The Post and Telegraph Department at war

Page 7 – The postal service after the war

In mid-1918, the Post and Telegraph (P & T) Department had to cut services to the public because it had lost so many experienced staff to the army. When the war came to an unexpectedly quick end that November, the process of reintegrating men into civilian life — including, for many, a return to their old jobs — got under way. Impromptu armistice celebrations in November 1918 were disrupted by the deadly ‘Spanish’ influenza pandemic. The official commemoration of peace in July 1919 was better organised but also ran into unexpected problems. The P & T was closely involved in all these events. In January 1920 a set of Victory stamps was issued to mark the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles between Germany and the Allies.

1918: Carrying on

In March 1918, a quarter of the P & T’s male permanent staff (1508 of 6121) were serving in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and a total of more than 2300 had joined up. As hundreds of Second Division Reservists (men with dependent children) were called up during the year, some were replaced by returned soldiers with no previous clerical experience. The diverse nature of the department meant there was scope to employ disabled returned men — on light evening duties, repair work, even basket-making. [1]

But the main reserve labour force was female. From 1914, women had been appointed ‘for the period of war’ in place of men joining the forces — the government had promised to keep a job open for every public servant who enlisted. At the beginning of the war about 600 women were employed in the department, mainly in telephone exchanges; 1000 more had been taken on by mid-1918, many as telegraph messengers. This widening of female employment opportunities was to be brief. By 1920, only males were delivering telegraph messages. In Wellington they included several disabled soldiers, as not enough ‘lads’ were willing to work for the wages on offer. [2]

P & T services were significantly curtailed from 1 July 1918, the first such cuts during the war. Post Office Savings-Bank counters reduced their opening hours and telegraph offices no longer stayed open until late at night. The number of daily mail deliveries in urban areas was reduced, street postboxes were cleared less often and the despatch of mails was delayed. These changes cut the amount of night work considerably and enabled the employment of more women. Critics of slower mail delivery were advised to harden up — it was no great imposition compared to what men were enduring at the front. [3]

The New Zealand Herald nevertheless complained that, coming hard on the heels of cuts to suburban railway services, this ‘drastic reduction’ showed ‘a singular lack of appreciation’ by the Post and Telegraph Department of its public duty. Women and girls were capable of replacing men ‘in every branch of its multifarious activity, but the process of substitution has been hesitating.’ [4] The department responded that while ‘a large number of women are in training’, much of its work was ‘intricate in nature’ and upskilling either sex was a lengthy process. It took a year to become an efficient mail sorter in a large post office, for example. [5] Suggestions that women be employed as ‘postmen’ were not acted on.

The influenza pandemic

In October 1918, a growing realisation that the Great War would soon be over was blighted by the onset of a deadly worldwide influenza epidemic. Spread to New Zealand from Britain by soldiers returning on troopships, it struck hard first in Auckland, the main port of entry. By 30 October, a quarter of the P & T Department’s 330 employees in the city were off work with the flu. Postmen were especially vulnerable because they met so many people on their rounds. Only in late November did the number of staff absent in Auckland begin to fall.

Telephonists at the Auckland exchange who stayed healthy worked double shifts for a month, earning an extra shilling an hour and being driven to and from their homes by car — a rare treat. Here — as elsewhere during the epidemic — telephone calls were supposed to be made only in cases of urgent need, but operators often found themselves counselling distraught or delirious people who had no one else to talk to. The Auckland exchange still essentially worked manually, with red discs marking connections to doctors, hospitals and clergymen; black discs were for undertakers and the police. Both colours were used frequently — more than a thousand people died of the flu in the Auckland metropolitan area.

The main preventive measure taken by the authorities was the setting up of inhalation chambers in which people were sprayed with a 2% solution of zinc sulphate. This had no medical value — in fact, the vapour made some people sick — but it did bolster public confidence. A chamber was operating in Wellington’s Chief Post Office by 9 November. Public servants were instructed to visit one daily, but the numbers absent from work due to illness continued to rise. Telephone operators based at the town hall helped coordinate Wellington’s relief effort, and four mail trucks were used to carry bodies to Karori cemetery, 16 at a time. In late November, 207 P & T staff were still off work in Wellington.

In Dunedin, an inhalation chamber was set up in the empty former Chief Post Office building. By 14 November, 3500 people a day were being sprayed there, while the telephone exchange and telegraph office next door were fumigated daily. Like telephone calls, telegrams were restricted — the permissible categories, ‘urgent’ and ‘deaths’, did little for staff morale. A central bureau to direct relief measures was also set up in the old post office building, with 10 staff to receive and record messages. This stayed open until 15 December, by when few new cases were being reported.

In small towns, too, the post office was at the heart of the community response to the crisis. Temuka’s mayor made a speech from the post office steps when official news of the armistice came through on 12 November. Four days later, a much more sombre meeting was held at the same place to organise local flu relief efforts.

On 19 November, as the epidemic peaked, Minister of Finance Joseph Ward ordered the closure of trading banks for a week in an effort to reduce the spread of infection. This instruction did not apply to the Post Office Savings-Bank, in which deposits surged.

By December, the epidemic had affected almost every post office in the Dominion, and in some centres every employee had caught the flu. Replacement workers were sent from less-affected towns, but many offices still had to cut their opening hours. Staff who were off work with the flu continued to be paid and retained their leave entitlements. In recognition of their efforts, all P & T staff were granted an extra week’s leave in 1919; those who had remained on duty throughout the epidemic got a further three days.

By the time epidemic petered out 70 P & T staff had died, half the toll on the Railways but more than the rest of the public service put together. It was a heavy burden on top of more than 230 deaths in the Great War. Among the victims was Frederick Waters, the department’s assistant secretary (deputy chief executive). In 1919 stained-glass windows were installed in St Mary’s Anglican Church, Karori in memory of Waters, a well-known baritone and choirmaster. 

1919: Peace celebrations

During 1919, the P & T services that had been cut in July 1918 were gradually restored. Most New Zealand troops returned from the United Kingdom and were demobilised. To allow male employees to return to their previous duties, many ‘girl clerks’ were laid off: about 25 at Auckland’s central post office between June and September, for example. [6] There was also less need for some departmental roles undertaken predominantly by women. Between March 1918 and March 1920, as telephone exchanges were mechanised, the number of switchboard attendants halved from 520 to 267, while the number of ‘note-sorters, distributors, &c.’ plummeted from 146 to five.

Meanwhile, representatives of the victorious Allies met in Paris through the first half of 1919 to decide the peace terms they would impose on Germany. A treaty was eventually signed in the former royal palace at Versailles on 28 June 1919, bringing the war officially to an end.

The government decided to hold New Zealand’s celebrations over three days: a soldiers’ day on Saturday 19 July would be followed by a religious day of thanksgiving and then a children’s day. The Saturday and Monday were declared to be public holidays.

The celebrations were decentralised because a nationwide coal shortage made it impracticable to bring people into the main centres from small towns in special trains. Cities whose electricity supply was coal-powered were forced to do without the illuminated displays which had been a feature of previous festive occasions such as royal visits. The latter ruling was not made until preparations were well advanced. Staff at the general post office in Auckland were among workers who found they had wasted much effort. Their scaled-down display took the form of a large heart enclosing the letters ‘N.Z.’, surmounted by the words ‘Peace’ and ‘Victory’, and flanked by the names of campaigns in which New Zealanders had fought.

The display at Christchurch’s central post office struck trouble of a different kind. It featured ‘portraits of various notabilities of the Allies illuminated’. In the cold light of day, however, the transparencies bearing the portraits looked amateurish — a typical criticism was that ‘the Prince of Wales [the future King Edward VIII] would appear to have been interrupted in the process of whistling’. A letter to the Press suggested that the chief postmaster run a competition for readers to guess the names of those depicted. Acting Prime Minister Sir James Allen declared the transparencies ‘awful’ and denied any responsibility for them.

Simple displays were often the most successful. Oamaru’s post office was draped from top to bottom in red, white and blue; Greymouth’s was festooned with greenery. Transparencies of the flags of member countries of the new League of Nations adorned the windows of Wellington’s general post office, while ‘patriotic girls’ filled its vestibule with ‘really beautiful’ floral displays and put up trails of greenery. In Temuka, a ‘Maori arch’ adorned with a fine raupō mat was erected at the post office by Ngāi Tahu from nearby Arowhenua.

Early on the first day of the celebrations, 19 July, New Zealand flags flew in an unseasonably mild breeze on post office flagpoles across the country. Many of the parades of soldiers and civilians started or ended at the local post office, while others paused there as the bells struck noon. All P & T work, including the connection of telephone calls and the transmission of telegraph messages, ceased then for five minutes. There was two minutes’ silence, then the Last Post was played, ‘God Save the King’ was sung and local worthies made speeches from the post office steps.

In some centres, P & T employees stood out in the parade. Wellington’s float was ‘most creditable, and quite pretty with its bevy of confetti girls’. The department’s contribution to the procession in Methven was also ‘very creditable’. In Auckland, Whanganui and Christchurch, soldiers of the Post and Telegraph Corps marched as units in the parade.

Not everyone behaved themselves. In Wellington, vandals tampered with the petrol-powered system that was used to illuminate the general post office in the absence of mains electricity. The cancellation due to rain on the Monday evening of a scheduled Peace Ball in Post Office Square sparked off hooliganism in Lambton Quay. In general, though, the celebrations were appropriately peaceful.

1920: Victory stamps

Soon after the war ended, New Zealand decided to bring out a set of Victory stamps. Our first war-themed stamp had been issued in 1901, during the South African War. Designed by the well-known artist James Nairn, the 1½d stamp was not an aesthetic success — too much patriotic imagery was crammed into it. This experiment was not repeated during the Great War, although the ½d stamp bearing a portrait of King George V issued in 1915 was overprinted ‘War Stamp’ when the cost of postage was increased by that amount.

The Victory stamps were designed by the English printers Thomas de la Rue and personally approved by Postmaster-General Joseph Ward in London in early 1919. The six stamps in the series were made available to British philatelists — always eager for new issues — in early November, but did not go on sale in New Zealand until 27 January 1920, a fortnight after the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. By then canny New Zealand collectors had obtained sets from English dealers, and there were accusations of unseemly profit-seeking that were vigorously denied by the Reform government’s new postmaster-general, war hero Gordon Coates.

Large numbers of Victory stamps were printed: 46 million of the 1½d, 30 million of the 1d, 22 million of the ½d, three million of the 6d and two million of the 3d and the 1s. Few good examples of the higher-value stamps survive because these were used on parcels and heavily postmarked.

The ‘Victory’ stamps bear this word above the dates ‘1914’ and ‘1919’. They are laden with imperial symbolism. A lion — the embodiment of British valour and the monarchy since the Middle Ages — appears on four of them. A female figure symbolising Victory sits on the back of a mild-mannered lion ‘couchant’ (reclining) on the ½d stamp, while on the 1d stamp both woman and beast are standing. On the 3d stamp a recumbent lion like those at the base of Nelson’s column in London’s Trafalgar Square basks in the rising sun of victory. On the 1s stamp a similar lion crouches behind a portrait of George V and below Māori carvings.

The main Māori imagery is on the 1½d stamp, which commemorates the Māori contribution to the war effort with a tattooed chief wearing a pendant and feathers of the extinct huia. Carvings and fern leaves — ‘not a known New Zealand species’, sniffed one journalist — appear in the background.

The sixth stamp, the 6d, also evoked some scorn. Instead of ‘Victory’ it is headed ‘Peace and Progress’, the respective names of a winged angel and a small child who are framed by Greek columns. The irony that a stamp commemorating a ghastly war should bear these words was noted by the journalist Guy Scholefield, who remarked that they ‘can only have any meaning … on stamps issued by a nation of permanent neutrals, which New Zealand certainly was not’. [7]

Other criticisms were more pragmatic. The Victory stamps were twice the size of the 1915 George V series and ‘took some licking’. If you only had ½d stamps with which to post a standard 1½d letter, you hoped the address was brief.

According to Christchurch’s Press, ‘the Victory stamps resemble “stickers,” and either have no character or look untidy’. [8] Others, however, thought the designs ‘very handsome’ and ‘very well executed’. A British journalist described them as ‘typically Imperial’ in character, ‘bold and effective’, while the Free Lance called them ‘pretty’ and said that they were ‘much admired’. [9]

A minor trans-Tasman controversy broke out when the Australian postal authorities clapped a surcharge on letters from New Zealand bearing Victory stamps, citing obscure provisions of the Convention of the Universal Postal Union. The Australians claimed that through this stamp issue New Zealand was not only ‘advertising the country’ (stamps weren’t supposed to do that), but also asserting that it had ‘in particular contributed to the victory of the Allies.… It is not the business of any Government to cater for stamp dealers abroad.’ [10] But many other countries had also issued Victory or Peace stamps, and the Australians soon backed down.


[1] Evening Post, 16 June 1919.

[2] P & T Department annual report, AJHR, 1920, F-1, p. 3.

[3] Sun, 12 July 1918.

[4] NZ Herald, 21 June 1918.

[5] Evening Post, 27 June 1918.

[6] Dominion, 4 June 1919.

[7] Evening Post, 10 February 1920.

[8] Press, 4 August 1920.

[9] Free Lance, 25 February 1920.

[10] Wairarapa Age, 30 March 1920.

How to cite this page

'The postal service after the war', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 4-May-2016