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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 1, October 1981

[Nelson's Post Office Buildings]

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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.

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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.

In February 1856 tenders were called for a regular mail every Wednesday and Saturday between the Post Office and Mr Stanton's house in Richmond; Mr Dixon's house, Waimea South (Spring Grove); the Schoolhouse, Wakefield, and Mr John Palmer's house, Waimea West. By March the Examiner was glad to report that arrangements had been completed by which "postal communication will be maintained twice a week between the town of Nelson and the districts of the Waimeas." There was also to be a mail twice a week to Motueka, once a week to Massacre Bay (Golden Bay) and to Waitohi (Picton) and the Wairau. Alas! Six months later the paper reported that the mail, a horse one, to the Wairua had been discontinued as the General Government had either neglected or refused to pay the money voted for the purpose by the House of Representatives — this was infamous, they had voted half the cost. By 1858, when there were a number of small offices receiving mail, Walmsley was made Chief Postmaster for the district and the agitation for a "proper" post office was renewed. The Provincial Government, chronically short of funds, thought it should be the responsibility of the General Government to build it. Matters were finally brought to a head when the Government ruled that if the Provincial Council made no move they would buy land, build a Post Office and charge them for it! This led to the purchase of the only available section, the triangular piece of land in Bridge Street page 26
Bridge Street Post Office. – (N.P.M.)

Bridge Street Post Office. – (N.P.M.)

which had been occupied by a small brick Wesleyan Chapel, then partially demolished. There was a general outcry, the site was too far from the business area, it was swampy, subject to flooding, out of town. The land had been bought, however, and a building was erected in record time and opened by the end of 1863. It was a substantial building in Grecian style designed by John Rochfort, the surveyor. Nathaniel Edwards, the owner of the land built offices on the remaining part of the section. These buildings, altered and modified are still in use.

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.

Ten years later the Telegraph Office was moved to a "'fine new building" in Trafalgar Street, it occupied the top floor of the wooden building between Hardy Street and the Council Chambers (it was demolished in 1978). By 1881 the Post Office building was in need of alteration and repair and it was decided to move it once again, this time to the same building as the Telegraph page 27
Trafalgar Street Post and Telegraph Offices. (Tyree Collection N.P.M.)

Trafalgar Street Post and Telegraph Offices. (Tyree Collection N.P.M.)

Office. Perhaps this was the one popular move, the business people were well satisfied. It was while the Post Office was on this site that it became the custom for people to gather at six o'clock to watch the arrival of the Mail Coach from Blenheim. Fresh, carefully matched horses had been put in the coach after the Whangamoa and, with horses and driver conscious of their audience, a dash was made up Trafalgar Street, a spectacular turn at the church steps, and a stop at the Post Office. Mail bags were unloaded, then down Trafalgar Street they galloped, round the Memorial Lamp at the intersection of Hardy Street and so to the stables.

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.

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Corner of Trafalgar Street and Haven Road 1906. – (N.P.M.)

Corner of Trafalgar Street and Haven Road 1906. – (N.P.M.)