Story: Mail and couriers

In the 21st century it takes only seconds for an email to get to the other side of the world, but in the 1800s it took months for a letter from New Zealand to reach Britain. In the early 20th century post was delivered around the country by a wide variety of methods, including by train, aeroplane, boat, tram, packhorse, bicycle and on foot.

Story by Tim Shoebridge
Main image: Sorting mail in a railway carriage, 1930s

Story summary

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Early mail

In the early 19th century whaling and sealing ships carried mail between settlements in New Zealand and Australia. The first letter from New Zealand to England was sent in 1815.

In 1840, when New Zealand became a colony of Britain, the first official post office was opened at Kororāreka (now Russell) in the Bay of Islands. By 1860 there were 107 post offices, and by 1870 there were 457.

At first the easiest way to transport mail was by sailing ship. It was difficult and slow to deliver mail inland. From the mid-1850s Māori postmen carried mail between Wellington and Auckland; the journey took two and a half weeks.

Postage stamps

Stamps were introduced in 1855 for international mail, and in 1862 for mail sent within New Zealand. Before this, people had to go to the post office to post or receive their mail.

Faster mail

From 1858 steam ships were used to transport mail, which made delivery much faster. Mail coaches became more regular to inland areas. Railways spread across New Zealand in the 1880s and 1890s, and soon most mail was transported by train.

Aeroplanes were first used to send mail in the 1930s, making both domestic and international mail much quicker.

Post offices

Post offices were important places in the community, especially in small towns. As well as sending mail, people went to them to do their banking, send telegrams and sometimes to register births and deaths.

In the late 1980s many post offices were closed to save money. People who lived in small towns were particularly upset by this, as they were losing a key part of their community.

Mail in the 2000s

The growth of the internet and email meant that fewer people sent letters. However, because of the popularity of internet shopping, more packages were posted.


Courier services began in New Zealand in the 1960s to transport mail more quickly than the Post Office could.

Bicycle couriers were particularly popular in big cities, as they could weave in and out of traffic to get parcels to their destinations more quickly.

How to cite this page:

Tim Shoebridge, 'Mail and couriers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

Story by Tim Shoebridge, published 11 March 2010