Thames Pillar Boxes

Pollen Street, Cochrane Street And Queen Street, Thames

  • Thames Pillar Boxes. Pillar Box outside 711 Pollen Street, Thames erected 1869, relocated c.2004.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Martin Jones. Date: 30/01/2017.
  • Thames Pillar Boxes. Pillar Box at the crn Mary St and Pollen St, Thames erected 1869, relocated 1881.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Martin Jones. Date: 30/01/2017.
  • Thames Pillar Boxes. Pillar Box at Queen St, Thames erected 1878, relocated 1967.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Martin Jones. Date: 30/01/2017.
  • Thames Pillar Boxes. Pillar Box outside 711 Pollen Street: Acanthus-leaf and bud design on the domed cap.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Martin Jones. Date: 30/01/2017.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Able to Visit
List Number 9791 Date Entered 15th June 2017

Locationopen/close

Extent of List Entry

Extent includes part of the land described as Legal Road, South Auckland Land District, and the structures known as Thames Pillar Boxes thereon. Extent includes land within a radius of 1m beyond the outer edge of each pillar box base, and an additional narrow strip of land 500mm wide on Pollen Street, Cochrane Street and Queen Street that connects each pillar box (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the List entry report for further information).

City/District Council

Thames-Coromandel District

Region

Waikato Region

Legal description

Legal Road, South Auckland Land District

Location description

The pillar boxes are located i) on road berm outside private dwellings at 700 Queen Street; ii) on pedestrian pavement outside a commercial building at 711 Pollen Street; and iii) on pedestrian pavement outside a commercial building at 580 Pollen Street, at the southeast corner of Pollen and Mary Street.

Summaryopen/close

The Thames Pillar Boxes in central Thames have considerable significance for the extent to which they reflect the emergence and development of early postal collection networks in New Zealand. Initially erected in 1869 and 1878, the ornate, cast iron receptacles are the only surviving group of nineteenth-century pillar boxes in the country’s streetscape. They are especially valuable as very rare surviving examples of ‘Levinge’-style receptacles - the earliest type used in this country. They also have considerable significance due to their potential as a group for public education about aspects such as the growth of literacy and the importance of written communication in the nineteenth century; the substantial needs within urban settlements for connectivity, including with communities elsewhere in New Zealand and overseas; and international links with Australia and a broader imperial network.

Thames was an important centre of Māori activity before and after 1840. The gold rush that followed proclamation of the Thames goldfield in 1867 has been described as ‘among the greatest intrusions upon indigenous peoples in the Pacific’. Within a few years of the foundation of Shortland in 1867 and Grahamstown in 1868, the booming settlement - collectively known as Thames - had become New Zealand’s fifth-largest town. Initial demands by miners and others included the adequate provision of postal services.

Two of the Thames Pillar Boxes were erected in October 1869. Placed in busy positions, one of these lay at the corner of Willoughby and Pollen Streets, Shortland, and another beside Thames stock exchange at the junction of Brown and Albert Streets in Grahamstown. Pillar boxes had been introduced to major urban centres in New Zealand in 1864, soon after the centralisation of postal arrangements in the colony (1858) and the introduction of compulsory pre-paid stamps for all mail (1862). Their adoption and spread in New Zealand can, in part, be seen to reflect growing literacy in the nineteenth century, as well as the increasing importance of letter-writing for personal and business purposes. In September 1878, an additional receiver was erected at the corner of Richmond and Rolleston Streets, Shortland.

Cylindrical in shape with a domed cap and acanthus-leaf motifs, the receivers conformed to a standard design used in New Zealand until 1879. They were based on a type used for the first cast iron pillar boxes in Australia, designed by Thomas W. Levinge of the New South Wales Post Office. Modifications used for the Thames structures and other early New Zealand pillar boxes included horizontal rather than vertical posting apertures, which reduced the threat of water ingress. Both the design and manufacturer of the receivers, Bubb and Son of Sydney, reflect close connections between New Zealand and Australia at this time.

Subsequent modifications to the Thames Pillar Boxes included converting their colour from, probably, green to ‘pillar box red’ - a convention emanating from Britain after 1874. When the receivers were threatened with removal in the 1960s - a time when most pillar boxes were replaced in New Zealand - they were retained after a public campaign. Flexible in their ability to accommodate shifting community needs, all three pillar boxes have been repositioned within central Thames during their lifetime of use. The earliest relocation, when the Grahamstown pillar box was moved to the corner of Pollen and Mary Streets, took place in 1881. The two other receptacles were relocated to Queen Street (from Richmond and Rolleston Streets) and outside 711 Pollen Street (from the corner of Willoughby and Pollen Streets) in 1967 and circa 2004 respectively. Still used in two instances for their original purpose, the Thames Pillar Boxes represent a practice that has endured for some 150 years. They now constitute the oldest surviving pillar boxes in the North Island and, collectively, the second-oldest nationally.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The Thames Pillar Boxes are historically significant for reflecting aspects of postal services in 1860s and later New Zealand. They particularly demonstrate the early expansion of collection networks beyond post offices, which were more restrictive in their opening hours and locations. They are of historical value for reflecting the growth of literacy and especially the importance of letter writing as a means of communication in nineteenth-century and later New Zealand. They are strongly connected with the initial emergence and development of Thames as a major urban settlement in the late 1860s and 1870s, and its links with gold mining which attracted many incomers with personal and business ties outside the area.

The Thames Pillar Boxes additionally demonstrate the close relationship between New Zealand and Australia in the 1860s and 1870s, notably through their design and manufacture in New South Wales. They have connections with individuals of interest in Australia, including the industrialist J. R. Bubb, who played a role in the early development of the Sydney suburb of Burwood. Extensively adopted as a general type in Britain and several of its colonies in the nineteenth century, the Thames Pillar Boxes can also be seen as demonstrating close ties with the wider British Empire and the latter’s communications network during the nineteenth century and later.

Individually relocated to different sites in 1881, 1967 and circa 2004, they directly reflect the flexibility of the postal collection network in relation to changing patterns of use and community requirements over an extended period of time.

Aesthetic Significance or Value

The Thames Pillar Boxes have aesthetic value as unusual, distinctive and ornate elements in the landscape. Their features encompass decorated acanthus-leaf and related motifs. Their aesthetic significance is enhanced by their vivid appearance, being painted a ‘pillar box red’ colour. Aesthetic value is also enhanced by their location in a relatively well-preserved historic streetscape, which includes numerous late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century shops, and other buildings.

Architectural Significance or Value

The Thames Pillar Boxes have architectural significance as a group of well-preserved pillar boxes, which are now very uncommon. They have particular value as rare surviving pillar boxes of ‘Levinge’ design, which was the earliest pillar box style used in New Zealand. The design specifically reflects the origins of pillar boxes in Belgium and France, and the subsequent adoption of this type of structure in parts of the British Empire including Australia.

Technological Significance or Value

The Thames Pillar Boxes have technological significance as rare surviving examples in New Zealand of early pillar box manufacture. They form three of just four examples pre-dating 1879 that are currently known to survive in New Zealand. Technological significance encompasses the methods and materials of pillar box manufacture, and related aspects of nineteenth-century technology such as secure locking mechanisms.

Social Significance or Value

The Thames Pillar Boxes have social significance as familiar and accessible public postal facilities that have served the Thames community as a network for approximately 150 years. They were saved from destruction or other removal in the 1960s following a campaign by the local community - which considered the pillar boxes to be important historical items. Their value as an ongoing community resource has been extended by relocations in 1881, 1967 and circa 2004. They have generally been moved to busier environments, including areas of greater commercial activity.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

The Thames Pillar Boxes can be regarded to have considerable significance for the extent to which they reflect the emergence and development of early postal collection networks in New Zealand. These played an important role in everyday urban life from the 1860s onwards. The Thames Pillar Boxes collectively also reflect the flexibility of such networks in relation to community needs over a period of some 150 years. They demonstrate the longevity of postal collection practice, extending into the twenty-first century.

The Thames Pillar Boxes can also be seen to reflect broader aspects of New Zealand’s past, including expanding literacy rates, the importance of social connections and communication via the written word in the nineteenth century. They additionally reflect close links between New Zealand and Australia; the rapid emergence and development of Thames as a major urban settlement; and the infrastructure requirements of miners and other occupants of the early township in the late 1860s and 1870s.

The Thames Pillar Boxes further reflect the greater role of heritage in Thames’ economy and image in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Recent modifications to the pillar boxes, including relocation of the Willoughby and Pollen Streets receiver and closure of the Mary and Pollen Street pillar box, can be seen to reflect the effects of alternative methods of written and printed communication such as electronic mail on New Zealand and its postal service at this time.

(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history

The Thames Pillar Boxes have some potential to provide knowledge of New Zealand history through investigation of their physical fabric. The latter may provide knowledge of specialist items imported into New Zealand from Australia in the 1860s and 1870s, including their composition and manufacture; initial visual appearance; and subsequent use.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place

The Thames Pillar Boxes can be considered to have strong community association, having been used as a network by the Thames community for approximately 150 years. As everyday items that facilitated social communication, pillar boxes have often been viewed with considerable regard by their associated communities. The Thames Pillar Boxes were saved by the local community from removal and likely destruction in the 1960s, and retained for their historical value. Conservation of the pillar boxes in the late 1990s was undertaken as part of an initiative overseen by local postal service staff. Two of the pillar boxes have maintained their use as public mailboxes that are emptied on a daily, weekday basis. The third pillar box has been kept as a community asset following its closure for postal purposes in 2004.

(f) The potential of the place for public education

Located beside major commercial and other thoroughfares in a notable historic town and tourist centre, the Thames Pillar Boxes have considerable potential to provide public education about several important aspects of New Zealand history. These aspects include: the adoption and spread of pillar boxes throughout New Zealand as part of wider improvements in communication in the nineteenth century; the growth of literacy and the increasing importance of written communication as a means of personal and business interaction during this period; the remarkable growth of Thames as a colonial urban centre, with considerable needs for connectivity with communities elsewhere in New Zealand and overseas; and the important links between New Zealand and Australia during the early years of the Thames gold rush.

This potential is enhanced by the rarity of the Thames Pillar Boxes in a regional and national context. Thames is the only place in the country to retain all of its early pillar boxes, and can be considered the best place in New Zealand to demonstrate the adoption and use of pillar boxes as an important urban phenomenon in nineteenth-century and later society. The Thames Pillar boxes are also well-preserved in their original form, and include the earliest in the North Island and second-oldest in the country to still be used as originally intended. Their distinctive appearance and location in a visually characterful environment also enhance their potential for public education. The Grahamstown historic heritage area in which they are located contains numerous buildings of related date to the pillar boxes.

(g) The technical accomplishment, value, or design of the place

The Thames Pillar Boxes are significant as well-preserved examples of the earliest design of pillar box in New Zealand. The design was the only one of its type employed in New Zealand prior to 1879. It has proved durable and effective, still being utilised for its original purpose in the case of the pillar box outside 711 Pollen Street for some 150 years. It can be considered a notable urban design type, having been erected in several major urban centres in New Zealand during its main period of installation.

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places

The Thames Pillar Boxes have considerable significance as the only surviving group of nineteenth-century pillar boxes in New Zealand’s streetscape. As a group, they are more fully able to articulate the importance of such structures within the context of the evolution and development of urban settlement in this country. Pillar boxes were once relatively commonplace and widespread features in New Zealand’s urban settlements - particularly major towns and cities - but are now rare. The importance of the Thames Pillar Boxes is enhanced by the proportion they form of all remaining pillar boxes of pre-1900 date. They also represent a significant percentage of pillar boxes of all periods.

As very rare survivors of ‘Levinge’-style receptacles, which were the earliest type used in New Zealand, the importance of the Thames Pillar Boxes is additionally reinforced. ‘Levinge’-style pillar boxes have value for reflecting a variety of aspects of New Zealand’s history, including the introduction of pre-paid postal collection services to this country. They are also connected with related aspects such as increasing literacy, the growth of communication networks, and improvements in government services during the nineteenth century. They demonstrate the international design origins of pillar boxes in continental Europe and their adaptation in British colonial contexts; as well as the spread of this structural type into the Pacific region. They directly reflect New Zealand’s connections with the outside world, including Australia and a wider imperial network that relied on postal and other communications.

The Thames Pillar Boxes are especially able to represent these aspects due to their well-preserved original form. They form the earliest surviving pillar boxes in the North Island and, collectively, the second-oldest nationally.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural area

The Thames Pillar Boxes form part of a broader historical and cultural landscape in Thames, a notable gold mining centre and a site of extensive previous activity connected with Māori. The pillar boxes are particularly connected with a very well-preserved industrial, commercial and domestic landscape in Grahamstown and north Shortland, which contains numerous significant buildings, structures and other features. The Thames Pillar Boxes make a distinctive visual contribution to the urban landscape, and lie close to buildings of comparable date. They are intrinsically connected with the broader historical landscape in Thames, including Pollen Street - a notable historical thoroughfare with which two of the pillar boxes have been linked since 1869 and 1881 respectively.

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Construction Professionalsopen/close

Bubb & Son

Bubb and Son was established as a Sydney-based iron- and brass-founding business in 1856. Emerging from an enterprise created by Robert Watts Bubb (1805-91), it was run in partnership with his son, John Robert Bubb (1832-1900), until 1867, and by the latter under a variety of guises until 1889.

Robert Watts Bubb was born in Avening, Gloucestershire, England. Evidently a French polisher by trade, he emigrated to Australia in 1839. By 1843-4, R. W. Bubb had become a Sydney-based agent and auctioneer, and also subsequently manufactured ‘colonial tweed’ in a short-lived venture at Bathurst. In 1852, he moved into the iron- and brass-founding industry with business partner Erasmus Temperley, taking over the Victoria Foundry in Sussex Street, Sydney. Following Temperley’s death in 1855, R. W. Bubb further acquired the Newtown Brass and Iron Foundry.

John Robert Bubb joined his father as a partner in the firm in January 1856, after which the business was known as Bubb and Son. Early in the same year, the firm manufactured Australia’s first cast iron pillar boxes, which were erected in Sydney. Other early contracts included railings and columns for the Sydney Exchange (demolished 1964), and cast iron sewers for King and Hunter Streets, Sydney. From 1861, Bubb and Son also produced large-sized pillar boxes for posting newspapers, commissioned by the New South Wales government; and between 1864 and 1878 exported pillar letter receivers to New Zealand. By 1865, the firm’s premises are said to have expanded fourfold, carrying out orders for the engineering trade and producing ‘every description of ironwork used in house-building.’

R. W. Bubb retired in 1867, with J. R. Bubb continuing the Victoria Foundry business alone or with other partners until 1889. Commissions undertaken by J. R. Bubb included waiting rooms for the North Shore Ferry Company at Circular Quay, Sydney. In addition to his business activities, J. R. Bubb was a significant figure in the development of the Sydney suburb of Burwood, petitioning for its creation as a municipality in 1873 and briefly becoming its mayor six years later. He was also a secretary of the New South Wales Cremation Society.

R. W. Bubb died at Forest Lodge in 1891, and J. R. Bubb in Sydney in 1900.

Source: List Entry Report for Thames Pillar Boxes, List No. 9791, 16 May 2017

Levinge, T.W.

Thomas William Levinge (c.1819-1884) is believed to have been born in Ireland. Arriving in Australia from Dublin in 1841, he initially worked as a schoolmaster in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sydney. In 1854, he was one of three commissioners appointed by Governor-General Charles Fitzroy to report on the state of education in New South Wales. Many of the commission’s recommendations were subsequently adopted by the government.

Levinge had also been appointed a clerk in New South Wales’ Post Office in October 1851. While occupying this position, he produced a drawing and specification for Australia’s first cast iron pillar boxes, which were installed in Sydney in 1856. He is also credited with designing a number of postage stamps in the 1850s and early 1860s, including the shilling and sixpenny stamps issued by New South Wales in February 1854, and the colony’s first high-denomination issue - the five shilling stamp - in 1861. In 1858, Levinge became New South Wales’ first Postal Inspector.

He died in Sydney, in September 1884.

Source: List entry report for Thames Pillar Boxes, List No. 9791, 16 May 2017

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Early history

Thames lies in the rohe of Ngāti Maru, an iwi of the Marutūahu Confederation. Marutūahu peoples migrated to Hauraki from the Waikato probably in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, largely displacing earlier occupants including Ngāti Huarere, who had held numerous pā in the Thames area prior to the late 1600s. Under Marutūahu, complex customary rights developed along the Thames foreshore, considered ‘one of the richest patiki [flatfish] grounds in the country, in which virtually every hapu of Hauraki sought a share’. At one stage, wooden stakes delineated 45 such interests between Tararu Point and the Kauaeranga River. Early nineteenth-century settlement included the Ngāti Maru stronghold at nearby Te Tōtara, which was attacked by Ngāpuhi in 1821, during the so-called Musket Wars. In 1833, a large pā and several associated kāinga on low ground at the junction of the Kauaeranga and Waihou Rivers were also noted by visiting Europeans.

After 1840, local Māori actively engaged in agricultural production to supply growing European demand in Auckland and elsewhere. The land between Tararu and Kauaeranga was particularly intensively used. In 1849, this was described by a European visitor as ‘a beautifully cultivated flat, inhabited by a great number of natives, whose houses are scattered about in all directions in the midst of the cultivations.’

Partly due to such intensive prior use and the speed of subsequent change, the rush of incoming Pākehā settlers that followed the opening of the Thames goldfield in August 1867 has been described as ‘among the greatest intrusions upon indigenous peoples in the Pacific’. In just over a year, some 15,000 Europeans moved into what had been an almost exclusively Māori community. The landscape was initially transformed with the creation of a town at Shortland, laid out at the mouth of the Kauaeranga River. Settler demand for land was such that in 1868 Auckland entrepreneur Robert Graham established a second township immediately to the north, known as Grahamstown. By 1871 the two settlements, by now conjoined and referred to as Thames, formed the fifth largest town in New Zealand.

Initial development of postal facilities (1867-9)

Postal facilities were a priority in the rapidly urbanising locality. Business and personal communications between inhabitants and the outside world relied almost exclusively on this service, which was organised and overseen by the colonial government. The first post office in Shortland is reported to have been established in September 1867, just one month after the Thames goldfield was proclaimed. In October 1868, an additional facility opened at Grahamstown.

From the outset, postal services struggled to keep up with demand. Complaints referring to the inadequacy of the post office at Shortland were already being received in May 1868. The following October, a deputation of miners ’testified to the serious loss of time occasioned by the present inefficient system’ and requested that the Government keep pace with the growing commerce of the place.

Improved facilities were soon provided. In May 1869, the Postmaster-General agreed to remove the Shortland and Grahamstown Post Offices ‘to a new one to be erected in a central position at which the business of both offices can be transacted…’ Overseen by architects Rumsey and Farrow , this opened as a purpose-built structure at the corner of Mackay and Mary Streets, Shortland, in September 1869. Two freestanding pillar boxes were additionally erected to receive mail for posting. These were positioned some 650-700 metres respectively to the south and north of the new, central post office building - near the sites of the earlier offices, which were closed.

Erection of the first pillar boxes (1869)

Erected in October 1869, the new pillar boxes consisted of cylindrical, cast iron receptacles that were both distinctive and ornate. One was placed in Willoughby Street, next to the junction with Pollen Street. Pollen Street formed Shortland’s main business thoroughfare, as well as the main connecting road with Grahamstown. During the first years of the gold rush, this street was a major gathering place for the local community, with thousands of people said to regularly parade its pavements on a Saturday night. The second pillar box was erected at the junction of Brown and Albert Streets in Grahamstown. It was similarly placed in an area of major community and business gathering, being positioned next to Thames’ Stock Exchange at what was commonly known as ‘Scrip Corner’.

Characteristically located in prominent public places, as in Thames, pillar boxes made sending written communications more accessible than previously. In New Zealand, they expanded capacity to post correspondence beyond an existing network of post offices and receiving-post houses. Together with wall- and ‘lamp post’-receivers, such facilities have been described as ‘the first visible and public sign of the age of modern communications’. At least in part reflecting growing literacy and the importance of broader written communication for personal and business purposes, they were in the vanguard of dramatic changes from the nineteenth century onwards, which have subsequently also embraced the use of telephone, radio, television and modern digital media.

Internationally, the first cast iron pillar boxes were erected in Belgium by 1850 - the same year that they were also trialled in Paris. A variety of designs were adopted in Britain from 1852 onwards, and subsequently in British colonies such as New South Wales, India and New Zealand. New Zealand’s first pillar boxes were erected in 1864, soon after the centralisation of postal arrangements in the colony (1858) and the introduction of compulsory pre-paid stamps for all mail (1862). The first receptacles were placed in major provincial centres at Nelson (2), Auckland (3), Christchurch (2), Wellington (2) and Dunedin (4). A further pillar box at Lyttelton by 1868 was followed by those in Thames. As relatively early structures in a New Zealand context, the latter can be seen to have formed distinctive and unusual features not only in the emerging Thames goldfield, but also within a broader geographical context.

Believed to have cost approximately £18 each, the initial receivers in Thames were manufactured by Bubb and Son. Operating from the Victoria Foundry in Sydney, this firm had been established as a partnership between Robert Watts Bubb (1805-91) and his son John Robert Bubb (1832-1900) in January 1856. The business was notable for its production of early pillar boxes, including the first letter and newspaper receivers in New South Wales in 1856 and 1861 respectively, and New Zealand’s first receptacles from 1864 onwards. However, the firm undertook a wide variety of other manufacture, including columns and railings for the Sydney Exchange in 1856, cast iron sewer pipes, and ironwork for the Australian building trade. At the time that the Thames pillar boxes were created, the business was being run by J. R. Bubb, who subsequently became a prominent figure in the development of the Sydney suburb of Burwood.

The initial Thames receivers conformed to a standard pattern that was employed by Bubb and Son for all New Zealand pillar boxes between 1864 and 1878. This consisted of a cylindrical structure some 1.8 m high, with an ornate, acanthus-leaf cap; horizontal posting slots immediately beneath the cap rim; and a main body that incorporated blank vertical slots in its upper part, lettering bearing the information ‘Post Office Letter Box’, and a door for emptying the box. It also encompassed an ornate, projecting base.

The design was a variant of that used for Australia’s first pillar boxes, erected in Sydney in 1856 - also manufactured by Bubb and Son. The Sydney receivers were themselves modelled on the initial pillar boxes used in Belgium and France rather than British prototypes, and had been designed by a clerk in the New South Wales post office, Thomas W. Levinge (c.1819-1884). Levinge’s talents extended to the design of several of that colony’s early stamps, and he subsequently also became New South Wales’ first Postal Inspector.

Modifications to Levinge’s initial design used for New Zealand’s early pillar boxes - including the Thames receivers - encompassed features that had more recently been adopted in New South Wales for newspaper-posting pillar boxes (1861). These included the replacement of three vertical slots - initially employed to facilitate posting from horseback - with a pair of horizontal apertures below a more pronounced rim, providing contents with greater protection against water ingress. In the New Zealand models, vestiges of the vertical slots were retained as blanks. A comparable design incorporating such features may also have been utilised for standard-size letter receivers in New South Wales.

The commissioning and design of the initial pillar boxes reflects close commercial and other ties between New Zealand and Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. Thames may have had particularly strong connections, housing many miners who had previously worked on the Australian goldfields; and Australian institutions that opened agencies in the settlement during the gold boom. Major buildings at the intersection of Willoughby Street and Pollen Street, where one of the new pillar boxes was erected, included what was then described the ‘best’ bank building in Thames - the Bank of Australasia - which had a head office in Melbourne. They also encompassed the Bendigo Hotel, named after a settlement that was central to the Victoria gold rush.

Extension and flexibility of the pillar box network (1870s-1960s)

At their opening, the Thames pillar boxes were considered likely to be of great benefit to local residents. In the 1870s, they were emptied twice a day. Likely to have been initially green in colour, they were probably repainted ‘pillar box red’ sometime after 1874, following British convention. The latter had been adopted for London boxes in July 1874, and by 1884 pillar boxes in the rest of Britain had been repainted the same colour.

The Thames goldfield continued to expand after the pillar boxes initially came into use. The peak year of the Thames gold rush, 1870, yielded gold exceeding £1,000,000 in value. Postal activity on the goldfield enabled Auckland province to achieve postal revenue that was close to that of Otago and Wellington.

The initial pair of pillar boxes proved insufficient for the growing needs of the settlement. Requests for an additional receptacle included one made in 1875, which was declined. In September 1878, however, a further pillar box of the same design as the first ones was erected a few blocks to the northeast of the Willoughby Street receiver, at the corner of Richmond and Rolleston Streets. Immediately following its placement, only Auckland and Dunedin had more pillar boxes than Thames.

Also manufactured by Bubb and Son, the new receptacle is likely to have been one of the last New Zealand pillar boxes made in Australia. After 1878, locally-made, hexagonal pillar boxes closely modelled on the British ‘Penfold’ type were introduced throughout the colony. These were erected in a wider range of settlements with increasing frequency during the latter part of the nineteenth century, becoming familiar parts of the landscape.

Pillar boxes in New Zealand were flexible to the needs of their local communities and were sometimes relocated within the same settlement to cope with changing postal demand or other circumstances. In 1881, the initial pillar box at the junction of Brown and Albert Streets was physically relocated to the corner of Pollen and Mary Streets in north Shortland. This evidently compensated for the removal of the main post office at the corner of Mackay and Mary Streets - designated a Chief Post Office in 1877 - to grander premises in Queen Street. It may also reflect the relative decline of Scrip Corner as a major centre for business in Thames, as revenue from the goldfields reduced from heights achieved in the early 1870s.

Routine maintenance of the Thames pillar boxes included repainting in 1886. At this time, a local newspaper noted that ‘the painter has always had considerable difficulty in protecting the lettering from the finger marks of larrikins…’ Reports of children in the settlement modifying lettering, playing with locks and occasionally setting fire to the contents of pillar boxes occurred over the next few years. Newspapers declared that the penalty for ‘defacing or injuring’ pillar boxes was £20 - a considerable sum. They also noted that under the Post Office Act 1881, the destruction of mail could result in up to seven years’ penal servitude or two years’ imprisonment with hard labour for the offender. In 1890, judicial authorities instructed a child of under twelve years old to be ‘severely administered’ with physical punishment for causing letters in the Mary Street receiver to be burnt.

Repairs to the Mary Street pillar box were undertaken in 1908, which possibly included reinforcement of its door hinges.

Heritage recognition and additional relocations (1960s onwards)

In the 1960s, pillar boxes throughout New Zealand were steadily replaced by the Post Office authorities. This followed expressed concerns by the Post Office Association that the receivers were leaky and difficult to clear. Some two-thirds of New Zealand’s pillar boxes may have subsequently been converted to scrap. They were replaced by smaller, wooden structures of ‘hutch-type’ design, which were mounted on posts.

Large-scale removal aroused public interest in the retention of survivors. According to an account published in 1969, threatened removal of the three early surviving pillar boxes in Thames was met with ‘public indignation…so great that they were left in peace, as historical relics.’ During Thames’ centenary celebrations in 1967, one of the pillar boxes - at the corner of Rolleston and Richmond Streets - was relocated to a new position in Queen Street, near the site of the 1880s post office and beside a busy highway. This and other activities undertaken as part of the commemorations reinforced Thames’ growing image as a town of historical significance. Repositioning to this location can also be seen as an acknowledgment of the growing importance of motorised routes in relation to postal collection sites.

In 1982, all three ‘Levinge-style’ pillar boxes in Thames were classified under the Historic Places Act 1980. They were subsequently physically conserved in the late 1990s, as part of an initiative overseen by local postal service staff. Prior to mid-2004, the Willoughby Street receiver was removed to a new site in Pollen Street, some 900m to the northwest of its original position. Relocation took place after the historic context at the corner of Willoughby and Pollen Streets had been adversely affected by the disappearance of earlier buildings. It also occurred at a time when written and printed communication was being rapidly transformed by widespread private and business use of electronic mail. The pillar box was replaced at the junction of Willoughby and Pollen Streets by a smaller, modern metal receiver.

The new site chosen for the former Willoughby Street pillar box was in a well-preserved part of Thames’ commercial centre, in south Grahamstown. Located close to many major industrial facilities, the latter had been a thriving area in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, but had subsequently declined. By the 1990s, however, it was benefitting from increased opportunities presented by tourism, attracted by its considerable number of historic buildings and other landscape features. The former Willoughby Street pillar box was placed adjacent to an almost intact row of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century commercial premises, and other structures that form a focus for recreation and related usage by the local community and visitors.

At a similar time, the Mary Street pillar box may also have been moved a few metres from its previous position to the Pollen Street part of the junction with Mary Street. In June 2004, this receiver was closed for postal collection due to its proximity to Thames’ contemporary post office. Thames Coromandel District Council took over its maintenance, noting that all three pillar boxes were part of the townscape and important in relation to the history and zoning of Grahamstown as a historic precinct.

The two pillar boxes outside 711 Pollen Street and 700 Queen Street respectively, remain in use (2017), reflecting an enduring social practice undertaken since 1869 in the first instance, and 1878 in the second.

Physical Description

Current Description

General location

The Thames Pillar Boxes are located in the centre of Thames, an important historic settlement and centre for visitors in the Coromandel Peninsula. The structures occupy positions in southern Grahamstown and north Shortland, which have formed a significant component of settlement in Thames since the late 1860s. Much of this forms part of the Grahamstown Historic Heritage Area in Thames-Coromandel District Council’s Proposed District Plan, which has been recognised for reasons that include it containing ‘a diverse range of building types, including a large number of structures that retain a high level of authenticity.’ Two of the three pillar boxes are located directly within the Historic Heritage Area and the third is located just outside.

The three pillar boxes form visible and distinctive elements within the urban landscape. They are respectively situated i) on a road berm outside 700 Queen Street; ii) on a pedestrian pavement outside 711 Pollen Street; and iii) on a pavement outside 580 Pollen Street, at the southeast junction of Mary and Pollen Streets. They lie approximately 275m and 310m apart. The List entry additionally encompasses a connecting strip of land between these elements that is situated entirely on road reserve, along parts of Queen, Cochrane and Pollen Streets. This strip reflects the interlinked function of the pillar boxes as a network for postal collection on the town’s public streets, which has flexibly survived - in whole or in part - into the twenty-first century.

The first pillar box, outside 700 Queen Street, is directly next to the site of the 1880s Thames Post Office, now occupied by housing. It is close to several identified historic places in this part of Queen Street, notably the former Thames Courthouse (List No. 4981, Category 2 historic place); the former Miners’ Union Hall (List No. 4653, Category 2 historic place); and the former Carnegie Public Library (List No. 718, Category 2 historic place). The Thames School of Mines (List No. 132, Category 1 historic place) also lies a relatively short distance to the southwest, on Cochrane Street. Queen Street forms the main road for traffic through Thames.

The second pillar box, outside 711 Pollen Street, is situated on the west side of the road, which forms Thames’ main commercial thoroughfare. Pollen Street contains many historic buildings, structures and other sites relating to the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century development of Thames. The immediate streetscape in which the pillar box is located is particularly well-preserved. On the east side of Pollen Street, is an almost unbroken row of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings that reflect the development of Thames’ commercial history (Junction Hotel, List No. 712, Category 2 historic place - erected 1869; Shop Frontages, List Nos. 2675, 2676, 2677, 2678, 2679, 2680, 2681, 2682, 2683, 2684, 5481, 5482, Category 2 historic places). The west side of the street includes several timber houses and other structures of nineteenth- or early twentieth-century date. The former Livery Stables on Cochrane and Kirkwood Streets (List No. 4624, Category 2 historic place) lies between the first two pillar boxes.

Fewer buildings of significance have been formally identified close to the third pillar box at the southeast junction of Mary and Pollen Streets, which is positioned on the pavement outside 580 Pollen Street. However, several early twentieth-century commercial buildings, such as Danby’s Shoe Store and Arbury’s Buildings lie close by, and most of the buildings on the east side of Pollen Street between the two pillar boxes on this thoroughfare are of nineteenth or early twentieth-century date. The latter include the St James’ Union Church (List No. 131, Category 1 historic place) and St James’ Union Church Hall (List No. 722, Category 2 historic place) at the corner of Pollen and Pahau Streets.

Within three or four blocks of the pillar boxes are important industrial and other remnants of the gold mining industry including the Queen of Beauty Mine Pump Quadrants (List No. 4682, Category 1 historic place); and Thames / Hauraki Mine Pumphouse (List No. 724, Category 2 historic place).

Pillar Box outside 700 Queen Street (1878, relocated 1967)

For a general description of this pillar box, see details of the pillar box outside 711 Pollen Street (below). The only noted variation is a different type of vertical pin securing the pillar box door. Similarly to the receiver outside 711 Pollen Street, the pillar box contains a large adhesive notice attached to the upper band of its main body, displaying clearance times - currently once a day, Monday to Friday.

Pillar Box outside 711 Pollen Street (1869, relocated c.2004)

This pillar box consists of a cast iron receiver, extending up to 1.73m above ground level. Painted ‘pillar box red’, it is ornate, with some elaborate detailing. Its form is well-preserved, showing few traces of externally visible modification.

The overall form of the structure is cylindrical, with an especially ornate domed cap and protruding base. The cap measures some 500mm across, and incorporates four symmetrically-arranged acanthus leaf designs, which extend downwards from the central crown of the cap to the lower rim. The cap is surmounted by a distinctive decorative feature in the form of an emerging bud.

The tapering underside of the cap rim incorporates a banded design of acanthus leaves, extending around the structure. This is broken by two, horizontal posting apertures, located immediately opposite each other on either side of the pillar box. The slots are broadly rectangular with rounded ends. Each measures some 180mm long x 30mm wide. Water ingress into the structure is reduced through the use of raised mouldings around the lip of each slot, their creation as openings within a tapered face, and the inclusion of a widely-protruding rim above.

The main body of the pillar box is some 1.17m high, and widens slightly outwards from 375mm diameter near the top to circa 440mm diameter towards the base. The main body is divided into several bands. The upper band is relatively plain, with upper moulding and three blank apertures of vertical design. Wider than the horizontal apertures, these each measure 180mm long x 40mm wide, and represent the vestigial remnants of posting slots used in earlier pillar box designs. The upper band is separated from a plain lower band by mouldings that define the top and bottom of an area with raised lettering that states: ‘POST OFFICE LETTER BOX.’. The first two words are centred on the front of the pillar box, and the latter two on the back.

The lower band contains a small door at the rear of the pillar box for removing mail. Centrally positioned on the door exterior is a rectangular cartouche with raised lettering stating:

BUBB & SON.

VICTORIA FOUNDRY

SYDNEY.

The door is hinged on its right side, and contains a secure locking mechanism that incorporates two horizontal loops through which a vertical pin is padlocked in place. Towards the base of the main body is a broad, raised band, defined at the top by further moulding.

Below the main body is a projecting decorative base, circa 670mm in diameter. This incorporates decorative detailing on its tapering upper face, in the form of a further acanthus leaf design.

Small areas of chipped red paint on the pillar box, including on the cap rim, reveal indications of bronzing or green paint beneath. A large adhesive notice attached to the upper band of the main body of the pillar box (at the rear) displays clearance times, currently once a day, Monday to Friday.

Pillar Box at the junction of Mary and Pollen Streets (1869, relocated 1881 and c.2004)

The general description of the pillar box is the same as that for the receiver outside 711 Pollen Street (above). The main differences are that the hinged door arrangement appears to have been strengthened using rivets; the horizontal apertures have been blocked to prevent postage; and yellow signage has been added near the top of the pillar box providing historical information about this and the other surviving pillar boxes in Thames.

Comparisons

Pillar boxes were once common features of New Zealand’s urban streetscape, but are now rare in this environment. Of some 125 structures considered to have been in use in 1910, only 16 or 17 may now remain on public streets. Of these survivors, only about half pre-date 1900. The Thames Pillar Boxes represent approximately a third of all nineteenth-century pillar boxes in New Zealand’s streetscape, and a significant proportion of remaining pillar boxes of any period.

The Thames Pillar Boxes are particularly important as the only surviving group of pillar box receivers in the country. They form the only place in New Zealand where a representative nineteenth-century total remains. They constitute the full number used in Thames for at least part of the nineteenth century, including at a time when this amount was on a par with other urban centres such as Christchurch, Nelson and Wellington - and only exceeded by Auckland and Dunedin. With the exception of Wellington, where two receivers of later date and different periods exist, other current pillar boxes have generally been retained as individual survivors.

Thames can be considered the best place in New Zealand to demonstrate the adoption of pillar boxes as an important urban phenomenon. Survival as a group more effectively demonstrates the important role played by pillar boxes in everyday urban life, and their function as a network. Consisting of early examples that have remained in use into the twenty-first century, the Thames Pillar Boxes also demonstrate the wide timespan and longevity of pillar boxes and letter collection in New Zealand society. Through their responsiveness to community needs, including by historical and recent relocation, they additionally reflect the flexibility of the network, and its value to the community.

The Thames Pillar Boxes are also very rare surviving receivers of ‘Levinge’ design - the earliest type of pillar box used in New Zealand. Of the possible 23 examples of this design erected in the colony, only four are currently known to remain. The earliest of these is the Pillar Letter Box in Nelson (1864; List No. 5116, Category 1 historic place), which has been identified as special or outstanding because it is the country’s oldest pillar box, and is still in its original position and in use. The Thames Pillar Boxes represent three quarters of the remaining total of ‘Levinge’-style pillar boxes on New Zealand’s streets, providing additional perspectives on their broader deployment in the landscape, initiated during the earliest phase of New Zealand pillar box use.

As a type, the ‘Levinge’-style design can be considered particularly important for reflecting the international design origins of pillar boxes in continental Europe and their adaptation in British colonial contexts; as well as their spread into the Pacific region. They pre-date pillar boxes that are more clearly influenced by British prototypes, adopted in New Zealand from 1879 onwards. Nevertheless, and especially with subsequent red livery, they can be seen to reflect a wider British imperial network of postal services that facilitated business and other connectivity within an international as well as colony-wide context.

The Thames Pillar Boxes are the oldest surviving pillar boxes in the North Island, and - after the Nelson example - the next oldest in the country. Only the Nelson pillar box has been used longer than the receiver outside 711 Pollen Street.

The Thames Pillar Boxes are also early in the context of the emergence of Thames as a colonial settlement. The Thames Pillar Boxes encompass two of the oldest surviving structures in the town. Other buildings or structures said to pre-date 1870 include the Shortland Wharf (1867; List No.4672, Category 2 historic place); former Thames Borough Council Office (c.1868; List No. 4668, Category 2 historic place); Junction Hotel (1869, noted above); St James’ Union Church Hall (1869, noted above); and the former Lady Bowen Hotel (c.1869; List No.2667, Category 2). St George’s Church Hall (List No. 2672, Category 2 historic place) may pre-date 1867, having been said to have been relocated from Auckland.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1869 -
Erection of two pillar boxes at the junctions of Willoughby and Pollen Streets, Shortland, and Brown and Albert Streets, Grahamstown.

Original Construction
1878 -
Erection of third pillar box at the junction of Rolleston and Richmond Streets, Shortland.

Relocation
1881 -
Removal of the Brown and Albert Streets pillar box to the corner of Mary and Pollen Streets, Shortland.

Modification
1908 -
Repair of the Mary and Pollen Streets pillar box.

Relocation
1967 -
Removal of the Rolleston and Richmond Streets to outside 700 Queen Street, Grahamstown.

Modification
1999 -
Conservation of all three pillar boxes

Relocation
2004 -
Removal of the Willoughby and Pollen Streets pillar box to outside 711 Pollen Street, and probable repositioning of the pillar box at the corner of Mary and Pollen Streets a few metres from its previous setting.

Construction Details

Cast iron

Completion Date

16th May 2017

Report Written By

Martin Jones

Information Sources

Daily Southern Cross

Daily Southern Cross

13 Oct 1869, p. 4.

Farrugia, 1969

Farrugia, Jean Young, The Letter Box: A history of the post office pillar and wall boxes, Sussex, Centaur, 1969

Robinson, 1964

Howard Robinson, A History of the Post Office in New Zealand, RE Owen, Government Printer, Wellington, 1964

Thames Star

Thames Star

5 Sep 1878, p. 2; 14 Sep 1878, p. 2; 26 Mar 1886, p. 2; 4 Feb 1908, p. 2; 24 Oct 1912, p. 1.

Archives New Zealand

Archives New Zealand, ‘Posting Boxes’, n.d., BAEH A867 22779 [9/1].

Startup, 1987

Startup, R. M., ‘New Zealand Iron Pillar Boxes Notes’, Jul 1987 (copy held by Heritage New Zealand, file BDG 157).

Monin, 2006

Monin, Paul, Hauraki Contested, 1769-1875, Wellington, 2006

Chapmans New Zealand Almanac, 1871

Chapmans New Zealand Almanac, 1871, p. 189.

Other Information

A fully referenced New Zealand Heritage List report is available on request from the Northern Region Office of Heritage New Zealand.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.