A Brief Philatelic History of Victoria
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
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
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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