National Archives of Australia

Issue 10 April 2013

Return to sender? Not if the postie could help it

The National Archives holds a vast collection of post office records that date back to colonial times. Elizabeth Masters reveals the heroic efforts of Victoria’s postal service in delivering the mail, and uncovers creatively addressed envelopes, romantic entanglements and letters sent from disaster zones.

Postal staff in late 19th-century Victoria were justly proud of their investigative skills. They recorded their delivery successes in a file of ‘curiosities’ from 1880 to 1928 that included, among other items, poorly addressed envelopes that required a bit of detective work to deliver.

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Postman (or ‘letter carrier’), circa 1905. NAA: C4078, N4038

‘Some street in Melbourne’

Sometimes, correspondents seemed to deliberately minimise the chances of their letters being delivered. Some envelopes, for example, were adorned only with images that depicted both the address and addressee. But, in many cases, postal staff proudly deciphered the intended destination and delivered the letter safely. One envelope was addressed only in semaphore flags. However, in this case the file does not indicate whether the posties managed to crack the code and deliver the contents.

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Envelope with intended address in semaphore flags. NAA: MP311/103, Whole series

Some writers realised the only address they could provide seemed inadequate and therefore wrote directly to the postmaster, asking him to track down the intended recipient. One provided the helpful information that Miss Graham was ‘staying with some friends’ whose house was ‘about twenty minutes walk from the corner of Spring and Flinders streets’. The talented postal boys managed to deliver it successfully, as they did with letters addressed to ‘Uncle Pete, Ararat’ and ‘Mr Charles Glass, Australia’.

Another letter to the Melbourne postmaster in 1904 asked that he ‘kindly forward this letter to Mrs L. Creedon’. The writer continued, ‘I don’t know the address but do know she lives on some street in Melbourne’. A note on the file confirmed the letter was delivered safely to Mrs Creedon in Carlton. It was from a sister she had not seen or heard from for 40 years. The file note added that Mrs Creedon was the mother of Dan Creedon, ‘the well known pugilist’.

The postmaster also received letters praising his delivery staff. Melbourne solicitors Lynch & McDonald wrote in 1894: ‘We beg to acknowledge with thanks the courteous delivery by the hand of one of your clerks of a letter from a client of ours in Beechworth’. Apparently, the solicitors explained, ‘the address was correct in every particular but the most important of all. Our correspondent had written Edinburgh instead of Melbourne.’

In 1897, one satisfied customer sent the postal service an envelope he had safely received from Marseille with what appears to be an indecipherable address, ‘just to show you what an intelligent letter carrier we have here in Brunswick’. The writer suggested that he felt confident even letters addressed in Greek or Hebrew would arrive safely ‘while you have such smart men in your service’.

The form of parcel also caused amusement in some cases, such as when a whole coconut arrived by post, with the address carefully inscribed on the outer husk.

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A creatively addressed envelope from the postal curiosities file, 1895. NAA: MP311/103, Whole series

The dead letter office

But not all mail reached the intended recipients, with some items portraying the complexity of human relationships. One parcel ended up in the dead letter office in 1893 containing an item of clothing and a note that read, in part:

I should be only too happy to marry you but I would like to assure myself … that my wife would be a good and careful housekeeper and handy with her needle. For this purpose I am sending herewith an article that needs a little repairing and if you would be good enough to do the best you can with it and send it back to me I shall be most happy to give your proposal further consideration.

The lady in question was canny enough to leave the parcel unclaimed.

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A request to a potential wife to repair an item of clothing sent in a parcel, which was consigned to the dead letter office in 1893. NAA: MP311/103, Whole series

Another letter on the file reads: ‘Dear Sir, I am requested by Miss B.M. to return to you the contents of this packet, she having given you up for another, (signed) The Other’. An official note attached to this letter, dated 1895, is enlightening: ‘The above memo was found in a dead packet in the D.L.O [Dead Letter Office] containing a brooch… The present was such a “tin pot” one you could readily understand the girl throwing the “donor” over for “any other”.’

Some letters were plain puzzling. One read: ‘I dropped a letter addressed to Mrs T. Finn into this box in mistake without looking. Kindly oblige by putting it in its proper place and I will be ever thankful.’ It was signed by Thomas Finn. We can only guess what marital disharmony might have resulted from the mistake.

Very trying circumstances

The file also shines a light on historical events. On 24 April 1906, just six days after the San Francisco earthquake, a ‘Bulletin of Verification’ from the Post Office of the United States advised on errors and irregularities of mail sent to the area in the wake of the disaster. The faint handwriting indicates they think they had accounted for mails transferred from SS Sonoma and ends, ‘we have had an awful experience and are doing the best we can under very trying circumstances’.

A handwritten letter attached to the San Francisco bulletin was dated 20 September 1906. It begins:

Dear Brother, No doubt you have heard of our disaster. We are burnt out of house and home. But thank God we are all safe and well. We had a terrible earthquake. We are living in a park for we have no home. The whole of the business part of the city is burnt or shaken to the ground.

It is signed ‘your affectionate Brother John’.

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‘Tell Dallis I forgive him’: an intriguing and colourful letter kept for posterity by Victorian postal staff. NAA: MP311/103, Whole series

The Archives’ collection of post office records across Australia contains many more treasures, thanks to the efforts of the posties in not only delivering the mail, but recording the quirks, quarrels and tragedies of everyday life.

Want more?

View the postal ‘curiosities’ file

Fact sheet 50 – Post Office records

Mr Postie: it’s cold outside! Find of the month, June 2009

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