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Honouring public servants

Page 1 – Introduction

Public Works Department roll of honour board
Public Works Department roll of honour board

The public service as a whole, government departments and individual public servants found a myriad of ways to honour their employees’ and colleagues’ war service. Many were common across New Zealand society, while others were more distinctive, evolving out of public service processes and practices.

Individuals and groups of public servants paused to remember those who had fallen and passed on messages of sympathy to their families. The public service commissioner and departments recorded their service, actions or sacrifice in official publications such as the Public Service Official Circular and departmental annual reports. Unions and employee associations did the same in unofficial publications such as the Katipo, the journal of the Post and Telegraph Officers’ Association.

Some men were remembered by employers, colleagues or unions on roll of honour boards - lists of names framed by, affixed or inscribed onto timber, stone or metal boards. The Post and Telegraph and Railways departments, whose workforces were large and spread around the country, erected both local and national roll of honour boards. Wellington public servants, including railway and postal workers, helped pay for a commemorative bell in the carillon in the National War Memorial, and railway workers were also honoured with a commemorative flagpole and a locomotive.

In recent years, particularly during the centenary of the First World War, a number of groups have moved to honour their public service predecessors. They have published biographies of these men in exhibitions and booklets and on websites, as well as restoring and rededicating existing roll of honour boards and creating new ones. 

Messages and motions of condolence

A common way for New Zealanders to respond to death during this period was to pass motions of condolence at meetings and other gatherings, and to send condolence letters to next of kin. This convention took on added importance during the war, as few of those who died received a funeral which members of their family and community could attend.

The public service acknowledged the death of staff members by writing to the deceased’s parents or spouse, or by acknowledging their service during the working day. 

Official publications

The most common way in which the public service honoured staff who were killed or injured was in the rolls of honour that were given pride of place in the official publications of government departments.

Public Service Commissioner Donald Robertson began keeping track of casualties in May 1915, when he wrote to his permanent heads of department asking for this information to be sent to his office. The following month he published the resulting casualty list as a roll of honour in the Public Service Official Circular. The Circular, which was sent to all government departments, carried notices about important matters such as rules and procedures, vacancies, appointments and examinations. Robertson continued this practice throughout the war, adding a list of those awarded military decorations. From 1916 a consolidated roll of honour and honours list was published annually in the ‘List of persons employed in the Public Service’.

Casualties among members of the Post and Telegraph and Railways departments were listed in these agencies’ official circulars. Consolidated rolls of honour appeared in the ‘List of persons employed in the Post & Telegraph Service’ and the minister’s ‘Railway Statement’. While the public service commissioner and Post and Telegraph lists included rank, name, pre-war occupation and place of work, Railways replaced rank and occupation with military unit and branch of the department.

Casualties among members of the education service were listed in an appendix to the Minister of Education’s annual report in the Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR). Those employed directly by the Education Department appeared in both this list and the public service commissioner’s list. With the exception of those in Native Schools, teachers were employed by the regional education boards. Casualties among policemen were not collated as men had to resign from the Police Force to enlist.

From 1915 onwards many departments published their own roll of honour in annual reports. The annual report of the public service commissioner published in the AJHR sometimes included a list of honours awarded to members of the public service, with a separate list for the Post and Telegraph Department. Casualties were listed by department in the ‘List of persons employed in the Public Service’. 

Unofficial publications

Public service union journals reprinted the casualty lists published by the public service commissioner as well as information from other sources. They often included brief biographies – and occasionally photographs – of those who had died. Some of the men memorialised in these publications did not appear in official lists, either because they were no longer government employees – policemen who had resigned in order to enlist, for example – or because they had served in other forces such as the Australian Imperial Force or the British Expeditionary Force.

These publications included the Public Service Journal, Katipo (the journal of the Post and Telegraph Officers’ Association), the Loco Record (the journal of the New Zealand Locomotive Engineers, Firemen and Cleaners’ Association) and the New Zealand Railway Review (the journal of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of New Zealand).

In this period there was no separate employee organisation for policemen. From 1917 many police joined the Public Service Association and casualties among members were recorded in the Public Service Journal.

Roll of honour boards

Like many clubs and associations, groups of public servants often developed roll of honour boards. These listed either the names of all those from the department, division or regional office who had served (those who had died were sometimes indicated by an asterisk or other symbol), or only those who had died. These rolls were framed, attached or inscribed directly onto timber, stone or metal boards. While most were installed on departmental premises, they were usually organised and funded by ad hoc groups of public servants or their unions.

Because of the many changes to workplaces and the structure of the public service over the last century, few of these boards remain on display in the same building or even in the same department. Many have been relocated to new premises. Some have been sent to museums and archives for safekeeping, while others have been lost. 

War memorials

A national ‘Public Service Memorial’ was suggested during and after the First World War, but this idea was not pursued by government departments or public sector unions. Public servants had to be satisfied with the rolls of honour in official and unofficial publications and the separate roll of honour boards. There were three exceptions: a bell in the National War Memorial, a flagstaff at Petone Railway Station and a memorial steam locomotive. 

Recent commemorations

Groups have found a range of ways to honour their public sector predecessors who served in the First World War, from exhibitions and websites to the creation, restoration and rededication of roll of honour boards. 

Further Information

This article was written by Imelda Bargas and produced by the NZHistory team. It was commissioned by the State Services Commission

Primary sources

Contemporary newspapers (many of which can be searched on the Papers Past website) and files held at Archives New Zealand provided much of the source material for this feature.


Books and journals

For a general overview of New Zealand's contribution to the First World War at home, see:

  • Imelda Bargas and Tim Shoebridge, New Zealand's First World War heritage, Exisle Publishing, Auckland, 2015

Other key sources included:

  • The Katipo: Official Organ of the NZ P & T Officers’ Association, The Association, Wellington, 1915-19
  • Loco Record: A Journal Published in the Interests of Members of the NZ Loco’ Engine Drivers’ Firemen and Cleaners’ Association, NZ Loco’ Engine Drivers’ Firemen and Cleaners’ Association, Christchurch, 1914-19
  • National War Memorial and Carillon, Wellington, New Zealand, Blundell Bros, Wellington, 1936
  • New Zealand Railway Review, Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of New Zealand, Wellington, 1914-19
  • Post and Telegraph Official Circular, Postmaster-General, Wellington, 1914-19
  • Annual reports of the Public Service Commissioner and government departments in the Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives
  • Public Service Official Circular, Public Service Commissioner, Wellington, 1914-19
  • John Tenquist, Wallaceville veterinary laboratory: a history, MAF Technology, Wallaceville Animal Research Centre, Upper Hutt, 1990
  • C.W. Vennell, Tower of strength: a centennial history of the NZ Government Life Insurance Office 1869-1969, Wilson & Horton, Auckland, 1969 


How to cite this page

Honouring public servants, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated