Story: Mail and couriers

Page 2. Mail in the steam era, 1850s–1890s

All images & media in this story

The need for a steamer service to transport mail between New Zealand towns, and to other countries, became obvious to settler leaders. Steamships had connected European ports since the 1820s, and made communication fast and reliable. New Zealand began to experiment with steamer services in the early 1850s. Provinces contracted steamers to carry their mail between New Zealand settlements and the Australian colonies in the following few years.

First nationwide steamer service

In 1858 the New Zealand government centralised the various provincial postal systems. It contracted the Intercolonial Royal Mail Service to provide steamers to collect and deliver mail from all New Zealand ports, and connect the service with Australia. By 1863 Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton, and Port Chalmers had a mail service every five days, and Bluff, Picton, Nelson, New Plymouth and Napier every 10 days.

International mail

Settlers remained dissatisfied with how long it took to transport mail between New Zealand and Britain. The government contracted a steamer company to provide a mail service to Britain, crossing the Panama isthmus by train, shortening the travel time substantially. Launched in 1866, the scheme reduced the time it took to send a letter to Britain from more than four months to around two months.

The scheme folded in 1869, and was followed in 1875 by a service through San Francisco, which carried mail across the United States on the Transcontinental Railway. The time the voyages took continued to improve, with an average of 39 days in the 1880s falling to an average of 33 days in the 1890s.

Expanding mail services

The Post Office responded to population growth and increased road building by expanding its mail delivery services. The first mail coach went through Arthur’s Pass from Christchurch to Hokitika in March 1866, and the coaches became more common as the population boomed and the volume of mail increased.

Mail coaches were frequent to gold rush districts, to which large numbers of people had flocked. Contracts were let to private companies such as Newman Brothers who provided a swift and reliable service. People even set their watches by the arrival of the mail coach. Mail contracts specified whether the mail was to be delivered on foot, on horseback, by trap (a small, one-horse carriage), boat or coach.

In 1860, 107 post offices handled nearly one million letters a year, and raised £10,000 in revenue. Mail routes covered a distance of 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometres). By 1870 there were 457 post offices handling over five million letters a year. Income had increased to £57,000, and mail routes covered nearly 7,000 miles (11,265 kilometres).

Of the 330 mail routes in 1875, 83 were served by coach or mail cart, 153 on horseback, 29 on foot, 51 by boat, and only 14 by railway. However, railways spread through the colony in the 1880s and 1890s, and gradually replaced coach services to all but remote rural areas. Travelling post offices were installed on rail cars, allowing mail to be sorted and ready for delivery by the time the train reached its destination.

The pride of Masterton


The post office building was symbolic of a town’s progressiveness and prosperity, and local worthies lobbied the government to have large and impressive post offices built in their town. When Masterton lobbied for a new post office in the 1890s, the district’s member of the House of Representatives, A. W. Hogg, thought that the plans presented to him were too modest for his town. ‘Put that [plan] away’, Hogg protested, ‘I don’t want to see it. It’s a one storey concern. To be planted on the finest site in Masterton! […] If we are not to have a post office worthy of a young metropolis we’ll do without one.’1


Pillar boxes and letter boxes

The introduction of postage stamps – in 1855 for international mail and 1862 for domestic mail – meant that mail no longer needed to be posted and received at the post office. Pillar boxes were introduced into major cities from 1863, enabling people to post letters at any time, and often close to their homes.

Mail began being delivered to homes in urban areas in the late 1870s, requiring local authorities to introduce more regular street numbering. The postmaster general noted in 1879 that it would aid mail delivery if people constructed letterboxes at their front gates, as much time was lost walking up to front doors and waiting for people to answer the postman’s knock. Private boxes at post offices were introduced in the 1860s, and there were 3,225 in use by 1880.

Post and Telegraph Department

Late 19th-century post offices were the communications centres of New Zealand towns. By the mid-1860s the Post Office had expanded its services to include a savings bank, insurance, and the payment of money orders.

In 1881 the Post Office and the Electric Telegraph Department amalgamated to become the Post and Telegraph Department. After this, the local post office also became the telephone exchange and the place where telegrams were sent and received.

Kiwi slot machine


The world’s first machine for selling postage stamps was invented by a New Zealand Post Office employee, R. J. Dickie. In 1905 he and business partner J. H. Brown trialled a machine that supplied a single stamp from a roll when a penny was put into a slot. After various improvements their invention was patented and used around the world.


The postmaster was a person of prestige and responsibility in the community. This was particularly true of rural districts, where the postmaster might serve a number of other responsible roles, such as justice of the peace, registrar of births, deaths and marriages, government insurance agent, railway stationmaster, land tax collector and registrar of electors. Much of the official business of the town was carried out at the post office.

  1. Quoted in Alan Henderson, Fortuitous legacy: the Masterton Trust Lands Trust, 18721997. Masterton: Masterton Trust Lands Trust in association with the Historical Branch, Dept of Internal Affairs, 1997, p. 151. Back
How to cite this page:

Tim Shoebridge, 'Mail and couriers - Mail in the steam era, 1850s–1890s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Tim Shoebridge, published 11 Mar 2010