Stamp of the past
It would be around this time of year, in decades past, that the General Post Office, that grand old building in Fort, would be preparing for the Christmas rush. People would hurry up the sweeping flight of steps through its arched doorways to the public counters, clutching their greeting cards to be mailed to loved ones, far and wide.

The GPO, a landmark in old Fort, was the nerve-centre of the country's postal network. Open 24 hours a day, it was known to every Sri Lankan and foreign visitor alike as the main post office of the country.

But on May 2, 2000, its fate was sealed. The GPO with a history of more than a hundred years was given a mere 24 hours to move, to make way for the Presidential Security Division which commandeered the building.

"A week later, the last of our stuff was out of there and the building was handed over on May 9. Since then we have been functioning from Transworks House and the Central Mail Room down McCallum Road," a Postal Department employee said.

It was an agonizing break from a building that had seen so much of the country's growth in this vital sector. Recording the GPO's importance, 'Colombo Heritage' a book by Jan Baldwin says, "Situated in a commanding position facing the President's Palace, the GPO is as thriving as ever, remaining open 24 hours a day for business. It remains unchanged in appearance and is one of the grand public buildings in the Fort".

"Back in 1898, the colony of Ceylon was among the first to adhere to 'Imperial Penny Letter Postage'introduced at Christmas in that year and could also boast the cheapest telegraphic service in the world at 25 cents per telegram. Besides this the Post Office had a cheap parcel post service to most countries of the world and was such a busy communications centre, it was known as the postal 'Clapham Junction of the East'."

The prestigious position the GPO enjoyed in the colonial administration was partly due to its prime location in the heart of Fort's commercial district, just across the road from Queen's House, now President's House. "There is an underground tunnel even now which links the GPO with the President's House. In the old days, as soon as the mail came in, the letters were sorted and any for the highest in the land were first delivered via this passage, safe and sound to the mansion," said a senior postal employee.

In the Municipal Council records, the GPO occupies No. 17, Janadhipathi Mawatha, Colombo 1. The land extent of this majestic one-storey building covers a hefty two roods, 30.36 perches of land. The basement area is 8,340 sq. feet, and the ground floor and first floor both 18,522 sq. feet each.

So impressive was the GPO, that many old books which describe Colombo at the turn of the twentieth century record its presence.

Henry W. Cave in his book 'Ceylon along the Rail Track' first published in 1910 describes it thus: "Immediately opposite the Queen's House is the General Post Office. The Colony is abreast of its times in its postal arrangements and in many instances offers advantages that the Old Country has not begun to provide, notably a value-payable parcels post; while its post-card and newspaper rates are one-third lower than in Great Britain.

"The visitor will find the arrangements for his convenience satisfactory and complete. He will enter by the handsome flight of stairs leading to a spacious hall floored with intaglio tiles. Here he will find the poste-restante counters as well as every other postal facility."

The GPO was designed in 1891 by a British engineer cum architect Herbert Frederick Tomalin who was born in Northampton in 1862 and came out to Ceylon in June 1886 to take up a post in the Ceylon Government Service. The building was handed over to the Postal Department in 1895.

Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon records that Tomalin's, ".. first post was that of District Engineer and in this capacity he was employed on architectural work for which he was well qualified, having passed the examination of the Association of Architects in 1883. His first professional work was in connection with buildings in Colombo and the success he achieved induced the government to entrust to him with the designing of the Post and Telegraph Office in Colombo. The confidence reposed in him was fully justified. The structure erected from his designs is one of the finest public buildings in the island."

The building was constructed in typical Colonial renaissance style. Its basement was on Doric lines, the ground floor had Ionic architecture and its upper floor Corinthian.

" The General Post Office is one of the finest buildings in Colombo. It was erected from the plans of H.F Tomalin of the Public Works Department at a cost of Rs. 372,961.65 and was opened in July 1895. There is every accommodation in the building for the work of the department, and in the spacious main hall, the members of the general public find the best arrangements for the prompt despatch of business. In connection with the business is a good Library and Recreation Club for the use of staff," Twentieth Century Impressions states.

As another Christmas draws near, the GPO is however, out of bounds. Curious visitors can only peek at its side facade from behind the barricades enclosing President's House.

"We are hoping that one day, this building will be handed back to us. When we left, there were as many as 600 of us working there. It was our home," another Postal Department employee lamented.

Treasures dumped
The Postal Museum was one of the treasures housed at the GPO. It is yet to find a new home and its many historic pieces are now languishing in the musty store rooms of the Central Mail Room.

" We had painstakingly collected several old red pillar boxes from the British times, the early bicycles used by the postmen a century ago and even undelivered letters in their envelopes, old stamps and old equipment, telephones and communication instruments from the CTO," said Prabath Wijesekera, former curator of the National Museum who set up the Postal Museum at the GPO.

"I even sculpted a postal runner for a three-dimensional diorama, but now it must be dumped in some store room," he said.

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