SURVIVORS OF TIME North Beach’s glory is long past but some remnants of the Indo-Saracenic architecture in this area of George Town reflect an old-world aura.
North Beach’s glory is long past but some remnants of the Indo-Saracenic architecture in this area of George Town reflect an old-world aura. One such is the General Post Office (GPO), the oldest in the city, with its thick blue painted stone columns, wooden stairways, wooden ceilings and stained-glass arched windows.
In 1712, Governor Harrison began a Company Postal Service in Madras in order to carry mails to Bengal by dak-runner (foot runners who carried mail).
After a couple of decades, a postal system of sorts came into place. But it was only on the suggestions of John P. Burlton and Thomas Lewin that postal rules were laid down and a network of post-offices drawn up. Until then, the staff of the East India Company, who lived in Fort St. George, sent letters free of cost, at the expense of the Government.
In a letter that Burlton sent to the Government, he said, “The proposal which I some time delivered to Lord Macartney which I now have the honour to send to you is to establish a regular Tapall (mail), upon a plan similar to that at Bengal which will exclude the company’s servants from the privilege of receiving their letters free of postage.”
He also gave a sketch of regulations for the General Post Office which included that at different out settlements, the secretary to the chief and council of the place is to act as Postmaster, and in different garrisons, the paymaster or commandant. It also states that all arrangements are to be made by the Postmaster General and all accounts are to be sent to him.
Thomas Lewin, on the other hand, suggested that the Tappies be divided into three divisions; the first covering Madras to Ganjam, the second from Madras to Anjengo and the third from Madras to Vellore.
The government replied, “Having taken into consideration the establishing of a regular P.O. we directed our accountant to prepare a statement of monthly charges of the ‘Tappies’ (Tapal) in Carnatic and Nothern Circars.”
Therefore, on June 1, 1786, the Madras Post Office, with fixed postal rates, opened for business just outside the Sea Gate, in Fort St. George Square. A.M. Campbell was its first Postmaster General. It moved into the Fort, near the North Gate in 1837 and then to Garden House in Broadway in 1856, a year after the city’s first letter box came into existence in Moubray’s Road. It moved to its present office, where Avercrombie Battery had earlier been, in 1884. This building was designed by British architect Robert Chisholm, who gave it its famous ‘Kerala’ caps.
The GPO was served by one writer (clerk), five sorters, a head peon and ten postmen. It expanded its services when it opened up more centres in Vepery (Hunter’s Road) and Royapettah (Westcott Road) around 1834. By 1845, four more offices were opened — Mount Road, Triplicane and two in Black Town.
This building is 352 feet long, 162 feet broad and has 125-foot towers with a high-ceilinged central hall. The ground floor was meant for stores, kitchen while the first floor had the offices.
The Presidency Postmaster stayed on the second floor of the same building.
As the Railways grew, so did the postal services and by 1874, the city had nine post offices. Telegraph came to Madras in 1853 but was available only from 1855 when the postal service reached 41 offices covering 3,000 miles.
Recently, the roof of the 128-year-old building collapsed due to the monsoons and renovation work is underway.