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Mail and couriers

by Tim Shoebridge

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.

Beginning of the postal system, 1810s–1850s

Mail before 1840

Mail delivery began in New Zealand with the coastal sealers and whalers in the early 19th century. They carried mail destined for other ships, and between New Zealand and Australian settlements. The earliest known New Zealand letter to pass through the British postal system dates from September 1815. It was carried by whaling ship from the Bay of Islands to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), where the postmaster despatched it to Britain with a note that the letter was ‘the first Mail or Public Conveyance from this Island [New Zealand] to England.’1

Permanent settlements of Europeans took shape during the 1810s and 1820s. Growing trade with New South Wales stimulated the demand for a more organised means of communication. Bay of Islands merchant William Powditch was appointed as an agent of the postmaster general of New South Wales in 1831, and mail was received and despatched from his store.

Early post offices

The first official post office in New Zealand was established at Kororāreka (renamed Russell in 1844) shortly after New Zealand became a colony of Britain in 1840. William C. Hayes served as the first postmaster. By 1845 there were post offices at Russell, Rāwene, Auckland, New Plymouth, Whanganui, Wellington, Nelson and Akaroa.

The service expanded to meet the demands of a growing population in the 1850s, and by 1860 the number of post offices had risen to 107. From 1858 the country’s post offices were centrally controlled by the newly formed Post Office Department, headed by a postmaster general.

Coastal mail

The delivery of mail to inland areas was spasmodic during the early years of European settlement. Mail was usually carried between towns by visiting ships, and months could pass without communication between the government centre in Auckland and the rest of the colony. Settlers complained that the mail service should be cheaper and more efficient in the interests of the colony’s development.

Mail and the Māori King movement

Relations between the settler government and Waikato Māori broke down in 1859–60, and chiefs involved in the Māori King movement considered preventing settler mail from passing through their district. A Ngāti Maniapoto chief remarked that ‘the pakehas write evil reports of us from Taranaki to Auckland, and from Auckland back to Taranaki, and make Maori postmen bear them to and fro’. He compared Māori postmen to Christ before his crucifixion: ‘they made him bear the cross on which they crucified him’.2

Overland mail

The first attempts at a fortnightly overland service between Auckland and Wellington began in 1844, but only became regular in the 1850s. The service followed the west coast, passing through New Plymouth and Whanganui. The deliveries were usually made by Māori postmen, who did their best to keep the mail dry through river crossings and bad weather. Most of the provinces had developed regular postal services to their rural hinterlands by the end of the 1850s.

Postage stamps introduced

Mail was posted at post offices, and recipients had to go there to collect their mail. In the early years the cost of mail was sometimes paid by the sender and sometimes by the recipient, depending on the practice of the post office receiving the mail. Postage stamps, which were introduced in Britain in 1840, meant that all mail costs could be paid by the sender.

New Zealand adopted stamps for international mail in 1855, and for domestic mail in 1862. In 1887 a nationwide system of postmarks was introduced, which showed the name of the post office where the letter was posted, and cancelled the stamp so it could not be reused. Postmarks were initially hand-stamped, then mechanised from 1899.

    • Howard Robinson, A History of the Post Office in New Zealand, Wellington: Government Print, 1964, p. 9. Back
    • Otago Witness, 26 May 1860, p. 6. Back

Mail in the steam era, 1850s–1890s

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.

    • 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

Mail in the 20th century

From horses to motors

The post office began to use motor vehicles for transporting mail at the beginning of the 20th century. Motor lorries were initially used by the Post Office in Wellington in 1909, and by 1913 all horses had been replaced by motorised transport in Wellington. Motorised mail delivery spread rapidly during the First World War and, except for suburban delivery, most mail was transported by motor vehicle.

Horses, trains and automobiles


In 1931 a huge variety of methods were still used to deliver mail to rural communities, including: motor car, lorry, bus, motorcycle, coach, gig, trap, handcart, dray, sledge, dogcart, bicycle, launch, steamer, railway, tram, sawmill locomotive, ballast train, on horseback and on foot. Some routes combined several different modes of transport.


Rural delivery

Rural people had to collect their mail from the local post office until 1905, when they became able to send and receive mail at the farm gate. A delivery fee was introduced in 1922. The rural mailman also brought food items, parcels and newspapers, and handled money orders and postal notes.

Airmail takes off

Aeroplanes provided new possibilities for transporting mail after the First World War. Shortly after the war’s end there were unsuccessful experiments with using aeroplanes for inland mail delivery – at the time it proved too expensive. An air service was established in early 1935 to serve remote rural districts of the South Island. A year later mail planes connected all the main centres, and made the speed of mail delivery considerably faster. In 1938–39 aeroplanes carried two million letters between New Zealand centres. Air transport has remained a key aspect of domestic mail delivery ever since.

Penny post


In 1901 Postmaster General J. G. Ward announced that all mail, whether it was destined for another part of New Zealand or for the other side of the world, would cost only one penny to send. New Zealand was the first country in the world to introduce such a scheme. While most countries in the British Empire accepted the penny stamps, a few such as Australia initially demanded a surcharge. The expense of the First World War pushed prices up again in 1915.


New Zealand mail was first sent to Britain by air in 1931 – though it had first to travel to Australia by ship before it could board an aircraft. A regular airmail service between New Zealand and Australia finally began in April 1940, and expanded after the end of the Second World War.

Aerogrammes, or air letters (light sheets of paper that were folded to form their own envelopes), were introduced in 1945, providing a cheaper alternative to sending regular mail overseas.

Increasing efficiency

There was relatively little change in postal delivery in the mid-20th century. The country’s first automated parcel-sorting machine was installed at the Auckland post office in September 1961, and mechanised mail-sorting machines were gradually introduced to the main centres during the 1960s and 1970s. Postcodes were introduced into New Zealand in 1977 to aid mail sorting.

Banking with the Post Office

From the 1860s an important function of the local post office was issuing money orders and providing a savings bank. In many small towns, the post office was the only financial service available. From the 1960s New Zealand trading banks were allowed to develop their own networks of savings bank branches, and the Post Office Savings Bank was forced to become more competitive.


Postmen were a uniformed and regulated part of the civil service by the late 19th century. Until the mid-20th century posties were almost exclusively men, though women swelled the ranks during wartime. Female posties became more common from the 1960s.

Other than the risks of aggressive dogs and bad weather, being a postie is a good outdoor job, requiring physical fitness and good time management. A number of creative writers, such as James K. Baxter, Hone Tuwhare and Ian Wedde, served stints as posties. The early start and early finish to the working day left them with time for other activities.

Technology and change, 1980s–2000s


The Labour government elected in 1984 introduced a policy of economic rationalisation of government services in the mid-1980s. It considered the Post Office was losing money, failing to meet the needs of customers, and struggling to cope with the demands of its various wings and numerous responsibilities. The government split the Post Office into three independent state-owned enterprises on 1 April 1987: New Zealand Post, which dealt with mail; Telecom Corporation of New Zealand, which included the telecommunications side; and Postbank for banking.

In 1989 Postbank was sold to ANZ bank, and Telcom was sold into private ownership in 1990. New Zealand Post remained a state-owned enterprise, and in 2002 launched a new banking arm, Kiwibank.

The mail in Manunui


The closure of post offices in provincial towns reflected the decline of small-town New Zealand. Manunui was a busy King Country town in the 1920s, with a settled population and churches, schools, a police station, and a post office. The town declined steadily after its mill closed in 1942. The post office was closed in February 1988. Population numbers continue to drop, and the once-busy Manunui main street is today a rural delivery area.


Post office closures

In 1988 New Zealand Post closed 432 post offices, mostly in small communities, to reduce the costs of mail administration and delivery. Many people were outraged. Rural communities in particular saw their post office as a key part of their identity, akin to their church or town hall. Post office staff at Waipū, in Northland, stamped ‘Waipu Post Office Will Not Close’ on every piece of mail they handled. Signs bearing the same message were erected every eight kilometres between Auckland and Whangārei. Despite their efforts, the post office closed.

New Zealand Post rationalised its business in other ways. Mail-sorting changed with the introduction of computerised mail-sorting machines in the main centres in 1992. Mail was sorted quickly, and the transport system which moved the mail between centres was also rejuvenated.


The surviving post offices were redesigned as ‘post shops’, focusing on the commercial aspects of mail delivery and stripping away many of the services previously provided, such as banking (until it was reinstated in 2002).

The government announced in 1988 that it intended to deregulate the postal market and open it to competition, though this was not introduced until 1 April 1998. Under the terms of deregulation, New Zealand Post was still required to deliver mail to all parts of New Zealand.

In 2008 there were 25 postal operators registered with the Ministry of Economic Development. Pete’s Post, established in 1999 by Murray and Denise McBeth, was probably the most successful. The company undercut New Zealand Post’s prices for local delivery, and nine franchise operations were operating in other districts by 2003.

A communications revolution

Other forms of technology have diminished the volume of standard mail since the 1980s. Fax machines, which allowed almost instant transmission of information, were widely available by the early 1990s. The use of the internet and email was widespread by the end of the 20th century, and sending text messages by mobile phone also became popular.

As the popularity of web-based mail increased, the nature of physical mail changed. Personal letters decreased, and bulky packages and courier items increased as internet shopping grew more popular.

New Zealand Post introduced a new system of postcodes in 2006, in response to a 25% increase in delivery addresses in the previous 10 years, and urged the public to learn their postcodes.


First couriers, 1960s–1970s

Courier services began in the 1960s, responding to a need for quicker movement of postal items than the Post Office was able to provide.

The country’s first courier service, New Zealand Couriers, was established in Auckland in 1964, after one of its founders saw courier services in other countries. Much of the firm’s early work was driving mail from businesses to the central post office in Auckland. Its earliest delivery vehicle was a Morris J van. Customers placed orders at a central office, which communicated orders to drivers by radio.

In 1966 New Zealand Couriers formed a partnership with the Wellington-based Mercury Couriers to transport bank documentation around the country. In 1969 New Zealand Couriers established the first nationwide courier service. Branches in Hamilton and Christchurch soon followed, and by the late 1970s the firm had chartered aircraft carrying packages between the main centres.

Couriers go international, 1970s–1980s

Many courier companies sprang up in the 1970s, mostly to service the larger cities and their surrounding districts. Nationwide services became more common, though most companies focused on serving business in the larger centres. From around 1980 courier services were allowed to compete with the government-owned Post Office.

Courier services to international destinations started in the 1980s. New Zealand Couriers, which dominated the courier market during the 1970s, was purchased by the Freightways Group in 1977. Freightways continued to buy up its competition during the 1980s, and its dominance made it difficult for new players to get established after road transport was deregulated in 1982–83.

New Zealand Post joined the courier market in August 1989 as CourierPost, and later introduced ‘track and trace’ technology.

Cycle couriers


Couriers on bikes were ideal in busy city streets, with their ability to weave between traffic and pedestrians. Although they sped up inner-city deliveries, they were regarded by many as a hazard on the road, and on the footpath.


Couriers in cyberspace, 1980s–2000s

Customer demand for faster service created new opportunities in the courier market. The 1980s saw the introduction of bicycles and motorcycles into the courier business in the larger centres. From the late 1980s customers could place orders over the telephone, using a PIN-number. In the early 2000s couriers began using portable bar-code scanners, which allowed them to scan packages on pick up and delivery. This technology enabled customers to trace the progress of their packages on the internet.

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How to cite this page: Tim Shoebridge, 'Mail and couriers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Tim Shoebridge, i tāngia i te 11 o Māehe 2010