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Royal Mail marks farewell voyage of RMS St Helena

Royal Mail / 13 June 2016

As part of its celebrations marking 500 years of the postal service, Royal Mail is commemorating the farewell tour of Royal Mail Ship (RMS) St Helena. While two other ships still carry a legacy ‘RM’ designation, RMS St Helena is the only remaining Royal Mail Ship contracted by Royal Mail to carry mail across the seas.

Letters have been carried over the seas firstly to the European continent and beyond since the 1660s, when a regular service ran from Harwich to Holland. The mail was carried on masted sloops, schooners and other vessels, known as packet ships. Contrary to popular belief, Royal Mail did not own the packet ships. Both the ships and crew were contracted, not directly employed by Royal Mail.

Letters and the other goods on board were so important during these times that ships were attacked for their cargo. Working on a Royal Mail Ship was so dangerous that there were official compensation rates for death or injury - £8 for a sailor's arm or leg, £4 for an eye.

While officially the captains of packet ships were forbidden to engage larger ships in battle, in 1793, the packet ship Antelope successfully fired on the French Privateer ‘Atlanta’ until she surrendered. A privateer was a vessel authorised by a government to attack foreign vessels during wartime. Prior to this attack, the Antelope had been captured twice before, by the French, and ransomed back to the English. The crew successfully defended the mail and the packets on board and were hailed as heroes when they arrived back in England.

Further abroad, during the American War of Independence in 1777, of the 14 packet ships delivering mail to North America, ten were captured and two were damaged. A further 27 boats were also captured.

Steam-driven packet ships were first used to deliver mail across the British Empire in 1821. This led to the founding of the Royal Mail Ship designation (RMS) in 1840. Only ships which were contracted to carry mail were allowed to feature the designation. The ships proved popular with passengers as they ran to strict timetables to ensure that mail was delivered on time.

Royal Mail did not own the ships; it began to contract both ships and crew. One of the first contracts awarded was The City of Dublin Steam Packet Company in the mid-1800s. They operated the service between Ireland and Wales. However, probably the company most associated with RMS is The White Star Line group, which is now known as Cunard. White Star Line Group ran famous mail-carrying passenger liners such as the RMS Queen Mary, the RMS Olympic, the RMS Carpathia and even the ill-fated RMS Titanic.

The current RMS St Helena, which is owned by St Helena government, set sail from Cardiff to the island 26 years ago. Since then it has undertaken 243 round trips, covering more than 1.1 million miles and carrying thousands of letters and parcels to and from the island.

A very special pen-pal exchange

Royal Mail is celebrating what is believed to be the final London call of RMS St Helena, with a very special pen-pal exchange.

The company has arranged for 35 10-11 year old school children from St Helena and Cardiff - from where the ship made its maiden voyage - to exchange letters about their ‘typical day’.

The letters will give the children – who live over 4,672 miles apart – a glimpse into how different their lives are. With very limited internet access, letters are the main communication channels for the 4,255 residents of the island and their friends and family overseas.

The 35 letters from St Paul’s Primary, Pilling Primary and Harford Primary School in St Helena made their way to the UK aboard RMS St Helena. Once the ship had docked near Tower Bridge, the pupils from Mount Stuart School in Cardiff climbed aboard and handed their letters to the Captain. He is now accompanying the mail back to the island.

Lynne Berriman, acting headteacher at Mount Stuart Primary School in Cardiff, said: “The children were so excited to be involved in such a fascinating project. They are so inquisitive about the wider world and this fabulous exchange has given them the chance to discover first-hand how different peoples’ lives can be.”

Kedell Worboys MBE, St Helena Government UK Representative, said: “It is great that Royal Mail has marked final London call of the RMS St Helena. We have had a RMS St Helena serving St Helena for nearly 40 years. The current RMS, which was purpose built to serve the island, has been in operation for the last 26 years.

“As one of the most isolated islands in the world a lot of communication is done by letters. This means the arrival of the ship is eagerly awaited by the population - waiting to receive letters and parcels.”

David Gold, director of public affairs at Royal Mail, said: “Over the last 500 years, the postal service has provided an invaluable communications channel for those in the UK and across the globe. We are delighted to be marking one of the final journeys of this unique ship. I feel certain that letters will continue to play a vital role in the lives of residents of this remote British overseas territory.”

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