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TIN CAN ISLAND MAIL, TONGA to MASTER W.M. SCRYMGOUR, ADELAIDE

Philatelically inspired mail of this type is not uncommon, but this cover is somewhat unusual for the addressee is a good starting point for researching a family that was associated with a printing company that had a history of 100 years, from 1875 to 1975. The front is adorned with a total of four hand-struck stampings, one in black script, another in green made up of three parts, a purple circular and also a purple 2-line strike. Although the black script states that it was put in the sea on the 11th August 1938, the only legible part of the cancel is a ‘25' on the blue 2½d ‘TOGA’ Queen Salote stamp, issued in 1934. The cover is addressed to Master W.M. Scrymgour, C/o Messrs. Scrymgour & Sons, 115 King Wm. Street, Adelaide, S.A. (Figure 1).

 

The reverse is typically ‘over-the-top’ with eight different hand stamps, multiple colours, designs and languages, typical of the rubber stamps designed by Walter George Quensell who not only had own named circular handstamp, but also had a rubber stamp of his signature ‘Walt Geo Quensell. / T.C. C.M.M.’ The double circle TIN CAN MAIL OFFICE/ NIUAFOOU, TONGA has only a year date of 1938 (Figure 2).

Niuafoou is a tiny volcanic island in the Tonga group which has no safe anchorage from ships and it used unconventional means to receive and send out tin can mail, first used on the island by the European copra (coconut husk) traders. The 40 lb biscuit tins were thrown overboard from passing ships and initially picked up by native swimmers until 1931, when a shark tragedy was the reason for the pick-up being replaced by outrigger crews. Walter George Quensell was one of two European copra traders in the 1920's and 1930's and he was responsible for producing the multiple hand stamped covers.

There was a hiatus of this delivery method when in September 1946 the 1,330 inhabitants were evacuated from the island on account of a violent volcanic eruption. By 1962 the island was repopulated, and Quensell’s son who lived in New Zealand was said to be responsible for some covers. The ships’ captains were said to be responsible for the description of the name of the ship, as on the hand struck script on this cover’s front. One informative source stated that not all covers were purely philatelically inspired, for this method of ‘mailing’ was used for official letters between the Islands of Tonga. Tin can mail continued till 1983, when an air strip was built on the island.

However this paper is about the Adelaide Scrymgour family who operated a printing business from 1875 until at least 1975. George Scrymgour came from an old Scots family, dating back to 1106. The surname comes from the word ‘skirmisher’, meaning that they were hardy fighters. In acknowledgment of this prowess, their armorial bearings include part of the Royal Arms of Scotland.  George arrived in the Colony by the ship Albemarle in 1854 and shortly afterwards took up a position as book-keeper in the firm of Messrs. Beeby & Dunstan, millers.   

In 1875, the firm of Gall and Sheridan was sold to their employee, the engraver and accountant George Scrymgour Senior. The internet is remarkably silent on this man, and the only reference to the company was in July 1878 when the paper Adelaide Punch passed to the large firm of Adelaide printers of Scrymgour & Sons. George’s sons, Edmund and George Junior also entered the business. In 1885, George senior died and George junior retired. There is an obituary in the Observer for George Scrymgour  on page 26a, dated 27 July 1895, stating that George senior died in his 84th year, after ailing for some time.

In 1890, the son of George junior, Bernard senior entered the business and he purchased the business from his uncle Edmund in 1904. Bernard’s son Frederick began there, training as a compositor and linotype operator, and Bernard’s second son Hubert entered the business in 1906, training as a letterpress machinist. In 1925 Bernard senior and his 2 sons signed a partnership agreement. They were working in a leased building in King William Street, Adelaide, the centre of the city. They bought the building in 1928 for £5,500 and the youngest son Bernard junior joined them in 1929.

Frederick died in 1937, and a partnership was signed between his widow Mildred, his brother Hubert, and Bernard senior, the latter dying in 1943. Hubert’s son Wilton entered the business training as a compositor. There were 2 cousins named William who entered the business in 1945, and both of these were a possible candidate for the cover’s addressee, as they were less than 18 in the last year of WW 2, and were schoolboys at the time of the cover. The strong familial involvement of the menfolk was a major factor in the strength and lasting permanence of the firm. In 1955 the printing section of the firm was transferred to a factory at King William Street at Kent Town. In 1975 the firm celebrated its centenary year by publishing Scrymgour 1875-1975.

An interesting find in a purely philatelically inspired cover, and I am indebted to Rose Wilson, Special Programs Officer, State Library of South Australia, Adelaide for summarizing the above named book.


 
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