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.
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
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
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
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