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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
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.




Inland Surface Mail

Early postage rates varied considerably. The settlers at Hokianga, when requesting a regular overland mail from the Bay of Islands, suggested a fee of not more than 1s. a letter, which was agreed to. Letters sent by ship from the Bay of Islands to Wellington cost 8d. A Post Office ordinance of 1842 set the postage for inland letters at 6d. a half ounce but allowed newspapers to be sent free. The British Government overruled this ordinance and reduced the letter rate to 4d., charging 1d. on newspapers. A Proclamation in 1849 reduced the inland letter rate to 2d. a half ounce irrespective of distance. In the 1860s three different rates applied: one for delivery from the office of posting, another for delivery in the same province, and another for delivery in another province. The rates were 1d., 2d., and 3d. a half ounce respectively. “Universal” penny postage was introduced on 1 January 1901 by J. G. Ward, Postmaster-General. It was an event of great importance. The reduced rate applied inland and also to all British and many foreign countries.

Of the 286 mail services operating in 1874, 137 were carried on horseback, 83 by coach or mail cart, 43 by water, 13 on foot, and 10 by rail. The total length of these services was more than 7,000 miles and the annual milage 1·4 million. Horses, of which there were few in the 1840s, had now become the chief means of transport. Horse-drawn mail coaches played an important role in the South Island during the gold-rush period and for many years afterwards in both Islands, travelling along hard sandy beaches or on the primitive roads. The last important horse-drawn coach ran between Arthur's Pass and Otira until 1923, when the railway tunnel was opened. The bold policies of Julius Vogel led to improved postal services in the seventies when the railways carried more and more mail. In 1878 the first Railway Travelling Post Office, in which mail clerks occupied a van and sorted and closed mail en route, began between Christchurch and Dunedin. By 1881 the railways were providing 50 mail services, and their development helped to make it possible for a parcel-post service to be introduced in 1887.

Until 1905 people living beyond a postman's delivery area had to collect their own mail at the post office. In that year mails were first delivered to rural areas. This scheme was reorganised and an annual fee introduced on 1 January 1922, when there were 8,700 boxholders. Today there are 75,000 box-holders. The system enables country people to obtain postal notes and money orders and to post and receive mail. Railcars and motor vehicles in recent years have taken over from express trains and speeded the transport of letter mails, but have reduced the services available for the prompt conveyance of second-class mail. Inter-island surface mail has for many years been carried on the steamer-express services between Wellington and Christchurch and between Wellington and Picton. A rail ferry, the Aramoana, now runs between Wellington and Picton, and a through wagon from Auckland is used for mail from intermediate offices for Christchurch and southern offices.

In 1900 a mechanical date-stamping machine was installed in Wellington. Motorcars were first used three years later to carry mail, though it was not until 1908 that the Post Office bought its own vehicles for this purpose. In 1903 trials were made with a stamp-selling machine invented by a Wellington mail clerk. Though there were some initial difficulties in design, these machines were adopted and manufactured by the Post Office. New Zealand's first mechanical sorting machine was brought into service in September 1961. This machine, which was installed in the Auckland parcel depot, is a first step towards the ultimate goal of extensive mechanisation in postal branches. The variety of sizes, shapes, and destinations of posted articles presents many obstacles to full automation, but planning is in hand for a large postal centre at Wellington which will make extensive use of machine service. A registration system for all classes of postal articles gives a maximum coverage of £400 and supersedes two previous systems, one for registration with a small limit, and one for insurance of more valuable articles.

The number of articles posted has increased almost sevenfold, from 68 million in 1900 to 161 in 1920, 288 in 1940, 464 in 1960, and 534 million in 1964 – almost 188 per person.

Overseas Surface Mail

The first regular overseas-mail service was arranged by the Auckland Provincial Council in 1854. It ran monthly between Auckland and Sydney, though there was no regular service from Sydney to England until the next year when a service via the Mediterranean was arranged. (Mail was taken overland at Suez.) Services through Sydney were the main outlet for many years, though the occasional ships travelling round Cape Horn were used. To improve the service to England the New Zealand Government arranged a contract for mail to go through Panama, travelling overland. The Panama service carried 600,000 letters in 1868, but the cost was high, and as there were few passengers on the ships the service ended the following year.

The completion of a railway across the United States opened up a new route which New Zealand began to use in 1870. Mail on this route reached England in six weeks. For many years there was also a service through Vancouver. Nowadays surface mails for the United Kingdom and Europe are usually sent on ships sailing direct through the Panama Canal. Direct mails from New Zealand are now made up for a number of European countries, including France, Germany, and Belgium. Services are frequent and the average transit time to England is approximately 35 days. A large proportion of lettermail is now dispatched by air, while ships are mainly used for the carriage of parcels, packets, and newspapers.

Principal Postage Rates, 1964

Letters and Letter Cards

Inland: 4d. first ounce, 1d. each additional ounce.

British Commonwealth countries: 4d. first ounce, 1d. for each additional ounce (same as for inland).

Other countries: 7d. first ounce, 4d. each additional ounce.

Registration Fee

Inland: 1s. up to £10, 1s. 6d. up to 20, 6d. each additional £20 up to 400.

Overseas: 1s. up to £2 18s.


At the close of the First World War the Post Office was considering using aeroplanes for carrying mail and, in 1919, George Bolt made the first experimental mail flight from Auckland to Dargaville. Aircraft were also used the following year for a number of “aerial” mail services, and regular experimental airmail flights were started in 1921 between Christchurch and Timaru and between Auckland and Wanganui. Airmail was not much used and the services were abandoned after three months. Unsuccessful attempts were made in 1930 to establish regular airmail services between the main centres. In 1935 a successful airmail service started between Hokitika and South Westland. A year later there were daily airmail services between the main centres. Today aircraft link most of the important cities and give regular and frequent mail services.

Overseas Airmail

Flight Lieutenant C. T. P. Ulm carried the first New Zealand – Australia airmail in February 1934, flying from Muriwai Beach to Sydney. Two months later he carried the first Australia – New Zealand airmail from Sydney to New Plymouth. In 1938 Pan-American Airways started an airmail service to link New Zealand and the United States. This was suspended when its flying boat was lost at sea. New Zealand was eventually linked by air with the Australia-England service and regular trans-Pacific air service which was established between Auckland and San Francisco in 1940. There are now regular and frequent services which carry 75 per cent of all overseas letter mail. Each year the volume of overseas airmail increases. Inward airmail now weighs 400 tons a year, and outward 200 tons.

Airmail Rates, 1964

Letters: 5d. first ½oz, 2d. each additional ½ oz.
Parcels: Up to 3 lb, 3s. 9d. 21 lb, 13s. Od.
7 lb, 5s. 9d. 28 lb, 16s. Od.
14 lb, 8s. 9d.

Special rates for fishing rods, golf clubs, and cinematograph films.

Overseas Letters
(Each half ounce)
Australia 7d.
Fiji and Western Samoa 7d.
United Kingdom 2s. Od.
Canada and United States of America 1s. 6d.
Overseas Aerogrammes
Australia 6d.
Fiji and Western Samoa 5d.
United Kingdom 9d.
Canada and United States of America 8d.
Total Items Posted
1900–67,937,000 1930–257,487,000 1960–464,254,000
1910–161,027,000 1940–287,557,000 1963–526,008,000
1920–186,687,000 1950–343,024,000 1964–533,864,000