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The Postal History of Tristan da Cunha

 & Auction Results



It was in 1506 when the first man, a Portugese navigator saw a remote island mid of the South Atlantic between South Africa and South America on his new discovered route to


spectacular view from Nightingale Island to Middle Island (center) and Stoltenhoff Island (rear), photos 2006, published by kind permission of Philip Hicks


 India. It was Tristaó da Cunha – and he named the new discovered island after himself.

The distances to the next inhabitated islands or mainland are impressive: 2.800 km to Cape Town, 3.360 km to South America and 2.430 km to St. Helena. 

Today Tristan da Cunha is a member of the British overseas territory known as Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.


First map of Tristan da Cunha, cartographed by Alan B. Crawford 1938



The island, or more properly the group of several islands, are situated within a circumferential zone of about 30 km, with an out-lying island about 400 km southeast of TdC - Gough Island. They all are part of the mid-Atlantic Ridge, a volcanically rich oceanic region. The island of Tristan

da Cunha comprises the top part of a volcano that rises about 2.000 m into the sky and is about 3.000 m deep. Annual temperatures range between 2 - 25°C; in the southern winter snow caps the top of the volcano. 


A jump in time forward to the early nineteenth century and we come to the era when Napoleon was imprisoned on St. Helena.  To help to prevent the possibility that the French might mount a rescue operation, returning the general to power in France, in 1816 the British garrisoned the TdC island group and so formally took possession.  The soldiers left soon thereafter when it became evident to the British government that such a rescue mission was logistically unrealistic, given the vast inter-island distance involved. However three of that original group remained, at their own requests, and settled to farm.  The number eventually grew due to the presence of the initial colonizing families being added to by shipwrecked sailors and their eventual spouses and in time the group developed into a thriving community, later to be called Edinburgh-of-the-Seven-Seas. Today there are still only seven family names on TdC, shared amongst the roughly 260 inhabitants, each descended from one of the original seven settlers. All families survived the tough years of the 19th and early-20th centuries through barter trade with passing ships, supplying them with fresh water, potatoes, meat and livestock; money was unknown to the island until the mid-1900s 

In 1908 a first handstamp came in use, applied on the covers of the increasing population. Because no post office existed on Tristan da Cunha, the only permanent inhabited island the Tristan group, most of the mail remained without stamps and only cancelled with a handstamp in possession of the resident clergyman. When their tours of religious and social duty ended, they gave the handstamp to the successor or took it with them, perhaps as a souvenir.   


Tristan cover to England with Type II cancellation and transit datestamp of South Georgia 4-6-1920, transported by the whaler Pentaur to the next port of call: South Georgia  




Mail transport was regulated by chance as when ships occasionally visited; perhaps once a year and sometimes 18 months passed without outgoing or incoming mail.  Some mail had to travel a long way to the addressees because the next port of call could be South Africa, the Antarctic region which was frequented usually only by whalers, South America or even the Far East.  So, receiving mail and the possibility to send it was an important and exciting event in all the islanders’ lives. Until 1952 when the post office opened, about 15 different handstamps were or had been in use and often several of these were employed contemporaneously.  At times no handstamp was available due to an accident or because a clergyman had left the island with it.  Only occasionally was mail stamped and mostly this was by UK stamps, but sometimes stamps from other countries were used.  In such cases stamps were sent to islanders by enterprising dealers who requested islanders to affix them to provided envelopes and to post them by mail via the next outbound vessel. Most pre-1952 covers however were without stamps and some were transported and delivered to the addressees without their being taxed; others were taxed, allowing us today to date the item.



Tristan cover to England with Type III cachet and the postal datestamp of the Shackleton-Rowett-Expedition


In 1922 the Quest, Ernest Shackleton’s research ship, visited TdC on its way back from his Antarctic voyage (Shackleton died on South Georgia during that expedition). They used a datestamp with the inscription S-R-Antarctic-Expedition 1921, and some outgoing mail from TdC was cancelled with that postal cancellation during expedition’s 6-day visit. In 1937 the second (Norwegian) scientific expedition came to TdC.  One member was Englishman Allan B. Crawford, and a life-long friendship with the Tristanians began.  ABC, as called by his friends, returned several times and even lived a few years on the island, and of special importance this was during WWII, when all TdC handstamps were banned from use due to wartime security concerns.  Instead, TdC was provided a pseudonym (Job 9, and later HMS Atlantic Isle).  In accordance with that name, outgoing mail was censored with a British ship censor marking.



500 special envelopes were printed on board of HMS Carlisles' 2nd visit to Tristan at 28th February 1937


During WWII the first newspaper was produced by ABC, the “Tristan Times”, and cancelled with his private handstamp. In 1946, ABC designed the famous “potato stamps”.  Because of the lack of currency, stamps and other goods had to be paid for with potatoes, the real “monetary” equivalent for the islanders.  Despite the early efforts of ABC, the introduction of a regular postal service with a real post office and proper stamps was refused by the British postmaster-General.  ABC also drew a highly accurate map following a professional survey of the island he completed, designed several stamp issues and eventually obtained permission for a postal authority; due honour was paid to him in 2008 with a special issue of stamps commemorating his Tristan connection.


In 1938 the islands of the Tristan group became Dependencies of St. Helena. The first Colonial Administrator acted since 1950.


After WWII the acting clergyman had his best idea and the islanders are still profiting from – to catch crayfish and to erect a canning factory. Until today the islanders are living from the revenue of that idea. The covers produced for The Tristan Venture, the Tristan da Cunha Fishing Industry Scientific Survey Expedition 1948 are one of the rare covers of Tristan postal history.


When the first post office opened at 1st January 1952, the first stamps – overprints of the current definitives of St. Helena -

were issued and datestamps were introduced.

From now on the island was part of the worldwide postal system.


Registered Covers of the first stamp set, struck with the new Tristan da Cunha datestamp Type B - Asterix over day and month, over year, issued 1-1-1952



In 1958 the remote Tristan da Cunha was part of the global play of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR. Between Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island an US nuclear bomb exploded in high altitude to test some physical phenomenon. The test was most secret and the inhabitants heard first about it several years later and it seems by luck that the nuclear impact didn’t affect the population.





scarce Formula Registered Envelope (FRE) sent 1954 from Tristan to England to Valerie Glass who left the island with the schoolteacher Mrs. Handley for further education in England. Later she returned to Tristan as the first Tristan trained nurse.

Only a small quantity was available when the Post Office opened 1952.



In April 1961 new Definitives were issued, the currency in South African Cent and Rand instead of the British Pound. Because of the revenue of the canning factory, run by a South African Company, it seems the better way to introduce money on an island, where the inhabitants were not used to own money. Because of the following incidents, these Definitives (and the South African currency) had a very short life – consequently with a high catalogue value.


Suddenly in August 1961 in the only settlement of Tristan da Cunha, Edinburgh-on-the-Seven-Seas, the ground trembled, windows rattled and rocks fell from the side of the nearby mountainside. By 10th October, the rising ground had become a new volcanic cone and threatened the Settlement nearby, so a decision was taken to evacuate the island. All inhabitants were ordered off the island and an evacuation via South Africa to England was organised.  Postal equipment and the stock of stamps were thrown into the South Atlantic by the Administrator to avoid misuse. A few days later the Governor of St. Helena (and therefore of TdC) had the laudable idea to overprint four TdC stamps kept in stock in the Jamestown Post Office, with ST. HELENA / TRISTAN RELIEF and an overprint charge.  Some of these were sold and used before an instruction from London arrived (just a week later) informing the Governor that all stocks must be taken off sale and destroyed.  This ended a honorable project having only good intentions but today such stamps/covers are one of the highlights of St. Helena philately  


Resettlement cover of the return voyage of the main group of islanders returning to Tristan on board of MV Bornholm in 1963 (right) - S.A.S. Transvaal (left) with the smoking volcano pictured on a postcard - photo taken by Allan B. Crawford




A Royal Society expedition in early 1962 studied the new volcanic cone and assessed its likely impact on the Tristanians.  After much negotiation and heated debate, in 1963 many islanders returned.  Quite a few had become ill from life in drafty living conditions and from the wet  cold of England and these wanted to return to their home and their old way of life on the island.  Expedition mail and covers of this “Resettlement Period” are collected as a specialty topic of the postal history in connection with TdC’s social history. This so-called "Volcanic Period" involving evacuation and resettlement is important because it is often what draws people to the philately of TdC, being the only thing many have heard about the region and its history.  Furthermore collecting items of that period is comparatively affordable. Today, approximately 260 Tristanians live on the island.


Since the erection of a fishing industry several fishing ships are providing Tristan da Cunha with goods and passengers and took over the transport of mail to South Africa. Because of the lack of an airport all transport had to be done by ship. First occasionally by whaling ships, later by British ships of war now the fishery ships, the South African research ship MV Agulhas has the task to provide Tristan da Cunha once a year with all necessary goods according to an agreement with England. On the other hand South Africa took on lease the  meteorological station on Gough Island. Since 1955 Gough Island is habituated by


Aerogramme posted at sea on board of R.M.S. St. Helena during a ship's visit on Tristan da Cunha at 30-1-1996, datestamped on Tristan



scientists, when an expedition started to explore Gough Island. During that expedition, a sub post office was erected and an own Gough Island datestamp came in use for about 2 years.


Despite the scheduled ship visits between Tristan and South Africa it remains very difficult to visit that interesting island, because on these commercial vessels space for passengers is rare. All additional ship visits are used to transport outgoing mail.Today, modern Tristan da Cunha has a Public Hall, a hospital, church, school house, the canning factory, a small harbor and even a policeman, fire fighters and a sea rescue vessel – and of course a Post Office with internet connection to the whole world.







If you don't know what makes Tristan da Cunha postal history collectable, I can tell you, that the knowledge of such a small community makes many pieces of postal history very exciting, because you know about all families on the island, you know all clerymen, all teachers, every ship and many visitors of the remote island of Tristan da Cunha. Regarding the history of TdC means to live with the islanders their social history - nothing in philately could be more exciting! 




modern Aerogramme with the Life, Wildlife and Landscape of the beautiful and remote island of Tristan da Cunha - available on eBay >>






But even such a remote group of islands is not free of modern life disasters as seen in March 2011, when a Greece freighter on its way from Brazil to Singapore ran aground Nightingale Island, sunk partly and was responsible for a environmental disaster. The island and the nearby smaller Inaccessible Island, populated with hundred thousands of penguins and seabirds was heavily oiled - with tenthousands of penguins.




Try it - plunge into that topic and you will be fascinated as so many collectors worldwide before!







Bye-bye Tristan - on board of RMS St. Helena













Copyright © 2011 - Klaus-D. Hahn

The copyright of that article published on this website remains with the author (Klaus Hahn) and the society (SHATPS) - my thanks goes to Philip Hicks for revising the TdC postal history text and for providing some of his most remarkable photos of Tristan da Cunha.




.... and a few snippets of Tristan life in 1946 .... not every day can be successful ... hard work in the Wireless station ... landing beach ... 2 crayfish for hungry stomachs shown by Tom Swain










Auction Results

to get a feeling for current prices ..



Fall - Winter 2010 - Tristan covers


Type VII

cover 1946 with type VII cancel and red maritime and enclosed letter from Laura & Paddy Rogers to UK, dated 15th April 1946, transported with HMHS Transvaal


eBay 127 £
Type Va inverted & Type II

Dent cover 1929 with type II cancellation, inverted type Va, transported by HELESIUS, London paquebot datestamp 26 JU 1929, see Crabb P. 196 / PHOTO


 (pictured with permission of owner)



eBay 1.100 £
Type VII

Cv. 1951 with type VII cancellation, postage due, to Crawford address in London



60 £

Type V

Dent cover with type V cancellation, written by John Glass, transported by HMS Carlisle 2nd visit, postage due, 30 MR 1937


eBay 72 £ 


pe XII

cv. Resettlement Survey to Germany, 9 X 1962, Paquebot Cape Town, Type XII cancellation / PHOTO


   (pictured with  permission of owner) 


11 £

Type X         Official Cv. The Tristan Venture 1948 to Cape Town, Type X dated in manuscript 2-FEB-1948 with Potatoe Stamp and enclosed letter by Rev. Lawrence on official notepaper,Murchie Auctions  550 £
Type VIII & XCv. to Cape Town 1949 with Type VIII and X and only known cachet on cover of the Tristan da Cunha POSB (Post Office Savings Bank)Murchie Auctions  360 £
 Piece with Departemental cachet Dep. of Transport from Fred Martin correspondence dated 31-3-1949, only 4 known   Murchie Auctions 65 £
 Gough I.

Last Day Card, philatelic, with Gough datestamp 27-5-1957 and scarce one line cachet TRISTAN DA CUNHA, only seen on Last Day Cards of the Gough Island sub Post Office

 (one line cachet  - scarce)



31,00 £

Type IICv. to London with distinct Type II cancellation, part of PAQUEBOT and part of arrival datestamp London 30... (perhaps 30 JAN 1920??), probably a CLAN MACMILLAN cover, many stable holes round the envelope


141 £

TristanCv. to England, Society Expedition cachet, Paquebot Cape Town 7-2-1962, with boxed ship's cachet S.A.S. TRANSVAAL


78,00 $

Type II Cv. to England with washed out Type II cancellation, London Paquebot 26-6-1929, redirected, 2x Postage Due (1x stroke out), transported by Halesius 


221,00 £               

Type Va proofPPC of Missonary Lindsay 1961 with a proof of Type Va handstamp, handwritten confirmation, that handstamp was used 1927-1930 by Lindsay during his stay on Tristan da Cunha - the scan see on my first Tristan side


311,00 £



Tpye VI
Dent cv. 1938 with Type VI handstamp to England, written by "Mrs. Andrew Swain", Postage Due 19 JY 1938/Axminster, transported by Innesmoor 


60,00 £

Gough I.group of 6 covers, the most interesting cv. to Sir Winston Churchill, 14-12-1955, with the signatures of the Gough Expedition members, one Chambers cover from Tristan after evacuating from Gough Island, Churchill cv see Tristan page 3


355,00 $

Type IXCv to England Pequena Mail with Paquebot Cape Town 22 II 50, last day of usage of Type IX


41,00 £

Type IIstampless cv to England with boxed Paquebot Cape Town and cancelled postage due cachet, transported with HMS Dublin on visit off Tristan 26-3-1923, faint strike of Type II handstamp, with expertise


139,00 £

Type VIICv to England, undated with Type VII handstamp


16,00 £

Type XLast Day Cv to England franked with 2 British stamps, transported by Pequena, Paquebot 22 II 50 Cape Town


75,00 £

Type VHMS Carlisle special ship's cover (printed on board) to UK, postage due and arrival London Paquebot datestamp 30-3-1937 (a similar one is pictured in the Postal History text above)



105,00 £ (4 bids)

Horseshoe2 Victor Marsh covers with Horseshoe cachets, no other cancellations!


57 $

Type XIAir Mail Cv HMS Protector 20-3-62 to NZ with Type XI handstamp and boxed cachet Tristan da Cunha South Atlantic Ocean on reverse


149 $ (1 bid)



Gough Island Reg. Air Letter, 14-12-1955 to USA, boxed cachet Gough I. Scientific Survey 1955-56, sig. of exp. leader Chambers, Horseshoe cachet and sig. of schoolteacher Harding on reverse


34 £ (1 bid)

Type XI        phil. cv to Eric Glass, TdC, with boxed cachet Resettlement Survey 1962 and mapped round cachet Tristan da Cunha Island, s. Atlantic Ocean


36 £  (4 bids)                

Type VIIStampless cv. with Tpye VII handstamp to USA, Postage Due 6 Ct., arrival datestamp 26-7-38, transported with MV Innesmoor


38 $ (7 bids)

GoughGough Island cv, 22-2-1956 to USA, boxed cachet Gough Island Scientifc Survey 1955-56


51 $ (7 bids)

Type V

1934 stampless cv. to UK with superb strike in blue of Type V with Singapore transit 24 SE 1934, violet, hexagon Tax stamp 45 Ct, UK 1½d due  h.s. Lovely example, transported by sailing ship PONAPE. Date of ship call at Tristan in unknown (June or July 1934) and mail was offloaded in the next port of call >Singapore - price without buyers Premium of 18% - rare/only few covers known


76,00 £      

Type V



inward cover from South Africa to Rev. Handley 2 XII 1946 transported by HMSAS Natal and re-used by Rev. Handley to Switzerland, Type VII handstamp and 1 1/2 d tax cancellation, postage due stamp of Switzerland datestamped 12 II 1948, transported by HMSAS Good Hope, departing Tristan 11 JAN 1948, letter enclosed 



Schlegel Auctions Berlin

120,00 €

Type Xstampless cv. with Type X handstamp, date in numbered form 26-11-1951, distinct (rare), to London

eBay (7 bids)

38 £

Horseshoehandmade Christmas Card by Ann and Ron Harding (schoolmaster) 1953, with Horseshoe handstamp inside


26 €

Type Va12 proofs of handstamp Va on 2 pieces of paper


35 £

Type XCv to England 25 OC 1950


47 £

Type IIcomm. Cv to England via South Georgia with transit datestamp 25 NOV 20 (S. Georgia), carried by whaler Southern Cross, flap missing

Stefan Heijtz Postal Auctions

480 £ 

Type XI


Crawford Resettlement cv to his S. African address from HMS Protector 20-3-1962 with Potatoe Stamp and Paquebot Cape Town and his private boxed cachet "Tristan da Cunha, South Atlantic" on the reverse > boxed cachet see cancellations on previous side



156 €

Tombstone censorCensored cover with enclosure from Agnes Rogers, 13th May 1943 to England, Tombstone censor handstamp signed by Dr. Woolley, undated Maritime Mail  cancellation, handwritten "Civilian Mail" (only 2 cv. known) - scan see Miscellaneous


830 $

Tristan datestamp 

Type C

Tristan da Cunha Air Mail Registered OHMS cover, franked with 5/- to Canada, datestamped 8th May 1960, arrival datestamp Canada 22nd SEP 1960 

OHMS envelopes are rare in Tristan usage                               


111 $

Tristan datestamp

Type C


Tristan Air Mail Registered OHMS cover to Canada,  franked with 3 stamps of the Definitives with Pound currency, datestamped 15 APRIL 1961, when stamps with South African currency were in use (since 1st April 1961). OHMS envelopes are rare in Tristan usage




96 $                     

Type VICv to Cape Town with "T 2d" in circle due mark, S. African postage due added, arrival datestamp 14 AP 1947, transported by HMSAS Natal


32 £

Tristan datestampCv to Capt Scott, Cape Town with 3d Resettlement stamp omkd 1 DE 1964, MAIL OFFICE HMS LONDON, typed endorsement: Helicoper Flight


32 £



Cv 1942-44 to England, Tombstone censor sig. Woolley, Maritime mail machine cancellation


470 £

Type VIICv to S. Africa, franked with S.African stamp, 2x Type VII, datestamped Cape Town 2-2-1949


62 $

Type IIIundated stampless Cv to UK, indistinct Type III handstamp


56 £

Type IVCv to England with Type IV, transported by "Duchess of Atholl" 1929


495 £

Tristan da Cunha in manuscript

Cv to England, franked cv. endorsed "Tristan da Cunha", Paquebot Cape Town 19 FEB 1934, transported by RMSP Atlantis


162 £ 

Type XIResettlement unfranked cv. 5th mail to Calshot/England, Paquebot Cape Town 14 IV 63, MV Boissevain (picture see Volcano Period page, Resettlement Mail 5d)


121 £

HMS PumaOHMS Resettlement cv HMS Puma with letter, oval red cachet Commanding Officer 27 SEP 1962, just when leaving Simonstown via Tristan (photo see Volcano Period Resettlement 1a)


53 £

Type XII, XIIICv Resettlement 2nd mail to USA, MV Tristania cachet, Paquebot Cape Town 18 XII 1962 (photo >Volcano Period, Resettlement Persod, 2nd mail)


49 £

Type XII, XIIICv Resettlement 1st mail to S. Africa, HMS Puma red oval cachet of Commanding Officer 3 OC 1962, Paquebot Cape Town 11 X 1962, with Administator 3-line-cachet from Gerry Stableford on flap (photo see Volcano Period Resettlement 1a)


134 £ 

Type VII


1939 PPC of the White Star Liner Franconia to England, Type VII cachet, 4.000 PPC's printed  


48 £ 



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