High Values: "Surreptitious Removal"

High Value Stamps punched for use on Telegraph forms to prevent 'surreptitious removal'

During the early part of the 20th century the Post Office were becoming increasingly concerned that high value postage stamps were being removed from telegraph forms and sold on the philatelic market. This was mainly from telegrams handled through the various Telegraph Companies(1), some of whose employees were in fact charged, rather than on forms handled by the Post Office themselves. Stamps were either torn off forms or the actual forms themselves were removed after the message had been dispatched. Some missing stamps were no doubt the result of having been insecurely affixed and falling off the forms, as loose stamps were found from time to time, but the forcible removal was usually obvious.

Stamps of high value on telegrams were normally 'blacked out' by the Post Office using an inked roller over the normal telegraphic cancellation to make them undesirable to collectors. This roller was normally a thick bar but rollers with an un-inked central diamond pattern have also been seen. This form of additional cancellation continued after the introduction of clippers where telegrams were handled by offices which had not been issued with clippers or where punched stamps had not been used. An example seen dated May 1929 has been additionally cancelled with a roller consisting of six thick black lines applied horizontally over the cds cancel.

As early as 29 March 1911 a joint investigation was carried out between the Central Telegraph Office and the Great Northern Telegraph Co in connection with forms handed in at the West Strand branch, and from which stamps were missing. These forms had been sent by tube(2) from West Strand to the Central Telegraph Office and then, again by tube, to the Great Northern Telegraph, so had been handled by a number of people. The enquiry concluded that the theft probably occurred at the Central Telegraph Office but were unable to identify the person responsible. A further investigation was carried out on 19 October 1911 regarding eleven forms from which stamps to the value of £1.9.4. had been removed plus a further form from which an attempt had been made to remove a 5/- stamp. A temporary clerk was suspected but the evidence was somewhat inconclusive so no action could be taken, although the clerk was removed to other duties.

Over the years the removal of high value stamps continued and although not substantial, was on the increase. As a result on 27 September 1915 A Mapley, the Assistant Controller in the Cable Room at Central Telegraph Office suggested mutilation at the accepting stage to render stamps worthless. He had noticed that certain high priced stamps had been clipped or torn in an elongated manner, presumably in the Accountant Generals Department, and suggested this might be used in the case of telegraphs.

A report dated 2 October 1915 states that clipping was adopted experimentally in the Foreign Telegraph Office. Although this did tend to slow down handling, further trials were suggested at one or two London Telegraph Offices. However it was pointed out that, apart from the extra time, there was the possibility that clipping might mutilate writing on the form. Although no official record of further trials has been seen, they must have taken place as examples postmarked 1 November 1915 from London Chief Office and Great Tower Street BO have been seen in official files.

The clippers used for this experiment appear to differ from those issued later. The 1915 examples seen show the clip coming to a point in the long direction.

Removal of stamps remained a problem and an investigation in 1916 by the Great Northern Telegraph Company led to an ex- employee, A L Andersen (a Dane, aged 22) being questioned. After initially denying any knowledge of missing stamps, he produced an envelope containing 26 stamps (six of £1, seven of 10/-, seven 5/-, one 2/6, three 1/-, one 9d and one 6d). He admitted taking them but claimed they were for a collection he was forming and that he had no intention of selling them. Subsequently Andersen admitted having taken stamps and selling them to J Louis & Co, 20 Moorgate Street, City Sales & Exchange, 94 Fleet Street and Bright & Son, 164 Fleet Street. Andersen was charged and appeared at Guildhall Police Court on 30 June 1916 where he pleaded guilty, but claimed he did not realise he was committing an offence, and was bound over in the sum of £10 for six months.

An enquiry by the Eastern Telegraph Co. Ltd. of Finsbury Pavement commenced when one of the staff noticed used stamps, which he recognised as having emanated from telegraph forms issued through their offices, in the window of a stamp shop in Moorgate Street. Examination of the actual stamps at the shop by officers of the Company confirmed the nature of the stamps and the proprietor of the shop stated that these had been brought in by a 'young boy' who had given his name as C Riley and said he worked for Western Union. Further enquires elicited the information that similar stamps had been offered to 'Palmers, round the corner'. A similar story was told by the proprietor of Palmers, who said the boy had again given the name Riley and wore the Uniform of a Telegraph Company Messenger, although the investigator considered Palmer was not particularly helpful.

A search by officials at the Eastern Telegraph office carried out on 22 October 1917 discovered that some original telegraph forms were missing, as follows:

On 23 October, Charles Riley, age 15, an Indoor Messenger at the Eastern Telegraph Company was dismissed from the Company's employ for stealing and destroying Post Office Telegraph forms and disposing of the stamps taken from them to Mr. Louis, Moorgate Street and Mr Palmer, 9 Moorgate St Buildings. Louis had produced stamps with a face value of £10.11.5. which he stated were almost all he had received in the only transaction he claimed he had with Riley. Palmer produced 69 stamps (26 x10/-, 17 x 5/-, 23 x 2/6 and 3 x 1/-) which he claimed he had purchased in three transactions with Riley, before refusing to accept further stamps unless Riley produced authority from his employer. The report also stated that a letter, in Riley's handwriting on Company notepaper, had been found amongst his effects giving such authority and 'signed' in his senior's name. Although there was sufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution, it was decided by the Company not to proceed.

As a result of such incidents further experiments into clipping stamps intended for use on telegraph forms commenced. In July 1918 trial punches were issued to Throgmorton Avenue BO and West Strand BO whereby stamps were initially perforated after affixing. The West Strand trials commenced on 20 July and ended 2 August and the Throgmorton Avenue trials from 18 to 25 July. These proved satisfactory, although senders were asked to position stamps in suitable positions so that messages were not affected.

A further trial was carried out at Throgmorton Avenue from 1 to 7 October in which stamps were perforated before affixing. As a result it was suggested stamps should be punched after affixing otherwise punched stamps might be used on postal correspondence.

These trials were not considered entirely satisfactory and on 31 December 1918, the following instruction was issued:

It has been arranged to have a further trial made of punching high-priced (2/6 and upwards) stamps affixed to telegrams. The trial at Throgmorton Avenue BO will be on the lines of punching the stamps before their issue to the public to be affixed to telegraph forms, and at West Strand BO after they have been affixed. In both cases the trial will commence on the 2nd proximo and will continue for one week.

The result was that one omission to clip was observed at Throgmorton Avenue but at West Strand 72 cases of failure or partial failure were detected. The final decision was 'the removal of temptation to steal high priced stamps would best be served by clipping such stamps before attachment'.

On 15 August 1919 clippers were issued to 26 office in England and Scotland plus four in Ireland, with the following notice:

In view of the frequent surreptitious removals of the high value Postage Stamps from Telegraph forms, it has been decided, after experiment at certain selected Offices, that stamps of 2/6 and upwards in value shall be clipped at Post Office counters by means of special appliances, in order to destroy the philatelic value, before being issued to the public to be affixed to the Telegraph forms. Two pairs of the appliances will shortly be issued. The stamp should be slightly folded before being clipped, in order that the perforation may be made about the middle of the stamp.

On 10 February 1921 a further 49 offices were issued with clippers, followed in August 1925 with six London Offices and a further six in Manchester, being issued with clippers.

From time to time the Post Office carried out checks on telegraph forms to see if procedures were being followed and invariably found that un-punched stamps were being used, contrary to instructions, as indicated by the following samples:

resulting in a number of Postmasters being reminded of their instructions.

Conversely a number of Postmasters cancelled ALL high value stamps irrespective of their intended use. On 14 October 1919 a number of parcels were noticed on which punched 2/6d stamps had been used - these had been posted in Nottingham on the 13th by T Adams Ltd and addressed to Guilio Padova & Co., Cairo. On the 22 October the Postmaster at Nottingham admitted that all high values stamps at his office had been punched, due to a misunderstanding of the instruction, but that the situation had now been corrected. Examples have been seen postmarked London Road, Nottingham (December 1919 - three on separate covers) and Chapel Bar, Nottingham.

The Postmaster at Gloucester Gate was another who was reprimanded when punched stamps were found being used on parcels to Italy.

A report dated 27 April 1926 refers to telegrams handed in by the senders direct to the Eastern Telegraph Company (where clippers had not been issued) in Newcastle (upon Tyne) bearing punctured stamps presumably issued by a Post Office in Newcastle over the Counter. It transpired that Tabb & Burletson regularly purchased higher value stamps at the Quayside BO for specific use in connection with pre-payment of telegrams. These telegrams may have emanated from this source. However examples of punctured high value stamps on registered/insured mail emanating from the Quayside office addressed to Hamburg are known used in March 1924. Another example with a Quayside cancellation is a 5/- stamp on a parcel label dated 24 January 1924 from Thos. & Wm. Smith Ltd., Newcastle upon Tyne, addressed to Finland. A further example has been seen, on piece (not from a telegraph form), which seems to be from a different Newcastle office.

A further postally used example has been seen, consisting of a 2/6 Bradbury Wilkinson used together with a 6d and two 9d stamps making up a 4/6 rate on a parcel post label from Thos and Wm Smith Ltd of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Finland.

Other examples of (probable) postal use have been seen from Doncaster (June 1925), London, Chatham (August 1923), Grimsby (26.10.21 - on part parcel post label), Middlesborough, Birmingham (October 1925), Great Yarmouth (March 1935) and Dudley, only the Doncaster example being on cover, but several are on piece which obviously did not come from a telegraph form. Some of the covers seen are almost certainly of a philatelic nature.

The practice of clipping high value stamps continued through to the present reign, although the file seen does not indicate when this ceased. Although the original clippers continued to be used at some offices, many of the QE2 examples seen have been mutilated by other means and show mutilation both before and after affixing so it seems the problem was never satisfactorily resolved. Of a random sample of 100 forms, 44 bore mutilated stamps of which 35 had been mutilated after affixing and 9 before. The telegraphic service from Post Office counters ended 1 October 1982.

Most of this information is contained in a Post Office file Post 30/3670.

Other sources of High Value stamps were Customs Duty labels (any stamps bearing Channel Islands cancellations probably emanate from Duty paid on tobacco brought in from those Island), and stamps used in payment of telephone bills. In the latter case the stamps were affixed on the reverse of the bill and cancelled by the local Post Office where the bill was paid. As these were under the control of the Post Office any high value stamps on these forms were additionally cancelled using the diamond roller. On some forms this additional cancellation is in blue, a colour not so far seen elsewhere.

A philatelic postscript. A note dated 2 December 1925 reads:

'Mr Bacon the King's Curator, recently showed me some 2/6, 5/- and 10/- stamps clipped in the centre which he had purchased at an auction sale. It would seem that so far from the clipping of stamps rendering them of no philatelic value the procedure has created new varieties for philatelists to collect'.

How true!

(1) Although the Telegraph Act of 1868 authorised the Postmaster-General to acquire the inland telegraph services, the long-distance cables were in the hands of different Companies and foreign telegrams were expressly excluded from the Postmaster-General's monopoly. Some of these Companies continued to operate overseas cables well into the 20th century.

(2) By this time considerable use was being made of pneumatic tubes for the transmission of telegrams between the Central Telegraph Office and branch offices in London, previously served by wire. This was also being adopted to some extent in the provinces.

A possible further trial to prevent "surreptitious removal" may have taken place as late as the 1980s. A number of parcel tags have been seen used in the Bankers Special Packet service (which operated in Scotland for the transmission of bank notes and coinage between banks and branches) from two offices under Inverness, namely Tain and Beauly. Between November 1983 and January 1985 high value stamps postmarked at Beauly were additionally 'cancelled' by punching using a blunt spike after having been affixed, whilst those at Tain were mutilated before affixing. Only £5 stamps have been seen used at Beauly, but no doubt any £1 or over stamps used would have been cancelled as well. Although all examples seen from Beauly were treated, there appears to have been a gap at Tain as uncancelled stamps have been found during the period, so perhaps any trial was not continuous. Because of the secrecy surrounding this service no official information is available, but research is continuing.

Update - August 2010: Four examples have been found of a previously unknown trial taking place at Tain during the BSP £10.88 rate period (26.1.81 – 1.1.82). The first example shows mutilation by tearing as occurred during the 1984 trials at Tain, but the other three are based on much earlier trials by utilising clippers whereby the stamps are folded in half (in this case top to bottom) and clipped before affixing. The 1984 Tain trials were also based on mutilation before affixing. The torn item is dated 2 September 1981 and the punched items between 17 September and 2 December, which could indicate a six months trial. I have no other examples used at Tain during this period so do not know if it was a continuous trial or how long it lasted.


High Value stamps overprinted for use in Ireland, which have an additional six-bar cancellation over the normal cds cancellation, usually in purple, although black has also been seen, are understood to come from telegraph forms. The same rules for telegraphic use would have operated in Ireland when under the Post Office and are likely to have continued after Independence. Punctured stamps could also exist as clippers were issued in August 1919 to College Green BO in Dublin, with instructions for use on telegraph forms, and again may have continued in use after Independence. I have seen a pair of 5/- wide date stamps used at College Green in 1929 with punch cancels. Although these are not the same shape as the original clippers, it seems likely these came from telegraph forms.