General Post Office

Location: 1 Martin Place, Sydney
1864-1887 - General Post Office, Martin Place, Sydney Opened in 1874, it replaced an earlier building on the same site that the postal service had occupied since 1830. At the opening of the first stage, the GPO was described by the Postmaster General as a building that will not be surpassed by any other similar structure in the southern hemisphere . Built on a grand scale and at huge expense, it dominated the streetscape and skyline for decades and symbolised the prosperity Australia was enjoying in the wake of the gold rush and the economic boom it had fostered. For Sydneysiders, it symbolised their city in the same way that the Houses of Parliament symbolise London and the Eiffel Tower, Paris, and remained its most well known landmark until the Sydney Harbour Bridge (1932) and the Sydney Opera House (1971) stole the limelight. When its tower was completed in the 1870s it became Sydney's tallest structure (73 metres) and remained so until 1939 when the AWA Tower, at 111 metres, took over the honour. The Martin Place section was constructed between 1866 and 1874, the Pitt Street section being added between 1881 and 1885. Controversial relief figures in the stonework were created by Tomaso Sani, and were intended to represent Australians.

The keystone block for the main arch in George Street, hewn from the Paradise Quarry on the Pyrmont peninsula by master quarryman, Charles Saunders, was the largeest single lump of sandstone ever removed from the Pyrmont quarries. It weighed more than 25 tonnes and was delivered on a specially constructed wagon pulled by 26 Clydesdale horses in 1868. When the foundation stone was brought to the site, HRH the Prince of Wales, son of Queen Victoria, who was in Sydney on a goodwill visit, laid the stone.

The General Post Office was inspired by the Palazzi Communali of late Medieval and Renaissance Italy. It is the finest example of the Victorian Italian Renaissance style in NSW. The grandeur of the building befits the importance of Sydney's central post office in the communication network of New South Wales. The GPO is constructed of Pyrmont stone and consists of a basement, ground floor, mezzanine, first, second and third floors. The ground floor is dominated by an open arcade which runs around the three street facades and which is covered with domical vaulting. This arcade is supported on polished grey monolith columns from Moruya on rougher, quite massive bases, and surmounted by carved capitals of the same materials.

The main facade facing Martin Place is quite symmetrical with nine bays to each section of the arcading with end pavilions, and a massive central block surmounted by a fine clock and bell tower rising to 73 metres. The first George Street clock, with Roman numerals in the centre indicating the hour was not liked because its single face could not be seen along George Street. By 1880 the clock was replaced by the present projecting clock with its three faces.

In August 1879 Barnet submitted plans for the extension of the post office to Pitt Street. Tenders were called and in 1880 laying of the foundations began. The finishing stone to the tower was laid in 1885 and the colonade along the northern side of the post office was opened to the public in May 1887. The tower clock was not completed until 16 September 1891. During construction of the Pitt Street wing further expansion became necessary. The Post Office Cafe, south of the GPO along George Street, was resumed in 1883 to house the Railway Parcel and Ticket Office. In February 1896 the decision was made to extend the GPO onto this site. W.L.Vernon, NSW Government Architect submitted plans in September and work was begun in 1897.

A decision to add a fifth storey, beginning with a mansard addition at the Pitt Street end of the building was also made in 1897. This was completed in 1899 and a similar mansard was begun over the George Street wing. Between 1900 and 1905 both Mansards were linked to the tower and the storey was completed. In 1900 an alternative entrance for mail carts was built from Chisolm Place (now Ash Street) under Martin Place to the basement of the GPO. The 1927 building is a seven storey Beaux Arts Classical style rendered, brick clad, steel framed structure. The 1942 building is a nine storey Moderne style, concrete encased, steel frame building clad in granite and terra cotta tiles.

With constant extensions and renovations the GPO building functioned as the centre of the New South Wales postal system until 1996.

Aspects of the General Post Office building today that are of historical interest:

Prime Restaurant: Original Dock Master's office
Coach Bar: Original Horse Stable
Crystal Bar: Original Mall Sorting Room
GPO Cheese & Wine Room: Storage Area
Subterranean Bar & Grill: Original Horse and Cart unloading area
Tank Stream: Preserved original exposed pipes

The Clock Tower
The GPO building has 73 metre high clock tower. The Postmaster General's Department opened the tower's small viewing platform above Martin Place from 2-4pm most days back in early 20th century. The spiral stairs took you to a height of 60 metres above street level. The clock tower was removed in 1942 to reduce the visibility of the GPO in the event of an air attack on Sydney. It was rebuilt in 1964 but the viewing platform was never re-opened to the public.

The GPO's Controversial Carvings

Sydneysiders today walk past the many intricate carvings on our precious old buildings without so much as giving them a second look. Such was not the case when these buildings were being erected. There was a great degree of civic pride shown by the residents towards the city that was being created around them and the inclusion of contemporary figures on the Pitt Street section of the General Post Office building invoked a similar community revolt as did the addition of the "Toaster" into the panorama of Circular Quay East in the 1990s.

Government Architect James Barnet and Italian sculptor Signor Sani raised the ire of the populace by creating a series of sculptures above the Pitt Street archways of the GPO building which depicted contemporary people at work. These included a fishmonger, a sailor, a postman delivering a letter to a barmaid, a printer and an architect (who looked remarkably like Barnet himself!).

Their naturalistic style and their semi-comical references to real people were considered most inappropriate for the permanent medium of architectural carving. For instance, the postman appears to be a portrait of the post-master general, Francis Wright, delivering a letter to a servant girl who is flirting with him. The architect of the building was also there, Barnet being depicted as a Michelangelsque God still dreaming of his combined museum, gallery and library building (in the background). Archibald Liversidge, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Sydney was included in the spandrel representing Sydney's professions  as 'the Professor'  along with Sir James Martin as 'the Judge'. They formed a pair with Commerce and Mining.

A large section of the community viewed these sculptures as sacrilegious and totally inappropriate for the adornment of such a classically designed building; the fact that the building also featured bas-reliefs of Commerce, Science, Literature and the Arts as well as a giant statue of Britannia resting on a lion had little bearing on their argument.

So vehement was the opposition to them, questions were asked in Parliament about these relief sculptures and a Select Committee was set up to decide whether they should be removed. The President of the English Royal Academy, Lord Leighton, a lifelong Classicist announced on seeing photographs of the controversial works: 'You have indeed an uphill fight where such things are possible'. Such a furore over modestly realistic representations in stone implies that the sculptures somehow posed a real threat to establishment values.

Like the buildings that housed them, scientific pursuits were moving away from exclusively British interests, from being the province of the governor or resident gentlemen of means or even from being allied with privileged institutions such as the Australian Museum and Sydney University. At the GPO the ordinary person was being publicly invited to view the various activities of the colony - including science - depicted in a style he or she could understand, although, as yet, no building allowing significant participation in such activities was being contemplated by 1883.

The issue was even debated in parliament. The controversy raged for eight years but the Government stood fast and refused to remove the sculptures. Today it is hard to see what all the fuss was about.

The George Street Facade Carvings
Among these allegorical and allusive carvings on the 1887 George Street facade is this representation which is part badge, part coat of arms. It can be seen as a turning point in the colony's symbolism. Carved on the eve of the 1888 Centennial celebrations, the illustration shows the badge of NSW on a shield with a crown as a crest, and emu and kangaroo supporters above a ribbon bearing the old motto 'Sic fortis Etruria crevit'. The motto - derived from a line in Virgil's Georgics (second book, line 533), where he describes a prosperous rural community: "Sic fortis Etruria crevit" (Thus mighty Etruria grew) - was used on the first Great Seal of New South Wales granted by George III in 1791, and on subsequent seals until 1839, when the motto was dropped from Queen Victoria's seal.

Etruria was the Roman name of the territory of the Etruscans, an area to the north of Rome corresponding more or less to modern Tuscany. In New South Wales, the name Etruria appears on the Sydney Cove medallion of 1789. Governor Phillip had sent clay from New South Wales to Sir Joseph Banks, who in turn sent it to Josiah Wedgwood to use in a medallion. The medallion depicted "Hope encouraging Art and Labour under the influence of Peace, to pursue the employments necessary to give security and happiness to an infant colony" and "commemorated the landing of the First Fleet in New South Wales in January 1788". Given that Virgil's Georgics were known and imitated in 18th century England, it seems at least possible that the name Etruria on the medallion is not only the name of the place of manufacture, but also an invocation of Etruria as a model for the infant colony , an example of an ancient pastoral land that was perhaps thought to be purer or less developed than Greece or Rome.

Whatever the idealisations or aspirations, Virgil's actual wording 'sic fortis Etruria crevit' appeared on the first Great Seal of New South Wales, which was approved by King George III in August 1790. It was dispatched to the new colony, where it was received in September 1791 and then used to produce wax impressions to authorise official documents. Virgil's words continued as the motto of the colony for some time. They can be found, for instance, on the first adhesive postage stamps issued in New South Wales in 1850.

The Heritage Council of New South Wales suggests that by the time the words appeared on the GPO building in 1888, it was a "long discarded convict motto", already yielding to the modern motto "orta recens quam pura nites". It is not clear that it was ever intended that New South Wales should be officially called Etruria, but the name was certainly put before the citizens of the colony in various ways, especially in Virgil s words. In the 1880s, the invocation of Etruria seems to have been abandoned, at least in New South Wales.

A more lasting allusion to Etruria in Australia is found in Hobart, in the motto of the city, 'sic fortis Hobartia crevit'. The city's website refers to Virgil's words that have been adapted in the motto and mentions their use in early New South Wales. So in Australia it is Hobart rather than New South Wales that continues to invoke - indirectly - ancient Etruria. But exactly how 18th and 19th century settlers in Australia conceived of Etruria and why they wanted to use the name are questions for further investigation and discussion.

New South Wales Heraldry
The GPO's George Street facade is one of very few representations that combine elements of the Royal Arms, the official badge of NSW and the unofficial Advance Australia Arms. It heralds Gullick's approach to designing the NSW Coat of Arms nearly 20 years later.

This device is remarkable in several ways. Firstly, the supporters are restrained by chains, emulating the similar restraining of the unicorn supporter of the Royal Arms, supposedly because the unicorn is such a dangerous beast. Neither the emu nor the kangaroo would seem to be as dangerous! However, the unicorn had come to the Royal Arms from the Scottish Arms in 1603, and its restraint had perhaps come to be associated with restraining the Scots: after all, the Scotch Martyrs were a well-known group of political prisoners in the early colony. Is there an allusion here to the uncertainties of NSW or Australian nationalism needing restraint?

A second point to note is the use of several blind, or blank, shields and motto ribbons behind the supporters. Blind shields are occasionally used to allow additional Arms to be added to a feature in the future, but they can also be an allusion to the future as such, implying that there remains history still to be enacted and written about, and to be added to 'history's page'.

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  • Statue of Queen Victoria above the main entrance in Martin Place

    The George Street clock was erected in 1880

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