Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 1, October 1981
Nelson's Post Office Buildings
Nelson's Post Office Buildings
Mail delivered every day is something we take for granted, but the early settlers who longed for letters from "Home" could expect them only every few months and then they would be from five to seven months old. Moreover, they were only too willing to call at the Post Office when the flag on Britannia Heights announced that a boat was approaching. The first Post Office was open from 10 to 11 a.m. for ordinary business, but if an overseas boat arrived and it was before 4 p.m. the office was opened and recipients could collect their mail. At first there was little mail apart from that brought by "Home" boats, an occassional boat from Wellington, some mail from Sydney, but no overland mails.
In 1841 the New Zealand Company dealt with mail at their tent on what is now Church Hill, but, when emigrants began to arrive, the Governor appointed two officials to the Colony of Nelson – a Customs Officer, Stephen Carkeek and Henry Augustus Thompson who combined the functions of Chief Magistrate, Postmaster, Protector of the Aborigines, etc. He erected a marquee on Church Hill to serve as headquarters for his various departments and as his own private office. Thompson had little to do with the running of the Post Office, his assistant, T. B. Titchener, was assistant Postmaster until he resigned a few months later because he had received no salary. He was followed by W. O. Cautley. The overcrowded tent was found to be inconvenient and, for a short time, postal business is said to have been conducted from Thompson's house which was situated a little further down the hill in what is now Church Lane.
William Stanton, who, as a lad of seventeen, worked for William Curling Young until his untimely death, was clerk and secretary to Thompson whose unusual temper he found amusing rather than annoying. He describes the small house, which, added to and altered still stands. He also tells of the purchase by the Government of what was the original Examiner Office. This was a prefabricated wooden building which had been erected on Church Hill on what was found to be Government land. As the paper was experiencing financial difficulties it was decided to sell the building to the Government and to move to a mud building on what became known as Examiner Street. Stanton helped to move the Courthouse and the Post Office to the wooden building which stood near the site of the Soldiers' Monument. The Post Office section was described as a "shed, ten feet by twelve feet." This move took place before the Wairau Affray as depositions from the survivors were taken in the new Courthouse.
By October 1843 the British Government had decreed that Post Offices be under the control of the Customs Department, so Carkeek became official Postmaster, but the actual work was carried out by clerks, George Fleury and William L. Howard, the latter becoming Postmaster in 1849 when the control of Post Offices became the responsibility of the Colonial Secretary. Howard soon left for an appointment in Canterbury and Benjamin Walmsley was Postmaster from March 1851.page 25
During these changes it seems the Post Office remained on Church Hill. Martha Adams, who arrived in Nelson with her husband and two young sons in 1850, gives an account of mail day in her Journal. On a Sunday in early December 1850, they went to church in a wooden shed on Church Hill (the first church building was opened just one year later). At that time they were staying in a boarding house which looked straight toward the church shed. As they left the service they were delighted to see the flag flying high on a hill as this signified the arrival of a "home" boat. "The Post Office," she writes, "is in a building below the church on the same hill and visible from our dining table, so that all through that meal, we were watching to see when the doors of the office re-opened to give out the letters, and what a joyful sound it was when Acton (her son) ran into the garden with an envelope … calling out, "Mama, Mama! a letter for you from England!' How delightful it was once more to have a letter to read! We had been so long without receiving any, now we all had letters … but by some mistake there were none for Mr Nicholls who sat looking on very disconsolately!"
It was not long before complaints were being made that the premises were too small to handle increased business. There was a direct boat from Sydney that brought mail for other centres to be sent on as soon as possible, while there were some overland mails to be dealt with. In 1855 a move was made to a cottage in Hardy Street. From a map dated 1859 we find that the Post Office was on Acre 172, the next one to the Bank. It was near the corner of Alma Street and was owned by a man named Ross. Older residents remember a Chinese laundry that may have been a later occupant of the same cottage. Despite Walmsley's longing for a "proper" Post Office this cottage served the purpose for some twelve years.
The next advance in communication was the coming of the telegraph to Nelson in March 1866. At this time the telegraph was a separate department from the Post Office and for the first few years it was housed in a "wretched little shed." The Nelson Evening Mail had timed its first issue to coincide with the first telegraph message due on March 5 but a break in the line between Picton and Nelson delayed the first message till March 19. Papers would now be opened at the first port of call for a ship, often Bluff and important news telegraphed to the papers in the other centres. For the first time in New Zealand news could travel more rapidly than by ship or by a messenger on a fast horse.
After the turn of the century it again became necessary to find a new site where a "really substantial" Post Office could be erected. Again this was difficult and the choice unpopular. The corner of Trafalgar Street and Haven Road was too far out of town, it was swampy, right away from the business quarter, a miserable site, opposite untidy sections that had been market gardens, a post office there would make Nelson the laughing stock of the colony. Once again it seems that the grumblers had little effect, work went ahead and the handsome building was opened in March 1906 by the Postmaster General, Joseph Ward. A chiming clock was installed in the tower; half its cost, two hundred and ten pounds had been subscribed by residents.
Over the years the town has grown and spread to the north, a new bridge has been built, drainage improved, no longer does the site stand in a wilderness and when in 1970, the building was demolished as an earthquake risk, it was with sadness that citizens saw the landmark go.page 28
Adams, Martha: Journal (Alexander Turnbull Library).
Allan, Ruth: Nelson: A History of Early Settlement.
Millar, J. Halkett: Our Daily Mail.
Stanton, William: Diary (Nelson Provincial Museum).
Startup, R. M.: Through Gorge and Valley.
Nelson Examiner: Various Files.
Nelson Evening Mail: Selected copies.
Photos: Nelson Provincial Museum.