Turtle Bunbury

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200 YEARS OF DUBLIN' GPO

Many things about the housekeeper at the General Post Office were remarkable. Take, for instance, her £100 annual salary, a four-room suite on the GPO’s second floor, a private office and a staff of twelve, comprising eight housemaids, two firefighters and two lamplighters. The fact that the married Mrs Draper was ‘comely as well as gay, and innocently endearing’ was not necessarily relevant. However, the fact that her suite was right next-door to the married Post Secretary’s bedroom was certainly cause for much musing. Indeed, rumours abounded that the ingenious housekeeper had broken a door through the wall from her apartment to his ‘in order to facilitate the communication interiorly’, as one contemporary put it.

The curious tale of Anne Draper and Sir Edward Lees, the Post Secretary, is amongst those explored in ‘‘The GPO - 200 Years of History”, a comprehensive no-stone-unturned history of the iconic Dublin building, written by Stephen Ferguson, Assistant Secretary of An Post. The book’s publication coincides with the GPO’s bicentenary; it is now 200 years since Lord Whitworth, the Viceroy of Ireland, laid the foundation stone of the new GPO on 12th August 1814. (A mere £60 was spent on official entertainment for the occasion).

1916 aside, the history of the GPO might not sound instantly riveting. However, Ferguson deftly guides the reader through the centuries, starting with the origin of the postal service itself when, of all people, Oliver Cromwell established it as a state monopoly in the 1650s.[i]

Dublin’s first GPO was built on High Street near Christchurch Cathedral in 1668 but it was destined to be a restless beast, moving four times over the next 70 years before fetching up on College Green, where the Abercrombie & Fitch shop now stands, during Dublin’s Golden Age of the 1780s and 1790s. [ii]

With the growth in trade, the building once again became ‘insufficient for the Purposes of the said Establishment’ and by 1807, the Viceroy was reviewing the options for a new GPO.[iii] Ultimately he chose to start afresh with a brand new GPO across the River Liffey on fashionable Sackville Street, as O’Connell Street was then known. [iv]

Step forward Francis Johnston, the most influential architect in Dublin since James Gandon. Born in County Armagh in 1760, Johnston descended from a Scottish builder who came to Ireland to repair buildings damaged in the wake of the 1641 rebellion. The family, including his father and brothers, had been closely involved with building or architecture ever since.

Brilliant, balding, kindly, unassuming and slightly melancholic, Johnston boasted an exceptionally strong portfolio of private commissions, both ecclesiastical and domestic, including St George’s Church on Dublin’s northside, the Chapel Royal at Dublin Castle and the conversion of Parliament House into the Bank of Ireland, as well as work on private houses such as Slane Castle and Charleville Forest.[v]

He was also very familiar with Sackville Street, having completed Nelson’s Pillar, the 134ft high Doric monument which stood on the street from 1808 until, as Ferguson says, its ‘untimely destruction’ in 1966.

It’s difficult to imagine today but O’Connell Street did not run directly down to the River Liffey in those days; the street terminated rather uncertainly around Henry Street. However, with the construction of the GPO – on a site hitherto occupied by an unremarkable and shoddily-built military barracks – Dublin’s town planners were now able to create a wonderful sweep that extended from the Rotunda past Nelson’s Pillar, all the way down O’Connell Street to the river, across Carlisle (now O’Connell) Bridge and up Westmoreland Street to Trinity College. The stretch was considered one of the finest of any 19th century European city.

It took just under four years from the laying of the first stone to complete the GPO and the builders included James Lever, father of the novelist Charles Lever. Built of Wicklow granite, with a portico of Portland stone, the building was 223 ft long, 150 ft deep and rose 50 ft to the top of the cornice. Completed at a cost of £80,000, the GPO opened for business on 6 January 1818.

Johnston, who had an extraordinary eye for detail and fine craftsmanship, considered the GPO his pièce de résistance. Again it’s hard to fully appreciate this because the entire building, aside from the façade, was destroyed during the Easter Rising. But next time you pass beneath the GPO’s portico, take a moment to look up and admire the detailed carving on the ceiling, the Greek fret design and the decorated scrolls at the top of each of the six Ionic columns. And keep watch for the two decorated cast-iron lamp bases, which are all that remain of Johnston’s original railing.

Or behold the rooftop and admire the three statues by John Smyth.[vi] In the centre, Hibernia stands proud with her harp. To her left is Fidelity, the cardinal virtue of any postal service, a trusty hound at her side; she holds a key, the ultimate symbol of trust. And on Hibernia’s left is Mercury, the winged messenger of the gods.

Johnston had been official architect and inspector of civil buildings to the Board of Works since 1806. It was certainly a lucrative position but he appears to have become rather depressed by the large-scale institutional assignments he was subsequently given, including the Richmond Penitentiary and the Armagh Lunatic Asylum. In 1819, he effectively retired from architectural work and he died a decade later. He lived a sensible, uncontroversial life, operating from his home on Eccles Street. Happily married but childless, he enjoyed badminton and gathered an art collection that included a Canaletto, a Murillo and a Rubens. His favourite items were shells and bells, both of which are to be found in many of his buildings.

For any whiff of tittle-tattle at the GPO, we must turn to the Lees family who held the all-powerful office of Post Office Secretary and utterly dominated the GPO for the first 15 years of its existence. Sir John Lees, the father, came from humble origins in Scotland but, through able administration and careful cultivation of political contacts, he rose through the Georgian hierarchy to become ‘first Baronet of Black Rock in the County Dublin’ in 1804. Much of the family wealth was in place by the time his charming, educated and rather devious 19-year-old son Edward joined him as Joint Secretary of the Irish Post Office in 1801. Together they controlled every aspect of the GPO and rewarded their friends with lucrative positions within the postal system.

It was on Sir Edward’s watch that the GPO was built so he presumably had some say in the location of his bedroom and that of Anne Draper, housekeeper, whose husband Stephen ran a ferry-boat service for the Post Office.[vii] As Ferguson says, ‘the precise relationship between Mrs Draper and Sir Edward remains a matter of quiet speculation but it must have been a close one.’ Eyebrows also waggled at claims that the expenditure on domestic management in the GPO exceeded the combined salaries of the 27 postal clerks who worked in the building.

At length, a disgruntled GPO clerk called Patrick O’Neill tried to blow the lid on Sir Edward’s monolopy, publishing a satirical pamphlet in 1831 that questioned his relationship with Mrs Draper and painted a picture of life at the GPO that, as Ferguson puts it, ‘contrasts sharply with the Victorian view of its staff as sober, pedestrian chaps for whom public service always outweighed private pleasure.’

A parliamentary enquiry ensued. There was strong criticism of GPO management and of the complete absence of a bookkeeping system but ultimately Sir Edward and his officials ‘emerged largely unruffled’. In order to close the chapter entirely, Lees deftly swopped positions with his opposite number in Edinburgh and lived out the rest of his days in Scotland. According to the Gentlemen’s Magazine of 1846, he ‘died in his sleep without a struggle’ at the age of 63.[viii]

The story of the GPO’s role in the Easter Rising is well-known. It was from here that Padraig Pearse read out the Proclamation of Independence prompting the British to send the gun-boat Helga up the Liffey to shell Johnston’s masterpiece nearly 100 years after its construction. Only the façade survived – unlike Johnston’s nearby Royal Hibernian Academy, which was entirely destroyed – but the building was restored during the early years of the Irish Free State and reopened for business in 1929. From 1928 until 1973, life in the GPO was much animated by the presence of Radio …ireann, which aired from studios on the third and fourth floors of the Henry Street wing.

The GPO continues to function as the headquarters of the Irish postal service to this day, and includes the An Post Museum, which offers an insight into the history of this giant at the heart of Dublin.

‘The GPO - 200 Years of History’ by Stephen Ferguson is published by Mercier Press.

[i] The Stuart Kings and leading nobles recruited mounted messengers, or ‘intelligencers’ to deliver mail within Ireland but nothing formal existed until the 1640s when Evan Vaughan, the postmaster in Dublin, established a staging system along the three main roads out of Dublin: south to Cork and Limerick, west to Galway and Sligo and north to Belfast and Londonderry. A decade later Cromwell set the postal service up as a state monopoly and it has remained a State institution to this day. Together with John Thurlo, the first Postmaster General, he understood that the Post Office system was a vital communication for the implementation of English policy in Ireland. The mail-coach also became an increasingly efficient means of travel with the advent of peace in the 18th century.

Post was a rich man’s luxury until the introduction of the Penny Post in 1773, although it was not until the 1840s that Rowland Hill’s successful campaign for standardised penny postage throughout Britain and Ireland made it properly universal. In Ireland, much credit is to be given to the novelist Anthony Trollope, who spent several years working for the Post Office, extending its rural network and introducing the invaluable pillar box.

By the late 19th century, Ferguson notes that the Post Office had ‘assumed a role as the principal, and generally benign, agent of government throughout the country.’ It also offered many other services - a Savings Bank from 1861, old-age pensions from 1909 and latterly, telegraphs and telephones, making it the most largest department of the state.

Things were a little peculiar. Sometimes it was quicker to receive a letter f in Caherciveen, County Kerry from Dublin if it went via New York, crossing the Atlantic Ocean twice, rather than coming overland!

Under the Free State government, the Department of Posts and Telegraphs – forerunner of An Post - further extended the reach into rural Ireland, as well as introducing motorised transport and an expansive telephone network.


[ii] The original Post Office was established on High Street near Dublin Castle in 1668 but shifted to Fishamble Street in 1689, to Sycamore Alley in 1709 and then in 1755 to Bardin’s Chocolate House at Fownes’ Court on the site now occupied by the Central Bank. By the time of Dublin’s Golden Age in the 1780s and 1790s, it had shifted to College Green, where the Abercrombie & Fitch shop now stands, in close proximity to the Irish Parliament and Trinity College.

In 1784 an independent Irish Post Office was established and the College Green premises was transferred from the postmaster general of Great Britain to the postmaster general of Ireland.

[iii] The Wide Streets Commissioners were eager to shift it to the site of the old Custom House on Essex Quay. Others proposed extending the existing building into an adjoining one on Suffolk Street.

[iv] In May 1814 the old post office on College Green was sold for £11,000 to an entrepreneur called George Homes who commissioned the architect Francis Johnston to convert it into the two-storey Royal Arcade, perhaps Dublin’s earliest shopping centre. It flourished until the building was completely destroyed by fire in 1837.

[v] He worked for Blaney Balfour on Townley Hall in County Louth, for Colonel Conyngham on Slane Castle, for the Earl of Fingall at Killeen Castle and at Charleville Forest in County Offaly for the Earl of Charleville.

[vi] John Smyth was the son of sculptor Edward Smyth who carved the Custom House’s famous riverine heads that once adorned our bank notes. The Smyths were also close family friends and patrons of John Henry Foley, the sculptor who created the O’Connell monument, as well as much of the Albert Memorial in London.

[vii] When Brewer saw the new Post Office, he wrote: ‘The building is at once commodious, well arranged for the dispatch of business, and highly ornamental to the city.’

The GPO included living accommodation for people who had to work at short notice, as people often did with a business that is so dependent on schedules, the arrival and departure of mail-coaches and mail-boats.

The Post Office secretary scored ‘a distinct house in the South-east wing of the building’ complete with room for grooms, servants, dressing rooms, a kitchen, servants’ hall, pantry, cellars in the basement and a separate front door on Sackville Street. His housekeeper was assigned a further four rooms nearby, as well as her own office. The controller of the Penny Post Office had four rooms while both the controller of the British Mail Office and the Minute Clerk got three rooms each, as well as an annual allowance of ‘15 ton of coals and 18 dozen of mould candles’.

Ancillary buildings comprised of water closets, an engine house for the fire engines, a room for the mail-coach guards and more office space, while weapons such as flintlock pistols, swords and blunderbusses were kept in the GPO armoury. Bear in mind that mail coaches were always endangered – an attack on a mail-coach signalled the start of the Great Rebellion of 1798.

[viii] Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Review, Volume 26 (1846)


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