THE WORLD'S FIRST OFFICIAL POST BY AEROPLANE
ALLAHABAD, INDIA, SATURDAY 18th FEBRUARY 1911
Mail had been carried by air much earlier than 1911, notably in balloons from Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 and in Zeppelin airships in Germany. It had also on occasions been taken aloft unofficially in aeroplanes in the first decade of the 20th century. But the first official post by aeroplane was organised as part of an exhibition in India in February 1911.
Detailed accounts of this event are sparse in books on the air posts of the world, possibly because the event was arranged at quite short notice and as part of a large national exhibition in the city of Allahabad, in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh.
Mail flown on this special flight, a one-off journey, bore a special postmark. Some 5,000 to 6,500 items are said to have been flown. Included were about 40 to 50 large-size postcards which had been specially printed and signed by the French pilot, Henri Péquet. These "official" cards are now rare.
"THE UNITED PROVINCES EXHIBITION"
Exhibitions had been held in India in the early part of the 20th century, but generally under the auspices of the Indian National Congress. In 1908, a large exhibition had been held at Nagpur, and this led to a number of influential people supporting a proposal for an even larger exhibition. It was decided that this should be held in the central part of northern India, in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. Unfortunately, the failure of the rains, and consequent famine and plague, meant that plans had to be put in abeyance. In 1909, however, plenty of rain fell, justifying the belief that the time had come to carry out the project.
The Lieutenant-Governor of the United Provinces, Sir John Prescott Hewett, gave his support, and an informal meeting was held at Allahabad in 1909, attended by representatives of wealthy land-owners, manufacturers, and of the professions, from all parts of the United Provinces. This was followed by a public meeting on 29th July 1909, attended by some 700 people, including maharajas and judges. The meeting enthusiastically endorsed the idea for an exhibition, and a large sum of money was subscribed on the spot. Committees and sub-committees soon got to work, and the Government offered help by delegating officers to assist by supplying expert and technical knowledge.
Allahabad, the capital of the province, was agreed as the site, a wise choice as it is situated in the middle of a populous area. It also had another advantage: in January each year, the great Hindu bathing-festival of Magh Mela was held on the eastern edge of the city on the river banks where the two sacred rivers, the Ganges and the Jumna, met together with the mythical river, the Saraswati. It was therefore anticipated that many pilgrims would visit this Exhibition, and maybe take away with them ideas for improvements in the cultivation of their fields and also for village industries which were then coming under threat from machine-made goods.
The site selected was open land, partly used as a military farm, to the west of the Fort on the wide plain on the banks of the river and within sight of the confluence of the blue river Jumna and the muddy-brown Ganges. The only buildings there were the Fort Railway Station and an old ordnance godown. A railway line and sidings were built into the Exhibition itself to facilitate transport of exhibits and materials. The whole area covered 120 acres.
The United Provinces Exhibition was scheduled to open on 1st December 1910, to run for three months, and to close on Tuesday 28th February 1911. The aims, as for so many exhibitions throughout the world, were supposed to be largely educational, but in practice all kinds of sporting events and amusements were also laid on, such as polo tournaments, assault-at-arms, boxing, wrestling, pageants, a scenic railway, a water chute, magic mirrors, a theatre, bioscope performances, and fireworks. Music was provided by bands, and recitals were also given by leading Indian musicians.
All the important buildings were constructed in what was described as the "Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, combining the best of Hindu and Muhammadan art." The effect was generally regarded as being quite picturesque, with the white domes and pinnacles nestling among the green trees. The weather in Allahabad was pleasant at this time of the year, the days being warm and the nights crisp and cool, and so it was possible to accommodate visitors in large tented camps, which were provided around the Exhibition site itself.
The Exhibition duly opened on 1st December 1910. The main approach was from the north through the long lines of the exhibitors' and visitors' tented camps. A handsome gateway led via a quadrangle surrounded by Indian craftsmen at work, to the main avenue with its series of oriental palace-type pavilions. On entering, immediately to the right, was a domed building occupied by the Post & Telegraph Offices, which also contained relevant exhibits. (Another Post & Telegraph Office was also provided for the use of the camps, "in tents outside the Exhibition ground, halfway down the Exhibition road"). The main pavilions followed: the Fine & Applied Arts Courts, a display of railway engines, and Courts for General Industries, Native States, Education, Ladies', Medical & Hygiene, Engineering, Textiles, Forestry, Agriculture, etc.. Then came bandstands, and other distractions and displays - and an aviation ground.
"The Pioneer Mail and Indian Weekly News", which was published in Allahabad, gave interesting accounts of the Exhibition. This paper had gradually become an all-India publication, and it was so well-informed that its pronouncements were often taken as being demi-official. It had a high standard of journalism, and Rudyard Kipling had worked for it as a reporter in 1887 and 1888. In the issue for 9th December 1910, its leading article stated:
"Sir John Hewett has accomplished much that is notable during his official career, but he finished last Thursday with the achievement of the impossible. Exhibition managements all over the world are so invariably found behind-hand with their preparations when the day arrives that the public accepts a large degree of incompleteness at starting as an indispensable feature of this form of enterprise. In many cases, opening day is a well understood formality that merely serves to call attention to the fact that the exhibition is coming along and that people may now begin to think about it seriously. Some impressive speeches are delivered in the midst of empty stalls and unemptied packing cases, a banquet perhaps is eaten, and the gathering disperses to allow staff and exhibitors to get to business in earnest, while the world outside waits the reports of progress to gather when it will be worth while to venture on a visit. Some are less in arrear than others, but that an exhibition should be thrown open to the public fully equipped and furnished as a going concern on the advertised day is unprecedented and a serious violation of all the conventions on the subject. The way in which this singular result has been brought about is characteristic of the methods of the Lieutenant-Governor. The design of the project had been fixed in his mind as a desirable one from long ago; at the earliest moment that the uncertainties of the seasons would admit he decided to have it; taking the public early into his confidence and calling upon skilled counsel from all sides, he arranged all the outlines, and then - he took leave and went away Home. ..... The result has been that the men on the spot have been able to decide matters as they came up for themselves instead of referring them to some one else. ...
Strictly speaking, we suppose, the Exhibition is not a Government enterprise at all. The Government of these Provinces has lent money and has lent the equally indispensable services of its officers, without either of which an undertaking on this scale would have been altogether out of the question in India: but it does not seem to have put itself technically under any responsibility.
Thousands of the professional classes are looking forward eagerly to the coming Christmas holidays which will give them an opportunity of running into Allahabad; and when the holiday public have had their fill of sight-seeing it will be the turn of the country folk who stream in annually by the hundred thousand for the bathing fair in January, and will now find all the attractions of the Exhibition ready for them within a stone's throw of the sacred waters' meet. ...."
In another article, a reporter described his tours of the Exhibition:
"Given a Jumna river-bank, it is no child's task to produce thereon, in a few months, a microcosm of Indian agriculture and forest administration, to summon up here a hall gay with the gorgeous pageantry of India's Native States, there a mansion resplendent with every precious Eastern gem, there a palace laden with the best that India's masters of idea and technique in Art can give to please the sense by form, design and colour. By the sacred river, even objects so familiar to English townsmens' eyes as a Scenic Railway, a water chute, and a hall of distorting mirrors are not to be commanded for the asking, while the feeding of countless multitudes is more problematic than where every other street displays a caterer's sign, and supply is always promptly equal to any abnormal demand. ....."
" The spirit of Happy Friendship ... its home is the United Provinces Exhibition, and in the little temple at its further end, if East be East and West be West, the twain at length have met."
It had been agreed quite early in the planning stage that an aviation meeting should be held as part of the Exhibition, largely with the aim of educating people to this new development in transport. In 1910, Captain Walter George Windham, R.N., (later to be Commander Sir Walter Windham), was invited to bring some aeroplanes from England to take part in the Allahabad events. Windham had joined the Indian Marine in 1884, had been a King's Messenger, and was also involved in motoring. He became very interested in flying and was soon one of the most influential pioneers of aviation. He founded "The Aeroplane Club" in 1908, and in October 1909 had taken part in what was (arguably) the first aviation meeting in Britain at Doncaster. He also appeared at Bournemouth's meeting in 1910.
Windham was, therefore, a natural choice to organise aviation at the Exhibition, and he accepted the invitation of the organisers. Giving up his motor business, he booked a passage to India for late 1910. He arranged to take six aeroplanes with him, and two flyers, Henri Péquet and Edward Keith Davies, together with two mechanics, (Billon [French] and Haffkin [English] ).
THE FLYING GROUND
In November 1909, Kenneth L. Laurie, who was District Engineer at Allahabad, had started helping the Exhibition Committee by planning the special railway connection to the site. It so happened that he was the only man around who had actually seen an aeroplane fly, for he had been at Britain's other "first" aviation meeting at Blackpool on 20th October 1909. Sir John Hewett lost no time in co-opting him on to the Committee itself, making him responsible for the provision of a suitable aviation ground.
Laurie found that the only possible spot for this was the new Polo Ground, between the Fort, and the main Exhibition ground, and he had this cleared of trees and telegraph lines, and erected a high fence round it to keep out the crowds. The Elgin Mills of Cawnpore constructed a tent-hangar capable of holding five aeroplanes on the old floors of the dismantled Commissariat godown.
THE AEROPLANES, THE AVIATORS, AND THE FLIGHTS
a) THE AEROPLANES
Captain Windham had shipped the aeroplanes to Bombay in large crates, and they were then sent on by rail in special trucks to Allahabad.
There were two biplanes and four monoplanes, all of which had been made under licence by the Coventry-based motor firm of Humber. The biplanes were similar to French Sommer planes. One of these was fitted with the light 4-cylinder rotary 50 h.p. Gnome engine, and the other with a Humber 4-cylinder 50 h.p. water-cooled engine. Both biplanes gave splendid exhibition flights. The monoplanes were based on French Blériot designs and had 3-cylinder 30 h.p. air-cooled engines. Unfortunately the monoplanes were not a success at Allahabad. Somewhat underpowered, they would not rise more than 20 or 30 feet, and matters were not improved by air pockets caused by the varying temperatures over the ground due to the flow of the two big rivers there.
There were also problems with punctures of the aeroplane tyres caused by large thorns which appeared on the flying ground and made it necessary to repair tyres after almost every landing. Windham said that these thorns were so hard and sharp that they were used by troops as needles for their gramophones!
The aeroplanes were put on view in the "sheds" to the south of the grandstand, admission charge being one rupee. Anyone so taken with flying as to wish to buy an aeroplane could order one there at a cost of £1,000 a biplane, or £500 a monoplane.
b) THE AVIATORS
Two aviators were selected by Humber to represent the firm at Allahabad, Henri Péquet and E.K.Davies.
Henri Péquet, born 1 February 1888, started his studies in flying at the École de Châlons, Mourmelon, and then became a pupil at the Voisin School in 1908. The next year he flew at Hamburg, where after succeeding in circling figures of eight, his plane caught fire and he had to glide down for two miles. Fortunately, he landed safely with merely an injured rib. After flying in Buenos Aires, and assisting Jean Bielovucic on the first flight from Paris to Bordeaux, he then joined Humber. His accomplishments at Brooklands won him further repute. Péquet had been awarded his French pilot's licence (no.88) on 10th June 1910.
Edward Keith Davies started his flying career with Claude Grahame-White early in 1910, and assisted with the famous London to Manchester flight. He then carried out experimental work on monoplanes with the Humber company and on 5th October 1910 won a prize for duration flying at Brooklands. This was rapidly followed by his gaining his British pilot's certificate on 11th October (certificate no. 22), after tuition at the Hanriot Flying School at Brooklands. Davies was the school's first pupil.
A reporter from " The Pioneer Mail and Indian Weekly News" made a special visit to the aviation ground (issue of 13th January 1911), and had a lengthy and diverting talk with both Péquet and Davies. He found them to be very friendly and his reception by Péquet was "with airy hilarity". He went so far as to add "If all its familiars are as affable and as tolerant as Messrs. Péquet and Davies, the upper air would undoubtedly seem to be the element devised by Nature for social intercourse, in every sense of the phrase, on the highest plane."
c) THE FLIGHTS
The flyers were contracted to fly 30 hours each in the three months of the Exhibition, spending the time on daily flights, normally starting at 4 p.m.. Keith Davies was the first person to fly an aeroplane in India; he assembled one of the monoplanes and made a flight of 200 yards on 25th November 1910. Three days later Péquet followed by flying for about ten minutes at a height of 300 feet.
Kenneth Laurie was made responsible for deciding whether flying should be attempted each day. He checked the wind with an anemometer on the Fort walls, and if it was under 10 m.p.h., he hoisted the flag for flying to proceed at 4 p.m.; when flying was over for the day, a red flag was hoisted. If flying was not to take place, black flags were raised in the city at Kotah Parcha bridge arch at the intersection of Canning and City Roads, and on the Mayo Hall.
By January 1911, large crowds gathered each day to watch the flying, and many visitors took the opportunity to examine the aeroplanes at close quarters. The average flight was about two miles. Apart from the contracted demonstration flights, pilots were prepared to take up passengers. Captain Windham was the first person to fly in India as a passenger, and was followed by the Maharajah of Kishangargh.
The idea for an air mail arose in quite an informal way. The Rev. W.E.S. Holland, who was Chaplain of the Holy Trinity Church in Allahabad, was also Warden of a hostel for Indian students. He asked Captain Windham if he could help to raise funds for the new hostel which was then being built. It occurred to Windham (ever ready to boost the cause of aviation) that this could be done by arranging an aerial post. It was also said that another purpose of such a flight would be to demonstrate the possibilities of an aerial service for a beleaguered town. Windham approached the Postmaster-General of the United Provinces, Mr. Geoffrey Rothe Clarke, and he (with the approval of the Director-General of the Post Office in India) soon gave permission. Arrangements went ahead rapidly. Windham, although he was as he readily admits in his memoirs a quite unofficial person, appointed the Chaplain as postmaster of the mail.
People wishing to have items flown were asked to send them addressed and stamped at the appropriate postage rate, to the Chaplain of the Holy Trinity Church before 16th February 1911. The Post Office would not, of course, sanction a charge over and above the normal postage rate, but a nominal sum of six annas (or sixpence) was asked for as a donation to the new church hostel buildings. If stamps were sent, eight annas was requested. Only letters or cards under one ounce in weight were accepted. Special rates were available for those wishing to send large consignments of mail, such as clubs and regiments.
A special postmark was also authorised. Windham drew an outline representing a biplane in flight over the mountains of Asia. The die for this was cast at the postal workshops at Aligarh, and the Postmaster-General announced that this "will be destroyed on the day following the carriage of the first aerial mail. This will ensure the unique character and value of the stamps, and those who take advantage of the present opportunity will secure a monopoly of the stamps thus marked." (12th February 1911 issue of "The Pioneer Mail"). The postmark, 4 cm in diameter, was applied in a magenta colour on public mail, but in black on privileged items.
In addition, and at quite short notice, the Committee responsible for the event, announced in "The Pioneer Mail and Indian Weekly News" on 17th February that special postcards would be available bearing a picture of the biplane in which the mail was to be carried. These cards were signed by Henri Péquet, the aviator, and cancelled with the special aerial postmark. The cost was one rupee (in cash or money order), and for this the Chaplain sent a card to any address. The cards were therefore presumably written by the Chaplain or his helpers, and bear no messages. Owing to the lack of time available, it is not surprising that a mere forty to fifty of these special cards were flown on the day, and not long after the flight, were said to be fetching £25 each. The cards measure approximately 160 by 120 mm, although cutting of the cards was apparently not consistent. The black and white picture itself is a standard size of 141 x 92 mm.
The day before the flight, a staff of about four people from the Postal Department were continuously engaged at the hostel, which had been turned into a small post office, for the work of sorting and so forth, starting at 9 a.m.and not finishing until mid-night.
The mail flight was originally fixed for Monday 20th February, taking off at 4.30 p.m.. In the event Péquet flew it on Saturday 18th February 1911. The take-off was watched by the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Hewett and Lady Hewett, together with government staff and a large crowd. The Humber biplane took off shortly after 5.30 p.m. from the aviation ground, circled around twice and then flew across the River Jumna south to Naini Junction, about two miles away, at a height of 130 feet. Its speed was about 40 m.p.h. in the air and about 30 m.p.h. when landing. Naini had been chosen as the place to receive the mail as it was the nearest point on the main railway line from Calcutta to Bombay. A site enabling the plane to descend and take-off safely had been cleared at Naini by convicts from the nearby Central Jail. When Péquet descended after a flight of about thirteen minutes, there were no crowds to meet him, a complete contrast to his departure from Allahabad. He recalled in an interview (in 1972) that there was only one postal official there to whom he handed his bag before returning to Allahabad. The entire round trip lasted 27 minutes.
The plane used for the world's first official post by aeroplane was Windham's own machine, fitted with the Humber 50 h.p. engine. A copy of it was made quickly by the Humber Company so that it could be proudly exhibited on the firm's stand at the Olympia (London) Air Show from 24th March to 1st April 1911.
In all, some 5,000 to 6,500 items were said to have been included in the mail, the total weight being 200 to 300 pounds. Many complimentary letters were sent to European monarchs, leading statesmen, and officials at Westminster, and to people connected with aviation throughout the world.
SUMMARY OF THE EVENT, AND OF AVIATION THERE
The Exhibition closed as arranged on the evening of Tuesday 28th February 1911. The attendance was somewhere in the region of "seven lakhs" (i.e. 700,000 people), not as many as originally anticipated, but nevertheless an impressive figure. On certain days as many as 50,000 visitors had been through the gates. Many distinguished people had attended, including two viceroys and the Crown Prince of Germany. Modern methods of cultivation had been demonstrated to thousands of agriculturalists, and it was hoped that benefits would accrue from this in time. Trading firms had been able to bring their specialities to the notice of the public. Many conferences and tournaments had been drawn to Allahabad; the polo tournaments, the oriental pageant, boxing and wrestling tournaments , and firework displays had been a big success. The Joy Wheel, the Bioscope, and the Laughing Gallery had also been very popular. "The Pioneer Mail" concluded:
"Thus falls the curtain on a production which is pronounced on all hands a very memorable success, which has attracted all from the highest to the simplest in the land, which has edified many and brought amusements to myriads, and which has been so singularly fortunate in its freedom from all the mishaps that it has not been able to point to so much as an accident with the aeroplanes." (3rd March 1911).
The removal of exhibits started immediately on the closure of the Exhibition, everything being dismantled and taken away with the exception of some items which were sent back to England for the Imperial Exhibition, (i.e the Coronation Exhibition at the White City, London.)
As to aviation, "The Pioneer Mail" stated:
"The feature of the Exhibition has perhaps been the success of the aviation programme. The aeroplane was new to India before Mr. H. (sic) Davies made the first flight in this country, but since then the frequent very fine flights of M. Péquet have shown to all ranks and grades the wonders of the flying machine. M. Péquet was throughout a prominent figure and he has earned the distinction of having made the longest flight in India and of being the first aviator in the world to carry the aerial post." (Issue of 10th March 1911).
The Holy Trinity Church at Allahabad proposed to call the new hostel "The Windham Hostel" but Captain Windham thought that the name "The Oxford and Cambridge Hostel" would be better, and this was duly adopted.
By 10th March, letters flown on the pioneer mail had reached England, and "The Times" explained on 13th March under the heading "An Indian Aerial Post" the reason for the special postmark .
Captain Windham was not to let the grass grow under his feet as far as aviation was concerned. He took the monoplanes on to Bombay where they were flown successfully at the Oval. Keith Davies flew there from one end of the Oval to the other amid great acclaim, and as a novelty, flights were also made in darkness, the ground being lit up with lamps. As Henri Péquet had been injured, Captain Dawes of the Berkshire Regiment, who was a qualified pilot and had helped Kenneth Laurie with aviation advice at Allahabad, took his place. Windham then returned home to use his experience in India to promote the idea of special mail flights linked to the coronation of King George V. Knowing the apathy and bureaucracy of government departments towards innovation, he went to discuss the idea with Sir Herbert Samuel, the Postmaster-General. Samuel was sympathetic, and anxious to help, but pointed out that it would not be possible to agree to any special postal charges for such air-borne letters. Windham hit on the idea of offering for sale specially printed air-mail envelopes and cards, not in post offices but in big shops and stores - and thus the arrangements for the well-known Hendon to Windsor (and return) flights for the Coronation Aerial Post of September 1911 went ahead. He retired from naval duties on 3rd July 1920, was knighted in 1923, and made a Freeman of the City of London in 1933. Windham, who had been born in 1868, died on 5th July 1942, after a varied life in times of great change.
Péquet continued in aviation; he became a test pilot and in 1934 was the chief pilot at the Aéro-Club of Vichy. He remained a lifelong friend of Gabriel Voisin at whose aviation school he had learnt to fly in 1908. He died in March 1974 at the age of 86.
The western part of the Exhibition site at Allahabad became a public park, originally called Minto Park, but now Madan Mohan Malaviya Park. Still there is the Proclamation Pillar commemorating the Proclamation of 1858 when authority was transferred from the East India Company to the British Crown. The foundation stone had been laid in 1910 shortly before the Exhibition had opened.
All items flown on Saturday 18th February 1911 bear the special postmark, the colour of which is generally magenta, but black on privileged mail despatched by or on behalf of officials.
The number of items flown on the day was between 5,000 and 6,500, the total weight being 200 to 300 pounds.
1. Pride of place must go to the forty or fifty large-size postcards, signed by the pilot Henri Péquet. The black and white printed photograph shows the Humber biplane with Péquet at the controls. The size of this is 141 x 92 mm. The cutting of the cards was not consistent but is in the region of 160 x 120 mm. They are rarely found in fine condition. There is said to be a variant of the heading above the photograph; the words on these are "FIRST 'AERIAL POST', FEBRUARY 18, '11".
2. Other cards, embossed with quarter-anna stamps, were also signed by Péquet, on the message side. Size 121 x 74 mm.
3. Unaddressed covers with impressed stamps also exist. These were presented to Exhibition employees.
4. Mail was also registered for the flight. Although there were two post offices in the Exhibition area, (the main one in the site itself, and the other [for the camps] in the Exhibition road), the majority of registered items merely carry the cachet "R/ALLAHBAD" stamped in black. This may well include mail registered at the Exhibition Post Office. Some items were registered at the Exhibition Camp Post Office, and these bear the registration cachet (in black) "R/ U.P.EXHIBITION CAMP/ALLAHABAD". A total of 931 pieces was registered for the flight.
5. Ordinary mail, already addressed and stamped at the appropriate rates.
6. Pictorial postcards of the Exhibition and organising officials.
1. BALDWIN, N.C. - "The World's First Official Aeroplane Mail Flight" (a monograph from "The Aero Field", Sutton Coldfield, n.d.).
2. BRITISH LIBRARY (Oriental and India Office Collections) - including "United Provinces
Exhibition, Official Handbook", and General Administration papers for the United
3. BRITISH NEWSPAPER LIBRARY - various issues of "The Pioneer Mail and Indian
4. HOLMES, Donald B. - "Air Mail, an illustrated history 1793-1981" (a hardback book published by Clarkson N. Potter, New York, 1981).
5. ROYAL AERONAUTICAL SOCIETY LIBRARY -
a) "Account of Aeronautical Exhibition, Allahabad 1910", manuscript by Lt. Col.
Kenneth L.Laurie, 15th June 1932;
b) "Aviation Programme - United Provinces Exhibition, Allahabad 1910-1911";
c) "Les 100 Premiers Aviateurs Brevetés au Monde et la Naissance de l'Aviation" -
E. J. Lassalle (a booklet published by Nauticaero, Paris, n.d.).
6. SEN, Alka - "Glimpses into Indian Aviation History, 1910-1997" (a hardback book
published byIndian Aviation News Service Pvt. Ltd., Bombay and London, 1998).
7. WINDHAM, Comdr. Sir Walter - "Waves, Wheels, Wings" (a hardback book published by
Hutchinson,  ).
© Exhibition Study Group 2001