Stamp Collecting on Tin Can Island?

Tin Can Mail

By Craig Buggins

A small volcanic island, just 15km2 in size and with a population of under 1000 hardly sounds like a place with a fantastic philatelic history; but Niuafo’ou, or ‘Tin Can Island’ as it’s also known has just that.

Niuafo’ou is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and is the most northerly of the islands which comprises the Kingdom of Tonga. The island suffered from a lack of infrastructure and from the absence of a natural deep water harbour so mail could not be flown or shipped to the inhabitants. This is where its philatelic history stems from as a unique solution to this problem was formed.

A system was devised in the early 1930s where mail was thrown overboard from boats as they passed the island; this mail was then picked up by locals swimming out to collect it and bringing it back to shore in secure linin or tins. Swimmers would go out in all manners of rough seas and devised small rafts carved from mulberry trees which floated in the water to help them bring larger quantities of mail back to shore. The system worked well until a swimmer was fatally bitten by a shark in 1931; after this incident canoes were used to collect the mail.

Two Europeans are associated with the tin can mail service. Charles Ramsey, an Englishman, first brought the service to the attention of the philatelic community and himself became the only European man to swim and collect mail. Walter Quensell, a German who worked for Burns Philp and Co, saw a unique business opportunity and began using special cachets to stamp on outgoing tin can mail. As the service became more popular, collectors began sending in mail by the thousands and cruise ships started flooding into the waters around Niuafo’ou so passengers could have their mail collected by the swimmers. With this huge demand Quensell started designing more and more elaborate cachets which are still highly collectable today. Many of the ships which carried the mail to and from the island began to produce their own cachets which would include the captain and ships details, adding another element to tin can mail collections.

All of the outward tin can mail had to use Tonga postage stamps (although until 1950 the correct spelling for the country was Toga so don’t get confused if you see early stamps spelt this way!) Niuafo’ou has gained such a prominent place in Tonga’s postal history that since 1983 their post office has frequently issued special Niuafo’ou stamps – quite something for an island with such a small population.

The service was halted during World War Two as ships were prioritised for military needs and in 1946 the nearby volcano erupted which caused all the inhabitants to be evacuated. They didn’t return until 1958, with the tin can mail service resuming four years later.

Fortunately for the modern inhabitants of Niuafo’ou, a small airstrip has been built which now brings in mail by more conventional, if not as romantic means.

We have a great range of different tin can mails currently available, please let us know if there is a specific cachet you are looking for.

TCS204C        Tin Can Mail with USA stamps and fantastic range of cachets, our choice  £40


TCS204R        Tin Can Mail with Tonga stamps and great range of cachets, our choice      £40


Buy both for £65

To Order:


Call: 01303 278 137

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1 Response

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