Early postal services
The New Zealand Post Office was set up in the 1840s, but until the 1860s services were infrequent because poor roads made it difficult to carry mail between settlements.
Horses and horse-drawn coaches transported mail until the 1920s. Pigeon post was used in some rural regions. From the 1860s the number of post offices began to increase, and by 1900 there were around 1,700 branches throughout the country.
In 1868 William Baines had the contract to carry mail fortnightly between Christchurch and Timaru. A small man with a neat beard and a limitless fund of gossip, he was a welcome caller at homesteads on his route, as he delivered not just mail but also the latest news.
Before 1905 country people had to collect their mail from the nearest post office, but when a rural delivery service began, farmers could both receive and send mail through a special rural delivery post box or bag at the farm gate. Rural delivery was extended in the 1920s, when motorcycles were used to carry the mail. This was a daily service in some places, just once or twice a week in others. Essentials such as newspapers, groceries and animal feed were also dropped off.
Mail and other goods were often delivered on the school bus as it took children to and from the district school. Correspondence school lessons and assignments were received and sent through the rural delivery service, which was still being operated by New Zealand Post in 2008.
Rural post offices
In small country towns, the post office had many functions aside from delivering mail and newspapers. People went there to receive pensions and allowances, open savings accounts, enrol to vote, and pay car registrations and other fees. The postmaster was often the registrar of births, deaths and marriages, a witness for statutory declarations and an adviser on government services.
There was strong protest from rural dwellers when many country post offices were closed between 1981 and 1991. This occurred because of economic changes – a farming downturn led to depopulation of country towns, and the government restructured the Post Office and sold its banking and telephone functions.
Electric telegraph messaging using Morse code was introduced to New Zealand in 1862, connecting provincial towns with ports. In 1863 the Electric Telegraph Department began; it merged with the Post Office in 1881. Telegraph lines were erected throughout the country, and by 1891 extended to many small rural towns.
Wireless telegraphy – sending messages by radio – was seen as a possible means of communication for rural people in the early 20th century. However, under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1903, only the government could receive and transmit radio messages. It was illegal for citizens to do this until 1921, by which time the telephone was becoming established. Radio telephones were later used on some farms – in the late 1940s, a system linked homesteads along the Rakaia River in Canterbury with the Methven post office.
The first telephone line into the Conway Flat area in North Canterbury was built in the 1930s. The line was insulated using glass bottles with their bottoms knocked out, which were jammed into mānuka poles.
The telephone was introduced in 1881, but was not widely used until after 1890. Some country districts had telephones earlier than others; there were lines in rural Canterbury by 1904. Many farmers erected their own lines before the Post and Telegraph Department reached outlying areas.
The telephone became essential for running a farm business. It allowed farmers to check prices, order goods and contact neighbours. It also saved time; for instance, farmers could ring the railway station instead of making fruitless trips to check for incoming goods. The phone was a social lifeline, especially for farmers’ wives.
After the Second World War, small automatic telephone exchanges were set up in rural areas, mostly with small party (shared) lines with up to 10 customers. Because it was possible to listen to other people’s conversations, party lines were a rich source of local gossip. They were common until the 1960s, but few remained in the early 2000s.
Subsidising rural services
In 1987 the telecommunications division of the New Zealand Post Office became a corporation, Telecom. In 1990 it was privatised, and began competing with other telecommunications companies. The Telecommunications Service Obligations (TSO) contract between Telecom and government ensured that rural telephone services were subsidised, but in 2008 some country areas still did not have adequate land-line or cellular services.