Mayhem on the mail run: Vivian Lewis Ltd and the Post Master General

The Lewis Cycle and Motor Works were the pioneering motoring establishment in South Australia: they had built both the first motor cycle (in 1899) and the first motor car (1900) to run in the state. By 1907 when the firm established itself as Vivian Lewis Limited there were around 500 cars and a similar number of motorcycles registered in the state.

But if motoring was rapidly becoming an established form of transport and recreation, it was only slowly being adopted by the commercial sector. The Railways Department was leading the way with a motor delivery van, but other than Conrad the butcher and some enterprising milk vendors most commercial uses of motor vehicles were still at the experimental stage. It must have pleased Vivian Lewis, then, to win the first significant public sector contract that involved the use of motor vehicles.

Prior to midnight on the 31st of December 1907, mail was collected from pillar boxes and post offices around metropolitan Adelaide by a team of nine carts and horses and returned to the General Post Office for sorting. Collection of the bags commenced at midnight, and was typically completed some time between 5 and 6 a.m. Under the new contract Lewis was to use three cars to perform the same task, using only one third the number of men completing the task in about 4 hours. In a window into labour relations of the day, it was reported that the men previously involved in the collection process would be utilised in sorting the letters after completion of the rounds and ensuring that the mail could go out on the early trains to country destinations.

Of course there was a complication. Although motoring was becoming popular, it was expensive and largely the domain of the upper class. Few if any of the postal workers had ever driven a motor car, and compounding this problem was that only authorised employees were allowed to handle letters. As part of the contract, Lewis agreed to provide experienced drivers for the initial phases of the contract, and to "train officials of the department in the management of the machinery".

In the early hours of Wednesday 1st January 1908, motor collection of mail began in Adelaide. Initially "ordinary cars" were used (8/10 h.p. Talbots), but it was reported that Lewis had already cabled to England to secure "specially light cars" to be used as soon as they could be procured.

So how did it go? Not smoothly.

At 4 a.m. on Friday - just 52 hours into the contract - a mail car driven by Vivian Lewis Ltd. employee Herbert Abbott collided with the rear of an unlit horse and cart on Glen Osmond Road at Parkside. The driver of the cart, son of market gardener Henry Kennie Antaur, and a lad Mitchell Blythe were thrown from the cart as it overturned, and the horse was knocked down and superficially injured. Mr Antuar wasted no time in litigating, and was in court by the end of the month seeking 20 damages, which included 10 depreciation on the horse which he had purchased two months earlier for 9-10-0 ! The driver of the cart testified that the lad had been thrown 27 feet over a picket fence into a garden by the force of the accident, but the lad explained that he had run into the garden to get out of danger. The defence made much of the fact that the cart was unlit at the time of the accident, but seemed to play down the fact that there was no light on the car either. After inspecting the 20-year-old horse and finding it little damaged by the accident, the magistrate gave judgement for the plaintiff for 9, which can't have pleased Mr Antuar as Mr Lewis had offered to pay him 10 compensation before proceedings began.

Unfortunately the mail cart fiasco didn't end there. Vivian Lewis was back in court in April, together with one of his employees Frederick Ross. Mr Ross had been on an afternoon collection run in the centre of Adelaide when he was pulled up by the police for not displaying a number plate on his vehicle. "It was there, but it must have dropped off" he told the court. To make things worse, he said that he had left his license to drive at the shop. Under the Motor Vehicles Act of 1907, Ross faced a fine of 10 for driving without a license. Augustus Cornish, Registrar of Motor Vehicles, was called to state that he had never issued a license to any person named Frederick Ross, but that under the Act special drivers' licences were supplied to manufacturers for the use of employees. Even though Ross was not carrying one of these special licenses, as required under the act, the magistrate dismissed the charge as "trifling" and not proved. He added "If the police were anxious to get convictions there were plenty of opportunities provided by motorists driving through the main streets". Vivian Lewis was charged with "having neglected to keep number-plates affixed to the vehicle", but this charge was also unproven, as the car did belong to him - in fact it was a customer's car that had been pressed into service as the regular mail car had broken down! Simpler times.

Two of the "special light cars" previewed at the beginning of the contract landed in Adelaide in mid-March 1908. They were 6 h.p. "Starling" cars, a product of the Star Cycle Co., Ltd. of Wolverhampton, and were described as "two-seaters, with a box at the back to take the mails". The balance of the Starlings was expected to arrive "in a few weeks". Unfortunately no period photo of the Lewis mail cars has yet been located, but we can at least illustrate with a box-less Starling from a contemporary advertisement in the British publication The Motor:

1906 Starling

The controversy regarding motor collection of the mail was obviously on-going. On May 1, 1908, The Advertiser reported that since the beginning of the contract, there had been "a number of minor accidents, and in a few instances a little delay has been occasioned. Last week the men in the employ of V. Lewis, Limited, were seen in charge of the cars again..." The Deputy Postmaster-General Mr. R.W.M. Waddy nevertheless declared the motor collection "a success", while pointing out the obvious flaw in the plan: "...while the (postal) men could drive a horse and cart all right, some of them could not drive a motor car satisfactorily". It seems that the reappearance of the Lewis men driving the collection vans was part of a trial to determine whether it was the drivers or the motor cars themselves that were responsible for the high number of incidents. Mr. Waddy said that the trial "...showed conclusively that the motors did work better when they were in charge of experienced motor drivers" and that he intended "...to submit the matter to the secretary of the Postmaster-General's Department, with a view to effecting some improvement".

We'll have to leave the mail round in this unresolved state for the moment while further research continues. It seems unlikely that the contract ran its full three years.

In an interview with "Vox" of The Advertiser in 1954, Mr. Fred Ackland reminisced on the three years he spent at Vivian Lewis Limited between 1908 and 1911: "Vivian Lewis had the first mail contract to clear the pillar boxes, and I was put in charge of the night shift. When I was sworn in by the Superintendent of Mails, he said you will protect His Majesty's mails. I said that if a man shows me a revolver and wants the mails he can have them."

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