In the early 1800s the public had a voracious appetite for reading and writing, however NZ faced a paper famine which colonists and missionaries attempted to quell by cultivating a ‘giant paper mill of the southern hemisphere’. 

Faced with this reality, many letter writers in New Zealand either used found materials such as leaves or scrimped on paper by adopting a style that utilised every inch of paper. One paper-saving style that was adopted was crossing your letters.  

To do this, the writer would turn the page ninety degrees after finishing a page and add a second layer of text. 

This technique served many purposes – it reduced the weight of the postage, added a layer of privacy and conserved paper in a period when most people spent months waiting on a fresh shipment of paper from England.

The first evidence of crossed letters in New Zealand is not known, though the reasoning behind why it was adopted in the colonies and elsewhere is clear – New Zealand faced a severe paper shortage. 

Wasps' nests, moss and flax: the great Southern paper lab   

During these lean times, missionaries, colonists and Māori alike were forced to improvise. At the time, England was a hotbed for experimental papermaking as church missionaries living in unfamiliar colonies clamored for bibles and religious texts. 

One of the first materials to be trialed was the ever-sturdy harakeke or flax, which had proved to be an exceptional material for ropes, cloaks and kete. Its etched form proved to make long-lived postcards, though certain missionaries, such as William Colenso, decried its use and commented these pieces reflected badly on the letter-writers. 

“This writing was etched, as it were, with a nail on a leaf of Phormium tenax – a common mode of graphical communication among the New Zealanders, when not in possession of paper; and in which they, unknowingly, imitate those nations from which doubtless they descended,” he wrote in his diary from 1841. 

In an effort to produce a more refined form of harakeke paper and further disseminate the word of Christianity, harakeke samples were sent back to England in 1813 though it seems nothing came of that experiment. 

In virtually all colonial settlements, printing presses arrived before the introduction of paper-making, so between deliveries, missionaries needed a little imagination. Colenso, who ran one of the first printing presses in Paihia from 1834, was dogged by erratic supplies of equipment and paper.  

In 1861, the repeal of the paper duty, irregular imports of hemp from Russia and a domestic shortage of linen and rags, spurred Colenso on to try a range of a materials from wasps' nests, bark, straw, corn husks, potato and moss. Despite his best efforts, none of these materials proved successful in paper production.

These efforts were replicated at the bottom of the South Island where two entrepreneurial Scotsmen, Edward McGlashan and James Bain, attempted to create a paper empire from tussock and flax with the opening of the Mataura mill in 1876. 

Due to its poor-quality crude paper, lax management, a flood and competition from imports, it closed its doors in 1884 at a time when the brothers were pitching in all sorts of materials from sacking to socks.  

In the face of these shortages, many families living here in the mid-1800s made good use of their limited supply of paper by writing crossed letters, many of which now sit at Auckland Museum. 

The art of excavating words   

To improve access to some of the crossed letters that are held in our collection, the Museum has drawn on the talents of one of our long-time volunteers, Marguerite Durling who patiently untangles each word one by one.  

Long-time volunteer, Marguerite Durling, studies one of the crossed letters in the Museum's collection.

Marguerite comes with a pedigree like no other, having transcribed several hundred letters from New Zealand soldiers posted abroad during WWI for our new exhibition space, Pou Kanohi. 

In January she was given the task of transcribing more than 100 letters from the Williams family, a pair of missionary brothers, who with their wives formed a rich and regular correspondence from 1820s-1870s as they travelled throughout this ‘interesting island’. 

Marguerite says that over the past few months she has become firm friends with the family – the wives who had the solitary task of raising large families and the men who travelled throughout the country spreading the word of God. 

The letters cover everything from the discovery of moa bones to first-hand accounts of the New Zealand wars to the minutiae of domestic life. The correspondence is rich in stories and letters linger, no doubt, she says, because it gave that link with 'home' and the couples’ time together is often fleeting as husbands travelled widely. 

"The letters are quite long, and I think that’s because while writing it and while reading it, it forges that close connection. When reading a letter, the spirit of that person is in the back of your mind and they stay there with you.”

To undertake this task, Museum staff photograph the letters and provide Marguerite with digital surrogates which she can access from home. If she encounters an entangled or tricky word, she will look at the letter at all angles and, if that fails, she’ll blow it up on large screen to make sense of it. 

Despite some of these tried and true techniques, some words remain indecipherable. That’s when she takes a trip into the sanctuary of her garden. “If I get stuck, I will often go out into the garden and say to them ‘come on William or Jane’ and then the word will just come to me. That doesn’t happen with Catherine Heathcote, she probably doesn’t approve of me looking over her shoulder.”

The art to transcribing, she says, requires a familiarity with the letter writer’s turn of phrase and an intimate understanding of the curl and flourishes of their penmanship. And it is only then, that the words start to flow. 

Since January, more than 60 letters have been transcribed thanks to Marguerite’s beady eyes, patience and ‘Sunday School training’. 

“These letters are the first cut of history, these accounts aren’t written with hindsight, so they give you an unfiltered view of life in that period.”

“You often come with these preconceptions that all missionaries were trying to turn Māori into pseudo-Europeans, though these letters are sprinkled with Māori words and you can see that one of the family members was a great defenders of Māori civil rights.”

Marguerite says that by adding these letters to the diary entries, pamphlets, ephemera and artefacts of the time, she hopes it will provide another perspective on life in New Zealand to make the picture richer and ever more multifaceted than the history books make it out to be.