Durban Pot Pourri Sixteen

Durban Pot Pourri 16

Post Office Part 3

I was giving some thought as to why I remember the Post Office building so well.

I think it stemmed to some degree that with my mother working, I had to take over some of the minor things that had to be done. From an early age I was assigned the task of buying airletters (aerogrammes) for my mother. She wrote constantly to her mother and sister overseas and it was my task to go and buy the airletters as well as post them.  Normally a diversion after school when I was in town.  When I come to think about it, there were not that many post boxes in and around Durban at that time that I remember.   There were some suburban post offices dotted about but rather few. So I would go to the main Post Office and got to know the counters.   The same with the telephone bill, the radio licence and I used to pay the electricity account as well albeit not at the Post Office. Do you remember Postal Orders? We used these occasionally. It was the then version of how to settle an account, pay the deposit on a holiday hotel booking or transfer money.  Kind of old fashioned EFT.   It simply was a matter of learning by observation and doing and becoming street wise as the saying goes today.

In 1962 after matriculating, I joined the Dept. of Posts and Telegraphs as a Pupil Technician (Telecommunications Electrical). That was my official title.  One of the early procedures in acquainting new staff with the technical side was assigning pupils to various departments in the Post Office for a period to get to know what each section did.  Note I said Post Office because in those days the “Posts” side was the “more important” with the telecommunication side merely included in “Telegraphs”.   The same happened if you worked for the “Railways”.  For a short while I was sent to the Telegraphs section and that was based at the main Post Office.  The procedure was that you were mentored by the qualified staff as to the working of the section and you were given assignments to complete so as to judge what you had learnt.

The Telegraph Section was upstairs on the Church St side of the PO.  One entered via a large door facing Church Street and there was a caged lift and a staircase.  As yet in 1962, one could not direct dial anywhere beyond your local call. Not even Pietermaritzburg. It was all done by the operators who dealt with what were known as “trunk calls”.   Telegraphs were different because it was the transmission of messages (telegrams) via landlines.  At the time telegraphs was probably the more efficient method of quick long distance communication because it was short, sweet and to the point.  It was faster than telephone trunk calls as these had to be booked due to the demand.  The telegraph network was such that there were central main offices and to these were connected all the Post Offices and main agencies in the province. One could phone in and verbally dictate the contents of a telegram or one could go to the local post office and fill in on a form the required message to be sent.  These were teletyped to the main office.  If I remember correctly the whole system was known as GENTEX.

At the Durban main telegraph office, there was a large staff, mainly young women but men as well. They received the hand written or the verbal transcripts and transferred these on to a type of yellow ticker tape using special typewriters (name “Creed” comes to mind) which recorded the information as perforated code on the tape.  These coded tapes were then given to another operator who would “transmit” them to the designated destination using a machine which read the perorated tape and transmitted the code. At the distant end, special printers (teleprinters) would decode and print the telegram on to a white gummed continuous narrow tape. These were then affixed to a telegram form in sections and dispatched normally via a messenger to the address given.  They were placed in special orangey pink window envelopes. Basically the same procedure happened for incoming telegrams.

Things I do remember from that section was that when being shown around how the system worked, I, as a young male adult had umpteen pairs of young female eyes giving you the once over.  I must admit it was a bit unnerving but there was a lot of “talent” about and it was the swinging 60s.  The other was the use of the mnemonic “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” which the teleprinter technicians would test the teletype writers with.  They used to add “and away he goooooes”. There was a certain rhythm and beat to it as the teletypewriters was tested by the mechanician.

With the advent of National Subscriber Trunk Dialling in the 70s, whereby subscribers could dial nationwide doing away with the “Nommer asseblief/Number please” system and the introduction of telex machines at businesses the telegram system virtually fell away. Later FAX machines took the development one stage further.  Today, by and large, these are all dinosaurs.

Talking FAX, an abbreviation for Facsimile, at the Durban Post Office there was one such advanced machine in use in the early 1960s.  It was a very special machine and housed in the Post Office main building.  The room it was located in was out of bounds to everyone and a special engineer was on duty to deal with it. I never laid eyes on it only knowing it existed.  It was a machine that enabled photographs to be transmitted or received over landlines from or to the other main centres.  In the newspapers these pictures were always noted as “Picture by Landline”.

Another memory was that on the Gardiner Street side of the Post Office on the first floor, the Telegraphs Section had located their Workshop. The teleprinters and readers were highly technical mechanical machines and maintenance required a space where they could be attended to. The workshop staff had a wonderful view of what was going on in busy Gardiner Street and the passing parade.  Right opposite as well in Poynton House was a health studio (now known as a gym) and one had a line of sight look into it. You can well imagine the ogling and comment that went on coming from the many onlookers.

Down at pavement level all I can say is that the NEW MODEL DAIRY bears no resemblance of the old Model Dairy as I knew it.  Tennyson Burrows as well no longer exists. I have no idea when it closed its doors.  It was a landmark shop. And then my memory of the Puntan’s Hill Route 18 trolley bus that used to leave from this part of Gardiner Street. It was a two way street then and on leaving,   turned left into Pine Street and on its way.   Sweet memories too of meeting a special girl in town after school and waiting here for the bus and going home together.


Moving on into the 80s, I was part of a three man car lift club travelling daily from Westville down to the Beach Telephone complex in Seaview Street.  One of the lift club worked for the Property  Section of the Post Office and he was involved with a major refurbishment of the Post Office building at the time. I recall he brought up the subject amongst us that did we know that the Post Office building was missing its cupola. It did not raise much interest amongst us other two but in later years I was reminded of the conversation when looking at a picture of the Post Office with the cupola missing. Part of the work to be done then was the reinstatement of the cupola and that an exact replica would be made out of glass fibre.  Fortuitously I have managed to get photos of the PO Tower without and with the cupola.  Maybe insignificant facts but part of its history and recollecting the conversation we had in the car.


Post Office newly completed with cupola on the dome.  Circa 1900.

Excellent more modern day picture of the Post Office with Barclays Bank and Poynton House behind. Note the Post Office without its cupola on the dome.

Another picture taken from Beach Walk (between the Royal Hotel and Martin West Building ) of the PO without the cupola.

Beach Walk because this was the way to the Beach from the town centre. The Beach then being the Bay fringing the Victoria Embankment .

Modern day picture of the PO with the cupola restored still in place. This is the Gardiner St side and the first floor windows shown would be where the Telegraph’s workshop was located and opposite the health studio .  I notice the Parks and Gardens only cultivate palm trees these days.  Photo courtesy of Hugh Bland.  If you ever want to see excellent modern day photos of places in KZN google kznpr.  Excellent stuff.

Poynton House Gardiner street.  Street level was Model Dairy and Tennyson Burrows with Natal Music on the corner.  First floor was the Health Studio I mention.  I am sure the windows were bigger than that. Maybe the building frontage was revamped.

The Model Dairy in yesteryear.  A rare photograph showing the interior.

The New Model Dairy as it is today.


City Centre in its heyday.  Note the square in front of Queen Victoria’s statue.  The preacher’s platform Friday and Saturday evenings.

I suppose it would be well to mention the major changes in buildings that lined Gardiner Street opposite the Cenotaph and which faced the Post Office.    Here are pictures showing the changes.

The Baltic Building

Corner Smith and Gardiner Streets.  Headquarters of Hunt Leuchars and Hepburn. Timber importers and merchants  with large wood mills in Durban and Johannesburg.  This building was demolished and replaced by the Allied Building Society building which still stands today.




On the left the Allied Building Society building which replaced the headquarters of the firm,   Hunt, Leuchars and Hepburn, the timber merchants, called Baltic Building.  I recall way back there was a suicide jump off the Allied building.  Next door was the Old Mutual building with its green marbled entrance interior cladding, then Saambou Building a relatively new building, the old Woolworths building and lastly, the Trust Building. Apart from the Allied building all the other buildings have now been demolished and replaced by the new high rises. The Old Mutual building was replaced by a multi storey parking garage. Note in the picture across West Street, the Natal Bank building has been demolished and is a construction site. The new Barclays Bank building would be built here.


Another later aerial view of Gardiner Street.  The old Woolworths building replaced by Trust Arcade which was dog legged with the other entrance in West Street.   New Barclays Bank building now completed.  On this side of Gardiner Street there was one bus terminus. Manor Gardens Route 89 and Nursing Homes Route 88 left from just in front of the Allied Building. The new United Building Society building on the other side of Smith Street.  Now ABSA and frontage changed.

In later years the Trust Building now renamed Westgard House was imploded.




Some years not that long ago, I undertook a nostalgic walk from where the old Polar Bar used to be (cnr Broad and West Sts) down to the City Hall.  It was an auld lang syne walk remembering the shops and that stretch of West Street.  Sadly I did not risk taking a camera with as I was a bit apprehensive about that. It was a depressing walk in a way seeing the deterioration and the many “To Let” signs.  I ventured into Salisbury Arcade and found it virtually empty. I remember the days it was a very busy thoroughfare.  I reached the Town Gardens and crossed over, climbed the familiar Post Office stairs into the lobby.  What a change. The wooden façade that used to confront you had been totally removed and I was standing in what obviously once was the original town hall.  This was now the public access to the Post Office counters.  I stood looking at the room and noticed that windows and columns which were not there were painted in on the walls.  I found out later that in a more recent total renovation of the building, the mandate was given to restore the Post Office as best possible to what it was when it was the Town Hall.  Apparently in the original modification of the hall when the Post Office took over, all the features of the Town Hall interior were reduced to rubble and lost forever.  Based on the few photographs obtainable of what the interior looked like, these features were painted on the walls in relief by the contractors doing the renovations.  It looked a bit odd but I suppose the expense to reinstate fully was way beyond the budget.

2009 photo of Post Office and surrounds.  The new Old Mutual Tower Building on the corner and 320 West in the background.  Note also what looks like the roof of the hall has now been raised and half-moon windows added. This probably done when a major upgrade was carried out and the mandate given to restore the building as much as possible as to the original design. See the first photograph.

The sad state of affairs.  A tree growing out of the tower.  The cupola restored some years previous indicated .

Recently I read that the whole building was deteriorating and that as a safety measure the Post Office was closed to the public.  To top this I later read in the newspapers that trees had rooted themselves in the tower and the tower was now under threat.

I have no idea what the present status is, whether the Post Office is still officially closed and whether the trees have been removed. Apparently the clock was  faulty and the leaded glass face of the clock damaged as well.  A sad note to end the story but that is the reality today.

A picture of the writer with hils late aunt and late cousin in front of the Boer War Memorial Town Gardens 1950.

Both buildings in the background, Trust Building and Natal Bank demolished.


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4 Responses

  1. Irene Ingham
    | Reply

    Hi Gerald, my Dad, Louis Venter worked for Post and Telecommunications from the late forties till his passing at the relatively young age of 61 in 1989. He worked in the Durban office until 1964 and then moved to Pretoria. A real culture shock for the family.
    In Durban I remember my brother and I going in to the office with him on a few Saturday mornings. The office was the training school? on Fenton Lane I think. The typewriters had grey fabric covers over the keys as the students had to type without looking at the keys. There were large blackboards in the classroom/s as well as desks and a teachers table.
    Your description of the yellow tape machine as well as the telegram machine brought back fond memories as I must have visited this office with him too.
    I am enjoying reading your Pot Pourri 🙂

  2. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    HI Irene
    I cannot say I remember the name at all but then from what you describe he was on the postal telegraphs side whereas I was on the telecommunications side. The Training School for pupil technicians when I joined was based in Acutt Street in the former Cable and Wireless building. There may well have been a training school in Fenton Road but I cannot remember that. I still recall in my early days learning as one went along, that one way to gain promotion in the Dept of P&T was to make yourself available for posts in other provinces. If you were prepared to move and uplift your whole family with it it was one way of climbing up the promotion ladder. To add to that there were more posts available on the Postal side than there were on the Telecommunication side.

  3. Tim Gallwey
    | Reply

    Hi Gerald,
    You mention Postal Orders. I remember getting British Postal Orders to order motor car books from the UK and I thought that they had all disappeared. Imagine my surprise when I was required to pay an import tax to the Irish Customs recently and Postal Orders were an option. But these are more like a Postal cheque made out to the exact amount required.

  4. Chalkie Govender
    | Reply

    Born & raised in Umgeni Rd Durban 1957.

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