Mette Kirstine Nielsen
nee Bruun, 1873-1938

A Petticoat Pioneer of New Zealand

By John Campbell

We all owe a great debt and gratitude to this fine lady who was responsible for the introduction of New Zealand Health Stamps in 1929.  This year marks the 75th anniversary of these stamps, but a few years prior to 1929 Mrs. Nielsen set the "wheels in motion".  

Mette Kirstine Bruun was born in 1873 in the city of Vejle, at Vejle Fjord, on the Danish peninsula of Jutland.  Her father was a post office official and she was one of eleven children.  About 1894 she married Hans Nielsen, two years her senior, and within a few years they had three sons and a daughter.  

In 1906 Hans Nielsen left for New Zealand to start a new life there, and Kirstine and the children joined him in the distant land in 1908.  During the early period Hans had kept an eye open for a suitable property and bought a dairy farm of 74 acres near the upper reaches of the Manawatu River. 

  • Mette Kirstine Nielsen, photographed around 1929. (Scan from a photocopy). 

After about four years in New Zealand she took a trip home to Denmark, but this did not prove to be the joyful reunion she had looked forward to, because everything had changed.  The period in New Zealand had left a gap that was impossible to bridge from either side, and she was glad to return to New Zealand.  Some years after her return Hans sold the farm because of health reasons and went to live in Norsewood, where the family remained until 1937, when they moved to Hastings.  In 1922 Kirstine became friendly with Miss Jerome Spencer of Country Women's Institute fame, and together they helped form Norsewood C.W.I., which in 1923 became the second Institute of its kind to be formed in New Zealand.  As President she threw herself into institute work with enthusiasm, also starting an Institute for Maori women.

During her trip back to Denmark she had learnt of her native country's excellent use of health seals which were sold to the public to be placed on letters, the money being put into hospitals and other health-promoting organisations.  

In fact she had returned home to New Zealand fired with the idea of a similar scheme being started there by the Danish post master Einar Holboell. 

Denmark 1904

Denmark 1906

Denmark 1909

Denmark 1910

In 1926 she explained the system to the Norsewood Institute.  The value of the plan was immediately recognised and it was agreed that she should approach the Government with a view to ascertaining the possibility of having a similar scheme introduced into New Zealand.  She took a trip to Wellington and discussed the matter with Lady Fergusson, wife of the Governor-General of the day, and later asked her son Peter, who had a better command of English, to write to Sir George Hunter, Member of Parliament, on the subject of health seals and through him the proposal was submitted to the Postmaster General.  

It was favourably received by the Post and Telegraph Department, bit it was decided that the issue of a stamp proper, having a postage as well as a charity value, would be preferred to the issue of a seal.  

At the suggestion of the Health Department, it was decided to use the money from the Health Stamp for Children's Health Camps.  Before all this could be done, to meet the edicts of the Audit Department, a special clause validating the sale of postage stamps for an amount greater than its postal value was included in the Finance Act of 1926.  This was the birth of the New Zealand Health Stamp, but it was 1929 before the first ones were issued.

Since 1929 New Zealand Post has supported the work of the Health Camps by issuing Health Stamps, making the relationship one of the country's longest-running community partnerships.  In 1979, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the introduction of New Zealand Health stamps, a letter was sent to the Postmaster General at that time, M.B. Couch, requesting some recognition of Mrs. Nielsen be featured in some way.  No feature of this fine lady was forthcoming, however, the First Day Cover of 1989 did have a cachet image of the lady responsible for the whole idea of New Zealand Health stamps.  

New Zealand's first health stamp from 1929 was re-issued in commemoration of the 50th anniversary in 1979, and appears in a nice souvenir sheet containing three 1929-stamps and three 1979-stamps.   
The topics featured in some of the more recent Health Stamps bear little resemblance to the original concept of health issues in general, so what better time than now to get back to basics in design?  

And Mrs. Mette Kirstine Nielsen's portrait on a Health stamp is well overdue.  Do we have to wait for the centenary in 2029? 

  • New Zealand 1979.  Souvenir sheet issued in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the first health stamp.  Click the image to see large format.  The link will open in a new window. 


Many thanks to John Campbell for permission to publish his article on this site, and to Tony Vella (Canada), Blair Stannard (Canada), and Garry Law (New Zealand) for their help and support in finding the necessary illustrations to this article. Thanks also to John F., New Zealand, for submitting the image of the 1979-souvenir sheet.

Published June 2004.  Revised 23 sep 2004 
Copyright 2004 by Ann Mette Heindorff
All Rights Reserved

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