Sri Lanka Post: 200 years of Stamping with excellence | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka Post: 200 years of Stamping with excellence

The massive white imposing building of the GPO during colonial times
The massive white imposing building of the GPO during colonial times

One of the most pleasant childhood memories for many of us, was hearing the postman’s bell. We would run to the gate earnestly hoping to receive the brown envelope or the white air mail envelope with its distinct blue and red stripes. The postman, , in his khaki uniform, sweating in the morning sun was a welcome sight, for he was a messenger who connected us with relatives and friends. During festive occasions the postman would be treated with cakes and sweets, appreciating his services. This was customary in many homes. The only moments we would mildly dread his visit was when a telegram was delivered - which often informed of the illness of a relative or worse the update of one that had just passed away.

I remember going to the massive white imposing building of the GPO (General Post Office) in front of President’s House, in Fort, Colombo. It was always a busy place. Another venue we loved to visit during the April school holidays was the small post office in Nuwara-Eliya, with its immaculate red bricks. A post card would be dispatched to a friend in Colombo with a brief summary of our holiday in the green hills.

Today, communication has evolved into one large digital network, but the postal service continues to play an important role.

From sea to land

Communication has been in practice for centuries. Our ancient monarchs used horse mounted riders to send messages. These messengers travelled in relays at times covering long distances, taking days to reach the next destination. The first established form of postal service could be traced back to 1789 when the Dutch had taken control of some of our maritime provinces. They set up post offices in Colombo, Galle, Jaffna and Mannar - which had entry points by sea access. These coastal postal stations served mainly the expatriate community, and also delivered official documents.

During this era bullock carts and horse drawn carts were used to transfer parcels. In 1796, they introduced mail runners - robust men who carried letters in leather pouches and went on foot to deliver them. These men were given spears to protect them from the wild animals they would encounter. It was truly a job with a sense of daring adventure.

By 1798, an officer named Captain Kennedy was appointed as a competent postal authority. At this early stage there were 160 postal deliverymen in active service. By 1815, the British had gained control of Ceylon and began to structure the Postal and Telecommunication service, as it was then known. E. Bletterman was the first Post Master General.

Mail ships sail to Ceylon

Another feat was achieved in 1832 when Ceylon became the first country in Asia to have special Mail Carriages, complete with horses. These horse drawn mail carriages connected the various villages. With the advent of the first rail service from Colombo to Ambepussa in 1865, mail could be taken by train which was faster. One of the first mail baskets painted in red, used for this service is kept at the Postal Head Office.

Stamps are synonymous with letters. The world’s first postage stamp was created by Sir Roland Hill in May 1840. The stamp depicted an image of Queen Victoria. The first postage stamp in Ceylon was released on April 1, 1857. The use of stamps saw the use of the postal stampers - wooden stamping instruments, which ‘cancelled’ the new stamps. Wax seals were used for larger parcels and official mail. The first stamp with the word Sri Lanka was released in 1972.

The year1857 was a year of advancement in terms of connectivity. For the first time the Ceylonese were able to send and receive telegrams. This was a welcome move as it was faster than letters.

The first telegraphic lines were installed from Colombo to Galle and Colombo to Kandy. Young men and women were recruited and trained to learn the codes that were belted out on the metal devices, which in turn had to be encrypted. Postal deliverymen now had to cycle more often than before, and news got round faster. During this era the Post Office was the heart of information.

Government notices were printed and sent for display on the bulletin boards at the Post Office. All types of notices were put up, including the arrival of steam ships. These steam ships docked at the Colombo Harbour, and delivered parcels and letters from London and the Netherlands. The arrival of the ships caused a huge public gathering at the Colombo Port.

Pillar boxes, mail trains and airplanes

Mr. Kariyaperuma, Curator at the Postal Headquarters showed me an old poster dated 1929, which announced the visit of the steam ship RMS Osterley, which would sail to Melbourne, Sydney and New Zealand from Colombo. The agents were Whittall & Co. Some of the mail delivery steam ships that came to Colombo were from Peninsula & Orient, Rolando Lloyds, British-Indian Navigation and Organdies Line of Japan.

As the British administration realized the growing demand for letters and telegrams they set up the magnificent building which houses the GPO, in 1895. The GPO was truly the heart of Ceylon, at that time. Prior to this the area was a stone quarry before it was requisitioned for the GPO. At this stage there were 50 Post Offices in Ceylon and young men began to show a liking to commence a postal career, wanting to become Post Masters. The job designation was guaranteed to enhance their matrimonial prospects!

A familiar sight in the major cities were bright red ‘pillar boxes’- where people deposited their letters. Some of these sturdy cast iron boxes are on display at the Postal Headquarters. Kariyaperuma and his assistant Sampath point out the different styles of these red boxes and their emblems which depict the period of Victoria Regime (VR), Edward Regime (ER) and George Regime (GR).

These pillar boxes were made in England by two companies, Mc Duwall Steven Ltd and W. T. Allen and Co. Some of these postal relics can be found in Kandy, Galle and Nuwara-Eliya.

New momentum in the train service opened a new avenue for mail. Kariyaperuma points to an old map which shows rail routes, and explained, “By 1914 most mainline trains had a T.P.O Wagon – a travelling post office. This is why some trains are still called night mail service. Postal sacks full of letters are sorted out on the moving train, and given to Station Masters at main stations. The night mail train connected the rural areas to the Colombo city. Another important feat of 1914 was the extension of mail service to England via India. Remember there were no foreign flights to Ceylon. Postal staff would travel from Colombo to Mannar by train, and from Talai Mannar to Danashkody (India) by connecting train. Letters were given to a collection centre which in turn dispatched them to London by flight. For the first time mail could be sent to London in seven days!’

December 1936 was a golden day for communication in Ceylon. The first air mail aircraft (a seaplane) of the Indo-Ceylon Flight Service touched down, bearing the first air mail letter to one Mr. Ameresinghe of De Alwis Place, Dehiwela. It was surprising to find that even Australia didn’t have air mail delivery until a few years later.

In the golden era of telecommunication it was the Postal Service that introduced telephones to Ceylon. In 1938 undersea telegraph cables were successfully laid (direct lines) from Colombo to the Port of Aden, Seychelles and Penang (Malaysia). The early telephones were given to post offices, hospitals and police stations. People had to come to the local Post Office and request to make a phone call. It was only in 1970 that mechanical auto phone exchanges enhanced our phone networks.

The way forward

In 1947 Ignatius Perera was the first Sri Lankan to be appointed Post Master General. Today, there are 640 main Post Offices and 3,600 sub-Post Offices in Sri Lanka. They sell almost 300 million stamps annually. Around 400 men sort our post at the Central Mail Exchange working on 24 hour rosters.

Even remote islands such as Delft have a Post Office, where mail is brought by boat. People have services such as EMS and Speed Post courier, and even pensions are paid to retired persons via the Post Office.

Many assume that email and other digital communications have reduced postal delivery. This is true only in the context of personal letters. A spokesman for the Sri Lanka Post said, there is an increase in foreign mail/parcels coming to the country as many have resorted to online shopping. Thus, the postal service will remain a vital stakeholder in communication and connectivity.