Notes from the Past

Cape of Good Hope 'Woodblocks' - Part I

The first stamps of the Cape of Good Hope were printed in the shape of triangles.  These stamps were in use from 1853 to 1865.  They are very interesting stamps and prized by collectors.  Two of the stamp varieties issued were the result of a bureaucratic mess created when some paperwork was displaced.  These stamps came to be known as the 'woodblocks.'

The Postmaster-General made it a practice to have a reserve supply of stamps good for two years at the Capetown Treasury since the Cape of Good Hope was so far from the source of supply, Perkins, Bacon, & Co., in England.  Early in 1860, the reserves were found to be low and, accordingly, an order for 1,200,000 1d. and 1,440,000 4d. stamps was sent to London.

On June 15, 1860, the stamps arrived at the Cape.  Although there were papers with the shipment the Bill of Lading had been lost.  As a result the stamps were held by the Union Steamship Co. in the Queen's Warehouse at Capetown.  Postal officials forgot all about the shipment.

Meanwhile the imminent shortage of stamps became a crisis.  On February 7, 1861, the Postmaster-General reported to the Government that unless something were done he would only be able to accept money in lieu of affixing stamps which would be illegal.  The Attorney-General agreed and suggested that an order for new stamps be placed with a local printer.

The Government printers, Saul Solomon & Co., were instructed to print and deliver the stamps as quickly as possible.  The design was to be the same as the other triangles.  Charles Julius Roberts engraved the steel dies and the printing was carried out by stereotyping as Saul Solomon & Co. had recently installed the equipment for that process.

Stereotyping involved making of a mould of plaster of paris or similar material from an original die.  This mould, or matrix, is filled with a thin layer of molten type-metal and allowed to harden.  The cast type-metal was then glued to strawboard and then affixed to wooden bases.  The entire assembly was the same depth as type so that such 'cuts' could be assembled in the printer's chase along with type.  Printing was accomplished by inking the surface of the type or cut and impressing it on the paper.

The first stamps to be printed were the 4d. which were more urgently required.  A 'plate' or block of 24 was assembled and sent to the press.  During the process a number of the stereotypes were damaged or retouched.  This gives rise to some interesting varieties.  The stamps were printed on unwatermarked laid paper with the first delivery of 150 sheets on Saturday, February 23, 1861.  It is believed that the stamps were put on sale that day.  On the following Tuesday, an additional supply of 850 sheets was delivered for a total of 24,000 stamps.  The 4d. was printed in blue which varied from a milky shade to a bright blue for the various printings.

To Be Continued.

Update:  I have recently received an e-mail from Fay Lea of Cape Town, South Africa.  She enjoyed the 'Wood Blocks' notes.  She had come across them while doing genealogical research on her family. The envraver of the wood block's steel die, Charles Julius Roberts, is her husband's great grandfather. He immigrated to South Africa in 1849.  He kept a diary during his three-month voyage from England.  She has transcribed the diary and hopes to publish it at some time.  If you wish to contact her, request contact information by using the e-mail link below.  - July 12, 2008.

Posted August 8, 2000

Editor's Note:  I have willingly excerpted (almost plagiarized) this from Stamps Day By Day, L. N. and M Williams. Blandford Press Ltd, 1950.

Index of 508 Notes from the Past

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