February 1988: This month last century

Twenty-four years ago, New Zealand Post announces that 432 post offices are to be closed (8 February 1988)

The first post office was provided by the government in 1840. By 1900 there were 1700 branches servicing a population of around 800,000.

Advertising sign, ’Post Office Savings Bank’, Circa 1970s, New Zealand. New Zealand Railways Publicity Branch. Purchased 2006. Te Papa

Advertising sign, ’Post Office Savings Bank’, Circa 1970s, New Zealand. New Zealand Railways Publicity Branch. Purchased 2006. Te Papa

They were sources of information, places where you could send a telegram, post a parcel, register a radio, and save your pennies.

Post office, Westport, Westport. Muir & Moodie. Te Papa

Post office, Westport, Westport. Muir & Moodie. Te Papa

They were particularly important for rural communities. Many post offices around the country were specially photographed, an effort that hints at just how central these buildings were to local identity and life. Examples taken by Muir & Moodie and the Burton Brothers are shown above and below.

Post Office - Clyde, 1870s-1880s, Clyde. Burton Brothers. Te Papa

Post Office - Clyde, 1870s-1880s, Clyde. Burton Brothers. Te Papa

The opening of a post office was often commemorated in style, with a dignitary doing the honours. For example, in 1924, when future Prime Minister Gordon Coates opened the new Post Office in Stratford, contractors who worked on the building presented him with this impressive commemorative brooch object (below).

Brooch, commemorating the opening by the Rt Hon J.G. Coates of the Post Office, Public Trust building and Victoria Bridge, Stratford, 10 May 1924. 1924, New Zealand. Maker unknown. Purchased 2010. Te Papa

Brooch, commemorating the opening by the Rt Hon J.G. Coates of the Post Office, Public Trust building and Victoria Bridge, Stratford, 10 May 1924. 1924, New Zealand. Maker unknown. Purchased 2010. Te Papa

According to the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, by 1960s the Post Office was ‘a complex structure combining the characteristics of a Department of State and a large business enterprise – one of the largest and certainly the most widely spread in the country. It provide[d] communications and other services closely bound up with New Zealand’s political, economic, and social life.’ The department was also a major employer. in 1964 around 26,500 people worked for the Post Office, including office workers shown below.

New Zealand Industry: Directions Magazine, 1960s-1980s, New Zealand. Brake, Brian. Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001. Te Papa

New Zealand Industry: Directions Magazine, 1960s-1980s, New Zealand. Brake, Brian. Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001. Te Papa

Like other government departments, the Post Office was rationalised and corporatised by the Labour government after it was elected to office in 1984. After the Postmaster General submitted a review in 1986, the Post office was separated into three ‘state-owned enterprises’ – New Zealand Post Ltd, Post Office Bank Ltd and Telecom New Zealand Ltd.

The Postal Services Act 1987, which abolished the Post Office and established its three successor entities, came into effect on 1 April 1987. Ten months later, New Zealand Post announced the closure of 432 post offices. These were mostly in small communities. Closures were meant to reduce administration and delivery costs; they were also a response to the depopulation of rural areas.

Some enraged communities responded with protests. Residents in the Northland town of Waipu formed a committee to coordinate their campaign. They even produced a special stamp for letters, to spread their message around the country.

The restructuring of the Post Office and consequent closures is one example of how the radical economic philosophies and policies nicknamed ‘Rogernomics’ (after Roger Douglas, the Finance Minister) played out in New Zealand.

Read more about Rogernomics on the Slice of Heaven website.

There’s more on this topic on Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

View a short clip showing a reaction to the proposed closure of the Waipiro Bay post office.

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