Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Postal Service – Part 3

By the 1840s, the Postal Services had evolved into a largely efficient and regular service with its own offices and fulltime employees. With their clients’ expectations raised, customer service was a priority. In the newspapers, residents lambasted the Post Office for all lapses much to the Colonial Government’s chagrin. 

The next innovation for this essential service would be the introduction of stamps, an essential link in the chain to ensure that all revenue was correctly and comprehensively accounted for. 

Main picture: The second dedicated Post Office building is on the right, opposite the Town Hall and next to the original Phoenix Hotel

Challenges aplenty

Transparency and openness in postal affairs was safeguarded by the outspoken residents who, despite the best endeavours of the Colonial Government to contain or suppress discontent, vocalised their frustrations in the only way that they knew how; by writing to the press. Their one line of attack was to remind the government of all the revenue that accrued to them due to the postage revenues. What they neglected to mention was that these revenues were not used on other services but merely covered the costs of the postal service itself.

In 1851, the Eastern Province Herald led the charge against the poor service by means of this scathing article:

“The disgraceful state of the Frontier post is now beyond human patience and endurance, and while we hear of improvements going on all around us and steam communication between the Cape and England, we are probably far behind the South Sea Islands in postal communications.

Besides the irregularity long complained of, there appears now to be some doubt of the safety of the conveyance. We are informed on good authority that about two weeks ago, the mail from Port Elizabeth arrived at the Gamtoos River without any bag at all – it was stuffed in the pockets of the Post boy and handed out by instalments till the pockets were empty!

Bankers and merchants who are in the habit of entrusting important documents and money to this miserable conveyance ought no longer to put up with this state of affairs. The Government should be remonstrated with once a week until attention is paid to their complaints. It was not so very long ago that the post boy completely lost one of the mail bags after going back some twenty miles, the bag was found lying in the middle of the road where it has been carelessly dropped and left unnoticed. Such things known to the community make them afraid to entrust letters to such as charge.

Market Square and Castle Hill circa 1860 painted by Mrs J Clark. The free-standing house was the original dedicated Post Office

 So many letters have been written to the Postmaster-General and answered with the greatest politeness and attention that it is of little use writing any more, they produce no good effects and there is almost a weekly cause for complaint. There is nothing that marks a people’s civilisation as the speed and safety of their internal communications.

 The rude conveyance and the broken-down nags that are used to convey the mails would be a subject of laughter were it not so very inconvenient and at the same time cruelty to animals. If the Postmaster-General employs such a set of wretched brutes, there would be a good case against him in the Martin’s case. He might plead that he does not hurry the horses for they have been known to take six or seven hours between Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, but this is not satisfactory to the public who expects more efficient management in his department.

 The glorious uncertainty of the Post Office beats that of the law and the public have to take their letters at any time [that] the post may arrive without even knowing why the delay has taken place and scarcely hoping that things will ever be better. Our neighbours, the Kaffirs, beat us hollow in the rapidity of conveying news, and we do not think [that] they have a postmaster with a numerous train of assistants. Our two post a week are, at present, two sources of extreme annoyance.”

What this is indicative of is the reliance that the community had placed on the postal services. For this, they wanted to be assured that their documents would be transported efficiently and delivered timeously. One of the drivers of this need was the surge in business dealings within the Colony. No longer was the preponderance of farmers operating at a subsistence level. Especially in the Eastern Cape, the export of agricultural outputs such as wool was coming to the fore, hence requiring a reliable mail service.

Post Office visible to the right of the Town Hall

But worse was to come. The climax of this train of errors arose just several weeks after this scathing report in the Eastern Province Herald when the post horses collapsed from sheer exhaustion and old age culminating in the post due in the Bay on the Sunday from the Cape, only arriving fourteen days later. This was not an isolated incident as shortly afterwards a similar incident occurred with the mail from Grahamstown.

These issues were to resolve themselves when the Postmaster-General retired from service in 1851. On 10th February 1852, he was replaced by a Mr le Sueur who soon effected great improvements throughout the Postal Services.

Mrs Biggar would also retire at the age of 70 on the 31st August 1852. She relocated to Grahamstown where she died on the 8th February 1855 having outlived her husband, Alexander. Indicative of her character, is this comment, “highly esteemed, her name was a household name here. She stood to the rising generation as mother and grandmother for whom a general affection was felt.”

Introduction of stamps

Even greater changes were in the offing. These arose when postage stamps were introduced on 1st September 1853. These were in two denominations: one penny red for newspaper postage and four penny blue, the half an ounce letter rate. These postage stamps, triangular in shape, were designed by the Surveyor-General, Charles Bell. They were printed by the British Government contractors, Perkins Bacon and Co.

Cape Colony one penny red stamp

The penny stamp was used for postages on newspapers and fourpence for letters of half an ounce in weight. These stamps could only be used for postage within the Colony. Mail posted outside the Cape Colony were either paid in advance or on delivery. It was only on the 11th February 1858 that the sixpenny triangular in lilac and the one shilling green Cape stamps were made available to the public.

New Postmaster

During 1853 W.C. Hutchons assumed the role as Postmaster. It was he who had to initiate the residents into the use of the new-fangled postage stamps. Undoubtedly it stymied and perplexed the older generation but was probably easily accepted by the younger generation.

Mr Hutchon’s tenure as postmaster was not lengthy for on the 3rd April 1854, Nathaniel Randall would be appointed as Postmaster, taking over this post. Interestingly the outcry over the meagre salary awarded to the occupant must have born fruit as he was appointed at a salary more than double what his predecessors had earned; the princely sum of £100 per annum. Even his assistant, to which he was now entitled earned more than Mrs Biggar. Mr Edward H. Shepherd earned £50. After numerous complaints regarding the low salaries, the Postmaster’s salary was raised first to £150 and then later to £200. Mr Shepherd was not quite as lucky as the Colonial authorities refused him an increment.

Four penny blue

In spite of Shepherd earning £10 per annum more than Mary Bigger who would have been his superior if she had not retired, feeling still ran strong for him being underpaid. This situation drove a philanthropist to draft a strong letter to the E.P. Herald:

The Postmaster’s salary has been raised from £150 to £200 by our Parliament. The indefatigable clerk of our local Post Office gets doled out to him by our liberal government, the handsome sum of £50 per annum – not even 20/- a week. He has a wife and several children and works from 7 a.m. till a late hour at night.


Such protests probably did have an impact as his Shepherd’s salary was raised to £108 per annum. On the 3rd April 1854, Randall relocated the Post Office into his Main Street property which was later to be George’s Hotel.

Mr Cook succeeded Randall in 1857 but died after little more than a year in the position. In his stead, Mr Alexander Wilmot was appointed but in a temporary capacity. The reason for this surreal decision became clear when shortly thereafter it was announced that a Mr Watson of the General Post Office in Cape Town would arrive shortly in Port Elizabeth to assume responsibility for the Post Office. The Cape Argus provided the ostensible reason for this action, which was so that “Mr Watson of the G.P.O. is to go to Port Elizabeth [in order] to put the affairs of that Office in better course than they are at present.”

In an immediate retaliation, the E.P. Herald opined that “The statement made by our contemporary in Cape Town is calculated to give a very erroneous impression that the affairs of the Port Elizabeth Post Office are very much mismanaged.

The simple fact is that the affairs of this Post Office were certainly never better managed than they are now. Since the death of our late Postmaster, Mr. Cook, the duties of the office have been ably performed by Mr. A. Wilmot, clerk to the Civil Commissioner, and the service has in no respect suffered any injury whatever under his superintendence. The greatest attention has been paid to business – regularity, civility, and despatch have characterised all his arrangements and we can confidently state that not a single complaint has been substantiated against the Post Office during his acting regime.

Had Mr. Wilmot been appointed, we think [that] it would have given general satisfaction but we understand [that] Mr Wilmot declined the appointment unless at a higher salary than that formerly attached to the office. We know nothing of Mr. Wilmot personally; we write of him merely as a public official, and while we never flinch from censuring where we think [that] censure is required, we cannot tamely sit by and see a slur cast upon the official character of a public servant whose zeal and ability in the discharge of extra duties devolving upon him deserves all praise.”

In an ironic twist of fate, Mr Watson, who must have either accepted the proffered salary or been offered a higher one, died whilst in the process of departing for his new post in Port Elizabeth. Both of Mr Watson’s actions – declining the appointment due to the salary level and by dying – forced the Governor into two actions viz to appoint Mr Wilmot in a permanent capacity and to increase the salary offered from £200 to £245 per annum. In addition, he was offered a housing allowance and commission on the sale of stamps. Even the salary of his assistant, Mr Shepherd was increased. It was raised to £138. The citizens of P.E. and Mr. Wilmot in particular, had enjoyed the last laugh.

The Post Office at the foot of Castle Hill might as adequately served the population of Port Elizabeth in days when Mrs Biggar was Postmistress, but the burgeoning town required larger premises. In addition to the Postmaster, Mr Wilmot, and his assistant, Mr Shepherd, the Post Office now employed two additional members of staff: a sorter, Tom O’Brien, at £39 per annum and Mr McDonnell as letter-carrier, or postman, at £18 per annum.

The Phoenix Hotel’s left side was in line with the front of the City Hall. The Payne Bros shop was previously the Post Office.

The eventual site chosen was the house of the harbour engineer, Woodifield, on the other side of Market Square, in North Union Street. It was located adjacent to the Phoenix Hotel, opposite the Town Hall. The increased volumes necessitated some adjustments such as work flow. As a start, the counters were for the first time arranged into two streams: one for receipts and another for despatches. It was even suggested that a flag staff be erected in a prominent position. The purpose was to indicate that mail have been received by raising the flag.




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