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History

08 Apr 2020

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Southbank and the PMG

These days it is hard to imagine how one government department could be responsible for postal delivery, telephone and telegraph services, and radio and television networks (including issuing of viewer licenses, at £5 each).

But that was the all-pervasive role of the PMG (Post-Master General’s department), created by the federation of the Australian colonies in 1901.

Postal and communication services were the responsibility of the states prior to federation and a major facility was established in Sturt St in 1895. The new PMG then became the centre of a massive government building program to create a unified communication service across the country.

Southbank played a major role in these operations, centred on a large site bounded by Sturt, Grant and Dodds streets. Across a number of buildings, PMG workers built and repaired just about everything related to their role. They stored materials such as cables, and established workshops for carpenters, joiners, painters, polishers, installers, saddlers and coach builders. They also maintained a garage, established in 1923. Although the major emphasis was on looking after horses used for mail pickup and delivery (with blacksmith’s facilities and stables) motorised services were gradually taking over and there was an increased emphasis on telephone services. One local recalls her father travelling all over Melbourne to repair telephone boxes. With such a variety of facilities and roles, there were numerous opportunities for employment of many locals.

A mid-air collision in 1927 between two RAAF planes above the garage and stables caused destruction and mayhem among postal workers and their horses, and a new garage was proposed in 1928 with room to accommodate growth and consolidate PMG services from across Melbourne. Designed by architects of the Commonwealth Government, the simply-designed concrete structure of two storeys was built in 1930 and was followed by other buildings in the next few years, including a new motor garage and repair shop in 1936.

The buildings were mostly redbrick with some patterning and cement bands and extensive use of metal-framed windows, pitched and sawtooth roofing – a standard approach by the Commonwealth for utilitarian buildings. A few decorative elements remain, such as the striking corner entrance corner of Dodds and Grant streets that displays the date of 1930, and a symbol of the PMG on the Sturt St frontage. A number of the buildings have been re-cycled by the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) for studio spaces, as has the former Mounted Police building on the opposite eastern corner.

This corner of Southbank was home to incredibly important functions for communication in the development of Melbourne, and PMG manhole covers can still be found across the city. The PMG exhibited a major influence on the lives of Victorians and by the 1960s, about 60 per cent of commonwealth workers were under its control. But the writing was on the red-brick wall and it was broken up and its operations privatised in the mid-1970s •

Robin Grow

President - Australian Art Deco and Modernism Society

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