Sound and vision blog

09 October 2023

Recording of the week: Vintage voice notes from a remote island

Vintage postcard showing a wood siding building with two steps and one window. Sign above steps and walkway reads: Pitcairn Island General Post Office. Sign at top of building near roof reads: British halmark (C, R). People sitting on steps and leaning against outer wall. Pole leaning on wall in front of window. Second building next to post office with three pillars and porch, two doorways, people sitting on porch, dog on ground, trees in background.
Postcard of Pitcairn Island post office, dating to the 1940s. Public domain.

I’ve chosen this recording of the week to celebrate World Post day, which marks the anniversary of the creation of the Universal Postal Union. The Union was established to create and maintain a postal system for the free flow of mail around the world, enabling global communication by connecting faraway places.

There’s no better collection to illustrate that than the John Kenrick Ellis Collection. This consists of 11 open-reel message tapes sent from Pitcairn Island – a rugged and isolated volcanic outcrop in the southern Pacific Ocean, and one of the most remote civilian communities on the planet. The messages were recorded in the late 1950s by Roy Palmer Clark, the post-master of the island. His friend John Kenrick Ellis, residing in California, had sent him an open reel tape recorder so that they may record and post messages, and hear each other’s voices over the vast distance.

Roy Palmer Clark grew up in San Francisco, and travelled to Pitcairn Island in 1909 with his father. At the time of these recordings, the island had 142 inhabitants. The majority of this small community directly descends from a group of 18th-century settlers: nine British mutineers from the HMS Bounty and 17 Tahitian women and men (plus a baby girl) who in 1790 sought refuge in this isolated location.

Whilst his father later returned to America, Roy stayed to raise a family on the island. He served for a time as a teacher at the school, and a head elder in the church, eventually becoming the very first post-master in 1940. In October 1940 the very first Pitcairn Island stamps were issued, and in 1941 a small post office was established in main square of the island, Adamstown. In 1957 the post-master deemed it necessary to expand, and a new post office, which is still used today, was built in the early 1960s.

Many of the recordings in this collection describe living conditions on the island, and notable events - such as someone being injured by a falling mango, or a supposedly-shipwrecked man on a nearby uninhabited island. In amongst these news updates there are descriptions of what it’s like to run the postal service in such a remote and isolated location.

The only way mail to the island can be delivered and collected is via passing ships – to this day the island has no landing strip. In the 1950s, this was by passenger and cargo ships travelling from New Zealand to England, run by the New Zealand Shipping Company. The RMS Rangitiki, as mentioned in these reels, stopped off at Pitcairn Island for a 2 hour pit stop to break the monotony of the long crossing, also allowing islanders to trade goods and souvenirs with passengers.  In this clip Roy Palmer Clark recounts how poor weather affected the landing of the Rangitiki – you really get a sense of how important this event was to the isolated community.

Listen to Roy Palmer Clark describe the visit from RMS Rangitiki

Download Transcript of Roy Palmer Clark describing the visit from the RMS Rangitiki

Black and white photograph of a large cargo ship, the RMS Rangitiki
RMS Rangitiki post-1957 refit. Public domain. 


The establishment of the postal service not only brought about a consistent route for post, but it also created an important revenue stream through the sale of stamps. This was the main impetus of the British government, who at that time wanted colonies to be self-sufficient. The organisation overseeing the manufacture and distribution of postage stamps to Pitcairn was known as the Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations. The British Library hold important proofs and artwork from this organisation in the Crown Agents Philatelic and Security Printing Archives.

This clip includes a description of a mistake in a stamp, which Roy presumed would be withdrawn and therefore more valuable!

Listen to Roy Palmer Clark talk about the error in the 4d stamp

Download Transcript of Roy Palmer Clark talking about the error in the 4d stamp

Blue and red stamp with HRH Queen Elizabeth II's profile and a vignette of a wooden building and vegetation. Caption says 'Pitcairn School'.
Proof of the Pitcairn Islands 1957-1963 Definitive Issue 4d stamp titled ‘Pitcairn School’, approved 28 September 1956.

 

Blue and red stamp with HRH Queen Elizabeth II's profile and a vignette of a wooden building and vegetation. Caption says 'Schoolteacher's House''.
Proof of the Pitcairn Islands 1957-1963 Definitive Issue 4d stamp titled ‘Pitcairn School House, ’approved 6 December 1957.

 

Blue and red stamp with HRH Queen Elizabeth II's profile and a vignette of a wooden building and vegetation. Caption says 'Schoolteacher's House''.
Proof of the Pitcairn Islands 1957-1963 Definitive Issue 4d stamp titled ‘Schoolteacher’s House,’ approved 28 January 1958.


The particular stamps he refers to in the recording are the type one and two 4d stamps of the Pitcairn Islands, 2 July 1957-1963 Definitive Issue. Designed and manufactured by Thomas De La Rue and Company using a recess printing process, these images from the Crown Agents Philatelic and Security Printing Archive Proof Boxes within the British Library’s Philatelic Collections reveal the confusion surrounding an accurate title for the stamp vignette.

The recording of Roy Palmer Clark is from August 1957 – it would take another few months before the proof was updated and then a few more until it was finally correct on the third attempt. What might seem like small editorial infelicities to some were very noteworthy events for the post-master. Stamps issued by Pitcairn Island were very popular for collectors, and profits from their sale supported the island’s regular costs – among them constructing a school and hiring a professional teacher from New Zealand. At one point sales of stamps accounted for a massive two thirds of the island’s entire revenue.

If you’d like to listen to more details of events on Pitcairn Island the full recording of the audio message, and the full collection are both available online.

More details about the Crown Agents Philatelic and Security Printing Archives can be sought from the Philatelic collection.

Today’s selection comes from Fiona Stubbings, Web Sounds Producer.

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