Past ancestors at the Fingal Post Office

In a state like Tasmania, occasionally Heritage Tasmania staff discover places on the Register connected with their ancestors. The first in five generations not to work for the post office, Research Officer Kim Simpson tells one such story.

Right: Fingal Post Office, 1911; Left: Frank and Elizabeth Wiltshire with their daughter, Norah at Fingal Post Office, c1930s (Private Collection)

Sometimes war brings opportunity. Tasmania must have been an attractive place to British migrants after World War One. Unemployment in Britain was high and the country was in debt. Army paymaster Frank Wiltshire, living in Devon, immigrated to Tasmania with his wife Elizabeth and children in 1921. The heritage listed Post Office at Fingal (Tasmanian Heritage Register entry #5894) played an important part in their family life.

With a long career in the postal service in England and South Africa, Frank was the ideal migrant: skilled, experienced and married with a young family. However, it wasn't the post office that lured Frank and Elizabeth to Tasmania; it was the promise of a small fruit industry on the north-west coast. When the family moved to Burnie shortly after their arrival, Frank was in for a shock.

Brochures in England promoting north-west Tasmania failed to live up to expectations. Frank reluctantly began milking cows for a local member of parliament, worked as a sub-editor at the Advocate newspaper, and did some casual relief work in post offices across the state. He indignantly wrote to members of the Tasmanian parliament claiming deception and migration under false pretences. Elizabeth made ends meet by running a dressmaking shop in the main street of Burnie.

In early 1929, Frank, Elizabeth and their children moved to the Fingal Post Office, where Frank served as Postmaster. It was his first real taste of job security since the family had arrived eight years earlier. The job was a family affair, with the Elizabeth and the children living on the premises. Elizabeth - the daughter of a postmaster - had grown up in post offices in England, so ably assisted her husband. As the children grew, they were seconded to work as telegraphists, counter staff and assist with mail/telegram delivery. Their arrival also coincided with the 1929 floods that devastated parts of northern Tasmania. One of Frank's daughters recalled delivering telegrams to people in the pouring rain whilst dodging cowpats in the streets.

The Wiltshire family became involved in community events. Elizabeth, a dressmaker who had reputedly dressed royalty, made costumes for local performances. Frank was a diligent recordkeeper, public servant and poultry breeder. With a good government job the family were largely isolated from the Great Depression. One of the Wiltshire family recalled Fingal residents during that time collecting coal on the railway lines dropped from passing carriages. Other locals kept asking the Wiltshires for work. In 1941, Frank retired and he and Elizabeth moved to Hobart. The couple did not forget their English roots, sending food parcels home to relatives and donating to war relief during World War Two.

The Fingal Post Office is more than just a fine example of a timber rural post and telegraph office, it reminds us of the role post-World War One migration played in Tasmania, and that every place has a story.

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