The Pigeon Post of Great Barrier Island
The Great Barrier Island Pigeon Post was the first in the world to use pigeons to deliver mail using postage stamps, although they were “unofficial” stamps. The Great Barrier Island pigeon post service was started after the sinking of the SS Wairarapa in October 1894. This ship ran aground on the remote north side of Great Barrier Island.
Ref: James Richardson Showing the Wreck of SS Wairarapa at Miners Head, Great Barrier Island, 1894, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-102
About 121 lives were lost. News of the disaster didn't reach Auckland until two or three days later. It highlighted the need for better communication with the island. The first message of the pigeongram service was carried by one of Mr Parkin’s pigeons, on May 14th 1897. You can read the full page article in the Auckland Weekly News here.
Ref: Auckland Weekly News, A kit of racing pigeons, 15 September 1899, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18990915-6-4
Te Ara has neat colour images of some of the pigeongram postage stamps.
In Tales from Great Barrier Island, Helen Jordan Luff states that the pigeongrams were written on fine, light paper called “flimsies”. Most pigeongrams were asking for supplies. Some personal notes were sent by this means, and miners on the island staked their gold claims through the service.
Ref: Auckland Weekly News, The Post Office, Tryphena, Great Barrier, 20 January 1899, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18990120-2-4
In September 1900, on Great Barrier Island, Charles Osborne’s arm was shattered in an accident with a rifle. A pigeongram was sent from Charles Werner’s Pigeongram Agency at Okupu, asking for help. A doctor and nurse arrived on the island in time to save Osborne’s life. This is a copy of that pigeongram:
Ref: Creator unknown, Pigeongram from Charles Werner to Henry Winkelmann, 1900, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A1153
In 1908 the service was ended when an undersea cable from Port Charles on Coromandel to Port Fitzroy, began to be used to transmit telegraph messages.
Ref: E. Gilling, Auckland Weekly News, Lining up the Great Barrier Island with the mainland, 1 October 1908, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19081001-7-1
Ref: E. Gilling, Auckland Weekly News, “Are you there, Barrier?” the first through message by cable to the Great Barrier Island from the mainland,1 October 1908, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19081001-6-3
See more of the Auckland Weekly News article on the laying of the cable here.
The service was revived briefly in the 1990s. A special release of pigeons from Great Barrier Island was planned for the 1997 centennial commemoration of the pigeon post service. New Zealand Post also produced a commemorative miniature sheet of Pigeon Post stamps the same year.
Read more about the wreck of the SS Wairarapa, and the unique stories about the Great Barrier Island pigeon post service, in the following sources:
- Gillard, Martin, “A Brief History of the Pigeon Post”, in True Tales of Great Barrier Island, complied by The Great Barrier Island History Research Group Inc. (2011)
- Ingram, Charles William and Wheatley, Percy Owen, New Zealand Shipwrecks over 200 years of disasters at sea. 8th edition (2007)
- Luff, Helen Jordan, Tales from Great Barrier Island (2003)
- Powell, Jill, “Coming in on a wing”, in Pacific Way, Sept. 1995
Author: Carolyn Skelton, North Auckland & West Auckland Research Centres