A Brief Philatelic History of Victoria

Chapter 2.
The Pre-Colonial Mail Period 1837-1850

The organized delivery of mail has continued for centuries in certain parts of the world. In the earliest days, mail was a privilege restricted to government officials, members of royalty and other prominent citizens, and the intelligentsia.

As exploration pushed civilization into remote parts of the world, rudimentary mail systems followed. Often, the mails did not follow any particular schedule, and it was not uncommon to wait for months, or even years, before a response was received to a letter. Much of the mail was delivered and retrieved by merchant ships as part of their commercial enterprise. Ships carrying such mail were often under contract to the governments involved, but sometimes they were private entrepreneurs.

In Victoria’s case, the first settlers arrived in Melbourne in 1835 and the opening of the first post office followed in April 1837. At that time the population was only about 1500, and postal usage was very limited. The first overland mail from Sydney arrived in 1838 and, in 1839, the first ship carrying immigrant settlers arrived.

As the population grew postal use increased proportionately and during the 1840s additional post offices were opened as new population centers emerged.

By 1840 the population of Victoria reached 32,000 and by 1851, it was about 77,000 and growing quickly. The number of letters handled by the post office grew even faster than the population. In 1838, about 7,000 letters and 3,000 newspapers passed through the post office. By 1841 the numbers grew to 56,000 and 120,000, respectively. By 1846 the numbers increased again to 150,000 letters and 200,000 newspapers, and finally to 250,000 and 320,000 in 1849. The post office and its’ services had become an important part of daily life in Victoria!

A very early Melbourne cover, posted just 3 years after the post office was opened, with a red boxed Melbourne Paid handstamp on front and an oval Melbourne Port Phillips oval handstamp on back. This letter arrived in March 1841, a full 7 months after it was mailed. The handwritten 8 on front specifies postage charged to the recipient for delivery to the addressee within the U.K.

It is important to realize that, before the invention and use of pre-paid postage stamps, payment for mail could be made by the sender at the post office from which it was sent, or it could be sent COD to be paid by the recipient. Pre-paid mails were always stamped PAID, and usually the amount that had been paid, was handwritten on the front cover.

When mails were destined for another country, they inevitably went by ship, and often the name of the ship was inscribed on the letter, as in “per Hero”, or “per Elizabeth”. Naming the ship that would carry a letter was not difficult to determine, as there was usually but one choice at the time of mailing. Mail ships were awaited eagerly, as service could be sporadic and infrequent. This was the age before telephones and telegraphs, and there was no way of communicating to remote areas of the world to explain why the mails had been delayed – did the ship sink, was there a war, or other calamity? Usually, it was not until the next arriving ship that news of the outside world became known, and the reasons for delay revealed.

REFERENCE : For students interested in further information on this fascinating aspect of Victoria’s Postal History, refer to The Postal History Of The Port Phillip District, by J. Purves.

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