Features home

International airmail

Royal Mail / 02 September 2016

We have recreated the first scheduled, international, commercial airmail flight from the UK to Paris.

The first proving flight for a cross-channel commercial route was made by Lt Henry 'Jerry' Shaw, chief pilot of Aircraft Transport and Travel in 1919, just under 100 years ago. Within thirty years of this flight, Britain would become the world’s largest carrier of airmail.

To mark this occasion, a vintage biplane flew from Headcorn Airfield in Kent to Le Touquet in France. The aircraft carried a symbolic bag of mail which included letters from UK schoolchildren as well as a personal letter from Moya Greene, CEO of Royal Mail Group to Philippe Wahl, CEO of La Poste, before returning with another batch of mail in the late afternoon.

The Tiger Moth crossed the channel and was greeted by French postal workers from La Poste on landing.

The sortie pays tribute to the UK’s first scheduled, international flight to carry mail for the general public. In 1919, Lt Henry 'Jerry' Shaw, chief pilot of Aircraft Transport and Travel, flew the first commercial flight across the English Channel in a de Havilland DH.9 biplane. The aircraft took off at RAF Hendon to land in Paris-Le Bourget in a journey that took 2 hours and 30 minutes and cost £21 per passenger, the equivalent of more than £1,000 today.

This historic flight was the forerunner to the first scheduled airmail service between England and France. On November 10 1919, Aircraft Transport and Travel carried the first international airmail from Hounslow to Paris in an Airco DH4A de Havilland biplane, flight number G-EAHF, with a Royal Mail pennant proudly attached to its rudder.

Royal Mail recreated the flight in another de Havilland biplane, a DH82 Tiger Moth as a tribute to those early pioneers of aviation who braved often difficult conditions to get mail overseas. The pilots were under some pressure to deliver the mail on time given the several variables that could lead to delays including high winds and inclement weather. With unheated, open cockpits and before the age of radio, pilots would rely on compasses for navigation as well as following landmarks such as railway lines to ensure they were on track.

“Royal Mail owes a great debt of gratitude to those early aviators who often took their lives in their hands to ensure that the mail was delivered safely to overseas destinations,” said Royal Mail CEO Moya Greene. “This flight pays tribute to those pioneers of the skies while underlining the entente cordiale that exists between Royal Mail and its French counterpart La Poste as we continue to oil the wheels of commerce between our two countries. Today airmail is of course very much a core part of Royal Mail’s operation, ensuring we deliver mail as quickly as possible to destinations around the world.”

The aircraft, K4259, was originally allocated to the Royal Air Force on November 24, 1934 at Kenley. During the Second World War, RAF pilots learned to fly in the Tiger Moth before progressing to other aircraft such as the Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster. 

K4259 was issued to 1 Armament Support Unit (ASU) on February 21, 1936 before issue to 24 squadron 11 fighter group on the 5th June 1937. Its next unit was based at Gatwick and it then served with a succession of training units throughout the war such as 10 EFTS and 22 EFTS. It ended its service at 12 MU where it was sold to Mr A. J. Whitmore on the 1st December 1953 and registered as G-ANMO on the 22nd January 1954. Aero Legends Ltd acquired the aircraft in 2014.

The history of airmail

The RAF initially played a key role in delivering airmail to troops who were based overseas in a joint venture between the Royal Air Force and the British Army Post Office (BAPO).

As volumes of letters and interest in sending international air mail grew, the postal service launched in 1930 blue airmail postboxes that were designed to advertise the new airmail service. Airmail postboxes had much later and more extensive posting times than regular postboxes, and postage rates were higher than standard post. By 1936, there were 139 airmail boxes in London and 174 in other towns and cities due to the expansion of the advertising of the service.

The letters they collected were sorted into bags by the Air Mail Division of the postal service and taken in special blue “Royal Air Mail Service” vans to Croydon airport where the enormous four-engined biplanes of Imperial Airways ferried the mail overseas.

In the mid-thirties postal charges were simplified causing the volume of airmails to leap from 120 million tons to just short of 190 million tons. This gave rise to the launch of the Empire Air Mail Scheme in 1935 which abolished postal surcharges for the whole of the British Empire. A minimum flat rate of 1½d resulted in the number of airmail letters roughly doubling annually.

From a starting point of 10 million airmail letters per year in 1935, numbers doubled annually, reaching over 91 million in 1938.

Today Royal Mail’s Heathrow Worldwide Distribution Centre handles all international air mail leaving the UK, despatching around 700,000 items a night, using seven miles of conveyor systems.  The fully automated centre has a floor area of 40,000 square metres, around the size of six football pitches. Royal Mail exports to 221 destinations using scheduled flights of 55 airlines from London Heathrow and London Gatwick airports.

Most Viewed

You might also like...

View all