Saturday, December 6, 2008

Recollections of Early Days at the Avondale Post Office

This was written by the late George Baird, a very dear friend and member of the Avondale-Waterview Historical Society who died earlier this year. I still miss him and his charming, welcoming smile. His widow gave me permission today to publish the following online. Second part is here.

Thank you very much, George. The photos are from his collection. Right is the man himself, on telegram duty, Avondale Racecourse on a Race Day.

I commenced work at the Avondale Post Office on 16 December 1936 as a messenger.

The Office was then situated in the old Hotel building on the corner of Great North Road and Wingate Street and occupied the whole of the ground floor. The Postmaster previously resided upstairs on the 1st floor, but at that time had a separate residence half a mile back along the Great North Road so the rooms upstairs were vacant.

A messenger wore a grey uniform and his mailroom duties consisted of receiving inward mail and making it available to the Postman for sorting and making up outward mail consisting of letters, registered articles, packets and parcels and dispatching them mainly by train but sometimes by tram to the C.P.O. in Auckland. Other duties consisted of assisting the messageboy in the delivery of telegrams which were numerous in those days, especially on race days, and relieving Postmen who may be on leave for whatever reason. In other words the Messenger was a “general dogsbody”. There was no such thing as domestic assistant in those days so the messageboy and messenger did all the sweeping, mopping of the office, back rooms, mailroom and toilets.

But no that was not all: there were those vacant rooms upstairs which periodically had to be swept and kept free of cobwebs. It was when sweeping upstairs we discovered a lose floorboard which when removed gave a wide clear view of the mailroom directly above the Postmen’s sorting cases. Is this where the P.M. previously used to keep an eye on his early morning sorting staff?

At the time I started work at Avondale the Postmaster was Mr. J. G. McGregor and his first assistant was George Shirley. Jim Doherty was a cadet counter staff and telegraphist. Head Postman was George Button and additional Postman over a period of time were Jack Dewar, Don Kerwan, Charles Butler, Eric Turner, Norman Rutherford and later Douglas Smith. Messageboys were Jack Holmes, Jim Mitchel and Warwick Brothers. However the total staff at that time was nine.

Above: The Post Office in the Old Hotel.
Left to Right: Jack Holmes (Message Boy, Charles Butler & Eric Turner (Postmen), George Button (Hed Postman, Acting Telegraphist), Jim Doherty (Telegraphist), J G McGregor (Postmaster), Bill Mitchell (Messageboy), Norm Rutherford (Postman).

Mail was delivered by Postmen twice a day with about nine tenths of the district receiving the second delivery in the afternoon. There were four postal “walks” basically known as Rosebank, Waterview, New Windsor and Avondale South. Of course it was all delivered on bicycle and some of those roads were unsealed and without footpaths.

There was still a clear class distinction between Clerical and Postal staff in the eyes of out Postmaster of the time. One way this was reflected was in the Christmas leave rosters. Some postal staff relieved in the office while office staff took their leave first and then the postal staff came into consideration with the messageboys coming last. If one complained the stick reply was that leave was a privilege which you should be pleased to be granted if and when possible!

Mail closing times coincided with Railway running timetables to give sufficient time to date stamp all letters and parcels, record any registered mail, make up a waybill, seal the bag or bags and get them up to the Avondale railway station and into the guard’s van of the passenger train from Henderson to the City. Those trains used to run on time and the slightest delay in getting a mail closing underway meant desperate efforts between the Post Office and the Railway Station for the person responsible. A mailbag across the handlebars of the pushbike and hell-for-leather up Crayford Street and across the railway tracks with the train under full throttle over the St Judes crossing was no piece-of-cake. The ignominy of missing the train and having to come back to ask the Postmaster to telegraph a special memo to the Auckland mailroom informing them which tram to meet was daunting and humiliating.

In time, in 1938, a new purpose-built Post Office was opened on the corner of Great North Road and Rosebank Road. The Postmaster was very proud of his new office with walk-in strongroom and a combination lock which gave him untold trouble to open at times. There was central heating from a coal-fired boiler, spacious mailroom and counter space and very adequate public area. We also now had a handcart to pull up the Rosebank Road hill to the railway station with the mail onboard.

Jim Doherty transferred elsewhere and additional telegraphists and counter staff in Les Lyons and Corban Ward joined the staff. I eventually had my designation changed to Postman.

Soon after the outbreak of war in September 1939, for reasons of economy the office was closed from 12 noon to 1 pm each day. Business was increasing and staffing becoming more difficult due to the demands of the armed forces. Female staff were beginning to be employed. At Avondale Rhoda Nesbit became the first Postwoman and later 2 sisters Pam and Jane Silver if my memory serves me correctly were employed on telegram delivery and counter work.

And then it was my turn to depart and join the Army for service overseas. I did return to the Avondale office in late 1945 and resumed in my old capacity as a Postman. However I soon transferred to the Engineering Branch for the remainder of my 40 years service.

At the time I left the Avondale Office the Postmaster was Mr. W C Main.

Additional notes:

From the days when the P.O. was in the Hotel building.

The Postmen wore blue uniforms, the messengers wore grey.
The door was right on the corner of the building, leading into the small office, public counter, ledgers etc.

The counter was very stable. One day a bloke rode into the P.O. door on a motorbike by accident, and just bounced off the counter. George Shirley was behind the counter at the time.

The Postmaster’s room was off the main entry in one direction. There was a side dor and passage linking straight through to a dor on Wingate Street.

The mailroom may have been the hotel’s dining room. In the centre were the sorting benches/racks – postmen stood on each side sorting letters. In the ceiling above was a decorated ceiling with round filigree work carved in wood. The loose floorboards in the upstairs bedrooms allowed for anyone to look straight through the ceiling decoration to the sorting racks below.

Postmaster McGregor was old fashioned, used to rule in his own manner, and didn’t get on with his staff. The Postmaster in those days ruled the “sub office” as his own little kingdom. The day he retired he walked through the office, handing his keys to George Shirley, and no one said good night to him. The new Postmaster WC Main was much younger, but still had the same attitude towards staff. He got a few nicknames because of his name.

McGregor used to set traps for people. There was a little canvas bag on the sorting counter to put in any lose stamps that had fallen off letters or parcels. One time he “planted” a trap for the message boy who was sweeping the floor after the postmen had gone out. The Postmaster came out, and asked him if he’d found any stamps. The boy pulled a stamp out of his fob pocket, produced it, and was accused of stealing it, and had the strips torn off him. He received a written notification from the Postmaster – “please explain” in writing. If you had more than 1 for the month, totalled up, might get fined 2/6 after being reported to the Chief Postmaster in Auckland.

The mail made up to go to town had to have a docket to go with it, description of any registered letters. George Baird forgot to include it one time and was fined. The mailbag was also sealed with a lead seal before delivery to the station.

The guard’s van on the train was on the front. One time George decided to sling the bag to get it on the train. He saw a gentleman in a wheelchair in the guard’s van – the bag landed in his lap. People in wheelchairs travelled in the guards van in those days.

George as postman/messenger also relieved the telegram messageboy in his lunch hour. The Telegraphist worked through to 6 pm. The Post Office closed at 5 pm, but the message boy and telegraphist stayed on until 6 pm, until the head office in town “released you”. Might have to wait for a telegram until after 6 pm sometimes. Might have to do delivery, on push bike, as far as White Swan Road in the evening.

Postmen and messengers alternated duties. Early duty possibly 8.30 am. Early/late duty alternated. The Senior telegraphist would relieve the Postmaster. Order of precedence: messageboy – messenger – postman/messenger – postman – mail sorter – supervisor. In smaller offices, postal staff relieved in the clerical office.

Telegraphists had multiple duties – served as counter clerk. Later on, when the office got bigger, the telegraphist acted as clerk. The Supervisor was the telegraphist as well as counter clerk, and was relief for the Postmaster.

George was 18 when he joined the Post Office. Just out of the Great Depression. PO was just starting to take on staff again. During the Depression men in their 20s were still just message boys, delivering telegrams. There was a vacancy for Postman at Avondale when George was 21. He was rated as a postman, but still worked as a postman/messenger. This was embarrassing for him, aged 21.

He had a good rapport with the customers who were inclined to offer him cups of tea. He had to resist that as the Postmaster would check you in. The last one in got a verbal rap for taking so long.

George wasn’t too fast at sorting. One man tried to help him out, but was shoed away by the Postmaster.

Afternoon delivery was shortened one – not to Avondale South, Rosebank etc.

George Button was senior postman. Had small delivery in the “Village” business centre. Lived up in Roberton Road, went home 20 minutes for lunch. Had to be back by 12 when the office shut. Had to answer the phone, manual exchange, dust Postmaster’s room and table. Postmaster would not allow him to ride his bike – he had to walk. When the Postmaster came back from his lunch, he came in, checked the dust, and said to Button, “You haven’t dusted the table.” “Haven’t had time,” was the reply. Postmaster would then go to the exchange and pick up the toll cards and count them. Button was a WWI veteran.

Warwick Rogers delivered telegrams. The Postmaster wanted full explanations as to why a delivery to Exler’s potteries took so long. “Couldn’t find Mr Exler, that’s why it took so long, the property is extensive.”
The Postmaster went up in a private car to see Exler. Rogers had already pre-warned Exler by phone. Rogers killed overseas in the airforce.

The Avondale South delivery was a very long one. Whitney St was a clay track. The delivery would go up Ridge Road, Halsey Drive (a metal cart road then), then Donovan St to Blockhouse Bay, then out to the other side (Taunton Tce, Heaphy St). Came back down Taylor St, Puketea, Matai, to bolttom. The delivery finished down there. It had the least mail – long spaces between customers.

The Waterview run carried a lot of mail. It included Avondale Heights and Roberton. The sorter for that had the most mail.

Used to have to maintain own bikes. A bike mechanic in Newmarket workshops – periodic repairs, replacement bikes. On the whole you maintained your bike. Changes of tyres, chain, pedals etc. Parts came from Newmarket – any spares available.

Ready for the Road.
George Baird, Charles Biutler (Postmen), George Button (Head Postman), Douglas Smith (Postman). At rear: An unknown messageboy, and George Shirley (Supervisor).

1 comment:

  1. Charles Butler was my Grandfather, his daughter Elva remembers living at 28 Chalmers St where Charlie converted the sunporch into her bedroom. A neighbour Mrs Adolph appreciated Elva's assistance as a child, accompanying her into town on the tram or train with her twin boys. Elva would place pennies or ha'pennies on the railway track & retrieve them after the train had flattened them. Elva remembers the names of George Baird and also George Button. Family camping holidays were spent at Cornwallis. Initially camping in a tent but in later years a fellow postman who had a batch there would let Charlie & his family stay. Charlie would fish from the wharf & if the household ducks were laying they were brought on holiday as well, enduring the journey on a trailer to have accommodation within the boundaries of a temporary wire netting coup. Elva's brothers Des & Keith acquired a secret dog, which was secreted beneath the house when Charlie was home. The dog developed an interest in a gentleman that rode a horse up and down Chalmers St daily & eventually the dog found a new home with the horseman. Charlie's wife Evelyn maintained a substantial vegetable garden & after checking no one was looking would surreptitiously retrieve horse manure from the road as fertiliser. Evelyn would also swap her sugar rations issued during WWII for tea coupons. During WWII air raid bombing exercises, Elva would run as fast as possible home from Avondale Primary School within the time allocated lest she had to endure the 'horror' that was the school underground shelter. Charlie moved to Seabrook Ave, New Lynn & eventually secured a batch at Kawakawa Bay. He passed away in 1988 at the age of 80 years.