Story: Mail and couriers

Page 1. Beginning of the postal system, 1810s–1850s

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Mail before 1840

Mail delivery began in New Zealand with the coastal sealers and whalers in the early 19th century. They carried mail destined for other ships, and between New Zealand and Australian settlements. The earliest known New Zealand letter to pass through the British postal system dates from September 1815. It was carried by whaling ship from the Bay of Islands to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), where the postmaster despatched it to Britain with a note that the letter was ‘the first Mail or Public Conveyance from this Island [New Zealand] to England.’1

Permanent settlements of Europeans took shape during the 1810s and 1820s. Growing trade with New South Wales stimulated the demand for a more organised means of communication. Bay of Islands merchant William Powditch was appointed as an agent of the postmaster general of New South Wales in 1831, and mail was received and despatched from his store.

Early post offices

The first official post office in New Zealand was established at Kororāreka (renamed Russell in 1844) shortly after New Zealand became a colony of Britain in 1840. William C. Hayes served as the first postmaster. By 1845 there were post offices at Russell, Rāwene, Auckland, New Plymouth, Whanganui, Wellington, Nelson and Akaroa.

The service expanded to meet the demands of a growing population in the 1850s, and by 1860 the number of post offices had risen to 107. From 1858 the country’s post offices were centrally controlled by the newly formed Post Office Department, headed by a postmaster general.

Coastal mail

The delivery of mail to inland areas was spasmodic during the early years of European settlement. Mail was usually carried between towns by visiting ships, and months could pass without communication between the government centre in Auckland and the rest of the colony. Settlers complained that the mail service should be cheaper and more efficient in the interests of the colony’s development.

Mail and the Māori King movement

Relations between the settler government and Waikato Māori broke down in 1859–60, and chiefs involved in the Māori King movement considered preventing settler mail from passing through their district. A Ngāti Maniapoto chief remarked that ‘the pakehas write evil reports of us from Taranaki to Auckland, and from Auckland back to Taranaki, and make Maori postmen bear them to and fro’. He compared Māori postmen to Christ before his crucifixion: ‘they made him bear the cross on which they crucified him’.2

Overland mail

The first attempts at a fortnightly overland service between Auckland and Wellington began in 1844, but only became regular in the 1850s. The service followed the west coast, passing through New Plymouth and Whanganui. The deliveries were usually made by Māori postmen, who did their best to keep the mail dry through river crossings and bad weather. Most of the provinces had developed regular postal services to their rural hinterlands by the end of the 1850s.

Postage stamps introduced

Mail was posted at post offices, and recipients had to go there to collect their mail. In the early years the cost of mail was sometimes paid by the sender and sometimes by the recipient, depending on the practice of the post office receiving the mail. Postage stamps, which were introduced in Britain in 1840, meant that all mail costs could be paid by the sender.

New Zealand adopted stamps for international mail in 1855, and for domestic mail in 1862. In 1887 a nationwide system of postmarks was introduced, which showed the name of the post office where the letter was posted, and cancelled the stamp so it could not be reused. Postmarks were initially hand-stamped, then mechanised from 1899.

Footnotes:
  1. Howard Robinson, A History of the Post Office in New Zealand, Wellington: Government Print, 1964, p. 9. Back
  2. Otago Witness, 26 May 1860, p. 6. Back
How to cite this page:

Tim Shoebridge, 'Mail and couriers - Beginning of the postal system, 1810s–1850s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/mail-and-couriers/page-1 (accessed 9 December 2019)

Story by Tim Shoebridge, published 11 Mar 2010