From diaries to digital travel stories


Depending on your point of view, one of my cousins is either very lucky or missing out. Married early, he is about to wave goodbye to his last child. He and his wife will now be empty nesters before they reach 50. Their son has moved from Otago to Ashburton. Regular drives home, phone calls and texts means that though some distance away, the family are still in close contact.

Next month his only daughter moves off to do her big OE. She will be living in London for a year. A young adult, she is already fully equipped with Skype, Facebook, Instagram, etc., so we can track her progress on a daily basis. If she runs out of money her parents can help her out with internet banking and if it gets all too much she can book online and fly home the next day.

When I first went overseas I had to call home through a complex system of international operators. The way I told people of my adventures was through letters or postcards. While it was a very slow process, it meant I still have a treasured collection of documents that I can thumb through and reminiscence over.


Travel tales

Ashburton Museum’s Archive holds a small collection of diaries, letters and postcards from local residents that tell of their travels. Many show that for most people the world was a much smaller place, with holidays in the North Island about as intrepid as most could be.

There are also postcards in the Archive from those who served overseas. While they speak of their adventures, they also state that there is truly no place like home.

People’s diaries tell more about the weather and what jobs they got finished, how they were feeling and what significant events occurred each day.

Most families have little bundles of letters and other communications. Many are connected to a specific event such as a birth, death or wedding. They may not say a great deal, but they are an important link to an earlier time. Regardless of the content, they tell us of familial ties, – often family members are referred to by pet names – the educational level of the writers and even turns of phrase used in the day.

Also of interest to today’s correspondents is the method used to communicate. How many can recall telegrams delivered by boys on bicycles to tell of tragedy, changed plans or, in my day, congratulations when you got married.

Postcards were purchased to deliver a quick, short note rather than as a souvenir of a place visited. Letters were regularly used to keep in touch throughout the country and further afield.


Forgot my shirt

Most of the postcards we hold at Ashburton Museum are because of the images of Ashburton that they have on the front. Perhaps surprising, we have very few that have messages on them. Most that do, are best wishes at Christmas or messages that we would today use a phone or text for.

A postcard written by an unknown man is a great example of this. Now in the Ashburton Museum collection, it is addressed to Mrs W H Manhire, Post Office Store, Hornby. It reads:

“I arrived safe and sound. George Horne and his wife went by the express so I had company. I forgot to put a shirt in my bag. Anyhow I have a pretty long flannel on, so that will have to do instead. Amy sends her love and so do I.”

From the imprint we also learn that this postcard “may be used for communication in New Zealand and the British Empire.” And that it was printed in England, then retailed by Mr J Burgess, Bookseller of Ashburton. The postcard has a picture of two swans at the Ashburton Domain, with the legend, ‘Where Peace and Calm Contentment Dwell, Domain, Ashburton’ across the front. But it’s the reverse that illustrates how similar this means of communication is to the brevity and chattiness of a modern day text message – just somewhat slower in the delivery.



Chocolate box histories

Although the communications we are awaiting from our globetrotting young lady will be in colour, interactive (we can like or comment on her Facebook posts), and most importantly for her worrying father, instant – she will have no collection of postcards and letters to reminiscence over when she is older. With communication being so digital and immediate today I wonder what Archives like ours will be able preserve from today’s generation. It makes those tatty letters we have tucked away in our drawers and chocolate boxes at home even more special, as they will provide examples of how people ‘in the olden days’ communicated.



  1. Telegram boys outside the Ashburton Post Office. ©Ashburton Museum.
  2. Telegram from Frances Turton to her Grandson William on his 20th birthday reads ‘Many Happy Returns Grandma’. ©Ashburton Museum.
  3. The back of a postcard with a short chatty message. ©Ashburton Museum.

Author: Kathleen Stringer


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