World Stamps

Lundy’s curious philatelic past: Puffins, pirates and local post stamps

May 1, 2021, 3 AM

By Christer Brunstrom

Collectors frequently have deja-vu experiences when visiting foreign countries, when they recognize buildings or scenery from their stamp albums.

This is exactly what happened to me when I spent a week on the island of Lundy in early 2014.

This tiny island is located in the Bristol Channel, about a third of the distance from Devon, England, to south Wales.

It has a resident population of about 30 people, who work very hard to welcome the many thousands of tourists who visit the island each year.

Visitors usually travel on board the MS Oldenburg, Lundy’s own motorized ferry, which has served the island well for many years. The Oldenburg’s 50th anniversary was marked by several Lundy local post issues in 2008.

During the winter months, Lundy can be reached only by helicopter.

Lundy has a very long history, with archaeological evidence back to Neolithic times. It is believed that its name derives from the Norse words lunde and ey, which can be translated as “puffin island.”

Indeed, there was a time when thousands of puffins nested on the island.

Following near extinction, and thanks to the Seabird Recovery Project, Lundy’s best-known birds are slowly returning, with several hundred counted last year, including several dozen breeding pairs.

In the 13th century, Lundy was home to the Marisco family, some of whom sought refuge on the island as fugitives following criminal acts associated with King Henry III.

With its steep and rocky coastline, the island always had been difficult to access (until today, thanks to construction of a jetty), and it made a good sanctuary.

William de Marisco finally was captured and executed in a most cruel manner. King Henry had a castle built on the island in 1244 to try to establish his power over the region; somewhat ironically, it is known as Marisco Castle. Today, this medieval stronghold has been converted into three vacation flats.

For centuries, Lundy was used by pirates, smugglers and all kinds of ruffians. In many ways the island was a semi-autonomous country.

It had private ownership, which changed frequently over the centuries, but for most of the 19th century it was owned by the Heaven family, after William Hudson Heaven bought it in 1834 as a summer retreat.

Many buildings on the island date from the time of the Heaven family, including a church near the village: St. Helena’s, shown here, was established in 1897, and it is still occasionally being used today.

The waters around the island are quite treacherous. In fact, there are 137 documented shipwrecks along the Lundy coastline.

The most spectacular wreck occurred in 1906, when a Royal Navy battleship, HMS Montagu, ran aground on the rocks in a heavy fog. There were no casualties, but the ship could not be saved.

Visitors arrived by the thousands to have a look at the wreck, and scuba divers still visit the remains on the seabed.

Numerous picture postcards were printed at the time to sell to the visitors, and this unfortunate event marked the beginning of Lundy as a popular tourist destination.

Quite early on, those using the island realized that a lighthouse was needed, and a foundation for one was begun in 1787.

The granite tower known as the Old Light was finally built atop one of the hills in 1819, but its warning lights often were fogged in and could not be seen by seafarers coming too close to Lundy.

It was decided to establish a battery where a cannon was fired whenever the weather was foggy, but eventually two new lighthouses at each end of the island went into operation. In 1897 the Old Light was abandoned as a working lighthouse.

Today, Lundy’s lighthouses are fully automated, but the Old Light remains as a historic property, and from the top of its tower you have a wonderful view of the entire island.

In 1924, London millionaire financier Martin Coles Harman (1885-1954) acquired the entire island and declared himself “King of Lundy.”

The General Post Office had maintained a postal agency on Lundy, but closed it in 1927. For the next two years, Harman made arrangements to carry the mail between the mainland and the island free of charge, but found this service to be too costly.

In 1929 he decided to start a local post linking the island with the mainland, and issued stamps for it beginning Nov. 1, 1929. Harman’s project has functioned perfectly well ever since, and the Lundy Post Office is, in fact, the oldest privately operated local post in the world. 

Needing someone to administer the postal affairs of the island, Harman appointed Felix W. Gade as agent and local postmaster.

Gade fell in love with Lundy and ran the post office for a great many years. Harman and Gade are depicted on a souvenir sheet issued in 2004 to mark the 75th anniversary of the local post.

The initial 1929 local post stamps depicted puffin birds. They are denominated in the local currency, the puffin, which is equivalent to the British penny.

In fact, half a puffin is depicted on the ½-puffin stamp, one bird on the 1p stamp, and so on. The choice of currency unit reflects the fact that puffins often were used in the barter trade on the island in the old days.

Airmail was introduced on Lundy in the 1930s. The top of the island is quite flat, and it was easy to convert a field into a landing strip.

The airline printed special airmail labels that were used in addition to Lundy stamps. The flights were terminated at the beginning of World War II, but were resumed soon after the war.

Today, a helicopter service serves the island during the winter period, using a simple heliport a few hundred meters from the village.

During World War II, Lundy issued a number of overprinted stamps to mark different anniversaries. Some of these issues are quite uncommon.

The rarest of all is the 1940 Red Cross overprint; only 967 examples were sold of the high-denomination 12p+12p stamp.

The 1950s and 1960s were a period of excess in Lundy’s stamp production. There were several sets with printings of 500,000 — by far exceeding actual postal need.

They were mostly sold to the trade and filled the stamps-on-approval selections of the time.

That said, I particularly like the 1954 pictorial set featuring views of the island, and this set was my introduction to Lundy philately way back in the early 1960s.

The designs of the 1954 pictorials were the work of John Dyke, a talented North Devon artist. Dyke then went on to design most of Lundy’s stamps well into the new century.

For the past 15 years or so, Swedish collector Lars Liwendahl has helped to create most of the island’s stamp issues.

A Lundy stamp issued June 25, 2014, commemorates the 100th birthday of John Pennington Harman (1914-44) and the 70th anniversary of his death in India in World War II.

Lance Corporal Harman, the oldest son of Martin Coles Harman, was killed while trying to overrun a Japanese machine gun position and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British military distinction for bravery.

When I visited the island in March 2014, one of John Harman’s sisters had been discreetly campaigning for a stamp commemorating her brother. She is the Grand Old Lady of Lundy, and it was difficult to ignore her wishes.

I took part in the late-night meeting in the island’s pub, where it was decided to issue the commemorative stamp, which was designed by Swedish commercial artist Jan-Erik Wellerfors.

The Harmans, the last private family to own Lundy, sold the island to the National Trust in 1969. It was immediately turned over to the Landmark Trust, which still administers Lundy.

A set of nine Lundy issues this year paid honor to the Landmark Trust’s 50th anniversary, with three of the stamps showing Lundy buildings.

Some 20,000 visitors come to Lundy each year. Many spend just a few hours on the island, and probably most of that time in the Marisco Inn, a historic building housing the island’s pub and restaurant, depicted on a Lundy stamp as the Marsico Tavern.

Lundy possesses a very special atmosphere — no television, no daily newspapers and no stress. The use of mobile phones in the pub is forbidden, and any transgressions are subject to a £1 fine.

Instead, the island provides peace and quiet and long walks where one continuously gets glimpses of the local wildlife, including Soay sheep, feral goats, Sika deer, ponies and other animals.

Visitors should be prepared for changeable weather conditions; sturdy shoes and warm clothes are essential.

I spent almost a week on the island, but only managed to explore the southern part. I spent some of the week enlisted as assistant postmaster, helping to cancel a large number of regular mail items and a plethora of philatelic souvenir items produced in connection with the meeting of the Lundy Collectors’ Club.

It was all great fun. However, the Lundy Postal Service is a very serious operation that provides essential services for both the local population and visiting tourists.

The Lundy Postal Service currently charges 10 puffins (about 15¢) to carry a card or letter to the mainland. However, no British stamps are available on the island to pay for ongoing service, so a meter machine is used to show payment of the Royal Mail fee. There is a rate schedule that includes the Royal Mail cost.

Because users of meter-mark machines receive a significant discount from the regular rates, the Lundy Postal Service rates are quite advantageous.

Shown here is a 2013 letter to Sweden, at a Lundy rate of 89 puffins, with 79 pence paying the Royal Mail rate to Europe. The cover was carried by helicopter to the mainland.

Sadly, I didn’t see a single puffin, as my visit was long before they arrive in the spring to breed on the cliffy coastline. It was also far too early in the year to experience the blooming of the unique Lundy cabbage, which is endemic to the island.

As local post issues, Lundy stamps are not listed in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, but catalogs such as the Stamps of Lundy Island, an illustrated guide and handbook by Stanley Newman (1984), or Labbe’s Specialized Guide to Lundy Island Stamps, published beginning in 2005, will be helpful to collectors.