Collecting Examples of Ship Mail and Marine Post Offices

by John M. MacFarlane 2013

CCGS Camsell Cover

Postal Cover From C.C.G.S. Camsell posted in 1978 while on the Western Arctic Patrol. These colourful marks on the covers were developed privately by the ship’s Purser who applied them, on his own initiative, giving them a very nice cachet. (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

Until the advent of airmail ship–borne mail was the only way to get letters across water. Stamp collectors sometimes specialize in the postal history of these services. Some British registered ships used the title ‘Royal Mail Ship’ and the initials ‘R.M.S.’ were placed in front of the ship’s name. A ship would use this prefix only while it was contracted to carry mail and was used by a limited number of ships.

A more obscure aspect of this postal history was the mail that originated in ship–borne post offices. Until recently envelopes bearing very specialized postal markings gave a clue that the letters being delivered were posted on board a ship at sea. Today the ships of the United States Navy are among the last surviving operational ship–borne post offices, each employing a unique stamp cancellation device. Other ship operators arrange for mail to be posted using the postal services in ports of call (now seldom carrying any sign of the origin of the mail as being from a ship.)

Under Universal Postal Union regulations, vessels arriving at a foreign port could deposit mail posted in international waters bearing stamps of the country to which the ship is owned or operated. This special arrangement applies for mail posted at the first port of call in each country. Mail posted at subsequent ports must be franked with stamps of the country being visited. Ship mail posted under this scheme should be marked with the French word ‘Paquebot’ and the stamps cancelled with a distinctive postmark to indicate treatment as ‘Paquebot’ mail. Mail must be clearly identifiable from a particular vessel and is handed to the Post Office by the ships Purser or the shipping company agent as soon as the ship arrives in port. This type of mail is seldom seen and accordingly is regarded as very collectible by maritime postal history and ship stamp collectors.

Many stamp collectors specialize in the postal history of these services and can be categorized into several specialty groups:Some of the aspects of collecting these postal covers (which are used envelopes and cards that have been used in the mail system) can be categorized into several specialty groups:

  • Philatelic covers: these are covers (envelopes) which are of interest to stamp collectors or postal historians. In these cases the post mark is often what makes them really interesting to collectors. Postmarks of ship post offices, or of shore post offices from ‘exotic’ locations such as the Canadian Arctic.
  • Sailor’s mail: these are covers mailed by crew members of vessels to family or while performing official business of the ship or its owners.
  • Ship picture post cards: Many vessels produced a postcard bearing an image of the ship. Even if not used in the postal system they are usually of interest to collectors or nautical historians.

Ships On Stamps

Universal Ship Cancellation Society (USCS) Founded in 1932, the USCS is an international philatelic organization of over 1,200 members with an interest in postmarks and covers from all maritime services. They publish a respected journal on ship post offices, publish material useful to collectors, and facilitate the purchase and sale of ship covers.

The use of an official mark to denote mail posted at sea was regulated by international agreements at various meetings of the UPU, (the Universal Postal Union). The first regulations were drawn up in 1891. The word ‘Paquebot’ was introduced in 1897 for the very first time. The clause reads: "The post office which receives correspondence posted on board, provides same with the common date stamp, adding handwritten or by a stamp the word ‘Paquebot’."

Eastern Arctic Mail

Eastern Arctic Mail Service Cover from R.M.S. Nascopie. The Hudson’s Bay Company vessel RMS Nascopie was for many years the chief mode of access for individuals to send and receive mail to and from the Arctic and many covers have a secondary postal mark indicating that it was carried south by ship for the Canadian Post Office. (Photo from MacFarlane collection.(Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

The United States Navy

The US Navy has operated a sophistocated postal marking system for over a hundred years and the postal covers continue to be collected today. The canceling devices used aboard US Naval ships have been broken into ten basic types with two additional types under the "Locy Classifying System".

Within these types there are a wide range of variations that are cataloged by the Universal Ship Cancellation Society. Some collectors interested in just a few ships, or ships from a specific period or a class of vessels such as destroyers or battleships.

USS Wahoo

USS Wahoo. The images applied on the left hand side of the cover were usually prepared by the ship’s mail clerk. (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

The US Coast Guard

USCGS Glacier

The USCGS Glacier, an icebreaker, was an annual visitor to Antarctica carrying supplies, personnel and scientists. Some US Coast Guard ships served in the Arctic in the alternating hemispheric seasons. (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

USNS Kane

USNS Kane undertook oceanographic research, employing exotic measuring and sampling equipment. (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

Canadian Naval Ships

HMCS Assiniboine

HMCS Assiniboine (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

Very few Canadian naval ships carried a ship–borne post office. Many applied a secondary postal mark to indicate the ship of origin. Naval and military postmarks were sometimes applied at the shore base end of the postal service before the items entered the civilian postal system. Some Canadian ships applied the mysterious circular stamp with the number inside it – whose origin and function has not yet been publicly explained.

CFPO 26

CFPO 26 (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

Canadian Forces Post Office 26 (CFPO 26) appears to have operated in the aircraft carrier HMCS Bonaventure which was large enough to carry a floating post office and provided mail service at sea for other Canadian naval vessels.

HMCS Gatineau

HMCS Gatineau (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

This example displays the postmark of the Fleet Mail Office (abbreviated as FMO). There was one on each coast and was also known as the Fleet Post Office.

HMCS cornwallis

HMCS Cornwallis Mail Room (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

Mail for personnel under training, particularly in HMCS Cornwallis, would be handled through the base Mail Room. This example was handled by the Fleet Mail Office in Hamilton Ontario, which handled mail to and from the Gate Vessel training squadron in the Great Lakes. The mail was so slow that it was redirected back to the home base in Nova Scotia where it was gratefully received – no matter how late it arrived!

CNAV St. Charles

CNAV St. Charles (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

Even Canadian Naval Auxiliary Vessels would add stamps of origin to mail prior to submission in the Canadian Forces postal system.

Merchant Vessels

MV Arctic

MV Arctic (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

The MV Arctic is an ice breaking cargo ship built in 1978 at the Port Weller Dry Docks in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada designed to carry both oil and ore. It was initially used to carry ore from the mine in Nanisivik and Polaris. Once those mines closed she was shifted to service the Raglan mine in northern Quebec and the Voisey’s Bay mine in Labrador.

Sea Lion

Sea Lion (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

The Sea Lion was a very famous tug based in Vancouver BC. Her multi–toned whistle was well–known to mariners who could identify her from the sound of her steam whistle alone.

Strategist

Strategist (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

This cover is a good example of paquebot mail. Using an English postage stamp it was mailed in Mississippi where the US Post Office recognized that postage had been paid under the Universal Postal Union regulations.

Baltic Arrow

Baltic Arrow (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

This cover from the Baltic Arrow indicates no doubt that this is an example of paquebot mail. Using an English postal stamp it was mailed from the post office in Gdynia, Poland.

Princess Patricia

The CPR steamer Princess Patricia carried passengers on the British Columbia coast. (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

The Royal Navy

HMY Britannia

HMY Britannia (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

The Royal Yacht Britannia produced a nice cover, prized in ship mail collections.

HMS Yarnton

HMS Yarnton (Photo from MacFarlane collection. (Postal cover in the collection of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.))

The cover from H.M.S. Yarnton was mailed through a British Army post office in Hong Kong. Before Hong Kong was repatriated to China there was an active Royal Navy base there.



To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2013) Collecting Examples of Ship Mail and Marine Post OfficesNauticapedia.ca 2013. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Ship_Mail.php

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