Postal History

Opening of the Campbell Island Post Office

A few months back I shared this post where I claimed that every envelope has a story to tell.  Well today I’m going to share another envelope with a completely different story, one that begins sixty years ago on a remote island at the bottom of the world.

Researching this envelope was a little easier than usual as I have a bit of insider knowledge but before I begin the story check it out in all its philatelic glory.

Campbell Island Commemorative Cover
Lemuel Lyes Collection

The printed message on the left-hand side of the cover seems pretty self-explanatory.  It was sent from the Campbell Island Post Office on its first day of business.  On the right you can see the orange portrait of King George the Sixth indicating that the postage cost tuppence.  The postmark indicates that this was indeed sent from Campbell Island.  The date isn’t immediately obvious but it reads 1 SP 52 12.  It was sent on 1st September 1952.

Situated in the Furious Fifties, Campbell Island is one of New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic islands.  As you would expect of such a far-flung locale it has a fascinating history.  There are a lot of colourful stories I could share about Campbell Island but this one begins at the end of the Second World War – when the New Zealand Government established a permanent manned meteorological office on the island.  If New Zealanders wanted accurate weather forecasts then they needed a bunch of lively volunteers willing to live on an island at the bottom of the world.

A 1000 gram weather balloon being filled with hydrogen, Campbell Island. Poppleton, Philip George : Photographs of Campbell Island. Ref: PA12-1423-023. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

In-between the irregular visits by supply ships the only method of communication for the Campbell Island Met Service team was the trusty radio.  It proved to be useful for more than just warning the mainland of approaching fronts.  Chess matches were played over the radio against the Australian Meterological team on distant Macquarie Island, and when the team ran out of baking powder for their scones they used the radio to send a message to Aunt Daisy asking what substitute they could make using their remaining supplies.  She’d sometimes give a special greeting to the Campbell Island boys at the start of her broadcasts after her famous “Good morning everybody”.

But the most anticipated link to the mainland were the supply ships, not just for the fresh faces and food but for mail and parcels from home.  When the Holmburn arrived in late 1952 the Met Service boys eagerly awaited the mail bag, but there was a surprise waiting for them.  There wasn’t just one small bag of mail but half a dozen giant sacks, and for one day they would each be given a new title – “Assistant Post Master”.  The Campbell Island Post Office was about to open.*

It soon became apparent that a few collectors from the mainland had been let in on the secret.  In fact a lot of collectors had been made aware of this new philatelic outpost and in the bulging mail sacks were thousands of envelopes waiting to be stamped on this historic day.  The problem was that they had only been provided with one stamp to postmark them all, so the new Assistant Post Masters worked in shifts to get them all done.  Amongst all this chaos they were also keeping an eye out for their own much-anticipated personal correspondence among the piles of envelopes.

They too took advantage of the newly opened Post Office and sent commemorative covers to their own friends and family back home.

Among those envelopes stamped on Campbell Island on the 1st September 1952 was the one now in my collection.  I also happen to know the person who postmarked it that day on Campbell Island.  My grandfather was one of those Met Service boys enlisted as a temporary Assistant Post Master.  I’ve been very fortunate as both a youngster and a not-so-youngster to hear exciting stories from his time in the Sub-Antarctic.  Also I suspect that I may have inherited not just the envelope he sent home but perhaps also a little of his sense of adventure.

© Lemuel Lyes

For more information on New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands I highly recommend this blog run by Kimberley Collins, a Science Communication student at Otago University.

* As a side note I couldn’t help but share a bit of philatelic trivia.  When it was open the Campbell Island had the honour of being the most remote post office from the birthplace of the postage stamp – London.  Don’t worry this is too obscure to be in any pub quiz ever.  In fact you should probably forget this fact, it will never come in useful and will just take up valuable space.

9 replies »

  1. Good one Lemuel, makes me think theres so many more stories to get down on paper/ electronically…Have forwarded to said ex Campbell islander.

    • A number of them also doubled as scientists or at least had a strong interest in the natural environment which made the island an attractive place to be based. I suspect that some others were simply looking for a chance to have a bit of an adventure!

      The Met Service continued to operate a manned station there until it became automated in the 1990’s, so there were generations of volunteers over the decades.

  2. Remember you have an Uncle and a Grandfather that has both lived there for over a year.
    We got in trouble with the NZ Post Office when there when some visitor got a rubber stamp that said ” Republic of Campbell Island” that was stamped at the Post Office there!

    Curious who the letter was for – M V Bannister? Any ideas?

    • I’m very envious that you both got to spend some quality time down there! I look forward to catching up with you sometime soon and hearing more about it.

      Would love to see one of those “Republic” stamps!

      Not sure who M.V. is, will have to ask Sue, she will probably know! Hope you are well.

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