British Military Telegraphs in Egypt 1884-1890

Dr Andrew Higson FRPSL

It is thought that “Military Telegraphs” stamps were first used in Egypt in 1884. These stamps were for the prepayment of non-official messages sent via the army telegraph system. They were used by army personnel for private communications, newspaper reporters for the submission of their bulletins, and the local population (where the army was in control of the telegraph system). It must be remembered that private telegraph communication was very expensive at this time and this is a factor that would limit its use.

“The immediate cause of the issue of these stamps… was the inconvenience caused to the officials in charge of the Army Telegraphs in Egypt, through having to keep account of small amounts paid in currency. With a view to obviate this inconvenience, Colonel Webber, C.B., of the Royal Engineers, personally applied, in the autumn of 1884, to the Controller of Stamps at Somerset House, for a series of stamps from the ‘unappropriated dies,’ overprinted ‘Military Telegraphs’… They were received about the middle of September, 1884, and presumably issued at once.” 1

The values utilised and the quantities printed (in September 1884) are as follows 2: 1d (5,040), 3d (5,280), 6d (5,400), 1/- (5,376), 2/- (5,460), 5/- (5,292), 10/- (5,460) and £1 (5,100). There are minor differences between the numbers quoted in Creeke’s 1891 article and those in Langmead and Huggins’ recent book, and the above numbers have been extracted from the latter. Creeke 3 reported that the original printing of these stamps (plus the ones sent to Bechuanaland and Suakin) utilised “ordinary printer’s type; but in early January, 1885, it was decided to make some permanent provision for overprinting these stamps… Accordingly, plates of the overprint were ordered, and completed in early in March… The first consignment, with the plate overprint, was sent to Cairo in March, 1885”. Langmead 4 considered that “the permanent set… appear to be indistinguishable from the temporary set”.

Langmead and Huggins 5 report: “An office was established in Cairo as the terminus for the army wire with intermediate stations at Assiut, Assuan, Korosco, [and] Wadi Halfa, in Upper Egypt. South of Halfa was the area of the Sudan telegraphs under the control of the army…”. On 1st May 1885 the operations of the telegraph system in Upper Egypt was transferred to military control 6. This would seem to imply that there would have been an even greater need for these telegraph stamps. Indeed, “De La Rue record the overprinting of 499 sheets of the 1s in February 1886, which were presumably sent to Cairo.” 7 However, the survival rate of used stamps is very low. With used telegraph stamps, the survival rate is often a function of the level of security surrounding the destruction of the used telegraph transmission forms. In Egypt it does seem that most used forms and stamps were conscientiously destroyed.

The Langmead telegraph collection contained a presentation sheet bearing a set of the “Military Telegraphs” stamps (cancelled with a metal “ARMY TELEGRAPHS/ CAIRO” datestamp set at “9 MAI 86”)8 Illustrated left Fig.1. This sheet also provided evidence that the 1d value could be bisected to be used as two ½d values. Apart from this sheet, the Langmead collection contained only one 1d stamp showing part of a datestamp reading “ARMY TEL”. As the location was not shown, this was described in the auction catalogue as bearing “the same 33.5mm. double ring c.d.s. (dated Mar. 25) employed on the presentation sheet, although no stamps definitely known telegraphically used in Egypt have so far been recorded.”9 Now, thanks to the wonders of the internet, it is possible to report the discovery of a 10/- stamp with more of the datestamp and crucially showing the word “[C]AIRO”, thus indicating that at least some of these stamps escaped destruction. These two stamps are shown in right. Fig.2

Very few datestamps have been recorded in relation to the “Military Telegraphs” in Egypt. One that related to the “Nile Expedition” as it travelled towards Khartoum10 is a rubber “circular double ring handstamp (31.5mm) having the words ‘FIELD TELEGRAPH’, ‘No.4’ and ‘H L 10 FEB 1885’ within the circle, the ‘H L’ undoubtedly standing for Halfa”. This cancellation was on a “Military Telegraphs” form (295C) which contained a news report relating to the expedition.

Another rubber double circle “FIELD TELEGRAPH” datestamp coded “L L” (possibly “No.25”) is known dated “9 MAY” (see Figure 3). The contents of the telegram (written in Arabic) are thought to be as follows:
Fig 3
From   Zobaidah Ali from Almotiah in Jadidah         To   Council of Egyptian Decisions
Has my last message arrived or not? Please reply about the result.

Given the nature of this communication, it may be that “L L” could stand for “Luxor Legal”, however, this is an educated guess and the author would be happy to hear alternative interpretations. Reports of other datestamp codes would also be welcome.

Colonel Webber retired as a Major-General in 188511, and Major A.H. Bagnold was the Director of Army Telegraphs between 1885 and 188712.

“It would appear that in 1886, the Director of Army Telegraphs in Egypt found that considerable difficulty was experienced, in maintaining equation between the telegraph charges in Egyptian currency, and the telegraph stamps with value in English money: and this difficulty was further increased by the depreciation of English silver which took place about this time. To remedy this, the entire stock of these [Military Telegraphs] stamps then in Egypt was surcharged with arbitrary piastre values… The extreme dryness of the African climate naturally caused the sheets of stamps to curl up; and that to such an extent, as to make it impossible to surcharge entire sheets at once… The stupendous task of surcharging each stamp separately was resolved upon, and was, in July, 1886, carried out by means of a self-inking revolving [hand]stamp.”13

The values attributed to the original issue were as follows: “0.1 P.T” (x2) on 1d, “0.25 P.T.” (x2) on 3d, “ONE PIASTRE” on 6d, “FIVE PIASTRES” on 1/-, “TEN PIASTRES” on 2/-, “TWENTY FIVE PIASTRE” on 5/-, “FIFTY PIASTRES” on 10/- and a “HUNDRED PIASTRES” on £1. It is not known how many stamps were so treated. “This issue was in use from July, 1886, to the end of the following February. The unused remainders were subsequently brought back to England and destroyed.” 14

           The significance of this “self-inking revolving [hand]stamp” does not seem to have been discussed in previous articles. The implications of this statement can be seen when blocks of these stamps are examined, but because individual stamps are very scarce, blocks are rarely encountered. The author is of the opinion that when blocks are examined, it seems there are variations in the surcharge from one stamp to another. This it would appear is because, as stated above, the handstamp revolved as it self-inked and that it seems it had more than one face and so slight variations in the surcharges can be identified on stamps of the same value (see Figure 4). The number of faces on the handstamp is not known.

At least three sets of the handstamped surcharged stamps exist bearing the word “Specimen” in manuscript (the original set in sterling and the later set overprinted in London also exist with a manuscript “Specimen” applied in Cairo.) Fig 5 left.

In September 1886, whilst on leave in England, Major Bagnold arranged for a replacement of the handstamped stamps. The correspondence relating to this and De La Rue’s proof work on these stamps is fully covered in Langmead and Huggins’ book.15 In addition to the original sterling values, two new values (2d and 8d) were utilised and they were overprinted in the following quantities16: “ONE DIME” on 1d (3,000), “TWO DIMES” on 2d (3,000), “FIVE DIMES” on 3d (3,000), “ONE PIASTRE” on 6d (3,000), “TWO PIASTRES” on 8d (3,000), “FIVE PIASTRES” on 1/- (33,600), “TEN PIASTRES” on 2/- (12,600), “TWENTY-FIVE PIASTRES” on 5/- (6,300), “FIFTY PIASTRES” on 10/- (2,100) and “ONE HUNDRED PIASTRES” on £1 (1,500). These stamps were received in Cairo in February 1887 and “the issue continued in use until the spring of 1890, though the employment was evidently very limited, as nearly all the stamps were returned to England and destroyed.”17

Though it is 115 years since these stamps went out of use, and nearly as long since Mr Creeke Jr wrote his paper about them, it is clear that not much additional knowledge has come to light in the meantime. Perhaps one can do no better than end this article with the words of Mr Creeke Jr.18: “This completes all the information I have been able to obtain concerning these stamps. They are an interesting series, with one issue [the handstamped issue] which has the merit of being very rare; this must be my excuse for troubling you to [read] my paper.”


1 Creeke Jr., p.84
2 Langmead and Huggins, p.80
3 Creeke, Jr., pp.84-85
4 Langmead, p.91
5 Langmead and Huggins, p.80
6 Langmead and Huggins, p.84
7 Langmead and Huggins, p.86
8 Grosvenor (catalogue front cover)
9 Grosvenor, lot 573
10 Langmead and Huggins, p.81
11 Langmead and Huggins, p.81
12 Langmead and Huggins, p.85
13 Creeke, Jr., p.85
14 Creeke, Jr., p.86
15 Langmead and Huggins, pp.86-93
16 Creeke, Jr., p.86
17 Creeke, Jr., p.87
18 Creeke, Jr., p.87

Creeke, Jr, A.B. (1891) “Military Telegraphs”, Philatelic Record, Vol. XIII, No. 48, pp. 83-88.
Grosvenor (2001) Auction of Great Britain & All World Postage Stamps & Postal History, London, 31 October & 1 November.
Langmead, P. (1980) “Great Britain Telegraphs”, The London Philatelist, May-June, pp86-95.
Langmead, P. and Huggins, A. (2003) The Telegraph Stamps and Stationery of Great Britain 1851-1954. GB Philatelic Publications Ltd: London.