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Wales-New Zealand Family History Society

a.k.a.    WANZ

The Mail has been getting through since 1512

Published in The Welsh Connection     January 2003   #46

A regular letter service in England goes back only to the reign of King Henry V111.  In 1512 he appointed the first "Master of the Posts" to supervise arrangements for mail carriage along the routes used by the royal couriers.  Gradually the public was permitted to share the posting facilities on the main roads - changing horses at the post stations, or sending their letters by the royal messengers that rode the routes.  But even by the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign (1603) the Queen only grudgingly permitted private persons the use of the royal post. A more adequate service for the general public as arranged shortly after James I came down from Scotland to succeed Queen Elizabeth.  There was even a regular service overseas to the continent before the Civil Wars between Charles I and the parliamentarians put a stop to peaceful communication.  The post office was re-established, however, in 1660.  The letters before 1840 were unlike the ones we now send through the mails.  In earlier centuries they were written on vellum, although vellum was being replaced by paper in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Because of the scarcity of vellum and even paper, it was long the practice to cut off from a larger sheet the size needed for the letter.  When the message was written, the sheet was folded to about the shape of our small present-day envelopes, and closed by sealing with wax.  The address was written on the face of the folded sheet, and the letter was usually sent without paying the postage; it was collected from the receiver.  Envelopes were not used, as the charge for carrying a letter was based, not on the weight, but on the number of sheets.  The royal family, government officials, and some over privileged persons had been allowed to frank their letters, that is, send and receive them free of postage, but franking had been largely abolished by the postal reforms at the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign.

In the eighteenth century, when Captain Cook first visited New Zealand, letters mailed in Britain were not only charged by the number of sheets, but the tax was based on the distance they traveled.  If Captain Cook had written a letter in 1768, before he left for the South Seas and New Zealand, it would have cost him 3d. to send a single folded sheet 80 miles, 6d for the next stage up to 150 miles, and so on.  If the letter was of two sheets, or one sheet and an enclosure, the charge was doubled; if made up of three sheets, it was trebled, etc.  In the 60 years before the penny-postage reform of 1840, postage rates were raised again and again in the hope that the postage on letters would help to pay for the exhausting wars that were fought against France almost continuously from 1756, until the downfall of Napoleon in 1815.  By the time of Waterloo a single-sheet letter between London and Edinburgh, for instance, cost 1s. 2d., a double letters 2s. 4d., and so on upwards.  London and Edinburgh are about as far apart as Auckland and Wellington, or Blenheim and Dunedin.  Such high postal rates were almost prohibitive for many living in the British Isles.  The cost of communication was so much resented by the 1830's, that there was widespread illegal carriage of mails outside the government post office, and considerable demand for a service that could be used by all the people, by the poor as well as the rich.

The postal charges to such colonies as New Zealand, were subject to two rates, depending on how they were carried overseas.  If a colonial letter traveled on a government packet boat, its lowest cost was 1s.  But in 1840, the government packet boats were not yet sailing beyond the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.  If a colonial letter was sent to colonies outside the Atlantic, it was carried by private ships as opportunity offered.  The cost of letters to New Zealand and the Australian colonies by private ship was 8d. - a high rate, since the post office did not provide for the carriage or delivery of such letters.

Delivery of the mail within New Zealand, was much quicker by sea routes between the widely scattered early settlements, than to go overland.  Whaling ships advertised their willingness to carry mail.  The first public notice of an American mail for New Zealand, of which we are aware, appeared in the New Bedford (Massachusetts) Mercury of 20 July, 1835.  That issued listed 16 ships willing to carry letters, half of them bound for the Pacific.  One, the Samuel Robertson, Captain McKenzie, was to leave on 5 August for the "South Atlantic Ocean and New Zealand".  The Samuel Robertson, delivered mail at Cloudy Bay at the eastward end of Cook Strait.  The whaler ultimately returned to New Bedford, reaching home on 24 June 1837, "carrying letters".

Pre-war, postmen would deliver mail to the door if they did not have to go more than 60 feet from the footpath.  From late in 1940, people had been asked to help them by putting mail boxes at their gates.  By February 1941, some 55,000 had complied, so that in all 236,000 of New Zealand's 275,000 householders had boxes at the gate.  In some small towns such as Gisborne and Inglewood, every gate had its box; in Nelson, out of 3620 householders, only 70 did not have them.  From March to April 1942, when girls began to replace men with the bicycles and mail-bags, householders who did not provide gate-boxes, had to collect their mail from the nearest post office.  In March, of Wanganui's 5638 residences, only 35 lacked boxes.  In Wellington, with about 23,000 households, only 600 then lacked boxes, fewer than 40 in early May.  Dunedin was rather slower; in April, 1100 households out of 19,400 had not yet complied.

Post Offices during the New Zealand gold rush days, sported an extra-ordinary variety of names, such as Dry Bread, Half Ounce, No Town and Tinker's Gully.

The Queenstown Post Office was built from a single stone.  In 1937, John ROUTLEDGE and his friend Bill SMOOTHY, had to search hard to find suitable building materials for the Post Office, because all the local stone is schist.  They eventually fund a stone the size of a 5-roomed villa, half in and half out of Lake Wakatipu.  They both worked from am till 5 pm throughout the spring and summer, cutting bricks of greywacke from the stone with which to build the Post Office.
The first airmail system in the world went in operation on 14 may 1897, between Great Barrier Island and Auckland City.  Trained pigeons flew 100kms with messages tied to their legs.
The price was two shillings. 
A year later, this 'pigeongram' service was issued with its own stamps.


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