Travelling Post Offices
By Keith Morris
Mail in England had been carried by train as early as 1830 but it was not until 1838 that it was decided to actually sort mail while the train was in operation. This was first tried on the line between Birmingham and Warrington in the January. The whole operation was such a success that before the year was out the TPO service had been extended from London (Euston) and onwards up to Preston.
In 1840 with the introduction of the Penny Black and the universal letter rates in Great Britain, the volume of mail exploded. With that increase came a rise in the number of routes for the Travelling Post Office (TPO) and by 1914 there were around 130 different routes using TPO cancellations. As the trains got faster so the number of TPO routes were cut back until by 1946 there were only 43. Eventually, by the turn of the century they were all phased out completely, the last ones running on the 9th January 2004.
With the success of the TPO system in Great Britain it was not long before all major Train routes throughout the Empire at the time had TPO vans established to carry and service mail. These countries included Ceylon and India in the East, South Africa and Sierra Leone in Africa, Canada in North America, Australia and New Zealand.
Many other countries also followed the success of the TPO system in Great Britain and it was not long before TPO routes were running all over the world, especially in Europe, the USA, South America, and Russia. Mail coming from Russia until 1918 always had a 13 day date difference as Russia used the Julian calendar while Europe used the Gregorian calendar. An envelope dated November 30th and posted in Russia would receive a December 13th datestamp in, say, Germany even though it was only the following day.
Alas, with the passing of time, so have the majority of TPO routes ceased throughout the world. At the time of writing (May 2007) it is thought that there are only five countries which still have an operating TPO system. For the avid collector this can be a problem because of the language barrier. The five countries left are China, Poland, Switzerland, Russia, and Sri Lanka, although for how long they will run their TPO operations is unknown. However, covers can be collected from these countries, but unless you know someone in the relevant country, it can be difficult.
While Great Britain and countries from the British Empire use the term TPO, other countries with TPO systems gave their operations different names. Canada and the USA used the term RPO while other countries used the names Ambulant, Ambte, Ambu, and Ambulancia. Other terms include Fahrend, Postamt, Messagieri, Postvagon, and Vagon Postal. All of these terms mean the same thing; they all signify a Travelling Post Office.
Earlier in this article there was mention of the different calendars in use prior to 1918 in Russia and Europe. For those who have read this feature to the end there is a bonus. Click on the adjacent image to see such a cover crossing not only country borders but calendars as well! This actual cover was featured in a Society auction. Alas, the others above were not, but other similar covers will.