The Post and Telegraph Department at war

Page 3 – The Post and Telegraph Department in 1914

In the early 20th century, the Post and Telegraph Department, one of the country’s largest employers, was at the cutting edge of technological and social change. The reach of the ‘P & T’ extended throughout the Dominion, and it was to stretch even further after war broke out in August 1914.

Postal people

In March 1914 the Post and Telegraph Department had 5637 ‘classified’ (permanent) staff – more than the rest of the public service put together – and a total of almost 8000 employees. This was a large organisation in a country with fewer than half a million paid workers.

A public service

‘The Post and Telegraph Department is really a “Service” rather than a “Department”. By reason of its ramifications, it has probably greater potentialities for usefulness to the public than any other organization, and in New Zealand very full use is made of it.’ [1]

The P & T was second in size only to the Railways Department – not part of the public service – which had more than 14,000 on its payroll. The work of the 2306 country postmasters and postmistresses extended even further into the backblocks than did the railway network.

Specialised vocational training was important for the P & T. Several hundred staff took correspondence courses in telegraphy and telephony each year, and a handful of engineering officers studied physics at Victoria University College in Wellington. Young cadet telegraphists lived and worked in healthy Oamaru, away from big-city temptations. But the department struggled to hold onto the 50 telegraphists it turned out each year. Some soon went to sea as wireless operators, while others were lured to Australia by higher salaries. Young male staff also learned shorthand and typewriting, which was not then seen as women’s work.

Joseph Ward’s legacy

In 1914 the Post and Telegraph Department bore the firm imprint of Sir Joseph Ward, who had been postmaster-general and minister in charge of the telegraph system in the centre-left Liberal government for most of its existence (1891–1912), as well as prime minister from 1906 until 1912. Ward had been employed as a 13-year-old message boy in the Campbelltown (Bluff) Post Office in 1869. He was soon sacked for impudence, but not before learning Morse code, a skill he enjoyed showing off as minister by briskly tapping out the first telegram whenever he opened a new telegraph office.

Like many New Zealand politicians before and since, Ward saw the state’s main function as supporting private enterprise. The P & T and the Railways, in particular, were mechanisms for linking isolated settlements into an interconnected country. Ward’s first decision as postmaster-general was to cut the cost of both toll calls and telegrams – to the considerable benefit of J.G. Ward and Co., his trading firm and Southland’s biggest customer for P & T services. 

Mail services

In 1901, Ward brought in the world’s first universal penny postage. Sending a letter had previously cost 2d within the colony and to Britain, and 2½d to other countries. Following the price cut, the number of letters posted in a year in New Zealand shot up from 35 million to 48 million. 

The first stamp vending machines were installed outside post offices in 1905, allowing people to buy stamps and post letters at any time, day or night. In 1914, 110 million letters and 5 million postcards were posted; including parcels and newspapers, 160 items were posted annually for every New Zealander. More than six times as many parcels were posted in New Zealand or received from overseas in 1913 as in 1904: 2,231,733 compared to 357,504.

New Zealand’s location in the Antipodes meant that mail took about six weeks to reach Britain by ship, whether through the Suez Canal or across the Pacific and North Atlantic oceans via Canada. The voyage through the Panama Canal, which opened in August 1914, was about a week quicker. But German U-boats were soon waiting for British shipping in the long sealane across the Atlantic, and the Panama Canal did not become the main route for New Zealand mail until after the war. 

Postal politics

William Massey’s business-minded Reform Party replaced the Liberals in government in 1912. Their new brooms swept through the state sector in 1913, when a public service commissioner was tasked with ensuring consistency in appointments and classification (job-sizing), processes which had defied previous attempts at rationalisation. Donald Robertson became the first public service commissioner and was succeeded as secretary (chief executive) of the Post and Telegraph Department by his deputy, William Morris. In his new role, Robertson’s oversight of the P & T was less direct than his responsibility for the rest of the public service.

Reform and innovation

The postmaster-general and minister of telegraphs in the Reform Cabinet, Canterbury landowner Robert Heaton Rhodes, had neither charisma nor the common touch. But he was no fool, and unlike Ward he was not distracted by also running the country – these were his only portfolios.

Rail mail

Railway Travelling Post Offices operated on trains running between the main centres. Railways staff sorted mail in swaying vans that were often placed just behind the smelly coal-fired locomotive. From time to time these men paused to gently lob mailbags onto the platforms of stations at which the train did not stop.

Projects started by Ward and Robertson came to fruition under Rhodes and Morris. Impressive new post offices – many of them built to a two-storey, red-brick and plaster template that had evolved during Ward’s era – rolled off the government architect’s drawing boards. In one red-letter week in November 1912, new General Post Offices opened in both Auckland and Wellington, at a combined cost of nearly £200,000 (more than $30 million in 2015). In the 1913/14 financial year, a total of £1,032,822 ($160 million) was spent on post office buildings and £2,277,125 ($350 million) on telegraph lines and equipment. P & T infrastructure was big business.

There were other innovations. The department bought its first motor vehicle in 1908, and by 1913 Wellington mail was being conveyed by motor lorry and motorcycle rather than horse and cart. Rural mail too was now often delivered by motorcycle rather than on horseback. 

The Post Office Savings-Bank

Nearly one New Zealander in two had money in the Post Office Savings-Bank. Its 483,262 accounts held a total balance of £19,048,029 (nearly $3 billion) an average of almost £40 ($6000). But 72% of these accounts held £20 or less – the POSB was the people’s bank. Over the previous 10 years, the number of depositors had nearly doubled and the amount on deposit had more than doubled. The five private savings banks were minor players in comparison, holding less than £2 million between them.

Many people used the postal service to send money safely to family members and others. Money orders (certificates authorising the payment to named individuals of a specified sum) and postal notes (similar, but not assigned by name) worth a total of £4,152,623 ($630 million) were sold in New Zealand in 1914. The Post and Telegraph Department’s income of £1,269,921 ($200 million) in 1914 was in real terms five times what it had been in 1881/2.

Keeping in touch – the telephone

Telephonic communication was made a monopoly of the Telegraph Department soon after the first New Zealand trials of the new technology in the late 1870s. The colony’s first telephone exchange, in Christchurch’s Chief Post Office, had about 30 subscribers when it opened for business on 1 October 1881. Exchanges were soon set up in Auckland and the other main centres. At first, telephones were the preserve of urban businesses and well-off city families. The annual tariff was £17 10s, equivalent to a monthly bill of about $240 today – and connections to properties more than half a mile from the exchange cost even more.

Party line etiquette

Party-line subscribers accused of eavesdropping on their neighbours’ calls had a ready excuse, as they had to check whether anyone was using the line before ‘ringing on’. If this was not done, the operator at the local telephone exchange would assume that someone was ‘ringing off’ and cut the connection in mid-conversation. The accepted practice became to enquire politely, ‘Working?’, on picking up the phone to make a call.

In 1900 about 8000 subscribers were connected to 50 exchanges by 6343 miles of wire. By 1914 the telephone had become a ‘necessity of modern civilisation’, and nearly 42,000 subscribers were linked to 250 exchanges by 79,154 miles of wire. Private subscribers now paid just £5 per annum ($70 per month) for a connection, and businesses £7 ($98) – little more in real terms than they would a century later.

In the 1900s the widespread roll-out of ‘party lines’ – transmission wires shared by a number of households – made it feasible to extend the telephone network into country areas. Outlying settlers – or county councils on their behalf – had to run these lines to within three miles of the nearest exchange, from where the P & T took responsibility. A party line subscriber was alerted to a call by a set number of rings – in Milton in 1912, for example, there were up to five households on a given number. 

The first telephone directories in book form were printed in 1909. By now more efficient copper wiring was replacing iron wiring, and phone lines were increasingly being laid underground in cities because of the disturbance to overhead communications from other power sources such as tramlines and street lighting.

At the telephone exchange, an operator – who was increasingly likely to be a young woman – manually connected the caller’s line to the recipient’s. The male-dominated Post and Telegraph Officers’ Association opposed the employment of women outside telephone exchanges and typing pools. 

In another innovation, the first coin-in-slot public telephones were installed in Wellington in 1910. By 1914 there were nearly 100 around the country.

Britain’s first automatic telephone exchange, in which numbers were connected mechanically rather than by a human operator, came into operation in May 1912. The following year, 800 automatic lines were installed at the central Auckland exchange and 500 in Wellington. In July 1913 Postmaster-General Rhodes announced plans to automate the exchanges in Wellington, Auckland and four provincial towns. The Western Electric rotary exchanges were to be made in Antwerp, Belgium, but the project had to be put on hold with the outbreak of war in 1914. 

Telegraph and wireless

New Zealand’s first telegraph lines had been built in the 1860s. An insulated copper cable was laid across Cook Strait in 1866 and by the early 1870s most main centres were linked by telegraph. In 1876, a telegraph cable from Sydney was landed at Wakapuaka (Cable Bay), near Nelson. Messages which just 10 years earlier had taken more than a month to reach New Zealand from London by ship could now be received within a few hours. (The need to transcribe and hand-deliver messages meant that communication via telegraph was not instantaneous.)

Following the completion in 1902 of a Pacific cable between Australia and Vancouver via Fiji (a side line came ashore at Doubtless Bay in New Zealand’s Far North), the cost of overseas cables was reduced to 3s per word. Equivalent to around $25 a word in 2015, this was still very expensive, and the main users were businesses and the press. By 1913 the Doubtless Bay cable had been extended to Auckland and another cable had been laid between Muriwai and Bondi in Sydney.

Telegraph office staff were trained to write ‘from the shoulder’ in a distinctive flowing style that combined legibility with speed at transcribing messages received in Morse. Telegram delivery ‘lads’ (the school-leaving age was 14, sometimes younger) were instructed not to scribble on walls, ride their bicycles recklessly, or speak to customers in an ‘improper manner’. From 1911 they were also required to join the Post and Telegraph Corps and undertake at least an hour of character-building military drill each week.

Long-range wireless, the most recent innovation in communications, had both strategic and military value. New high-powered (30 kw) stations at Awanui in Northland and Awarua in Southland opened for public business on 18 December 1913. Their German-made Telefunken equipment had a range of 2100 km, enabling round-the-clock communication with the east coast of Australia. Less powerful (2½ kw) stations with a range of 500 km in daytime and 1000 km at night were set up at Wellington, Auckland and the Chatham Islands in 1912/13. These maintained contact with ships in the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific Ocean, and provided the first real-time communications between the Chathams and the mainland.


[1] New Zealand Official Year-book, 1914, p. 497

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'The Post and Telegraph Department in 1914', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 3-May-2016