Historical Background

Most of the mails in the colony of Victoria were transported by rail from town to town. The network of rails grew rapidly in the 1860s and 1870s to serve the growing population in the interior of the colony and to support the growing economy in those regions.

In most instances, the mails were received and sorted at local post offices, then placed into sealed bags according to their destination. These sealed bags were then placed into secured baggage cars onboard the trains and delivered to the stated destination. At the receiving end, the letters would then be removed from the mail bags and stamped to receipt their arrival, then forwarded as needed to insure an efficient and accurate delivery to the respective addressees.

Starting in the mid 1860s, it was decided to add specially equipped mail vans to certain trains which would act as travelling post offices. These mail vans were staffed by one or more clerks from the GPO, who were entrusted to receive mails, sort them on board the train and place them into mail bags while enroute. The travelling post offices were assigned numbers according to the rail route they travelled, and these were probably assigned to specific trains each day.

If you have a better quality photo of a mail van, I’d be delighted to hear from you.

The TPOs received mail from small outpost rail stations that did not have enough population base to support a full fledged post office, and they also accepted overflow mail when local post offices did not have the resources to keep up with demand. It is also possible that TPOs took over when the local clerk got sick, or during peak periods when the mail flow increased.

Over the course of time, the handstamps used by each TPO were updated with new designs and, on occasion, older handstamps were brought back into service after having been retired for a number of years. As well, the practices and policies evolved over time, creating a rich specialist area for collectors. In some cases handstamps were used to obliterate the stamps while, in other cases, they were affixed as transit markers so that letters could be traced if necessary. In some cases, two separate handstamps are found on covers, one to cancel the stamp, and a second as a transit marker. The full story is too complex to cover satisfactorily in this space, and those interested are encouraged to contact me for further insights.

The mails that were processed on the TPOs were cancelled with UPTRAIN or DOWNTRAIN postmarks. All UPTRAIN mail was directed toward Melbourne and the GPO. All DOWNTRAIN mail was travelling from the GPO to the country. It stands to reason that the country post offices were smaller and less equipped to handle the mail and, consequently, they relied much more heavily on the TPO services than the larger urban post offices in Melbourne. As a result, UPTRAIN postmarks are many times more common than DOWNTRAIN postmarks. Some general estimates are that the UP marks are 6 times more plentiful than the DOWN marks, although I have found the answer to this is not quite so simple. Some DOWN marks are quite common, while others are screaming rarities.

To provide some benchmark of relative scarcity, I have included the number of copies of loose stamps and the number of covers I have encountered with each postmark. These numbers do not provide any statistical certainty on the relative scarcities, but they do provide some general insights. This is part of an ongoing research project, to build a statistical model of relative scarcity of the various postmarks found, and to build a census of known covers and cards with TPO markings.

If you have any TPO stamps or covers you would like to include in these tabulations, please contact me. I would welcome any contributions you can make to this effort. [contact me]

The vast majority of TPO covers found are colonial mail. In fact, most found are addressed to places along the same rail line, with Melbourne being the obvious first choice. Few foreign destinations are found, and these are all desirable

A very rare foreign TPO cover, paying the 10d rate via Marseille to Scotland

As the postal system matured, the need for TPOs diminished, and by the early 1900s many were retired. A few persisted into the Commonwealth era until the last TPO closed in 1932. Later examples are scarce, although most collectors in the past have concentrated exclusively on the colonial period and examples may remain buried among collections that have not yet been identified.

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