Mr Postie, it's cold outside!

Handwritten letter on 'Australian Letter Carriers' Association' letterhead, dated 19 August 1916
Secretary of the Australian Letter Carriers' Association, WJ Penery, raises the issue of the coats, 16 August 1916. (NAA: D959, IA1916/3203)

Over the last two hundred years, posties have resolutely delivered the mail, come rain, hail or shine, all over Australia.

As battles raged on the Western Front in August 1916, South Australia’s posties struggled to deliver word from absent loved ones through the wettest winter on record.

And they did this in coats with ‘neither sleeves nor pockets’, as Mr WJ Penery, Secretary of the South Australian Branch of the Australian Letter Carriers’ Association complained to the Postmaster-General's Department.

Two letter carriers returned their uniforms in protest, and the Association passed a resolution directing members not to wear the sleeveless and pocketless coats at all.

In telling the department of the Association’s resolution, Mr Penery wrote that the uniforms were ‘not as serviceable as the coats issued the previous year’, and politely asked whether ‘slight alterations could be made’.

Consulting with the Superintendent of Mails, the Controller of Stores and the Chief Clerk, the Deputy Postmaster-General responded to the Association’s concerns, saying that the absence of sleeves and pockets was ‘not a serious deficiency’ (since the coats also had a cape).

There was no ‘standard Overcoat for the Commonwealth’, and the South Australians had been supplied with a new design based on that used in Victoria. It was said to be the best that could be supplied under the present wartime conditions.

For their troubles, the Letter Carriers’ Association received a stern rap over the knuckles from the department, the Deputy Postmaster-General informing Mr Penery that similar coats had given the postmen of Victoria much satisfaction. Even some South Australians had said they preferred to go sleeveless!

But perhaps most vexing for the department, was the Association’s ‘irregular’ course of action. The Deputy Postmaster-General requested that in the future Mr Penery should first communicate with him ‘before following such a course as that taken in this instance’.

Postal services in Australia

Handwritten letter on 'Australian Letter Carriers' Association' letterhead, dated 13 January 1917
WJ Penery writes again to the Postmaster-General's Department, 17 January 1917. (NAA: D959, IA1916/3203)

2009 marks the bicentenary of the appointment in April 1809 of Isaac Nichols (1770–1819) as first Australian postmaster, in the colony of New South Wales. On 26 June he boarded the brig Experiment to receive his first mail delivery from Britain.

The first post offices opened in Sydney and Hobart in 1809 and from 1844 every town had its own letter box. In 1838 an overland postal service was introduced between Sydney and Melbourne. Federation saw postal services centralised under the Postmaster-General's Department, a role assumed by Australia Post in 1975.

The Australian Letter Carriers’ Association represented posties from 1912 to 1924. Today postal workers are covered by the Communications Electrical Plumbing Union (CEPU).

Post Office records held by the National Archives

The National Archives has an extensive collection of plans, photographs and other documents relating to postal services in Australia. You can find out more in Fact Sheet 50 or browse the records below.

Selected records relating to Australia's postal history

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017