The (postal) history of Ascension
As Tristan da Cunha, the volcanic South Atlantic island of Ascension was discovered by a Portugese, Juan da Nova Castella, on his way to India in 1501. It’s about 1.300 km northwest of St. Helena between West Africa and South America. The highest point is
Picture Postcard of the region of Georgetown and Wideawake Airport
Green Mountain with 859 m. The climate is tropical with temperatures at the coast from 20-31° C.
Astonishing is the further history. Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena resulted in the British decision to occupy Ascension to prevent it being used by France as a base to liberate Napoleon - with the same reason as on Tristan da Cunha a garrison was erected.
Many famous persons visited the island, as James Cook to ship turtle meet in 1775 or Charles Darwin 1836.
There is no permanent population on the island and no permanent residence is permitted, although around 880 people live there with a contract of employment, which is required to stay on the island. Since some years limited tourism activities are permitted.
The main economic activities are centered on the military bases at Wideawake Airfield, built during WWII and operated by the US Air Force. During the Falkland conflict 1982 the RAF used the airport facilities to RAF jets, cargo storage to supply the Task Force. The island hosts also important facilities for communication and relay stations. Beside the NASA the European Space Agency ESA has a tracking
Ascension cover 10-10-1932 to St. Helena. A cover to the Eastern Telegraph Company, later Cable & Wireless, with outpost on Ascension
station on Ascension to track the Ariane rockets. BBC and Cable & Wireless, former Eastern Telegraph Company have outposts there.
The main export items are the stamps of Ascension, first issued 1922. Before English stamps were used and cancelled with Ascension datestamps.
During WWI and WWII the mail was censored by US and British censors. The US mail is transported by
Ascension cover to USA with Ascension datestamp on British stamps, date not readable, with censor marking used during WWI
aircrafts to the Florida/USA and the US postage was cancelled on Ascension with APO handstamps during WWII. Today US mail first goes by plane to US airfields to be cancelled there. The British Post Office is for civilian use. During the Falkland war several British FPO were established on the island.
Beside the stamps of Ascension Island the postal history offers a wide range to discover. From British stamps with Ascension cancellation to OHMS covers, Formula Registered Envelopes to Picture Postcards, the first issued at the beginning of the 20th century. Commercial covers are rare because of the small Ascension community.
Front side and reverse of 2 modern covers with cachets of 2 letter boxes on top of mountains, Administrator's Office and Post Office, datestamp of Georgetown/Ascension Island, below the reverse of an FDC with all available cachets of letter boxes on Ascension
An article published in the St. Helena, Ascension & Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society (SHATPS) - SOUTH ATLANTIC CHRONICLE VOL. XXXIV No. 3 Page 5 - OCTOBER 2010
Visit our home page on the internet at www.atlanticislands.org
An Ascension pictorial postcard which raises some questions
By Klaus Hahn
Recently I obtained an Ascension PPC with late Christmas greetings, sent to Dorking, franked with 1912-24 1d,
tied by Ascension cds dated January 1st 1912 (fig.1). The picture side is the interesting side. The PPC is titled:
fig. 2 - Commandant's Office, Barracks and Salt Water Tower. Ascension
The large building behind the aerial mast is
the Marine Barracks, a building still existing today
with small alterations since the beginning of the last century
The barracks were built in 1836, a second storey being
added in 1848. Later, in 1922, when the Navy left Ascension, the Eastern Telegraph Company acquired the building and it became known as the Exiles Club. On the lower left corner of Fig. 2 you can see the rails of
a railway. I have never read of a railway on Ascension and I searched a while before I found an explanation.
In the first half of the 19th century several ponds were built, located at the site of a small boat harbour. These
ponds were in regular use to keep the giant turtles alive. To prevent the turtles from escaping, they had large floats
attached and were towed to the ponds. In this way they could be stored for long periods, and
were dispatched alive to the pier head by a railway, and kept aboard ships until required. That practice continued for as long as the Navy remained on Ascension, and occasionally afterwards. As is well known, during WWII, Turtleburgers were a welcome addition to US Forces menu and one turtle satisfied a hundred men.
That’s the nice story of the Ascension railway (but not for the now protected turtles!): the railway was introduced
not only for transport of turtles but it also ran from the pier head to the Coal Store and the Main Store to enable
ships to be loaded and unloaded.
The middle of the picture shows the Salt Water Tower. The use of a salt water tower isn’t really clear for me, but
perhaps on an arid island such as Ascension, where fresh water was only available on Green Mountain, they
tried to get fresh water from salt water? Or was it for another use? Perhaps another member will know more
And – can someone perhaps provide a picture of an Ascension locomotive to publish in our Chronicle?
Ascension Island Heritage Society website -
www.heritage.org.ac, and other websites.
Fig.1: Ascension PPC addressed to Dorking 1st January.
1912 with UK stamp
The Eastern Telegraph Company
Until 1899 Ascension was a only a military island. Then came an event that was to change Ascension forever. A party of the Eastern Telegraph Company arrived, but still the island was run by the military.
Before, in 1858, the American mercant Cyrus W. Field laid the first underwater cable from Newfoundland through the Atlantic to Ireland. Queen Victoria and US President James Buchanan had a small talk, then the cable scorched. From then on plans to lay worldwide cables arised.
One of the first businesses interested in sea cables was the Eastern Telegraph Company (ETC). They wanted to connect London with Cape Town and the engineers decided to lay the cable via Ascension because of the remoteness of the island, free of political disturbances, which was not possible in West Africa. Suddenly, that remoteness was Ascension's most valuable capital.
The cable layers reached Comfortless Cove and the inhabitants of Ascension doubled. Accomodations and houses for the telegraphists were built, a mess, library and even two tennis-court erected.
The new company established his office at Georgetown and landlines connected the undersea cables with their offices. Even today ETC cable markes can still be found between Comfortless Cove and Long Beach.
A gardener was imported from Enland - a thought only English can have - to make the island more comfortable. At the end of the 19th century, only 50 trees are growing on Ascenion. The gardener came and brought cocos, orange and other trees with him.
A relay station was erected, a cable termination hut built on the beach and cables were added to connect Ascension with Sierra Leone, Cape Verde, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. Ascension became a knotty point of the worldwide communication. But not in a modern sense, were the data streams are going automatically from a starting point to their destination. At that time the messages came slowly in Morse signals, were decoded, brought to the application station of the wished cable and applied there by hand.
So all messages crossing the South Atlantic for a moment came to daylight on Ascension. And that exactly in a building of the Royal Navy were the CPO's mess was allocated to the Superintendent of the Eastern Telegraph Company.
The company staff were recruited from St. Helena and obtained their victuals from the Navy. But in all other respects they were private individuals.
With the outbreak of WWI a Marine reinforcement came to Ascension.
Ascension had become a key centre for the Eastern Telegraph Company's cable network. Telegrams were being read and retransmitted throughout the day and night by the ETC staff and the Royal Marines in a good partnership.
In 1915, the Admiralty sent a complete radio station to Ascension including operators and Marconi contractors to build and maintain it. The party arrived safely and the station was built at a site that became known as Wireless Plain, behind Cross Hill. The buildings were sited on the flat area to the east of Needles Water Tank, with six 300-foot tubular masts erected between the main building and the present petrol station site. The mast bases can still be seen, as can the occasional mast sections, both at the One Boat site, and throughout the island. The sections were regularly recycled as roof supports for tunnels and WWII defences.
The radio station was a transmitting and receiving station designed to maintain contact with the Fleet. It was an ideal site. Signals to and from the ships could be passed back to the UK or the base in South Africa via the undersea cables. The station was abandoned when the Marines left the island, and was demolished in 1937, with the masts being felled and left to rot. Later the sea cables were eliminated.
With the end of the war the Admiralty decided to close the base. On October 1922 Ascension was handed over to the Eastern Telegraph Company and Ascension became a dependency of St. Helena. The ETC manager became the Resident Magistrate responsible to the Governor of St. Helena . The ETC managed Ascension until 1964.
1934 the ETC was renamed to Cable and Wireless.
The picture shows the reverse flap of a censored WWI cover, the year of posting is not readable
A philatelic proof of the existance of the Eastern Telegraph Company on Ascension is the cover sent from ETC to their Manager on St. Helena of 10th October 1932 - fig. 1 (see Ascension Postal History above). An arrival datestamp of 13th October 1932 was struck on the front, the reverse flap bearing the monogram of the Eastern Telegraph Company - fig. 2
I will show another flap imprinted with the word ASCENSION, such envelopes used during WWI. Some experts mean that the source of that imprint is also the Eastern Telegraph Company.
Monogram on the flap of the ETC cover fig. 1
____________________________________________________________ fig. 2 >>>>>
Today the Eastern Telegraph Company is the well known Cable and Wireless Company and I picture an Ascension
Ascension Cable & Wireless invoice and cover of 1999
cover with imprinted new monogram and part of a telephone invoice drawn on our member Michael Mueller when he visited Ascension 1999.
I would be glad to get information about the printed word ASCENION. on the flap of cover fig. 3
WWII censored cover from the Mauritius Indian Ocean island Rodrigues 1940 - Cable & Wireless LTD - to Cable & Wireless Ascension Island, redirected to England (thanks to www.philatepat.net16.net)
Copyright © 2010 - Klaus Hahn - The copyright of that article published on this website remains with the author (Klaus Hahn) and the society (SHATPS)
Interested in more philatelic articles about similar topics? - Then join the SHATPS - St. Helena, Ascension & Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society
and/or the WASC - West Africa Study Circle
and/or the ASC - Ascension Study Cirle
If you are satisfied with my home page (or even if you are not), I would be glad if you write about your opinion in my Guest Book