Royal Reels: Gambling


This cover was at an auction site and was particularly well documented as a Boer War cover with no letter included, from an Australian soldier, with manuscript “On active service” to an Australian schoolboy. It was sent by H. Gordon No. 239, B Squadron, Victorian Infantry Regiment and was properly countersigned by his Commanding Officer Captain Fredk G. Purcell of the V.I.R. The vendor states that there is another manuscript “no stamp available” and this was not seen. The stampless cover has a fine squared circle of MAFEKING/ SP 14/ 00/ C.G.H. (Cape of Good Hope). There is a large oval ‘T 1D’ tax marking as well as a bicolor 1d Victorian postage due stamp with a ‘killer’ barred numeral ‘1‘. The cover is addressed to S.M, Bruce Esqre, C.E.G. School, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. The cover has a blue crayon re-direct of S. Yarra, and there was no mention of the recipient by the vendor (Figure 1).

The Seige of Mafeking was the most famous British action in the Anglo-Boer War. It took place at the town of Mafeking (now Mafikeng) in South Africa over a period of 217 days, from October 1899 to May 1900, and turned Robert Baden-Powell into a national hero. The Siege of Mafeking was a decisive victory for the British and a crushing defeat for the Boers.

Australians were involved in the Boer War (1899-1902) alongside the British, New Zealanders and Canadians, and the two Australians mentioned on the cover survived the conflict. They have been identified as Corporal Hy Gordon and Lieutenant Frederick George Purcell, both of the 4th Imperial Contingent. S.M. Bruce is well known as Stanley Melbourne Bruce and the Church of England Grammar School, Melbourne, still flourishes as the Melbourne Grammar School since its opening in 1857. Stanley Bruce has to be one of its most illustrious students, and he has been commemorated in 1972 as one of the four Australian Prime Ministers on the 7 cent stamps issued as booklets (Fig. 2).

Stanley Melbourne Bruce (1883-1967) was born in Melbourne into a wealthy family and in 1901 he went to England to study law at Cambridge University, returning to Australia in 1917. He was approached by the Nationalist Party in 1918 and he won the seat of Flinders in Victoria. In 1921 he was appointed Treasurer by the P.M. Billy Hughes and in 1923 he replaced Hughes as party leader and P.M., forming a coalition with the Country Party. Bruce’s Government fostered increasing the power of the Federal Government over the States; he presided over a period of economic stability and sought to promote business enterprise. As part of this policy, he tried in 1929 to dismantle the Commonwealth Arbitration Court, and this unpopular initiative led to the fall of his Government.

At the following election his party was defeated, and Bruce became the only Australian P.M. to lose his own seat at an election. He was High Commissioner to London in 1933-1945 and a member of the British War Cabinet from 1942. He was created the lst Viscount Bruce of Melbourne in 1947 and lived in London until his death in 1967. A formal photo is shown in Figure 3.

Judith Mein of the Melbourne Grammar School confirmed him as a student : he was a prefect as well as a cadet lieutenant in 1899-1901; he was a very involved student in many activities (debating prize, cricket XI, champion athlete, Australian Rules football XVIII and rowing fours). His sporting ability was continued at Cambridge where he received a rowing blue, and later coached the Cambridge crew in 1911. He received degrees at Cambridge (Law), plus honorary degrees at Sydney, Melbourne, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Toronto, Oxford and Leeds. He was involved in important overseas meetings including one as president of the Special Committee of the League of Nations aimed at the reform of the League.

The letter to S.M. Bruce possibly narrated the heroic exploits of the Australian Bushmen during the siege at Elands River in August 1900. The Australian triumph at Elands River was the equivalent in 1900 of Tobruk in WW2 in1941. From July 1900 the 4th Victorian Imperial Bushmen were engaged in operations in the Western Transvaal. Frequently they would be rested in Mafeking, on the railway line from the Cape to Rhodesia, and from there would operate against Boer units in the vicinity. At the time that the envelope was posted, they had recently been involved in the skirmishes which took place around Ottoshoop in August 1900.

I acknowledge the great assistance of Judith Mein, particularly with Bruce’s schoolboy years. This paper was co-authored with Russell Stern, editor of the N.S.W. Philatelist, in which the paper was published in August 2005, Volume 27, pages 700-701.