A marriage of convenience: women and the post office in New South Wales, 1838 to 1938

Download files
Access & Terms of Use
open access
Copyright: McLachlan, Ross Warwick
My thesis deals with the experience of postmistresses, female telegraphists and unpaid female “assistants” in the New South Wales (N.S.W.) postal and telegraph utilities from 1838, and in the Commonwealth Postmaster-General’s Department from 1901 to 1938. In the work I examine the system of patronage that provided for women in financial distress, as well as the “sedentary” nature of postal work. In addition, I attempt to explain how female official employees in N.S.W. came to be granted equal pay with males. My research includes an analysis of the reasons why they failed to take an active part in the Victorian-led campaign from 1900 for wage equality under the federal government, and an investigation of the decline in employment prospects from the early 20th century. Lastly, I discuss the changing status of women who managed allowance/non-official postal outlets in the name of male office-holders, and plot the evolution of the female-run postal facility over time. Over the course of 100 years, the fortunes of female post and telegraph employees in N.S.W. waxed and waned episodically. From the late 1830s, the system of influence furnished needy, “respectable” women with a socially acceptable vocation. Thanks to their “immobility”, they gained a foothold in the postal service at a time when working men were largely unsuited to sedentary occupations because of their migratory habits. Equal pay from the early 1860s set female official employees in N.S.W. apart from their peers elsewhere in Australia. The N.S.W. women were arguably incapable of proving themselves the equal of their male co-workers and their female colleagues in Victoria, preventing them from fully participating in the merit-base quest for wage parity under the Commonwealth. By the 1930s equal pay had taken a toll on employee numbers. Even so, women continued to find positions in allowance/non-official post offices, regardless of veteran preference provisions. Gradually, the postal bureaucracy began to treat allowance postmistresses and unpaid female “assistants” as workers in their own right, given their enhanced financial and social standing. The character of female-operated post offices changed over the century. Initially private or ‘domestic’ domains, many outlets became public or wholly commercial spaces in response to shifting economic and social circumstances.
Persistent link to this record
Link to Publisher Version
Link to Open Access Version
Additional Link
McLachlan, Ross Warwick
Conference Proceedings Editor(s)
Other Contributor(s)
Corporate/Industry Contributor(s)
Publication Year
Resource Type
Degree Type
PhD Doctorate
download public version.pdf 5.6 MB Adobe Portable Document Format
Related dataset(s)