Pigeon services Great Barrier Island

The first pigeon service to and from Great Barrier Island was probably by Robert Clapham Barstow, a farmer who established a farm here in 1844, and moved here about 1850 until 1858.


The most authoritative source of information on the history of the Pigeon mail services between Great Barrier Island and Auckland is -


"New Zealand

 The Great Barrier Island

1898-99 Pigeon Post Stamps" 

By J. Reg Walker 

The booklet was published in 1968 by The Collectors Club 22 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016 under the auspices of the Theodore E. Steinway Memorial Publication Fund.



                                                            Chapter  3


                                                First Pigeon Message.


             The Great Barrier Island Pigeon Post developed from the tragic circumstances surrounding the wreck of the ‘Wairarapa’.

            Almost 75 hours had elapsed between the time the vessel hit and when the news reached Auckland. Thus, with tragic emphasis, the people on the mainland realised the isolation of the island’s settlers. There was no telegraphic communication. The weekly steamer was their only contact with Auckland, so it might take two weeks to receive an answer to a letter that had to travel only 60 miles.

            More than a year after the wreck, the Northern Steamship Company organised an excursion to enable relatives of the Wairarapa’s dead to visit the graves.

            Auckland’s morning newspaper, the ‘New Zealand Herald’, had the problem of getting a report of the excursion for the following day’s issue. The only solution was to use pigeons to fly the news. Arrangements for the necessary birds were made with Mr. Walter Fricker, pigeon fancier, of Picton Street, Ponsonby, Auckland.

            A sturdy little pigeon, named ‘Ariel’, carried the record-weight message of that period on this occasion (five sheets of letter-sized paper - three tissue and two ordinary sheets) from the island.

            The pigeon ‘Ariel’ left the ship at Tryphena soon after 5pm on Auckland’s Anniversery Day, January 29th, 1896, arriving at Auckland at 6.45pm. Little did the ‘New Zealand Herald’ reporter, who wrote the news account published in next morning’s paper, realise his message was the forerunner of the world’s most famous pigeon post*. His report read as follows:


                        Excursion To The Great Barrier

            “The Northern Steamship Company ran a special excursion to the Great Barrier yesterday, which proved a great success. The steamer Waiotahi left Auckland at 10pm on Tuesday with a large number of people on board, and a large crowd assembled on the wharf to see her off. The deck was screened off, and beds made up on it, as well as in every part of the saloon. A bright, clear night and a calm added much tonthe enjoyment of all. At 6am Arid Island was reached, and a boat was sent on shore containing Mrs. MacDonald, the mother of John MacDonald, who is buried on the island. Canon Haselden showed her the grave, and after the bereaved mother had spent a short time and placed a cross on it, they returned to the steamer.

            The party then went to the Whangapoua burial ground where Mrs. MacLeod was taken to see the grave of her husband. Here a headboard was erected and some wreaths placed on the graves. Both Mrs. MacDonald and Mrs. MacLeod came from Dunedin for this trip.

            After a good breakfast, the Waiotahi steamed round the Needles and went to the scene of the wreck.

            A boat went over the spot where the wreck had lain, but not a sign of the unfortunate vessel can now be seen.


*Some may question this statement, citing the use of pigeons to carry messages during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. (H.M.G.)





            “The service for the burial of the dead at sea was then conducted on the deck of the steamer. Canaon Haselden stating that 125 lives were lost, of which number the bodies of 83  had been recovered, leaving 42 bodies not found. After careful consideration he had come to the conclusion that nearly all of these were lying in the very deep water at this spot. The service was most impressive. The party then went to Maori Bay , where all the passengers were landed. The Maoris, to the number of 20 or 30, gave them a hearty welcome, and one made a speech. Dr. Purchas replied in Maori, after which Canon Haselden conducted a funeral service, explaining that after the Police Rescue party had left the island, three bodies had been found and buried by the Maories, and it was over these the service was held. Flowers and wreaths were places on many of the graves. All then returned to the ship and went to Port Fitzroy, and right around the harbour, thence to Blind Bay and Tryphena, arriving at 5 pm. The grand scenery was much admired, and the wonderfully calm day made the journey from Fitzroy to Tryphena most enjoyable.

            The whole trip was a great success and although the ship was crowded, everyone was able to get three good meals, provided in the Northern Company’s usual first class style. The trip had been well organised, well advertised, and well carried out, and reflected great credit on everyone connected with it. The manager of the Company, Mr.Ransom, on board, and Captain Johnson and all his officers were most considerate for the comfort of everyone in their care.

            The Waiotahi arrived back at Auckland in the early hours of the morning, after the New Zealand Herald had gone to press.”


            Mr. Fricker, a house painter, had already been showing and racing pigeons for 25 years. During the erection of the first Waitekauri gold-mining battery for Messrs. Brown and Bleasard in 1874, Mr. Fricker had used pigeons to convey messages between Waitekauri and Thames on the mainland.

            When reports of gold and silver deposits on Great Barrier Island brought it into prominence. Mr. Fricker’s pigeons were in great demand by prospectors for sending reports on mining areas that had been staked out.

            Mr. Fricker’s birds had been the progeny of stock bought from Mr. Henry Brett (later Sir Henry Brett), proprietor of the ‘Auckland Star’, evening rival of the ‘New Zealand Herald’. The increased business decided Mr. Fricker to improve his strain. He, therefore, imported birds from Mr. Anthony Hordern, head of Sydney’s great department store of that name, and bought others from Mr. McQuarrie, a banker at Nelson, New Zealand.

            Mr. Fricker trained the birds by sending then on gradually lengthening flights until they could fly from Hamilton (70 miles) and Rotorua (143 miles).

                        As the steamer to Great Barrier Island made a night trip, it was impossible to train the birds on short stages by this route. For the final trial, Captain Duthie, skipper of the Northern Steamship Company’s S.S. Iona, a great bird lover, liberated the pigeons at dawn, when the ship was nearing the island.

            Mr. Fricker also gained the contract for reporting the results of the general election of December 4, 1896 from Tryphena, Blind Bay (Okupu) and Owana to Auckland. It is assumed his birds carrier the election returns next day.  





Chapter 4

                                               A Regular Service 


            Mining companies operating were “The Original’, ‘Iona’, ‘Barrier Reefs’ and ‘Straffa’, gold and silver companies.

            The centre of the new industry was Barrier Reefs, afterwards known as Oroville, three miles north of Okupu, and two miles east of Whangaparapara. Oroville no longer exists. At that time, Okupu was the nearest port and the base for the mining activities.

            Because of the urgent demands of the island community for a speedier means of communication with Auckland, Mr. Joseph Smales, a stockbroker and mining promoter, negotiated with Mr. Fricker for the establishment of a regular pigeon post service to operate from Okupu.

            Mr. Fricker agreed to establish the service at the rate of 2/- [two shillings] per message. He entered into an agreement with Miss R.E. Springall (late Mrs. F.L. Avey), daughter of Mrs. E. Springall, the official postmistress at Okupu, to establish a depot at her residence.




            During February, 1897, “Fricker’s Great Barrier Pigeon Agency’ opened for business, with Mr. Smales as agent (Figure 5). The  actual day and the date of the first message are not known.

            Six to eight pigeons were sent weekly to Miss Springall. Messages were written on plain tissue paper, and up to five letters could be sent by each bird. The dispatches were simply wound around the leg of a bird and tied with cotton (Figure 2).

            The agency had been in operation for only two months, when the association between Mr. Smales and Mr. Fricker terminated. The cause of the trouble is unknown, but on good authority, financial matters caused the rift. Towards the end of April, 1897, Mr. Fricker decided to seek a Government subsidy. He discussed the matter with Mr. Frank Lawry, a member of the House of Representatives for Parnell, a suburb of Auckland, who thoroughly examined the business ledgers of the Agency. After  completing this work, he agreed to write to the Acting Premier.

            The letter, dated May 3, 1897, is filed in the records of the ‘Great Barrier Pigeongram Service’ at the G.P.O., Wellington. It is important as documentary proof that a service had been operating at that time, and that it had been established by Mr. Fricker. Hitherto, philatelists have always thought Mr. Fricker’s activities began as head of a rival company two years later, or in 1899.


            The letter says, in part:


            “Mr. Fricker has established the pigeon service from a philanthropic point of view, but he is unable to maintain it on the initial lines and I would suggest that the Postal Department should grant a subsidy for Mr. Fricker’s Agency. As already indicated there are extensive mining operations now being carried out at the Barrier, and it appears to me that if an accident or a wreck occurred on the Barrier, the pigeon service could be used to great advantage in such a case.

            It is, however, impossible to carry on this pigeon service without assistance and I would respectfully suggest that the postal department should take into its immediate consideration the advisability (or otherwise) of the granting of a subsidy to this pigeon service of, say, fifty pounds to keep the pigeon service in active operation. I may add that Mr. Fricker will continue the pigeon service for six months in order to test its efficiency without cost.”


            This letter was the earliest intimation the New Zealand Post Office Department had had that a pigeon post service had been operating between Great Barrier and the mainland.Replying for the Postmaster-General Mr. W.C. Walker, said the matter had been given careful consideration, but it was regretted that the Government was unable to see its way to subsidise the service as desired.




                                                                                            Chapter 5



            Mr. J.E,Parkin was another well-known Auckland pigeon fancier. He was the caretaker of the office building, “Auckland Chambers”, on 31 High Street, which still stans between Andrews and Clark’s premises in Auckland, and the “Returned Soldiers’ Association” building.

            In 1897, the “Auckland Chambers” was occupied by Messrs. Gilbert Bros., printers. The space between the gabled slate roof was used as a loft for Mr. Parkin’s pigeons, who made their exits and their entrances through two protruding windows in the roof.

            Mr. Parkin’s homers (homing pigeons) were mostly pure “Gits”, a breed named after a Belgian pigeon fancier of world renown.

            After withdrawing his support from Mr. Fricker’s agency, Mr. Smales with Mr. Gould, another mining man, decided to institute their own service. (Mr. Gould later became a partner in Smales and Gould, stockbrokers, during 1899). They discussed the matter with Mr. Parkin, who agreed to establish a daily service at 1/6 a message - sixpence cheaper than Mr. Fricker’s rate.

            Mr. Parkin sent his birds in the S.S. Iona for a trial flight, giving instructions to a crew member  to release them at daybreak.

            Mr. Fricker’s birds also were on the same ship in somewhat similar baskets; they were liberated by mistake. Mr. Parkin’s birds were delivered to Miss Springhall, who had had no previous dealings with him. Consequently, she assumed they belonged to Mr. Fricker. She sent the messages off in the usual way, but they arrived at Mr. Parkin’s loft.

            The confusion which followed, led to an estrangement between the services that lasted for the whole period of the pigeon post. Mr. Fricker apparently believed, when his birds returned home so soon, that he had been double-crossed. He, therefore, sent no further pigeons to Miss Springhall.

            In the week following, Mr. Parkin wrote to Miss Springhall, giving her instructions for the liberation of the remaining pigeons she had. This was the first intimation of her mistake. He told her of his intention to begin a service for Messrs. Smales and Gould at the reduced rate, and asked her to act as his agent.

            Miss Springhall was in a quandary. She had received no pigeons and had no letter from Mr. Fricker. Finally, she notified Mr. Parkin she would be agreeable to acting as the agent for his new service.

            Mr. Fricker made new arrangements. On Saturday, May 8, 1897 Mr. Parkin inserted the following advertisement in the “New Zealand Herald”:


                        Great Barrier Postal Pigeon Service

            “J.E. Parkin has pleasure in announcing that he has established a daily service as above at a fee of 1/6 for each message. Security and absolute secrecy guaranteed. Messages delivered two hours after being handed in at Blind Bay, as these birds have already flown the distance in 1 hour 20 minutes. Birds supplied for private messages at moderate rates. Press notices free. Communications may be addressed to Miss Springall, Postmistress, Blind Bay, Great Barrier, or J.E. Parkin, Auckland Chambers, High Street.”



            Miss Springall received Mr. Parkin’s first consignment of birds on Thursday, My 13, 1897, her busiest day. It was “Steamer Day,” so-called because it is the day of the week when the steamer arrived. There would be no demand for pigeon messages on “Steamer Day”, because any letters could be posted and would be delivered in Auckland next morning.

            Based upon these records, it can be confidently stated that the official opening day of the Parkin, Smales and Gould pigeon service was Friday, May 14, 1897. Miss Springall had the help of her mother and sister, Miss E. Springall.

            Mr. Fricker was so indignant at Mr. Parkin’s advertisement that he sought the aid of his son-in-law, a Mr. Chapman, employed by Messrs Sargood, Son and Ewen, Ltd., warehousemen.

            Mr. Chapman wrote to the New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department complaing that Mr. Parkin’s advertisement was a misrepresentation of the service. He said the word “postal” at the heading of the advertisement, and the postmistress, being the Okupu agent , might lead the public to believe the service was under the Department’s control. Consequently, Mr. Fricker’s service was at a disadvantage.

            The letter was referred to the Post and Telegraph Department’s head office in Wellington. It instructed Mr. Parkin to withdraw the word “postal” from all  his advertisements and printed matter.

            Messrs Smale and Gould decided to ask for a Government subsidy, too. They prepared a petition to the Government, which was signed by 22 residents. This read as follows:


            “We then undersigned residents at Bling Bay Great Barrier do hereby petition the Honourable Ministers of the Government to subsidise the Pigeongram Agency established by Messrs Smales and Gould of Auckland who are prepared to carry out a daily service of two pigeons.

            “We are fully alive to the important future ahead of the Great Barrier as a mining field and as we can hardly hope to obtain cable communication with Auckland or a daily Steamer Service, we are confident that the use of pigeons is our only alternative.”

            “Trusting in the favourable consideration of our petition.”

F.H. Shepherd                Mining Engineer

R. Springall                    Postmistress

E. Springall

W.W. Wood                   Miner

Ben Sanderson               Mine Manager

E. Sanderson

A.M. Sanderson

Charles E. Werner         Storekeeper

Edward Johnson

John Garvey                  Miner

A. Mabbett                    School Teacher

Joe E. Paddison             Miner

Ernest Alcock                Miner

Henry Alcock                Miner

John Hanson                  School Teacher

James Nicholson

Wm. Alcock                  Settler

S. Alcock

J. Smith

M. Alcock

I. Alcock



            Mr. Parkin replied to the Post and Telegraph Department with the following letter (Figure 6 on page 22):




                                                                        High St.

                                                                        June 30/97

The Secretary

            Post Office Department, Wellington



            “Yours of 8th inst duly to hand. I must apologise for the delay in replying but I waited for the accompanying requisition as I thought it would be better to send both together.

            “I have deleted the word ‘POSTAL’ and substituted ‘PIGEONGRAM’ and hope this will meet your requirements as I have no wish to create a false impression of any kind.

            “I enclose a receipt slip with the word crossed out & shall be glad to hear if this is sufficient; if not, I will have other slips printed.

            “I have a good deal of dishonourable opposition to contend with & send you also a copy of an advertisement I was obliged to insert in the papers which explains itself, I mean the one dated June 12th.

            “I have reason to know that my birds are the only ones which never fail, hence the malice displayed in the opposition.

            “If the petition shall be granted & my birds selected I am quite prepared to supply a daily service of two birds if needful, & deliver all messages immediately upon arrival. I may add that I have already brought between 20 and 30 messages the last few weeks.

            “Again apologising for the delay.”

                                                            I am, Sir,

                                                                        Yours very respectfully,

                                                                                    J.E. Parkin.


            The following advertisement appeared in the “New Zealand Herald” on June 12, 1897:


“£5-0-0 REWARD. Whereas permission has been given by an unauthorised person to residents on the Great Barrier to shoot Homing Pigeons, the above reward will be paid to any person giving information which will lead to the conviction of anyone found shooting birds belonging to the undersigned. J.E. Parkin, High St., Auckland.”


            It was the custom to shoot pigeons, which had alighted and remained on houses or trees in the vicinity of a loft, because these birds set a bad example to others. Racing pigeons have to be rigidly trained to land on their own trap and quickly enter the loft. When training homers, it is customary to feed them sparingly, always on their return to the loft. The birds soon learn there is food at the end of a journey; speed is the result.

            Fanciers pay particular attention to a mating between a cock and a hen.

            Working on the theory that “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” the cock is parted from his spouse and sent on a flight. The appeasement of his hunger and the return to love are strange but excellent inducements to insure a speedy flight. It is possible, therefore, that instructions were given to shoot any opposition pigeons, which had refused to fly on the journey to Auckland.    

            The next advertisement, in the “Auckland Star” of June 29, 1897, makes interesting reading:



“To Miners, Legal Managers, Sharebrokers, and Residents of the Barrier. Send your messages by the only line that never fails. Parkin’s birds come EVERY TIME. J.E. Parkin or Miss Springall, Okupu, Great Barrier.”


            This June 29, 1897 advertisement reveals that the word, Pigeongram, has been invented. The word, Postal, has been omitted, and the reference to Miss Springall as postmistress has been eliminated.



The Department’s reply to Mr Parkin’s June 30, 1897 letter was:


                                                                                    9th July, 1897.


            “I have to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 30th ultimo, forwarding copy of your newspaper advertisement, from which the word ‘Postal’ had been omitted as desired by the Department, concerning your pigeongram service between Great Barrier Island and Auckland; also a printed form of receipt with the word in question deleted. The action you have taken meets the Department’s requirements.

            “The petition you enclosed from Mr. F.W. Shepperd and others at Blind Bay, praying that the service might be subsidized, has been submitted to the Acting Postmaster-General, who directs me to reply that he regrets he is unable to agree that the service is one which should be assisted by the Department.”

                                                            Yours obediently,

                                                            Thomas Rose for the Secretary.

Mr J.E. Parkin

            High Street,



            The Government was already subsidizing the Northern Steamship Company by 250 a year to carry mail to and from Great Barrier Island. Therefore, one pigeon service could hardly be subsidized without assisting the other. Furthermore, the mining business did not warrant the extra expense.

            The rejection of the petition by the Post Office Department was answered from the Great Barrier Island by a written pledge of support for the Parkin, Smales and Gould service, with 28 signatories, which also was sent to the Department. The names included all the signatories to the petition except one,



Who, presumably, could not be contacted. It read as follows:

            “We, the undersigned residents and miners living at Blind Bay, Great Barrier do hereby agree to support solely Messrs Smales and Gould’s Pigeongram Agency, proving always that the service is properly carried out.”

                        F.H.Shepperd                 Mining Engineer

                        R. Springall                    Postmistress

                        E. Springall

                        W.W. Wood                   Miner

                        Ben Sanderson               Mine Manager

                        E. Sanderson

                        A.M. Sanderson

                        Charles E. Werner         Storekeeper

                        Edward Johnson

                        John Garvey                  Miner

                        James Todd

                        S. George Todd

                        A. Mabbett                   School Teacher

                        Joe E. Paddison            Miner

                        Ernest Alcock               Miner

                        G.S. Paddison               Miner

                        H. Alcock                     Miner

                        William Sanderson       Mine Manager

                        A. McKenzie

                        John Hanson                 School Teacher

                        S. Alcock

                        Wm. Alcock                 Settler

                        E.S. Alcock

                        J. Smith

                        M. Alcock

                        I. Alcock

                        Thomas Carlson           Miner

                        E. Carlson





            Meanwhile, another event had taken place in Auckland. Messrs Smales and Gould wrote the following letter to Mr Parkin:


                                                                                    7 Government Insurance Buildings


                                                                                    1st July, 1897.

Mr J. E. Parkin,

High Street,



Dear  Sir,

            “We beg to state in this letter that we have handed over to you the sole rights of interest in the Original Pigeon Service established by us between Great Barrier Island and Auckland.”                             

                                                                                    Yours faithfully,

                                                                                    Smales and Gould


The letter is noteworthy for the inclusion of the word “Original.”


 .....to be continued.





            A pigeon-fancier, J.(Jack) E. Parkin, began in 1897, what he called the  ‘The Great Barrier Island Postal Pigeon Service’,    

            From 1897 until 1908, (a century ago this year), when a cable was laid across Colville Channel from Port Charles to Tryphena, the unofficial pigeon mail service (then services) operated between Great Barrier Island and Auckland. By ‘unofficial’ is meant that the service, despite pleas to Secretary Gray and Postmaster-General Ward, including a petition signed by island residents and the postmistress Miss Springhall,  to have it recognised as a bona fide postal activity worthy of subsidy, was refused repeatedly even when the Prime Minister Richard Seddon was later approached. Hence, the words ‘Post’, ‘Postal’ and ‘Special Post’ had to be removed. They were replaced by the word ‘Pigeongram’.

    In 1898, Walter Fricker started a rival service called the ‘Great Barrier Island Pigeongram Agency’

    In 1899, Parkin’s service was taken over by S.H. Howie, who claimed that over 800 messages had been carried by his and Parkin’s birds in the previous two years.


(Source- ‘A History of the Post Office in New Zealand’ by Howard Robinson, p171-2.)









                                                            Source: - The Observer 15th May, 1897 p17, col 4.Papers Past

Walter Fricker. - Source and permission to use- Ian Newton
Jack Parkin was a member of the Unitarian Church of Auckland, and was also a musician....

"In those days the fine organ we now possess had not yet appeared, but a twenty-four-member choir

conducted by William Gribble was supported by an instrumental group led by Jack Parkin. (Jack

Parkin was the originator of New Zealand's Airmail. From his pigeon loft in Newton Road he

maintained a Pigeon Post, complete with its own stamps, between Auckland and the Great Barrier

Source:  Frank Castle’s 1981 Annals of the AUC   (Auckland? Unitarian Church)

S.Holden Howie.


ONE of the most gratifying things to all Aucklanders must be instances where rare character and ability is shown by those native to its soil. Mr S. Holden Howie, the subject of our sketch, and whose portrait appears in the centre of our page, is one of those instances. Born and reared in Auckland, educated at Newton West School, and trained to business life at the well-known firm of solicitors, Messrs Calder and Goldwater, he has now evolved into an active partner of the Chivers Cycle Company, of Newton, and has before him a career that is bound to be successful. As a boy, Mr Howie displayed in a marked degree all those qualities which in his young manhood have become confirmed. Amongst them are activity of mind and a versatility that are extraordinary. He entered Messrs Calder and Goldwater's office when a mere lad, remaining there for ten years, during which time he gained not only their entire confidence in business matters, but their close friendship in private life. They testify to Mr Howie’s character as having in it all the components that make for the attainment of high social standing and commercial success.

Mr Howie is only 22 years of age, but though young in years, he has, by the aid of his great energy and assiduity, become experienced in a variety of matters that some men double his age fail to attain to. He is a master hand in photography in all its higher branches, copying, enlarging, etc., he holds high class credentials as an expert in accountancy ; he has a big experience in the manipulation of graphophones, phonographs, and other scientific instruments. He is as active outside business pursuits as he is within them. He has been closely identified with the College Rifles since first the company was formed, is one of its most active members at the present time, and is, withal, senior marksman. He is also auditor to the company and secretary of the shooting committee. Last, but not least, Mr Howie is the man of pigeon fame. He may be termed a pigeongrammarian, for there is nothing about pigeons that he doesn't know. They have been his hobby ; he has studied them, and he has proved their utility. The Original Great Barrier Pigeongram Service at Newton Road, of which Mr Howie is proprietor, has proved a ready and unfailing means of speedy communication with various isolated districts that would otherwise in time of emergency have been quite cut off. It has been the means of quick transmission to the inhabitants of Great Barrier of important news, such as, more recently, the death of our late Queen, the King's proclamation, war news, etc., and also of the same quick transmission from the Barrier, in instances of shipwreck on the coast there. In one case, recently, the service was the means of saving the life of a boy who was shot, a pigeongram message calling for the .services of a doctor enabling the sufferer's injuries being attended to in time — a precious message in that case, for without it the boy's life would have been lost.

The headquarters of the Pigeongram Services are at Newton Road, and in connection with them are six agencies, Whangapara, Port Fitzroy, Oroville, Port Charles, Marotiri, and Whitford Park, making seven lofts in all. The central loft at Newton is an elaborate structure, evolved from very modest beginnings some years ago when the services were first inaugurated. The architecture of the loft is quite unique, and very pleasing. There is something Swiss about the tiny gables, projecting windows, and open, narrow staircase. The building occupies a considerable space of ground. At either end are the cosy structures where the pigeons are housed and fed, and where they nest. Stretching from gable to gable of either house is the aviary, with floor raised high from the ground, enclosed all round with wire netting. From its floor an extensive view of the surrounding district can be obtained. The entrances for the pigeons when arriving from "foreign parts" with messages, are through what are technically termed " electric traps." They are so framed that the pigeons can enter without effort, the " trap " immediately closing behind them, thus preventing egress. At the same time an electric bell gives information within the residence of the proprietor that a pigeon has entered, and it is at once relieved of its message.  

 S.Holden Howie.
Mr Howie reckons he has somewhere about 300 pigeons in the "service," but they are too numerous he is uncertain of the correct number, and, as he says, " they are always increasing." Not the least interesting feature of the services are the message forms themselves. They are of a peculiar tissue paper, particularly suited to such open-air carriage; and still more interesting are the pigeogram stamps. These are unique, being of handsome design, besides which their rarity and novelty have caused them to be eagerly sought after by stamp collectors all over the world. The first stamp used on a message from the Barrier was in October, 1900, and Mr Howie can claim the distinction of being the first to use stamps in connection with messages carried by pigeons. Amongst the numerous letters received from distinguished persons appreciative of the utility of the Pigeon Service is one from the Duke of Cornwall (now Prince of Wales), acknowledging the welcome conveyed by Pigeongram from the inhabitants of the Great Barrier ; and another from Sir Arthur Bigge, conveying His Royal Highness' s gracious acceptance of "six complete sets of stamps used in the Great Barrier Pigeongram Service." Mr Howie also holds similarly appreciative letters from Admiral Beaumont, Prince Kalanianolo, Hawaii, and others.

His Excellency the Governor, Lord Ranfurly, accompanied by Mr Hugh Boscawen, A.D.C., paid a visit to the Loft last Monday, and spent two hours inspecting the inmates and their houses. His Excellency whilst there received greetings by Pigeongram from the residents of Great Barrier, to whom he despatched a gracious reply. His Excellency also received a message for the Premier, conveying " God speed and a safe return," from the Island residents. At leaving, His Excellency expressed himself as greatly pleased with his visit, and, as an outcome of an offer by Mr Howie to supply birds, expressed an opinion that some such communication between the lighthouses and the mainland should prove of advantage. It is probable the suggestion may lead to something being done in that direction. On Tuesday Mr Howie received a reply from the Premier to the residents of the Great Barrier, heartily thanking them for their good wishes, and wishing them in return all peace and happiness. The activity and ability displayed by Mr Howie has gained for him the confidence of the business firm with which he is now connected, and he leaves Auckland on the 26th inst. for an extensive tour of the world. He will visit all the leading centres of the great commercial countries, first visiting San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Kansas, Chicago, Buffalo, St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and other American cities, thence he will journey to London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Belfast, etc., and, after a run through Germany and France, will return home via Suez. His main object is to secure agencies for all novelties, which, in his judgment, will be suitable for introduction into New Zealand, including the latest things in cycles and their accessories, phonographs, etc. He will visit all the chief places throughout the world where pigeon-houses are established, with the object of importing fresh birds, and gaining experience in the latest methods of pigeon management and service.

Mr Chivers is now away on a business trip to Sydney and Melbourne, but will be returning to Auckland next week. Amongst the many valuable presents received by Mr Howie from friends on the occasion of his approaching departure, is a very handsome travelling case, a present from Mr Chivers. Inside is a beautifully engraved plate expressing recognition of Mr Howie’s service to the firm he has so recently become a member of. Another presentation much appreciated by Mr Howie is the gift from his late employers, Messrs Calder and Goldwater, of a beautiful Camera chosen from the stock of the photographic importers, Messrs A. Jones and Coy. , Auckland. On his return to Auckland, Mr Howie will take active duty in extending the business of the Chivers Cycle Manufacturing and Importing Coy., and in this as well as in his business tour now about to commence, we wish him every success.

Source: Observer 19th April, 1902, p11.



And from the Times newspaper in England in 1899 is the following very informative article:....

Pigeon post in New Zealand. - Recent experiments in flying pigeons between the town of Auckland, North Island, New Zealand, and Great Barrier Island have resulted in the successful establishment of a pigeon postal service between those points. The population of Great Barrier Island having considerably increased lately, owing to the discovery of gold, silver, and copper in paying quantities, the need of a quicker means of communication between the island and mainland than that supplied by the weekly steamer was keenly and increasingly felt. The Government not seeing its way to make a cable communication with the island (the population now scarce numbering 700 souls), it was left to private enterprise to establish a speedy and not too expensive means of communication between Auckland and the island, at the mouth of the Gulf of Hauraki. The germ of the solution of the difficulty was found in the use of pigeons to carry despatches to Auckland on the occasion of the wreck of the Wairarapa, and accordingly a large number of birds have been trained for the service, and a daily post between the island and the mainland is now in successful operation. Each bird carries four “pigeon-grams,” or messages. These are written (or typed) on pieces of tissue paper, quarto size, and bearing stamps of the value of either 1s. or  6d. Four of these despatches being received, a mail is made up. That is to say, the messages are folded up tightly, addressed, and sealed with a stamp, an outer covering in the shape of a waterproof legging being put over them when wrapped round the pigeon’s leg, and all is fastened with a tiny india-rubber ring. The mails are made up and despatched as required daily between the hours of 9a.m. and noon from Auckland, and from 9 o’clock to 3 p.m. from the island. The difference both in the charges for the stamps and in the respective hours of making up the mails is explained by the fact that Great Barrier Island lies low in the water, and is often enveloped in haze; this renders it far less conspicuous than the main island, and, therefore, more difficult for the birds to see. The difficulty of reaching, and the risk of missing, the smaller island, being thus greater than the reverse journey, the birds are despatched earlier, and the charge for the postage is doubled. On arrival at the station at either terminus the pigeons enter a small box, the entrance to which is guarded by two wires, which being raised by the bird’s shoulders strike an electric bell on falling back. Thus warned, an attendant at once relieves the bird of its burden and allows it to enter its proper loft, where it can obtain food and rest after its 60 mile flight. 
Source: The Times Sep 08, 1899; pg. 5; Issue 35929; Start column: E 476 words. Elec. Coll.: CS85517608.


And from New Zealand Post, the following:

To celebrate the centenary of the first pigeon-gram, New Zealand Post issued two stamps featuring the original triangular design of stamps produced in 1899 by The Great Barrier Pigeongram Agency. This unofficial service (not run by The New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department) produced the country's first 'airmail' stamps.

The original design was by Maori war veteran H.C. Wrigg, holder of the coveted New Zealand Cross, and the stamp was printed by The Auckland Star. The original colours of carmine (1s) and dull blue (6d) were used in the new issue.

Centenary of the Pigeon-gram - 40c
The stamp is based on the original triangular stamp designs produced in 1899 by The Great Barrier Pigeongram Agency.

Centenary of the Pigeon-gram - 80c
The stamp is based on the original triangular stamp designs produced in 1899 by The Great Barrier Pigeongram Agency.

Pacific '97 Pigeon-gram Miniature Sheet
Issued 29 May 1997
A triangular miniature sheet was produced, incorporating two 40c and two 80c Centenary of Pigeon-gram stamps, to commemorate the Pacific '97 World Philatelic Exhibition held in San Francisco 29 May - 8 June 1997.

Date of Issue: 7 May 1997
Stamp Designers: Stephen Fuller, Wellington, New Zealand
Printer: Southern Colour Print, New Zealand
Stamp Size: 41mm x 36mm (triangular)
Miniature Sheet Size: 138mm x 121mm (triangular)
Sheet Size: 50 stamps per sheet; Miniature sheet of four stamps
Process: Lithography
Perforation Gauge: 13.75 x 14
Paper Type: Red phosphor coated, unwatermarked

          A lot has been made in recent years of this service being the world’s first pigeon post service, regular or otherwise, but it was not. Pigeons have been burdened with messages tied to their legs for centuries if not millennia, especially for military advantage. One of the reasons falconry flourished in several societies was to provide a means to intercept enemy messages being carried by pigeons.   


            In fact it is highly probable that pigeons were used to carry messages to and from Great Barrier at least since the mid 1840s and possibly earlier. For instance, Robert Barstow, who farmed at Tryphena from 1845 to 1858, and who simultaneously owned a farm at St. Johns in Auckland, kept six pairs of pigeons in 1847 at least. Why else would he keep them if not to keep in touch between the two farms, and when he was at Great Barrier Island having left his family in Auckland, he could keep in touch, and vice-versa. However, the enterprise with which the pigeon services were created and operated between Great Barrier Island and Auckland is to be admired.


           In 2007, I found the body of a carrier or racing pigeon (same thing) at Mine Bay with a band on its leg. Racing I suppose.


            There’s more pigeon history to come yet.


    Don Armitage © 2008


Subpages (1): Pigeon Post