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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



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Establishment – British Control

The first whalers, missionaries, traders, and adventurers of the early nineteenth century had to depend on chance ships for communications. Because trade was developing between Australia and New Zealand the Postmaster-General of New South Wales in 1831 deputed a Bay of Islands merchant, William Powditch, “to receive and return mail”. J. R. Clendon, another local merchant (and United States Consul), also established a mail depot.

Captain Hobson, the newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor, brought with him in 1840 a number of officials chosen mainly by his superior, Governor Gipps, of New South Wales. One of these men, William C. Hayes, was made Police Magistrate's Clerk and Postmaster. For the convenience of traders Hayes handled the mail, not at Russell (Okiato), the seat of Government, but at a store in Kororareka, then the most important business centre. Hayes was dismissed for dishonesty and drunkenness in less than six months and another official, S. E. Grimstone, became acting “Postmaster of New Zealand”. Grimstone's salary was 20 per cent of postal receipts in the office under his immediate control.

Shortly after Hobson had transferred the seat of Government to Auckland, early in 1841, he received a royal charter establishing New Zealand as a Crown Colony independent of New South Wales. An ordinance covering postal matters was soon issued, but Hobson was to learn some 18 months later that the British Government had retained control of postal matters, insisting on the adoption of its decisions about postage rates and subordinating the head of its postal service to the British Postmaster-General.

The infant Post Office faced formidable difficulties in establishing overseas postal services. Early letters from New Zealand, such as those of Constantine Dillon and Charlotte Godley, show how irregularly and slowly mail travelled. Hobson himself knew the frustration of poor postal services. But New Zealand, 1,200 miles from the nearest overseas trading centre and 12,000 miles from “Home”, could do no more for many years than use such ships as called to carry mail. Long delays and irregular services were inevitable.

Internal Postal Services

The need for postal services within New Zealand was even more pressing, particularly when the settlements of Wellington and, later, of Nelson, Canterbury, and Otago were established. Communications between the settlements, each with closer ties with Britain than with one another, were needed to encourage commercial activity and to assist in preventing the settlements from developing, in Acting Governor Wynyard's words, into “insignificant, divided and powerless petty states”. New Zealand's geography, however, did not facilitate postal communication. Long coastlines on both Islands, high mountain ranges, thick undergrowth in the forests that covered much of the land, and innumerable rivers and streams presented formidable obstacles not lessened by intertribal strife among the Maoris and by war between Europeans and Maoris.

In the early years ships, although subject to innumerable delays, were the most reliable means of postal communication. Yet on occasion there was no communication for months on end between the seat of Government at Auckland and the southern settlements. Internal services were established in spite of the obstacles. The overland route between Auckland and Wellington was at once the most important and the most troublesome. It followed the west coast to New Plymouth, went overland to Wanganui, and then along the coast to Wellington. Though delivery at times took less than three weeks, those who undertook the various sections of the route, both Maori and European, faced extreme hardships and dangers, and there were long periods when the service was suspended. But the Wellington to Wanganui section was fairly constantly maintained, and an alternative route through Napier was experimented with. The west coast route was later revived when a regular service was established by ship from Manukau Harbour to New Plymouth and overland to Wellington. This service continued until the completion of the North Island Main Trunk railway in 1908.

By 1845 only eight post offices were open – Russell, Hokianga (Rawene), Auckland, New Plymouth, Petre (Wanganui), and Wellington in the North Island, and Nelson and Akaroa in the South Island. Port Chalmers and Dunedin followed in 1848 with the arrival of the Otago settlers, and Lyttelton in 1850 with the arrival of the Canterbury settlers. In 1848 control of postal services in New Zealand was transferred from the British Postmaster-General to Governor Grey and his Legislative Council.

Overseas Mail Postal Services

The first regular overseas mail service took shape in 1854 when the Auckland Provincial Government established a monthly shipping service to Sydney, the William Denny exchanging mails there with ships on the Sydney-London run. It is indicative of the infrequency and irregularity of interprovincial communications that this service was of little value to the other provinces, and although Wellington and Otago followed Auckland's lead it was not until the sixties that services regularly connected all the main provincial ports with one another and with ships to Australia. There was still room for complaint, however, with New Zealand at “the fag end of an imperfect chain”, and the Government was soon looking wistfully to Panama, which by 1866 was to be the route for a more direct and faster service with Britain.

Local Posts Act of 1856: Post Office Act of 1858

When New Zealand in 1852 obtained a considerable degree of self-government and held its first General Assembly in 1854, it had fewer than two dozen post offices to serve some 40,000 people. But years of expansion and innovation came with the Local Posts Act of 1856, under which Provincial Councils were authorised to establish new post offices and mail services, and with the passing of the Post Office Act of 1858, under which the Post Office was reorganised and power taken to appoint a Postmaster-General. This title had previously been used in New Zealand, but it had then meant the administrative and not the political chief, and the position had often been held by the Collector of Customs. Henry Tancred was the first to hold office under the new Act, and the appointment of a departmental head (G. E. Elliot) followed in 1862.

The new Act and the discovery of gold in the South Island led to growth in the Post Office. By 1860 there were 107 post offices and receipts were about £10,000. But the improvements were costly and expenditure reached almost £40,000, much of the deficit being caused by the high cost of sea mails. Nevertheless expansion continued. Postmen's deliveries and private boxes were first provided in 1860, a money-order service began in 1863, and the Post Office Savings Bank opened in 1867. By 1880 there were 856 post offices. The amalgamation of the Post Office and Electric Telegraph Department in the following year set the pattern for future development.

Twentieth Century

In 1900, when the population was about 800,000, the Post Office had 1,700 branches, and handled annually about 70 million postal articles, 3·5 million telegrams, and 250,000 telephone toll calls. It had 7,150 telephone subscribers and more than £5 million at credit in its savings bank. Receipts and payments made by the Post Office for the 33 agency services undertaken for other State Departments and local bodies totalled almost £3.5 million. Growth was very rapid in the first decade. By 1910 postal and telegraph traffic and savings at credit had more than doubled and there were three times as many telephones and six times as many toll calls as there had been in 1900. This public demand and consequent growth of services has continued to the present day.

The Post Office is now a complex structure combining the characteristics of a Department of State and a large business enterprise – one of the largest and certainly the most widely spread in the country. It provides communications and other services closely bound up with New Zealand's political, economic, and social life. Its annual revenues, which at first were less than £150, are now more than £35 million.

Organisation –1964

The Postmaster-General, a member of Cabinet, is the political head of the Post Office. Under him the Director-General (the administrative head) is responsible for the general administration and control of the Post Office. He is assisted by two deputies, an Engineer-in-Chief who controls telegraph, telephone and radio plant, and workshops, and a Director of Accounts who controls the accounts of the Post Office and the Post Office Savings Bank. New Zealand is divided into 21 postal districts, each under the control of a chief postmaster. Engineering works are separately controlled through 17 district engineers who are responsible to the Engineer-in-Chief. Engineering work is coordinated by three regional engineers, two in the North Island, one in the South.

In 1964 there were 1,590 post offices. Improved telephone and rural delivery services are gradually making smaller country offices redundant. The Post Office employs about 26,500 people. Moreover, there are 458 postmistresses in small post offices and about 730 country postmasters and telephonists who give post office services as part of their private business. About two-thirds of the total staff works on telecommunications.

The Post Office not only buys its own equipment and stores but also buys for other State Departments. Its annual purchases amount to about £11.5 million. It has more than 2,350 buildings, ranging from small rural post offices and telephone exchanges to large metropolitan post offices, telephone exchanges, workshops, stores, and garages. It also leases about 300 buildings for particular needs where suitable buildings are available. It spends over £1.5 million a year on new buildings.

The Post Office controls 3,078 motor vehicles. Many of these are stationed at the smaller centres – mainly for line-construction and maintenance work. It also controls the Public Service Garages, which make up a fleet of vehicles for use by State Departments in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin. It has its own workshops to maintain the motor vehicles and to manufacture and maintain other plant and equipment.

Capital Assets (At Cost)
Year Telecommunications Buildings Other
£ £ £
1930 10,228,425 2,473,665 965,236
1940 12,726,839 3,985,679 1,290,441
1950 20,116,483 6,172,313 7,179,140
1963 89,748,864 16,148,149 5,716,018
1964 98,312,939 17,867,818 5,945,479


Claude John Enright, formerly Principal Public Relations Officer, New Zealand Post Office.