Letters from Newfoundland hitch-hike on flights into history

Published on March 10, 2014
The collectible “cover” carried by the sea-plane Viking from Hopedale to Boston from where it was forwarded to Rev. Canon Rusted in Carbonear. — Submitted image

Newfoundland’s doorstep position on the Atlantic with the North American continent at its back makes it an ideal takeoff point if you want to climb aboard a frail flying machine and roar and sputter your way to Europe.

Fuelled by the fascination with manned flight, a frenzied part of our history commenced with the windup of The Great War. Alcock and Brown were the first to fly over the Atlantic (in their repurposed craft which was actually designed to bomb people). There was an earlier attempt — by one month. That one, with its little packet of privileged letters, contributed to postage stamp history even if the event resulted in too close an encounter with the briny deep.

Another of our unique postage experiences occurred 11 years later when a seaplane water-hopped from Hopedale, Labrador to Boston. It too carried a small packet of letters.

Today’s column concerns two highly prized, stamped and scribbled envelopes, which hitchhiked rides on those flights. The impetus to do this column came from Gerald Lodge of St. John’s, to whose stamp collection these two historic “covers” (envelopes) belong.

The first event, when Harry Hawker and Kenneth Mackenzie-Grieve attempted to cross the Atlantic in a Rolls-Royce-powered Sopwith, ended in a mid-Atlantic ditching. It was May 1919 and from that trial was salvaged a cache of letters that must be said to have come through one of the world’s most eventful mail carrying experiences.  

Ahead of Alcock and Brown by about a month, Hawker and Mackenzie-Grieve lifted off from St. John’s in their biplane at around 7 on the evening of May 18. At 9:30 the next morning, they ditched in the Atlantic, but thankfully near the Danish ship Mary. The ship was east-bound. The flyers were rescued but their plane remained, bobbing like a buoy. Yet it was destined to be pulled from the water four days later by an American vessel which was to put into Falmouth, England.

The plane’s bag of letters was soaked but still retrievable from the tail, which had been flagged with a white shirt. The salvaging ship cabled that it was likely the flyers had been able to stay near the plane at least long enough to do this.

Now, as the Mary carried no wireless, the world knew nothing of the flyers’ fate, but believed them lost. Eight days after their departure from St. John’s, when the Mary reached Scotland and a location where a cable could be sent, the mystery was solved. The two men were safe!

In the meantime, the plane’s letters, removed from the bag and painstakingly cared for aboard the American ship, ultimately reached England. Included among the letters were some sent by Newfoundland Gov. Charles Harris, and other dignitaries.

Especially for the flight, a quantity of our three-cent caribou stamps had been overprinted “First trans-Atlantic Air Post, April 1919.” They had been prepared for the intended April start, delayed some days until mid-May.

One of the governor’s letters was to his wife in London. A somewhat cryptic letter, it reads as if it was written principally for the historic aspect:


Government House

St. John’s


11 April 19


My Darling Wife

This with a few other letters, possible the unknown.  It may be a day or two in St. John’s, and then it will start off on the first attempt at a journey in the air across the Atlantic.

Two adventurous men, Commander Grieve R.N. and Mr. Hawker (Pilot) will make the attempt to fly across the Atlantic to Ireland, and perhaps on to London, in a Sopwith Machine. If you have time and feel up to it, you would like to have them to dinner. You could hear of them at the Aero Club, and you would be interested in meeting them. Especially Commander Grieve. A quiet unassuming gentleman. They have just sent me, to say they may be off any hour now.


Good bye

Your Husband



The envelope is simply addressed to Lady Harris, 147 Victoria St., London, SW. The stamp is, as I have noted, an over-printed three-cent “Caribou.”

The stamped back of the envelope is critically important to collectors. Here, it shows that the letter was found open (or torn) but was officially secured and stamped when received in London.

Stamp catalogues will show the value of this “cover” as $35,000.

Another  stamped envelope of great interest was one of a select number that travelled on Donald MacMillan’s seaplane from the Labrador coast to Boston in late summer 1931.

MacMillan was an American who engaged in ethnological research on the Labrador coast. He did much more than that, however, pioneering in many directions. Wikipedia carries a fascinating account of his long and rich life.

MacMillan sailed yearly to the coast, usually with students (he was associated with Bowdoin College, Maine). On the 1931 visit, he carried a Fairchild seaplane aboard his boat. Late in August, the plane lifted off from the water at Hopedale. On board was a packet of approved mail bound for Boston.

One of the Moravian missionaries at Hopedale served as postmaster. Postage included the airplane and dog team 15-cent Newfoundland air mail stamp (our first designed air mail stamp, it was produced in January 1931; all previous air mail stamps had been over-prints of our regular stamps) and a three-cent Newfoundland George V and Mary.

Back-stamping confirms that six of the letters completed the Hopedale-Boston trip. Of the quantity of mail carried by the seaplane, only those six pieces were so stamped. Why is open to conjecture. The six were addressed to Rev. Canon Rusted then serving the Church of England at Carbonear. An avid and well-known stamp collector, his special covers were back-stamped as having arrived in Carbonear.

These prized “covers” have copious markings on them. In addition to the two stamps there were the autographs of MacMillan and his navigator, Charles Rockwell; there was a blue “By Air Mail” sticker, a handwritten inscription by MacMillan, “Per sea-plane ‘Viking,’” a Hopedale impression “First official air mail from Hopedale, Labrador to Boston, U.S.A.,” and, of course, the address.

Catalogues give their value at $2,250.

These are amazing items. You study them and marvel over their part in our exciting experience with early flight. These are pieces of mail which hitched a ride in order to become part of history.


Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.