Scott Flutey, a summer scholar from Victoria University of Wellington, has just finished an Honours year in History. He dives into the world of stamps and postal history.
I’m currently researching the Gerald Ellott philatelic collection at Te Papa as part of the three-year Soldiers of Empire research project, led by Professor Charlotte Macdonald and Dr Rebecca Lenihan.
Soldiers of Empire aims to examine the British Army and Navy’s day-to-day presence in New Zealand amidst the wars of the 1860s, and to link this presence to wider issues and questions around garrison and empire in the 19th century.
An imperial presence
Around 12,000 men were stationed as part of the British imperial military presence in New Zealand in the 1860s. While the conflicts and events of the New Zealand Wars are well documented, less known are the everyday lives and habits of those troops.
British soldiers were always on the move, across the North Island, around the ports of New Zealand, and across the wider empire. Many of them maintained connections with family, colleagues and friends by post.
Nineteenth-century postal service
The postal service was radical new technology in the 19th century. The first prepaid postage stamp, the Penny Black, appeared in 1840 in Britain. Prior to that, letters were paid for upon arrival and could be very expensive at long distance.
New Zealand didn’t issue its own stamps until 1855, when it released the unique “Full-Face Queen” (or Chalon Heads) series (the stamps are featured in a blog post by Mark Stocker).
This series was released in several colonies and was notable because it broke the unspoken rule that heads of state on stamps should be seen in side profile.
As most of the correspondence I’m working with was sent from or within New Zealand, I’ve become used to the young Queen Victoria watching while I transcribe these letters!
The last few months have been a full immersion into the world of postal history: something entirely new for me.
As I have learned, postal history is concerned not only with studying and collecting stamps (as stamp collecting or philately is), but also the letters, covers (envelopes), and accompanying postal markings in addition to the circumstances in which they were used, sent, and received.
With several hundred objects in the Ellott collection, transcribing digital copies has up to this point been a fascinating window into the New Zealand Wars and a wider imperial world.
This is because the postal service was constantly evolving and extending as a tool of empire.
Here are a few of the most interesting examples from the collection to share. There are no shortage of familiar names, cryptic postal symbols and unusual correspondence in mail sent during what was a tense and chaotic period of New Zealand history.
It’s not uncommon to feel intimidated while transcribing 19th-century handwriting. This is because letters were often “cross-written”.
With this style of letter, the page would be rotated 45 degrees when filled with handwriting – and simply written over again.
This saved paper and allowed for cheaper postal charges at the expense of legibility. Prior to the introduction of postage stamps, the cost of delivery depended upon the number of pages used in a letter.
After their introduction, letters were charged based on weight (with half an ounce being the limit for penny post). Your eyes usually adjust to the practice and can eventually block out the vertical lines of text!
This example of a cross-written letter is also interesting because it is written on mourning stationery.
Grieving during the Victorian era was highly ritualised and public – Queen Victoria herself was perhaps the most iconic mourner of all, wearing black after the death in 1861 of her husband Prince Albert for the remaining 40 years of her life.
Etiquette around death modified many aspects of daily life – someone who had experienced a loss would correspond using black-edged paper and envelopes, and the black edging would often become thinner as mourning progressed.
Redirection is another postal phenomenon which can be confusing to 19th-century postal newbies.
While we still occasionally need to reroute mail today, it was far more commonplace to reroute mail in the 19th century because people were surprisingly mobile. It was often a tough job to find the recipient.
This letter addressed to a Waikato Volunteer was sent from an unknown location in March 1864 and didn’t get to its recipient until eight months later.
In the meantime, it passed through an array of military encampments in Auckland and the Waikato, including Queen’s, Kihikihi and Ngahinapouri redoubts.
Each time, it was given a new handwritten address by each new postmaster and became a little bit harder to read! Deciphering the recipient’s name is proving tricky due to the inscriptions over top, and because of the fact that not all the names of Militia and Volunteers were recorded.
Personal letters sent by members of the British Army and Navy were charged discounted rates.
Troops stationed on frontlines didn’t have easy access to proper post offices, but this did not stop them from sending private correspondence. Temporary field post offices were created at many of the larger redoubts and stockades, manned by soldier postmasters.
Postal messages were crucial to all forces regardless of side, and low ranking soldiers crisscrossed the landscape with their cargo often in dangerous conditions.
Gaming the system
A post office was already in existence in Maketu when Fort Colvile was established nearby next to Pukemaire pā in March 1864.
Major J.H. Kirby’s wife Emily accompanied him to live at the fort, and was in frequent correspondence with Tauranga’s Archdeacon Brown and his wife Christina.
Yet Emily’s letters didn’t travel through the post office to the Browns in the conventional way – they lack any stamps or proof of payment and were apparently carried to Tauranga on horseback by military orderlies.
Emily’s method of gaming the system didn’t last forever though. Her final known letter from Maketu ironically tells Mrs Brown “there is no need to pay postage on your letters to me. I never do and they all seem to get through”.
The letter was apparently intercepted by a postmaster and Mrs Brown was charged fourpence when she received it!
On the surface, an envelope or piece of correspondence may seem inconsequential. Much of the time, a sender might only be writing for the sake of keeping in touch.
In fact, these surviving objects are intertwined with massive global processes – and historical insight can be found in the most ephemeral and unexpected places.