Former Kaeo Post Office building listed as a Category 2 historic place
Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga has added the former Post Office in Kaeo to the New Zealand Heritage List Rarangi Korero as a Category 2 historic place.
The listing formally identifies the landmark building as a place of heritage significance.
Kaeo has a long history of postal service dating back to 1857.
“Postal services began operating here only 17 years after New Zealand’s first Post Office was established in Kororareka-Russell in 1840,” says Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland Manager Bill Edwards.
“Based in the general store of lumberman and former convict William Spickman, the Kaeo sub-post office was only one of four in Northland. Spickman and his successors provided postal services to the community for over 50 years before Kaeo’s ‘official’ Post Office building was completed in 1912.”
Miriam Gibbs became Postmistress in 1876 after the death of her husband, Richard, who had been the second Postmaster. The transfer of the role to his wife appears to have been seamless.
Located next to the current Post Office building, Miriam operated her general store business and postal service for 12 years before she sold the store and moved the service to a side lean-to at her house.
“Miriam was by no means the only Postmistress in New Zealand. The Post Office was a pioneer in women’s employment in New Zealand, although women were paid less than their male counterparts,” says Bill.
“They were also required to resign if they got married – which seems incredible by today’s expectations. Interestingly, Miriam was one of several women in Kaeo who signed a nationwide petition in 1893 seeking the right for women to vote in parliamentary elections; legislation that was later passed that year.”
Besides managing mail, Kaeo’s postal services included collection of Government duties, taxes and fees; payment of pensions and advances; and operating as agents for Government bodies like the Public Trust.
“Post Offices were important hubs, and increasingly became symbolic of community progress. A major period of new post office construction in New Zealand took place between 1900 and 1914, and the Kaeo Post Office building was constructed within this ‘boom’ time,” says Bill.
Originally designed as a single-storey building, plans were finalised in 1911 for a two-storey timber structure designed in the Edwardian Baroque style, which drew on architectural features of classical influences like Rome.
“In Kaeo the architecture was executed a little differently from many places in that the Post Office was built from wood – a decision influenced by the abundance of timber in Northland,” says Bill.
Timber was supplied locally, and the building itself was constructed by Kaeo builders Joseph and Wesley Hare.
The result was an amenity that ticked all the boxes – including community pride. One observer wrote that its rimu and totara linings, when polished, ‘looked more like a handsome piece of furniture than a public office’. The new building opened for business in May 1912.
The Kaeo Post Office with its telegraph bureau room, large mail room and a small telegraph exchange represented state of the art technology, while the Postmaster’s residence upstairs included a sitting room, two bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen and scullery.
“The earliest occupant was postmistress Emily Adams. At this time, the Post and Telegraph Department was one of the largest employers in the country with more staff than the rest of the public service combined,” says Bill.
“In 1916, the New Zealand Post and Telegraph Association passed a remit supporting equal pay for female employees – a principle that the Public Services Commissioner agreed with ‘where the duties are equal’. At a time when jobs were filled in greater numbers by women due to men enlisting to fight in the First World War, this proposal was supported by many men who believed it would lead them to being preferred over women for the same position.”
Besides social change, the Post Office reflected changes in technology. In 1920, a new telephone exchange opened with 42 subscribers. The manual switchboard was operated predominantly by female employees – some as young as 14 years old. The telephone exchange became a coordination centre in requesting assistance for childbirths, medical emergencies and fires.
During the Second World War, the Post Office fulfilled vital functions for servicemen and residents connecting servicemen at nearby Army, Navy and Air Force camps. Many parcels for local servicemen stationed overseas also passed through the mail room.
The Postmaster at the time, Percy Miller, was generally the first to be notified of a local soldier’s death, and it fell to him to visit bereaved families to inform them of their loss.
“After the Second World War, the Post Office continued to be a community hub with staff undertaking informal roles including translation between te reo Maori and English for older Maori residents drawing their pensions,” says Bill.
Mail volume at Kaeo peaked in the 1970s, and the Savings Bank made for a busy workplace. During the global fuel crisis of 1979-80, Carless Day stickers were issued from here as part of government efforts to economise consumption. Weddings were carried out, and the manual telephone exchange – which included some party lines – remained in use until November 1989; the last of its type to be used on the mainland.
“Changes during the Fourth Labour Government of the 1980s impacted the service as functions of the Post Office were divided into three State Owned Enterprises – New Zealand Post, Telecom Corporation of New Zealand and PostBank. The writing was on the wall for Kaeo Post Office – as it was for many small Post Offices around the country,” he says.
“Kaeo Post Office closed for business in May 1989.”
It wasn’t the end of the road for the local landmark, however. In 2012, the building was refurbished to commemorate its centenary, and has held an important community role as a library and community centre operated by Far North District Council.