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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 5, 1993

Pioneer Women in the Early Nelson Post Offices

Pioneer Women in the Early Nelson Post Offices

page 30

In Victorian era days of New Zealand, the European population could be grouped in three classes, based on their source of income. First, families whose income was derived from the wage-earner's labour; second, the small farmer, the trades-people and the civil service group; and third, the wealthy land-occupier, those in the professions or in politics.

It is difficult today to appreciate just how different life was in New Zealand society one hundred or more years ago. Apart from the material things, such as transport commonly being by horse and coach or, where they existed, by steam-trains, the culture of those days was so entirely different. In just one example, today when we go into a bank or a post office, our wants are seen to from behind the counter by women. The manager may be a man or a woman. It is not too many years ago that there were mostly men behind the office counter, and the manager was always a man!

The great social changes of the 1890s such as women's suffrage, the introduction of the first state-funded pension schemes and the opening of wide areas of land for small farm settlement, seem to have accelerated changes in New Zealand's social mores and culture. But it took the sacrifices demanded of many families during the 1914–1918 War to break down class distinction, and introduce the more willing acceptance of women into the civil service and professional areas.

In the Victorian era, the male income earner was usually dominant, and it was difficult for women to be accepted as equals. This was just as true of employment opportunities, including the banking and the civil service groups. It also seems to have been true of the early teaching profession, as early lists of teachers are very largely comprised of men. But, as more and more independent and strong-minded women commenced carving out careers for themselves in the several professions, it became easier for other women to enter those areas of the workforce.

The Post Office is an excellent example of the change from a male dominated profession in the 1850s, to a service far more gender balanced by the 1950s. Though post offices have been operating in New Zealand from 1840, at first they were mostly "add-on" duties. When the Department was formed in 1858, the first fee full-time salaried employees were all men. Likewise, with the formation of the Telegraph Department in 1864, the staff were all men. By the time the offices were merged in 1881, to form the Post and Telegraph Department, a few women had achieved appointment.

It needs to be appreciated that most post offices commenced as agencies, operated out of a settlement's general store. Not until the telegraph office arrived did the agency move to a "staffed" office. In country areas, the telegraphist was also the Lineman, who had the responsibility of maintaining the line for miles in either direction. He was also usually made the postmaster, taking over from the store. The departmental policy was that the appointee preferably be a married man, so that when he was out working on the lines, his wife could run the office; no extra pay of course!

The telegraph line reached Nelson, from Blenheim via Havelock, in March 1866 when a telegraph office was opened in Nelson. The Provincial Council sponsored an extension line to Motueka, which opened on 27 May 1872 under 21-year old Charles Edmund Nicholas. When extended over the ranges to Takaka, the service was at first operated by telephone. Joseph Francis Fabian, who had already had ten years experience in isolated localities on the Wellington – Hawkes Bay line, opened the Takaka office on 1 April 1881.

In the south, a line had worked its way up the Buller from Reefton, reaching Lyell in page 311874. In 1876 a line was constructed south from Nelson, to link up at Lyell. The route followed the railway construction south to Foxhill, then struck overland to Tophouse, before swinging back to head for the Buller. From Tophouse another line ran through the Wairau to Blenheim. Arthur Fitchett was the first lineman at Foxhill, 1 August 1876, with William Jabez White at Tophouse 1 May 1876.

At this time Lyell was an important goldmining centre, with both Postmaster/Telegraphist, and a lineman. The latter was Lyvian Warne, who was moved to establish the key lineman's station through the Buller at Longford on 1 March 1878.

Though I have not located the names of the wives of these pioneer appointments, we can be sure that they had the responsibility of looking after the office in their husband's absence. The country post office building in the mid 1870s was a standard design of a combined office/residence, single storey and built of timber. The front room was used as the office and, as business grew and more rooms were taken over, the family was squeezed into what was left, until an alternative residence was taken up.

It was actually quite expensive to erect a small office/residence and to employ a skilled man, and when it was found, around 1881, that telephones could be used over telegraph lines, the local storekeeper-postmaster was made a telephonist, in preference to opening a telegraph office. The first women telegraphists had entered the service, in the South Island, in 1874, but it was not until the opening of more and more telephone exchanges, in the 1890s, that they were able to enter the service in greater numbers, through becoming exchange-attendants.

Miss Barbara Mouat, then aged a little under 20, appears to be the first woman in New Zealand to have been accepted in the Telegraph Learner's Gallery in Wellington, starting on 1 January 1874. After her three month's training, she was sent to the Nelson telegraph office as a cadet, on a salary of 75 pounds a year. Two years later she was brought back to Wellington as telegraphist and, in September 1877, was sent to Dunedin. She was later appointed the first salaried or permanent staff postmistress in New Zealand, taking over the South Dunedin office from 1 February 1884. Even then she was listed separately, in the non-clerical division, and not amongst the men!

The "liberalisation" decade of the 1890s also saw women being appointed as full-time salaried postmistresses, usually in small country settlements. On the civil service becoming "classified" for salary and promotion purposes in 1894, such few women were described as "Extra-classified", though they were still listed amongst storekeeper agencies. Their maximum annual salary of 65 pounds was less than that paid to the men, and they faced other restrictions.

A slowly increasing number of post offices became extra-classified and, in 1908, opening of access to civil service superannuation schemes for women forced re-examination of their status.

The following notice regarding the employment of women was gazetted in 1907:

Non-Clerical Division

"22. Females will be admitted as cadets, but they will be appointed only to such vacancies as are suitable to females. They will belong to the Non-clerical Division only, but will be required to produce the certificates prescribed for cadets in the Clerical Division. The age for admission for females is between sixteen and twenty-five years, but women not above the age of forty years may be appointed to the Non-clerical Division if they have for a term of two years previously been continuously employed by the Department of Postmistresses or in any other capacity. Not more than three persons of the same family shall be employed in the Department at one time. Not more than one daughter in a family shall be eligible for appointment as a telephone-exchange cadette. Married page 32women are not eligible for appointment, and females must resign when they marry. The Governor, during the period of probation, may at any time dismiss any cadette from the Department for any reason which may be deemed sufficient." 1.

About 50 such extra-classified post offices throughout New Zealand were up-graded to "permanent" status or grade from 1 July 1908, and a little after that "extra" became "non-classified", to separate them more distinctly from the agency, or non-permanent post offices.

It is interesting to note that no such extra-classified offices had been created in Nelson. As post offices were moved from the country store or railway station into newly erected post and telegraph buildings, such as those at Richmond and Wakefield, the first permanent postmasters were men. When Upper Moutere was upgraded to permanent on 24 February 1911, Alice Robinson was the first permanent officer; the first woman to achieve this in Nelson.

In the other districts, the young women appointed extra-classified postmistresses seem to have come from varied origins. Some are known to have been widows of serving telegraphists, given the position both to assist them financially, and to use their existing skills at a cheaper rate than would be the case if fully-trained men, on a higher salary, were employed. Other young women were daughters of local settlers, and may have gained the post through political patronage. It was not until 1912 that service independence in appointment was officially achieved.

The two other major areas where women entered the workforce were through becoming a general storekeeper agency-postmistress, or by being a schoolmistress appointed to certain schools. There is no doubt that, at many of the several hundred store-post offices that had opened in New Zealand by the 1880s, the postal work was actually carried out by the wives or daughters, though the postmastership was in the male's name. But increasingly, from the 1880s, women working in this area were appointed to the post office.

Listed are those rural post offices where women had been appointed prior to 1910. Most of these are thought to have been at general stores, though Aorere was probably at the dairy factory at mat time, and two or three others were in farmhouses. In the lists of appointment, which are about the only surviving records, the titles "Mrs" or "Miss" were rarely shown. 2.

Aorere 1.8.1904 Florence A Fletcher 18.8.1910 Mary A King
Appleby 1.9.1869 Eliza Reidy (succeeded 9.3.1870)
1.9.1902 Sarah A Challis 1.8.1908 Hazel B Percival
Baton 1.8.1885 Harriett Parkes 7.10.1886 Emma Gibbs
12.6.1888 Kate Corrigan 1.9.1889 Ellen L Cresswell
1.9.1890 Ellen Quinton (succeeded 1.7.1895)
Bishopdale 1.12.1887 Ann R Gifford (office closed 26.3.1891)
Hope 10.11.1900 Christina Balck
Kea 26.5.1909 Charlotte E W Campbell
Kiwi 12.6.1907 Charlotte E W Campbell (then to Kea)
Motueka Wharf
1.8.1899 Miriam E Moffatt 15.2.1899 Louisa M Moffatt
Orinoco 1.11.1903 Helen C M Beatson
Pokororo 6.8.1895 Lydia M Bradley 1.7.1903 Eva C Heath
Puramahoi 1.4.1897 Jeannie Walker page 33
Redwood's Valley
25.7.1899 Lily I Cameron 15.12.1899 Betsy Schroder
Sherry River 1.2.1890 Eliza A Phillips 1.11.1892 Emily Street
1.1.1895 Jane Wray 1.6.1896 Alice E Fittall
Spring Grove
16.11.1880 Martha Walkden (succeeded 1.9.1885)
Thorpe 23.8.1888 Sarah M Rose 1.9.1906 Miss Winifred M Winn
Totaranui 1.12.1883 Mrs Betsy Gibbs (to 1.6.1892)
Upper Moutere
30.10.1886 Mrs Annie Cook
Upper Takaka
1.7.1906 Robina Harwood 15.9.1906 Henrietta O Heywood

Mind you, none of these women would have become rich from being appointed agency-postmaster. Though, undoubtedly, the quarterly-paid salary often gave them a sense of independence, the standard salary was only six pounds a year. Examples of storekeeper-postmaster daughters transferring to full-time "extra-classified" post-offices are known.

The other area where women were employed quite early in the postal service, was through their primary profession as school-teachers. At quite a few country schools, particularly in the South Island, the school was also made the local post office, and the teacher, the postmaster. This was quite logical, as children moving between school and home were able to distribute the mail. Often incoming teachers had no option but to also take over the post office, receiving the same six pounds a year modicum of additional salary.

The earliest schoolmistress appointment seems to have been that of Kathleen Barry, at Stoke, in 1888. As with storekeeper postmistress appointments, it is difficult to ascertain the main occupation of the women, prior to 1893, and assumptions have to be made. It is hoped that readers will tell us where we are wrong!

The following list is of early school-post office appointments in Nelson:

Ferntown 1.7.1890 Alice Murray 17.3.1899 Margaret B Hunter
17.7.1899 Elizabeth A McGavin
Lower Moutere
1.4.1905 Ada M Desaunais
Marahau 1.3.1890 Sarah A Cowles
Neudorf 1.2.1898 Amelia Beuke
Pakawau 1.4.1893 Blanche Riley 12.8.1899 Elizabeth A Winter
5.5.1902 Florence Field
Stoke 18.1.1888 Kathleen Barry 1.12.1903 Charlotte S E Naylor
1.6.1905 Sarah W W Low

Nearly always forgotten, rarely appointed or listed by their own name, nevertheless the work of women in the early post and telegraph service was an essential contribution to the development of the our country's communications. It has been a pleasure to identify and record their names.


1. Post & Telegraph Official Circular, Dec 2 1907, p170 quoting Order in Council published in New Zealand Gazette 14 November 1907
2. Post & Telegraph Head Office archives were lost in fires that destroyed their buildings in 1887 and again in 1961.