Tin Can Mail and the drive to communicate

Today I delivered a letter to my father Haydn Savage that his father Leslie Savage had written to him almost 75 years ago. I planned to write this up as an example of the enduring power of the written word. But it’s not that simple. The deeper I delved, the more this became a story about the drive to connect through whatever means possible.

The letter came in an envelope with a Tongan stamp and an intriguing array of postmarks, though it was written in Melbourne. Affixed to the letter was an article from The Herald 12 July 1937 inviting stamp collectors interested in obtaining letters with ‘tin can mail’ postmarks to send their envelopes and sixpence worth of stamps to the Union Steam Ship Company. The letters were to be sent on the TSS Maunganui, dropped overboard in tin cans off the Tongan island of Niuafo’ou and returned by the next available ship.

For my grandfather, a stamp collecting, National Geographic subscriber with a passion for what he called ‘the South Seas’, I can well imagine the allure of tin can mail.

Nuiafo'ou from the air, 7 June 2011

It turns out Niuafo’ou is a remote, volcanic rim island of 15 square kilometres with neither beaches nor harbour. A ten kilometre drop into the Tongan Trench makes it impossible for ships to anchor; even landing a rowboat is difficult in the turgid waters off the steep cliffs.

According to Betty Billingham’s history of the tin can mail, in 1882 the island’s sole white inhabitant, plantation manager William Travers, desperate to communicate with the outside world, petitioned the Tongan postal authorities to seal his mail in empty biscuit tins and have it dropped overboard by passing ships. When the captain sounded the ship’s siren, Travers would send a swimmer out to collect the tin and exchange it for outgoing mail.

Philatelist Janet Klug suggests the idea of the swimming postmen was inspired by the Niuafo’ou islanders’ use of buoyant fau wood poles to support themselves while spear-fishing: ‘The traders thought that if the swimmers could use poles to catch and bring back fish, they could easily use poles to go out to a passing ship and to catch the mail and bring it back.’

Photo postcard c 1930 of swimming postmen bringing inward mail

Swimmers could struggle for up to six hours, battling strong currents in shark infested waters to retrieve a mail tin dropped from a ship only a mile off shore. When mail drops took place at night, groups of swimmers would go out, the villagers lighting bonfires on the cliffs to guide them back.

Charles Ramsay, a plantation manager who came to Niuafo’ou in 1921, was the only white man known to swim for the mail, which he did 112 times both by day and by night. I couldn’t find a record of the names of any islanders who swam for the mail, not even the swimmer famously attacked by a shark in 1931, who died after confessing to having tampered with the island’s precious fresh water supply (his death was put down to divine punishment). The Tongan authorities under Queen Salote subsequently insisted future tin can mail drops be collected by outrigger canoe, though this was hardly less hazardous as the canoes had to be thrown into the water from the cliff tops with the crews jumping in after them, and there is evidence to suggest the swimming postmen continued to brave the waters for years to come.

L to R: Pauline Hoeft, Walter G Quensell & his wife Emma Hoeft, c 1922

It was German born seaman turned trader Walter George Quensell who recognised the philatelic interest that could be generated by the tin can mail system. In a letter of 23 January 1947 to a friend in California, Quensell writes “I do not claim to be the originator of that same mail, it was started long before I came to “Tin Can Island” that was in 1919. Still it was me that made it known to the world.”

From 1928-29, using a child’s printing set, Quensell produced a rubber stamp to mark his outgoing letters ‘TIN CAN MAIL’. Over the years, his cachets became more elaborate. He ordered rubber stamps from New Zealand with ‘Tin Can Mail’ in multiple languages. He also stamped envelopes with his own name and the title ‘TCM Man’ or ‘TCCMM’ for ‘Tin Can (Canoe) Mail Man’.

Incidentally, the only woman known to ‘swim the mail’ was Quensell’s sister-in-law Pauline Hoeft, New Zealand’s ‘Champion Lady Swimmer’, who held the fifty- and one-hundred yards world records in the early 1920s, was a match for ‘the speediest of male swimmers‘ in the fifty yard open scratch race, and is said to have worked with Johnny Weissmuller, Hollywood’s most famous Tarzan.

At some point, Quensell arranged with ships’ captains for passengers to mail letters ‘in the tin’, enclosing sixpence worth of stamps to cover costs. Quensell would apply his cachets, then send them on. The ships’ captains added their own stamps and cruising by Niuafo’ou to watch the collecting of the mail soon became a tourist attraction. Through an arrangement with the shipping companies, Quensell’s offer was extended beyond passengers to stamp collecting enthusiasts like my grandfather. In the 27 years he spent on the island, Quensell estimated he sent 1.5 million letters to 148 different countries.

Yet tin can mail was never just a gimmick. Until an airstrip was constructed on Niuafo’ou in 1983, it remained the only way for residents to send and receive mail.

Les Savage & son Haydn in 1938

My grandfather’s letter clearly made it to Niuafo’ou, as the envelope is stamped with multiple cachets including TIN CAN – CANOE MAIL: ISLAND, which is unusual as Quensell was said to have cut out the word ‘canoe’ from all rubber cachets from mid-1935 following a dispute with the swimmers. But why the letter never made it back to the addressee, my father Haydn, remains a mystery.

Indeed, the letter might never have reached us but for the unusual note on the front top left corner: ‘To be opened on 12th Sept 1952.’ In a move typical of my beloved late grandfather, he’d written the letter to his son, then aged not quite two years, and marked it to be opened on what would have been my father’s seventeenth birthday.

The note piqued the curiosity of a Gold Coast couple who acquired the ‘cover’, as they are known to philatelists, as part of a bulk lot bought at auction. Though covers have a much higher value if they remain unopened, the couple took a chance on finding something of interest, that might also help them locate the intended recipient or his family.

“As it turns out it had a most beautiful letter inside,” they wrote to me in January 2012. “We are so glad to have located its rightful owner – such lovely words deserve to be with the intended recipient.”

Haydn reading a letter from his father, 75 years after it was written

They found me on the internet, of course: the previous month I’d written a post to commemorate the first anniversary of my paternal grandmother’s death and tagged it with my father’s name.

Thus the letter travelled via air, ship, tin can, canoe, email, registered mail and train to finally reach its intended recipient nearly 75 years after it was written. The cover probably changed hands many times over the years among philatelists. I was surprised to learn that attempting to return mail to the intended recipient is frowned upon by collectors and dealers who (legitimately) purchase items like Tin Can Mail covers to keep or re-sell at a profit. We were fortunate the last owners didn’t subscribe to that view and elected instead to connect.

After all, what child of any age wouldn’t cherish the chance to read the following:

At the moment you are 1 year & 10 months old and playing happily around me — a constant joy to your loving mother & I. In two months time you will be two years old. Easily the most marvellous years of our life…I know you will always love your Mummy and Daddy and they only live for you.

And from Haydn: ‘My father did this to me all my life, post-dated mail by many years, then refused to let me open it on the date! I was really thrilled to read the contents of this one.’

Photo sources:
Niuafo’ou from the air, Trans Niugini Tours
Photo postcard c 1930, Post Office Postcards
Pauline Hoeft, Walter Quensell & Emma Hoeft, Tonga Tin Can Mail History (1882-1983)

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel is, Mother of Pearl, published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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45 Responses to Tin Can Mail and the drive to communicate

  1. Pingback: Tin Can Mail « Post Office Postcards

  2. Andrew Nette says:

    Nice post, Angela. I agree, this does show how strong the drive to communicate is, albeit with the natives doing most of the work. Those swimmers definitely got the short end of the stick.


    • angelasavage says:

      Andrew, ‘short end of the stick’ sounds like the fau wood poles the swimmers used to stay afloat!

      I was sorry not to find any biographical details for the locals who swam the mail in the course of my research (and would love to hear from anyone who has them). Notwithstanding what seems like gross exploitation, there is evidence the islanders took great pride in their work – as shown by the less than enthusiastic reaction to Queen Salote’s attempt to ban the swim. Quensell wrote a letter to a friend in late-1934 that the tin can mail might soon come to an end as the swimmers were demanding $10 per swim and threatening to go on strike if he refused (story is here). He must have reached some agreement with the swimmers as the tin can mail continued. It’s believed he removed the word ‘canoe’ from his cachets to appease them.


  3. Diana says:

    What an extraordinary story, on so many levels. Very good decision by the superb people in Queensland to get the letter to Haydn.


    • angelasavage says:

      Hear hear, Diana. So grateful that the letter ended up in their hands.


    • Nigel Imrie says:

      As the great grandson of Walter George Quensell, I applaud that decision, what wonderful loving words to read after so long. We can only imagine the emotions that would have been awakened in Hayden, God Bless you Sir, miracles do happen…..


      • angelasavage says:

        Hi Nigel, thanks so much for dropping by. It’s such a thrill for me to connect with the descendants of Tin Can Mail Man, Walter Quensell. I only wish your great-grandfather and my grandfather Les Savage could have met. I think they would’ve got along very well.
        And I agree with you about the generosity of the couple who decided to find the addressee of the Tin Can Mail. What a gift they gave us all.


  4. Mandy says:

    Wow, thanks for sharing this Angela. I’d never heard of Tin Can Mail. What an amazing story, and such a beautiful gift for Haydn to receive just after the anniversary of his father’s death.


  5. What a fabulous story, Angela, thank you for sharing! I’d love to know the philatelist’s side to why it’s not considered appropriate to try and find the original recipient of unopened mail!


  6. Helen Morgan says:

    Marvellous on all counts! I wonder about the business to do with whether or not to track down the recipient. I will pursue it with my philatelic contacts!


    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks Siobhan & Helen.

      I think the issue for philatelists is that covers have a higher (monetary) value if unopened, and collectors/dealers acquire these items for their monetary value — to collect or to sell at a profit — rather than their sentimental value. They frown on individual efforts to track down the intended recipients of unopened mail because it implies a moral imperative for them all.

      The whole business raises some fascinating issues about the ethics of collecting and about how we accord value. For a collector, the unopened tin can mail ‘cover’ is the item of value. For the intended recipient/family members, it’s the contents that are of most value.


  7. Kate (Granddaughter of Ruby Vine) says:

    Beautiful! Just telling my husband Ashley about my amazing grandfather, and with two small children ourselves (his great grandchildren!) we do need to write things down as the legacy he tried to leave us. I am sure Haydn loved the letter, who wouldn’t…beautiful, and from the most beautiful man. And a many thanks to the people on the gold coast for when buying the property they chose to be kind enough to pass it on to Haydn (and track yourself down) so he could have such a precious letter from his father. Obviously very kind and generous people. Loved the story Ang, look forward to the book titled “RUBY VINE?” Thanks Ang for sharing so much of their lives so that we all get to cherish these stories for many years and generations to come.
    Kate x

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What a lovely tale, Angela. And how very moving for your Dad to have the words of his father reach him after such a long time.

    Good karma to the Queenslanders who passed this along.

    I remember being on the P&O ship Himalaya in the late 60s, it was a family holiday, and the ship stopped at Tin Can Island for the mail to come and go. My memory is of a small green island in the distance surrounded by a very rough sea. I think boats must’ve done the toing and froing.

    Gorgeous tale, well told.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. olgamary savage says:

    Beautiful story Angela.I have such warm memories of Father Bear (Les Savage)

    Olgamary (his daughter-in-law)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Penny Ryan says:

    Hi Angela, what a beautiful story and so well researched and written. A great article for some publication, like Good Weekend, with more photos from over the past 75 years. Well done!!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Clive Anthony Savage says:

    Dear Angela, my Niece and God Child. I think of my Father often; a quite incredible, intelligent, and very special man. Thank you for the work and love you have added to what i consider to be a fabulous event – just so warm, exciting and typically Bear. As you know; together with my brother Haydn; i was sitting next to him at the Football the day he suddendly passed away. Prior to the commencement of the match between his Fitzroy team and Carlton he was toasted at the Presidents Lunch for his loyality to Fitzroy and his attendance at their last 1944 Grand Final Win. Although it was far to early for him to leave us it was almost as he’d wished. Dad; Father Bear, Leslie, had such a positive influence on everyone he touched, his work, his friends and his family. Your communication of this memory stimulating event has motivated me to dig out my box of First Day Covers (about 150 in total) – now sitting on my desk.

    I agree with your friend Penny Ryan; this should be shared through some type of publication.

    Love, Clive

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Sarah (Granddaughter of Leslie Joseph & Ruby Vine) says:

    Dear Angela,
    Thank you so much for your “Tribute to Mumma” back in December and for the “Tin Can Mail” story which our beloved Father Bears children and grandchildren can all relate to with very fond memories as typically “Father Bear”. We are all very fortunate to have grown up with such wonderful grandparents. Thank you for sharing your memories and your stories and for keeping the family in touch.
    Love Sarah

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Walter George Quensell, my great grandfather, how I love and enjoy reading of his contribution to the Tin Can Mail. It never ceases to bore me. About four years ago, I sailed to Niuafo’ou on the P&O’s Pacific Dawn and witnessed a re enactment of the Tin Can Mail. It was a very emotional occasion for me. My beautiful mother was born in Niuafo’ou and was Walter George’s eldest grandchild.

    Liked by 1 person

    • angelasavage says:

      Margaret, how exciting to hear from you. Thanks so much for dropping by. I am thrilled you enjoyed reading my account of our family’s encounter with the Tin Can Mail. I find the story fascinating on so many levels.

      I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to live on Niuafo’ou (do you have any photos of the family taken there?) or to witness the swim for the mail. I marvel at how fearless those swimmers must be.

      Thanks again for your comment. It’s an honour to hear from a descendant of the Tin Can Mail Man himself.


  14. Margaret Imrie says:

    Angela, my cousins in Hawaii are planning a Quensell family reunion in a year or two. I’m hoping for this reunion to be held in Tonga because I was born there and there’s a lot of family history there, vavau, haapai and Niuafo’ou but who knows what the decision will be. This will be an opportunity for us all to do something with the photos, slides, magazines, books and newspaper clippings that we have stashed away. I’ll be in touch. Margaret

    Liked by 1 person

    • Clive Savage says:

      Hi Angela,

      Thanks for keeping me updated – it’s amazing what those generous Gold Coast people started sending on the LJS letter!

      Love to everyone,


      Clive Savage

      P.O. Box 7269

      Gold Coast MC QLD 9726

      Phone: 0414 524 067

      Email: clivea@onthenet.com.au



    • angelasavage says:

      Hi Margaret, how exciting to be planning a Quensell family reunion — and wonderful if it could be held in Tonga. Let me know if you someone to come along to ‘ghost write’ the family history. Thanks for keeping in touch.


  15. I am so glad my web page on Tin Can Mail helped you get the background to your father’s letter – a moving story. I too found the story of Niuafo’ou exciting when I first came across it many many years ago. I subsequently went to a lot of trouble to gather together as many pre-war covers as I could find and to discover more about the history of the island as well as behind the ships that called. It amazed me too to see the many countries these covers have eventually been addressed to. I have a lot more stories I have unearthed and really must try to add them to my web page.

    Liked by 1 person

    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks so much for dropping by, Betty. Your website is an invaluable resource on the history of Niuafo’ou and the Tin Can Mail. Please do add more stories. The amount of hits this blog post still gets more than two years after it was written indicates the ongoing interest in this wonderful ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ tale.


  16. Robin Read says:

    Hi Angela
    I lived in Tonga (Nukualofa) from 1949 to 1953 and knew Willie Finau who claimed to be the last Tin Can Mail post master and was repatriated to Tongatapu after the 1946 eruption. I cannot vouch for this claim but but among other souvenirs from Niuafo’ou, he had a whole stack of Tin Can Mail first day covers of Queen Salote’s silver jubilee in 1943. He gave me 3 FDC which I still have.

    Robin Read

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Tevitatuifua Kata says:

    Is really a nice story…i am from niuafoou…. im very interesting to know more and picture of old days in niuafoou… in those time…

    Liked by 1 person

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