Stamp of the
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
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.
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".
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'."
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.
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.
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.
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
was constructed in typical Colonial renaissance style. Its basement
was on Doric lines, the ground floor had Ionic architecture and
its upper floor Corinthian.
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.
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.
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.
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.
sculpted a postal runner for a three-dimensional diorama, but now
it must be dumped in some store room," he said.