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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 7, Issue 1, 2009

A Post Office In The House

page 57

A Post Office In The House

In the early 1900s, settlers were scattered throughout "Received telegrams were to be delivered free of charge within a distance of one mile from the Office. (No one lived that close in Whangamoa)". the Whangamoa Valley and the area known as Kokorua, which lies towards the coast. They ran sheep on the partly cleared hills and flats, and a few labouring jobs could be found on roadwork or in the sawmill. Money could also be earned from hunting wild cattle in the bush. Some farmers in the Wakapuaka district held leases on land in the Valley and travelled back and forth to tend their sheep. The district was part of the Whangamoa Riding, administered by the Waimea County Council.

Newman Brothers' coach went through from Nelson to Blenheim three times a week with passengers and freight. They employed a groom at their changing stables in the Collins Valley. Whangamoa Valley residents had to collect their mail from the Hillside schoolhouse on the Wakapuaka Road.

Among the sheep farmers in the Valley in 1896 was Frank Roscoe Bird, a son of Joshua Bird of Waimea. About 1898 his elder brother, Arthur Douglas Bird and his wife Elizabeth (nee Flower), left Renwicktown in Marlborough, where Arthur had been a partner in a store run as Bird and Hillman. They took over the Half Way accommodation house, which stood at the turn-off into the Collins Valley and was "licensed to sell spirituous liquor". The first Post Office in the Whanga-moa Valley was established there, with Arthur being appointed as the first Postmaster on August 1, 1898.

page 58
Arthur Bird snigs a log with a jinker, about 1912.A W Wastney Collection.

Arthur Bird snigs a log with a jinker, about 1912.
A W Wastney Collection.

A telephone office was added in 1901 and then toll call facilities in 1907. This began the Bird family's long association with the Whangamoa Post Office, which lasted forty-one years, except for a short break from 1910 to 1912.

Arthur also took up a block of undeveloped land on Red Hill, running up to Mt Castor, which he cleared and stocked with sheep brought over from Marlborough. By 1903 he was running nearly nine hundred sheep, and he also bred horses for Newman brothers. He built a steam-driven sawmill, which was located further down the Valley, in 1904 and used horses to drag logs from the bush. Sawn timber, posts and firewood were transported over the Whangamoa page 59Saddle to the market in Nelson on a horse-drawn wagon.

In 1908 Arthur and his wife handed the Half Way House over to his brother, Frank Bird, who became the accommodation house keeper and Postmaster until 1910. Frank was followed by A Norgate for two years, from 1910 to 1912. Arthur and his family moved into a new house he had built near the sawmill. The Post Office was relocated to the Bird's residence in 1912 and Elizabeth Bird was appointed as the Postmistress. After the Half Way house burned down in 1916, Arthur built a tearoom on the verandah of their house and provided accommodation for visitors.

Mrs Elizabeth Bird (nee Flower).Bird family Collection.

Mrs Elizabeth Bird (nee Flower).
Bird family Collection.

As motorised transport came into general use, Arthur bought a Thorneycroft truck. He was the first man to carry a load of timber over the Whangamoa Saddle in a motor vehicle. Newmans carried the mailbags on the running boards of their Cadillac service cars. After the Army commandeered the sawmill horses in 1914 for the First World War, Arthur continued to farm and to cart and sell firewood.

Whangamoa School pupils, 1932.Gwenda Bird, age 13, second on left. Wastney Collection.

Whangamoa School pupils, 1932.
Gwenda Bird, age 13, second on left.
Wastney Collection.

Elizabeth Bird had two children, a son Roy born in the Wairau in 1885, and a daughter born in Nelson in 1888. She was well known in Nelson for dispensing hospitality in the Valley, looking after guests and making scones for Newmans' passengers when they stopped by. She was the Whangamoa Postmistress for twenty-three years. A schoolteacher before her marriage, she page 60was a pillar of support to the fragile "household" school system on which the Valley children depended for their education. There was a period when she taught the children in the front room of her house. The parents provided a rudimentary schoolroom next to the mill, which was later shifted near the Kokorua road. For years there was no proper school committee, and Elizabeth took her turn as school Commissioner and contacted the Education Board when necessary.

One day she was driving home from Nelson when the trap accidentally overturned. All on her own she managed to free the horse from the trap and rode it home. Both Elizabeth and her daughter played the piano and joined in many of the musical evenings then popular with settlers and visitors. By 1930 there was an increase in the number of children in the Valley from saw milling and Public Works families and the Education Board was obliged to build a proper school.

On January 6, 1920, a Peace picnic was held in HV O'Beirne's paddock at Hillwood, on the Wakapuaka Road. It was to celebrate the end of the War and to welcome the returned soldiers from Wakapuaka and Whangamoa. The celebration was marred by Arthur's sudden death. He collapsed while taking part in a tug-of-war event and died a few minutes later. The funeral was held at Hillwood the next day and he was buried in the Hira Cemetery. He was 61 years old, and had been a true pioneer all his life. His brother, Frank Bird, died at Wakefield in July 1921 aged 51 years.

Elizabeth continued to live in the Post Office in the Valley with her son Roy and his family, serving as Postmistress until 1935. Her young grand-daughter, Gwenda Bird, then stepped into her Grandmother's shoes as Postmistress. All through her young life there had been a Post Office in the house.

Years later Gwenda wrote down her memories of the time she lived in Whanga-moa:

"My letter of appointment to Postmistress is dated 1st July 1935, so I was fifteen. Payment was 27 pounds per annum, plus opening fees, 1 pound 10 shillings for each party line owner, and 2 pounds for each party line.

One of the conditions was that telegrams and toll calls on the private business of the telephonist were to be paid for, and that in the absence of an approved arrangement to the contrary, received telegrams were to be delivered free of charge within a distance of one mile from the Office. (No one lived that close in Whangamoa).

The Post Office was a small building on the end of the big front verandah; we had to go out the front door and along the open verandah. It was cold in the winter page 61and at night. We wouldn't have been able to hear the bells when at the back of the house. So the Post and Telegraph Department put bells around the living room – the main line, Hemi Matenga Estate, British Pavements, the party lines of Weller, Kingsley, Tunnicliff (later Percy Hebberd) and Wishart who used to be at Rutlands beyond Kokorua. The main line took in all the bays down the Sounds, including French Pass, so the noise was terrific some days.

One night we were trying to listen to a play on the radio which was most difficult as the main bell kept ringing the different bays, so my brother Douglas jammed some paper in it.

The Nelson Post Office used to ring at 9am each morning for everyone to check their clocks. This particular morning we realised we hadn't heard the 9 o'clock bell and went into the office about 9.30am to get ready for the mail car arriving, threw the switch over for the bells to ring in the Post Office and our ring was going. When we answered Nelson said "Whangamoa where have you been, we've been ringing you since 9am". Then we remembered the paper stuffed in the bell. We made some excuse about the ring not coming through, so they told us to throw the switch again to see if it had cleared."

Glenda hurried down the hall and removed the wad of paper, shivering in her shoes while thinking of what would have been said if a linesman had been sent out all the way from Nelson to locate the problem.

As in any small community, there was one customer who did not like the Post Office. The Birds had a private phone in their living room, connected to the party line and to Wisharts beyond Kokorua. They couldn't ring Nelson on it and it wasn't connected to the Post Office. A certain man heard they had this phone, so he put in a complaint to Nelson that the Bird family would listen in there, when he was talking on the phone in the Post Office. He wouldn't have the phone on to his house in case they listened in on it. The Inspector was sent out and of course the phone was the one they already knew about. It was for their own convenience, to save going out to the Post Office if it was just private calls to the family from locals.

Previously, the man had called at all hours for his mail, as many others did, after work etc. Gwenda's mother, Mrs Roy Bird, was so annoyed she told him that in future he would get his mail only during office hours, not from the back door. Mrs Bird did not specify that the ban included his wife's mail too, so he continued his visits to the back door to ask for his wife's magazine on a Saturday, but never asked for his own after hours.

page 62
Whangamoa Valley about 1912.Bird's house and mill right.Half Way House left.A W Wastney Collection.

Whangamoa Valley about 1912.
Bird's house and mill right.
Half Way House left.
A W Wastney Collection.

Gwenda was always willing to provide extra services to the people of the Valley. She said "I would hand various notes from folk to the Newman's driver when he dropped off the mail. He would leave them at the Rai Valley store and collect bread and stores on the return trip. Sometimes he had quite a load".

She also wrote letters for a Maori family who came to Whangamoa from the North Island to work and whose children could not speak English. There was an elderly lady who came to live with her son for a time. She could not read or write, so Gwenda wrote her letters, kept any replies until she came back and read them to her. She didn't want her son's family to see her letters, though there was never anything against her son in page 63them. There were people with little idiosyncrasies, and the Postmistress took it all as part of her day's work.

Gwenda had fond memories of the numerous dogs owned by her menfolk, used on the farm and for hunting. Her two brothers, Kelvin and Douglas, were skilled hunters for deer and wild pigs and there were many stories of their dogs' great exploits.

Elizabeth Bird died in 1940, aged 80 years, and was buried beside Arthur in the Hira Cemetery. Roy Bird and his family moved to Richmond to live in 1941, leaving the Valley and the Post Office behind them. Gwenda became interested in breeding and showing dogs, with her main love being for Spaniels and Cairn Terriers. She became closely involved with several Kennel Clubs and was a meticulous secretary and treasurer as well as becoming President, Patron and a life member. She passed away in 2003 aged 82 years, and was buried in the Hira Cemetery, where other family members with the names of Bird, Flower and Oakly rest in peace.

There were three Postmasters and four Postmistresses who came after Gwenda in the Whangamoa Post Office. It was closed permanently on March 31, 1970, but the old Bird homestead still stands in the Valley and is visible from the road to passers by. It was one hundred years old in 2008.

Further reading

Wastney, PV & NL (1982). Roads of yesterday. Nelson: The Authors.