As a journalist went to report on the commemoration ceremony of the tragic sinking of the SS Wairarapa in 1894 he had everything a reporter might need. And a pigeon.
Why a pigeon? Because there was no other way to get the news out.
In fact the pigeon - Ariel - had come from the loft of award winning and master pigeon fancier Walter Fricker and Ariel did her job.
The year before, when the ship sank, it had taken days to get the news out. The country was staggered by the news of over 130 people who died when the ship wrecked on a reef at the northern edge of Great Barrier Island.
And out of that horrid tragedy arose a postal system unique in the country.
Walter Fricker realised there was a greater need for a stable method of post between Great Barrier and the mainland.
So he, along with stockbroker Joseph Smales, started Fricker’s Great Barrier Pigeongram agency with regular flights every week and with a bird able to carry up to five letters - all written on tissue paper.
Fricker was a house painter, whose hobby was pigeons. He had been using his birds to run messages for many years before the postal idea came up.
He trained his birds to fly further and further carrying messages. Some had even gone between Auckland and Wellington.
His partnership with Smales ended, likely over financial issues, and Fricker sought a government subsidy, but it was declined.
In the meantime Fricker had opposition from John Ernest (Jack) Parkin, now in partnership with Smales who set up a similar service. He called his the Original Great Barrier pigeongram service. And he produced unofficial ‘airmail’ stamps - an unique triangle stamp with a pigeon on it.
There was quite a bit of wrangling between the two but the pigeons didn’t care, they carried on carrying the mail.
Until 1908 when a telegraph cable was finally laid to the island.
And many many years later commemorative stamps were issued by New Zealand post.
Walter Fricker was born in Somerset on March 2, 1841 to Jonathan and Catharine and came to New Zealand in 1863. He was said to have over 100 pigeons at his Ponsonby home.
He died on December 2, 1911 and is buried at Purewa Cemetery.
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