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Dublin’s GPO

The architect Francis Johnston (1760–1829), by T. C. Thompson, showing him against a backdrop of the GPO. (© National Museums Northern Ireland, Ulster Museum Collection)

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 widowed 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, was 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 coincided with the GPO’s bicentenary; it is now over 210 years since Lord Whitworth, the Viceroy of Ireland, laid the foundation stone of the new GPO on 12 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. The Stuart Kings and their 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, Oliver Cromwell set up the postal service as a state monopoly, and it has remained a state institution to this day. Cromwell and his spymaster John Thurloe, the first Postmaster General, understood the power of a post office system, and its attendant communications, for the implementation of English policy in Ireland. The mail-coach would become 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. It did not gain widespread use until the 1840s when Rowland Hill successfully campaign for standardised penny postage throughout Britain and Ireland. In Ireland, much credit is due to the novelist Anthony Trollope, who spent several years working for the Post Office, extending its rural network and introducing the invaluable pillar box.

Dublin’s first Post Office was built on High Street, near Dublin Castle, Christchurch Cathedral in 1668. It was destined to be a restless beast, moving four times over the next 70 years – 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. While it was in Sycamore Alley, its Postmaster-General was Isaac Manley, a friend of Jonathan Swift, who ‘incurred the Dean’s resentment’ in 1718 by opening letters addressed to him. Justin McCarthy, author of ‘A History of the Four Georges and of William IV’ (1905), observes here:

‘The postal arrangements were, as may be imagined, miserably defective. Owing to the carelessness of postmasters, the idleness of post boys, bad horses, and sometimes the want of horses, much time was lost and letters constantly miscarried.’

By the time Dublin’s Golden Age began in the 1780s, it had shifted to 34 College Green, where the Hawksmore Steakhouse (formerly Abercrombie & Fitch) 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.

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. 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.

Ultimately, the Viceroy chose to start afresh with a brand new GPO across the River Liffey on fashionable Sackville Street, as O’Connell Street was then known. 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.

As it happens, it was the very same Francis Johnston who would be commissioned to design the new GPO. The most influential architect working in Dublin since James Gandon, Johnston was born in County Armagh in 1760. He 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, Daly’s Club on College Green, and the conversion of Parliament House into the Bank of Ireland.

He had also worked on private houses for Blaney Balfour at Townley Hall in County Louth, for Colonel Conyngham at Slane Castle, for the Earl of Fingall at Killeen Castle and at Charleville Forest in County Offaly for the Earl of Charleville.

Johnston was already intimate 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 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. 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.’

Johnston, who had an extraordinary eye for detail and fine craftsmanship, considered the GPO to be his pièce de résistance. Again, it’s hard to fully appreciate this when looking at the GPO today 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. 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. John Smyth was the son of another sculptor, Edward Smyth, who had carved the Custom House’s famous riverine heads that once adorned Irish bank notes. The Smyths were also close family friends and patrons of John Henry Foley, the sculptor who would go on to create the Daniel O’Connell monument, as well as much of the Albert Memorial in London.

High up under the portico was a 43cwt bell, the biggest ever cast at William Dobson’s foundry at Downham Market, Norfolk. Cast in 1817, it included a ring of five bells ‘with a musical peal of bells whose sweet chimes the older citizens may remember.’ (Catholic Press (Sydney, NSW) of 3 Oct 1929, p. 15). These bells ‘signalled the departure every evening of the 10 or 12 mail coaches to the different parts of the country, which was one of the sights of the city’. The bell was relocated to the Royal University of Ireland (aka UCD) on in Earlsfort Terrace in 1884. One of them was remounted at St Cronan’s church in Balla, County Mayo, in 1917. (See ‘William Dobson’s biggest bell’ by Bill Hibbert). The GPO’s master clock, which controlled the time the bells rang, was controlled from the Dunsink observatory.

Francis Johnston had been the 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.

Sir John Lees by Gilbert Stuart painted between 1787 and 1793. He variously served as under-secretary of the War Department in Ireland, Secretary of the Irish Post Office and Black Rod in Ireland.

Given Johnston’s squeaky clean life, we must turn elsewhere for any whiff of tittle-tattle at the GPO. One’s eyes settle on 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, later Sir Edward Lees, 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 Lees’s watch that the GPO was built so presumably he had some say in the location of his bedroom and that of Anne Draper, housekeeper. Her husband Stephen Draper, Surveyor of Dublin, had a contract with the Post Office to ship and landing the Irish and English Mails, both at Howth and at Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire). [1] In 1823, charges of misconduct were seemingly brought against Sir Edward by Frederick Homan, comptroller of the British mail office at the General Post Office, Dublin. The case was ongoing when Stephen Draper died in October 1826, as per here and this extract from the Belfast Commercial Chronicle of Saturday 28 October 1826:

Oct. 18, of cholera morbus, Stephen Draper, Esq.— During the period of 36 years, he had held under the Commissioners of Revenue the high and confidential office of Surveyor of Dublin.

It is possible Anne Draper’s romance with Sir Edward began when she was a widow.  Most curiously, her son was named John Lees Draper (here). 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 monopoly, 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.’

Robert Ballagh with his famous print of the GPO in 1916.

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 swopped positions with his opposite number in Edinburgh and headed east to run the Scottish Post Office. He 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. [2] The Boston Pilot of 9 September 1854 noted Mrs Draper’s death eight years later, here:

‘August 13, 1854 at the General Post Office, Dublin, Mrs. Anne Draper, relict of Stephen Draper, deservedly regretted by a large circle of friends.’

As Belinda Evangelista points out, ‘they can’t have found much ado as she was still at the General Post Office almost 25 years after the inquiry.’

By the late 19th century, Ferguson notes, the Post Office had ‘assumed a role as the principal, and generally benign, agent of government throughout the country.’ It offered many other services – a Savings Bank from 1861, old-age pensions from 1909 and, latterly, telegraphs and telephones, making it the largest department on the island. Things were a little peculiar. Sometimes it was quicker to receive a letter in Caherciveen, County Kerry from Dublin if it went via New York, crossing the Atlantic Ocean twice, rather than coming overland.

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, as per the image below of W.T. Cosgrave and his silver key.

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.

The GPO took 13 years to rebuild after the Easter Rising and was formerly reopened by WT Cosgrave on 11 July 1929. See footage of the reopening on Pathé here.

From 1928 until 1973, life in the GPO was much animated by the presence of Radio Éireann, 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 GPO Museum (formerly the An Post Museum & Archive), an immersive, interactive and engaging experience that tells the story of the 1916 Easter Rising and modern Irish history.

‘The GPO – 200 Years of History’ by Stephen Ferguson, was published by Mercier Press in 2014.

 

 

 

The Herald (Melbourne, Vic), 17 Aug 1929. With thanks to Belinda Evangelista.

End-Notes

 

[1] 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.

[2] Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review, Volume 26 (1846)