Country's first airmail delivery, to Tenterfield, approaches centenary

Risk's cow paddock was the taking-off point for the first official airmail delivery, between Lismore and Tenterfield.
Risk's cow paddock was the taking-off point for the first official airmail delivery, between Lismore and Tenterfield.

It may not take a place in history as the most economical mail transportation service, but the Lismore-to-Tenterfield trial airmail service back in 1920 can claim to be Australia's first airmail flight sanctioned by the Postmaster-General, and now there's a book all about it.

In fact despite the effort to circumvent the long drive by road transport up the range, once the airmail had been sorted at Tenterfield Post Office it ended up on the same road transport, to be driven to the station to catch the same train.

Still the 'air mail' arrived in Tenterfield seven hours before that day's ordinary mail, albeit on an unregistered airplane. Although the concept of airmail was slow to take off, of course it became commonplace before the humble letter was more-recently replaced by emails and text messages.

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Mail carried on that first flight on Saturday, June 29 has a cache that has the envelopes considered philatelic gems, particularly among affectionados belong to aerophilatelic societies around the world. All letters for the inaugural trip had to be endorsed Per Aerial Mail (for which Geoff Wotherspoon's book is named) and were delivered from selected post offices to the plane in sealed mailbags.

Mr Wotherspoon is a keen Lismore-based stamp collector inspired to document this first flight by a desire to track Lismore's postal, social and infrastructural development through its postal history.

His research reveals that, in many ways, not much has changed. A Dr Earle Page, a lobbyist of the era and later prime minister, complained that where 10 million pounds had been spent on Sydney's rail system between 1915 and 1919, only a million pounds had been spent on the remainder of the state.

Due to the isolation of the North Coast (and a rough road between Lismore and Tenterfield that often got washed out), Lismore Council lobbied the Postmaster-General to consider air mail, proposing its own stretch as an ideal trial site. The Postmaster-General was not a fan of the idea, citing cost and reliability concerns.

Pressure mounted, however, with the Lismore Chamber of Commerce also pushing for the trial and a suitable carrier in the form of an AAEC (Australian Aircraft and Engineering Company) Avro 504K plane and its pilot, Lieutenant Frank Roberts, being available for the job. The PMG caved under political pressure, although only letters intended specifically for the trial were allowed to be carried.

The flight's Lismore base was 'Risk's cow paddock' before stopping over at the Casino Golf Club. It continued on to Tenterfield, buzzing the post office clock tower before landing at Ayrdrie just east of town.

Ayrdrie was owned by Edward Petherick at the time. More recently it was home to the late Gary Shearston and his family, and has just been purchased by Steve Haslam and Bianca Wicks of Old Council Chambers and Old Uniting Church fame.

Around 8000 letters made that special trip, to join their 'ordinary mail' counterparts on the mail train out of Tenterfield Railway Station. A return flight was made the following Monday.

With the centenary of this special mail delivery fast approaching, Mr Wotherspoon's slim book is an entertaining read crammed with old photos and mementos. Tenterfield's Kevin Condrick and Bruce Robsinson get a mention for their contributions.

The author has obviously spent many, many hours combing through meeting minutes and other paraphernalia doing his research, and lovers of philately and local history are the beneficiaries. Per Aerial Mail is available to purchase online for $27.50.

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