the Inspector of Post-offices, the Dead Letter Office, the Parcel Branch of the Chief Post-office, and the letter-carriers were located in Messrs. Levin and Co.'s old building next to the General Post Office. The extent of the extra accommodation provided at this time may be gauged from the fact that the total rentals paid amounted to more than £3,500 per annum.
In 1908 the Government acquired the remainder of the block of land bounded by Panama, Grey, and Featherston Streets with a view to providing additional post-office accommodation. New premises for the Dead Letter Office and for the staff of the Inspector of Post-offices had already been obtained in St. George's Building, Brandon Street, and arrangements were being made for the page 27 demolition of the old wooden buildings occupying the recently purchased site, when, on the evening of the 22nd May, a fire broke out which reduced them to ashes and seriously imperilled the safety of the Post-office itself. The stout brick wall which formed the protection for the rear of the building had been pierced on the third story to afford means of ingress into one of the wooden buildings which had recently been occupied by a portion of the Accountant's staff, and the aperture thus made was protected only by an iron door encased in a wooden frame. This weak spot was quickly attacked by the fire, and it soon became apparent that the building was in the utmost jeopardy. All the Department's records, the postal matter, and the more valuable office fittings were removed to a place of safety by the staff, while the most strenuous efforts were made by those employed in fighting the fire from the inside of the building by means of the appliances kept there. But for the resolute courage displayed by members of the Post and Telegraph Rifles, who kept the fire at bay at the most dangerous point, there can be little doubt that the catastrophe of 1857 would have been repeated. As it was, however, the actual damage done was negligible, and the work of the office suffered no serious interruption. Portions of the ground-floor and of the first story at St. George's Building were secured, in addition to the space already engaged there for the accommodation of the Inspector's staff. The work of the Parcel Branch of the Chief Post-office was immediately transferred to these new quarters, and continued to be transacted there until the 8th April, 1910, when a further transfer was effected to the large drillshed in Maginnity Street recently vacated by the Defence authorities. At the same time opportunity was taken to install the letter-carriers in this building, while a building at the back in Stout Street was utilized as a garage for the motor-lorries and motor-cycles now so largely employed by the Department in the city mail-services.
In the year 1909 a further strain was imposed upon the accommodation available in the General Post Office building by the amalgamation of the Old-age Pensions Office with the Post and Telegraph Department. So acute was the congestion that the Department was reluctantly compelled to deprive the local officers of the two rooms hitherto used by them for the purposes of recreation.page 28
At various points in the history of the Department in Wellington exigencies of space or other considerations have led to the separation of the work of certain branches from the main building, and this action has resulted in the growth of establishments enjoying to some extent an independent existence, though under the general control and supervision of the General Post Office or Chief Post-office staffs. The first of these establishments to be constituted was the Stores Branch, which, on the removal of the old wooden post-office in 1882, was provided with quarters in a building situated on the Railway Reserve at Pipitea Point, which it has continued to occupy up to the present time.
During the past thirty years, however, the work of that branch has greatly increased in size and importance. After the destruction of the Telegraph laboratory and storeroom in the Post-office fire of 1887 it was decided that in future all telegraph material should be stored at Pipitea Point, so that at present the store contains not only the stock of departmental stationery, but also the bulk stock of telegraph material from which the supplies of the District Telegraph Engineers are drawn. The tanks for the storage of submarine cable are also located there. During the past few years the work has been very much hampered through the lack of adequate space, and though some relief has been provided through the establishment of a district store at Christchurch and by the rental of additional storage accommodation at Harris Street in Wellington, the pressing necessity of larger and more modern buildings is becoming daily more apparent. Plans have already been prepared for the erection of a new store on the land recently reclaimed near Waterloo Quay by the Wellington Harbour Board, on behalf of the Department, and the work is now in hand. The Department has already erected on this site an important block of buildings, including departmental stables and a workshop for the departmental carpenters, and the provision of this new and ample accommodation has proved of the greatest convenience and advantage. Formerly the Department leased a ten-stalled stable and a dwellinghouse for the head driver, but by 1911 the expenditure for rent had increased and the space available was already inadequate. The spacious and well-equipped shop provided for the large and growing staff of carpenters has enabled much excellent work to be done, and should serve all purposes for many years to come. Incidentally it may be mentioned in this connection that practically the whole of the furniture required for the new General Post Office building has been designed and manufactured by the Department's own staff.
Another branch which has maintained to some extent an independent existence, although it is under the general direction and control of the Officer in Charge of the local Telegraph-office, is page 29 the Telephone Exchange, which was opened on the 1st March, 1883, with a total of thirty-one subscribers. While the new branch was in its infancy, room for it was easily provided in the new post-office building which had just been erected. After the fire of 1887, however, it was found necessary to provide a separate exchange in order to cope with the rapid growth of business, and a substantial structure was accordingly erected on a section of land at the back of the Government Buildings. This building, with several minor alterations, has served to accommodate the work of the staff until the present time, but it is now recognized that a new and enlarged telephone exchange must be provided at an early date.
No sketch, however brief, of the history of the old building would be complete without a reference to the many occasions on which the symbols of national rejoicing or mourning have been displayed there. The handsome and graceful exterior of the building lends itself admirably to the purposes of decoration, and there is scarcely a single event of historic importance during the past twenty years which has not been marked by some appropriate display. Its bells have tolled for the deaths of two sovereigns, and have pealed forth for the coronation of their successors. They voiced the joy of the nation when the news of the glorious reliefs of Kimberley, Ladysmith, and Mafeking lightened the dark history of the South African war, and they again sounded when the proclamation of peace at Pretoria in 1902 ended the long and sanguinary struggle.
Conspicuous among the events celebrated was the introduction of the penny-postage system on the 1st January, 1901, which was fittingly marked. The building was fully decorated, and was at night brilliantly illuminated, effective use being made of large coloured transparencies, displaying among other features a representation of the new penny stamp. A pyrotechnic display and the ringing of the chimes were outstanding features of the evening's celebrations.
During the early months of 1901 the building was in quick succession draped for the death of Queen Victoria and decked for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York. The illuminations displayed on the latter event again befitted the occasion.
Ten years afterwards, on the 9th May, 1910, the building was again draped with purple and black at the obsequies of King Edward VII, and on the 22nd June of the following year it was gay with bunting in honour of the coronation of His Majesty page 30 King George V. In the illuminations on that occasion 3,000 electric lamps were displayed on the face of the building, and the dome was outlined in coloured lights. The motto "Long Live the King" in white letters on a background of ultramarine blue was effectively displayed. An immense crown, 12 ft. by 10 ft. in size, was skilfully represented by means of electric lights in different colours with jewels and drapings accurately reproduced. The royal cyphers G.R. and M.R. woven together were picked out in amber and ruby lights, and a bright, many-pointed star surmounted the whole.