The Expatriate Post Offices Operating in Shanghai — prior to 1911

By Major R.W. Pratt R.P.S.L.

Despite a long history of foreign trade in China based in Canton and Macau, this story begins with the signing, in the summer of 1842, of the Treaty of Nanking: an event that signified the ending of the first Opium War. One of the more important Clauses of this treaty was the agreement that five of China's ports, namely Amoy, Canton, Foochow, Ningpo, and Shanghai, would be opened to foreigners for trading purposes. The most important of these was Shanghai, thanks to its position at the mouth of the Yangtse, which meant it was:

  • At the end of the main route through which goods were exported from the interior of China in order to reach their markets in other parts of China and aboard.
  • China's northern most deep water port that was free of ice all the year round.

The Chinese Governor of Shanghai honoured the letter of the Treaty by giving the British a parcel of land outside the city walls of Shanghai, but refused to support them in any other way in the hope that they would get fed up and go away. A move that the Chinese were to bitterly regret in the coming years. This meant that in addition to having to construct their own settlement from scratch, including the laying of roads and drainage, the British were forced to organise all of the Municipal organisations and functions that were needed to run a modern city. These not only included such things as a roads department, waterworks, sewage and waste disposal, but also a military force for the protection of the sett1ement, police force, fire service, law courts, judiciary, legal system and even their own laws and, importantly for our interest, some form of postal service. In consequence, when the British moved in and opened a Consulate in Shanghai during November 1842, this establishment took on the added function of a Postal Agency, which initially operated on a part-time basis by a member of the Consu1ate staff in addition to his normal duties.

In itself, the task of running the Post Office was not an onerous one at this time because almost all of the expatriate inhabitants of Shanghai were employees of one or other of the major Trading Companies whose ships plied the routes to India or the USA. As a result, the ships belonging to or chartered by those firms tended to carry the mail from that company's employees in China., from where the items concerned were duly forwarded to their destination. That meant the Consular mail service had only to cater for mail from the Consular staff and from the odd missionary or private person either living in or passing through Shanghai.

None the less, the workload of the British Consulate arising from the handling of the post grew steadily, as did the consulates other duties. Eventually, in 1846, the Consul wrote to Hong Kong stating that because the workload of his officials had grown so heavy that none of them had time to handle the post any longer, he was requesting the opening of a proper, full-time Post Office elsewhere in the cantonment. After a protracted argument between Shanghai, Hong Kong, and the Postmaster General in London as to who should pay for the new office, a post office was duly opened on a full time basis in the latter half of the following year (1847).

The following report gives some idea of the quantity of mail handled by this office during 1847:
"During the twelve months ended 5 Oct, 4,589 letters and 50 papers have been received at the Hong Kong P.O. from the British Consulate at Shanghai, and 1,498 letters & 1,088 papers have been sent from the Hong Kong P.O. to Shanghai. The total amount of postage collected by H. M's. Consul the year ended 5 October 1847 being 4-8-8."

A similar report for the twelve months from 1st June 1852 to 1st June 1853, records that a total of 5,057 letters and 167 newspapers were sent from Hong Kong to Shanghai, while a total of 10,354 letters and 79 newspapers from Shanghai were received in Hong Kong.

With the opening of the first full time British Post Office in Shanghai there came the first postal markings for that port, the earliest of which was a twin broken ring c.d.s. with the name SHANGHAE in a break between the twin rings at the top of the mark. In this context, it must be remembered that in 1854 the number of expatriate families living in Shanghai was still quite small, for it was only in that year that the total number of families finally reached 100.

1858 saw the second Opium War, in which a British Force accompanied by a small contingent of French troops invaded Northern China and seized the city of Tientsin: a conflict that was ended in the same year by the Treaty of Tientsin. When the war ended, the British and French troops went home, with the result that the Chinese never actually got round to implementing the Treaty, although at the time they professed to be planning its implementation and given enough time would eventually honour its contents. During this campaign, the mail from the French Contingent was handled in the same manner as the British. It was sent to Europe in sealed bags, via the British Post Office in China, thus being treated as British Soldier / Seaman's Mail.

The Treaty of Tientsin

Due to the typical tardiness of the Chinese in implementing the Treaty of Tientsin, a combined force of British and French Troops returned to China in 1860 to fight the so-called "Third Opium War". This time the British did the unthinkable, as far as the Chinese Government was concerned, and marched on and capturing Peking. Thereby forcing the Emperor and his Court to flee the city.

This was such a catastrophe that the Chinese were prepared to agree to almost anything in the hope that the invaders would withdraw from Peking as soon as the Treaty was signed As winter was almost upon them, the military also wanted a quick withdrawal to their winter quarters in Tientsin where, this time, they left a large contingent of British Troops to watch over the implementation of the Treaty.

A couple of points concerning mail from this campaign need to be made. In the case of Officers Mail from the British contingent, the regulations laid down that the Officers Mail Concession could only be used when the Officer was in a theatre of War. In consequence, during the campaigns of 1858 and 1860, the Officers Concessionary Rate of 6d was in use, while between the two campaigns the charge for their mail was 9d.

The French contingent for the Third Opium War, which consisted of a Corps Headquarters and four divisions, was very much larger than the force they had sent two years earlier. As a result, in the latter campaign, the French had their own postal service which used special cancels consisting of a diamond shape of dots containing the following groupings of 1etters:

CECBC (Corps Expedition Chine Bureau Central - found on mail from the expedition's headquarters, which was based in Shanghai)
CECA — Corps Expedition Chine A — found on mail from a contingent operating in the Shanghai area.
CECB — found on mail from a contingent based on Canton
CECC and CECD — found on mail from two contingents operating in Indochina.

The Taiping Rebellion

The Taiping Rebellion, which began in the Nanking area of the Upper Yangtse Basin, followed the end of the 3rd Opium War. Emboldened by a successful campaign in the interior of China, the rebels began to march towards Shanghai, with the avowed aim of throwing all of the hated and despised foreigners out of China.

As they neared Shanghai, the Chinese Governor approached the British Admiral, and asked him to use the marines and seamen on the ships lying in the harbour to protect the Chinese city as well as the Cantonment. He replied that he was unable to assist unless their request was put through the Municipal Council. That forced the Chinese Authorities to make their request through the British Cantonments Municipal Council, thus acknowledging officially that Shanghai was an independent city with its own rulers and administration. It was a move that strengthened the city fathers' hand immeasurable when dealing with the Chinese over matters pertaining to the city in the years to come.

A case in point occurred in 1897, when in opening the Imperial Post Office, Sir Robert Hart found it impossible to absorb the Shanghai Municipal Post as he had done the expatriate postal services in the "Outports". Any attempt on his part to have done so would have faced China with a war against all of the most powerful military nations in the world, who by then had underwritten the independence of the British and French Cantonments lying adjacent to the city. It was a war that she could not possibly win, with the consequence that the Chinese Government had no wish to get embroiled in such an issue. This reduced Sir Robert Hart's options to one, which was to sign an agreement with Shanghai's Municipal Postal Authorities that meant they were to use China's postage stamps on the mail passing through their hands in return for certain privileges and a guarantee of their continued independence.

The closure of the French Military Post Office in Shanghai

The French Headquarters, including its postal services, remained in the city after the end of the Taiping Rebellion and until the countryside surrounding Shanghai and other cities up and down the Yangtse Valley returned to normal.

Eventually, in early 1862, the French troops based in the Shanghai region (CECA) started to withdraw from their operational areas in China and returned to Europe. Naturally among the last to leave was the French Headquarters in Shanghai itself (CECBC) with its military post office. This, as far as can be ascertained, was closed in the April of that year amid a flurry of protest from the French civilian population in the city who wanted the post office to continue to serve them until such time as it could replaced by a civilian post office from France.

The opening of a French Civilian Post Office in Shanghai

These protests finally came to fruition some six moths later, when Bulletin des Postes No.87 Circular No.270 dated November 1862 announced that a French Post Office was to be opened in Shanghai. In December 1862 a certain Messieur Shampanhot arrived in Shanghai on the British Mail Boat Reliant to set up one in the French Cantonment with himself as Postmaster. To this end he had brought with him a SHAG-HA date stamp, and the first of the 5104 in a lozenge of Dots Obliterators, but no actual postage stamps. As a result, mail from this period bears a strike of both cancels, plus the strike of a small rectangular boxed "PD" hand-stamp in lieu of postage stamps.

It is believed that the first postage stamps which were for use in the new post office finally arrived in Shanghai on the a ship called the "Hydrapse", which visited the city on 12 February 1863. It is likely that she carried the first French mail being forwarded by their new post office in that city when she sailed on the 21st of that month.

The American Post Office in Shanghai

The next post office or rather Postal Agency to open in Shanghai was one belonging to the United States of America, which, came into being as a direct result of the following announcement made by the United States Congress on 17 February 1865:

The Postmaster General is hereby authorised to invite proposals by public advertisement for the period of sixty days in one or more newspapers published in the following cities - Washington, New York, Boston, and San Fransisco, respectively, for a mail service between the port of San Fransisco in the United States and some port or ports in the Chinese Empire touching at Honolulu in the Sandwich Islands and one or more ports in Japan, by means of a line of first class seagoing American Steamships, to be not less than three thousand tons burden each, and to be sufficient in number to perform twelve round trips per annum between the said ports, and to contract with the lowest responsible bidder for said service, to commence from the day the first steamship of the proposed line shall depart from the post of San Francisco with mails to China.
PROVIDED that no bid shall be considered, which shall amount to greater than 500,000 dollars for twelve round trips per annum nor unless the same is from a citizen or citizens of the United States, and is accompanied by an offer of good an sufficient sureties (also for citizens of the United States) for the faithful performance of such a contract.

On the 28th August of that year, the contract was awarded to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, who promptly commissioned the building of four ships which were completed in time to commence the service on 1st January 1867. Despite the contract with what became The Pacific Steam Navigation Company, this route does not seem to have been very popular. This, presumably, was because of the problems engendered by the second part of an item' s journey to the Eastern side of the United States.

The author has, so far, only managed to record one cover, which was dispatched from the Shanghai Local Post Office before the United States opened an Agency in the city on 8th June 1867. In addition to a single ring P.O.D. Shanghai c. d. s. on the front of this mail, early correspondence following this route also bore a small twin oval ringed cancel which was normally struck in red and contained the words:

  1. In the upper segment of the mark and between its oval rings- CHINA - JAPAN
  2. In the lower segment of the mark, and between its oval rings - STEAMSHIP COMPANY

The opening of a US Postal Service to Shanghai

A memorandum containing the outline proposal for an American Postal Service in China was forwarded to S. Ledyard Phelps (the newly accredited Agent in China for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the American Post Office), which had been written on 2 May 1866 by George F. Seward, the US Consul in Shanghai. This can still be found in the American postal archives. In it he proposes that a preliminary distribution of mail from the USA be made through Hong Kong and Shanghai and then went on to suggest that it should reach other ports either by means of a subsidiary of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, or through contract with the British semi-monthly and French monthly steamers out of Hong Kong. He went on to say that all mail for Amoy, Canton, Foochow, and Swatow, as well as post for British, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese possessions in the East Indies should be forwarded by this route. While those addressed to Peking, Newchwang, Tientsin, Chefoo, Hankow, Kiukiang, Chingkiang, and Ningpo should distributed through Shanghai. In each of these cities the United States Consul would act as the Postal Agent. Lastly, he proposed that in return for this service the Consul would receive reasonable remuneration, which was to be determined at a later date.

As a result of this memo, the Americans opened a Postal Agency in Shanghai on 10th June 1867, and signed a postal convention with the British Authorities controlling Hong Kong on 12th November 1867. This was to the effect that United States mail consigned to destinations in Southern China and the East Indies would be handled by the Hong Kong Post Office, an agreement that meant there was no need to open a United States Consulate in the city.

The Japanese Postal Agency in Shanghai

As a result of the Postal Convention signed by Japan and the United States on 6th August 1873, the function of the United States Postal Agencies in that country was limited to the handling of American mail being forwarded from Yokohama to, or received in that city from, Hong Kong. At the same time the Foreign Department of the Japanese Post Office was created. Then in March 1875, the Mitsubishi Steamship Mail Company purchased the right to the Pacific Mail Company's Yokohama - Shanghai Branch, and just over a year later a Japanese Postal Agency was opened in Shanghai.

Over the next couple of years the Japanese opened postal agencies in eight other Chinese cities. However, instead of acting as agencies in their own right, they were only used as collecting points for mail addressed to Japan Korea, and the United States, which was forwarded to their office in Shanghai for onward transmission. Over the next few years this system was found to be unduly slow and cumbersome, and therefore unsatisfactory, so these sub-offices were closed on 15th March 1883.

The German Post Office in Shanghai

The next country to add to the phalanx of Post Offices already operating in Shanghai was Germany who opened a Post Office or rather Agency there in 1886.

The German Governments first step along this route came, when the German Chancellor signed a contract with the Nord Deutsche Shipping Company on 4th July 1885. This authorised the laying of plans for the creation and thereafter the maintenance of a Steamer service between Germany and nominated ports in Australia and Asia.

In the original contract it had been agreed that wherever Nord Deutsche Lloyd employed and agent to act on its behalf he should also be recognised as the official representative of the German Post Office in that port. As a result his duties included his action on the German Post Office's behalf to ensure that any mail for or from that port, which was to be carried by one of the Company's ships was treated in accordance with the regulations laid down by the German Imperial Postal Administration.

Unfortunately, the Nord Deutsche Lloyd Shipping Company had interests other than shipping, with the result that the firm soon discovered that if this part of the agreement was implemented it set them up in direct conflict with some of their most influential clients. In consequence this part of the agreement with the German Post Office was dispensed with when a conflict of interests was found to exist. Instead a Postal Agency under the control of an official of the German Post Office was opened in that port and thereafter it was run under his direct supervision. Therefore, when the first German Packet Steamer (the S. S. Oder ) left Bremerhaven bound for Shanghai, when it arrived on 16th August 1886, she had on board a postal official and sufficient postal equipment to enable him to run a post office in the city. This he duly opened at an office in the German Consulate on the same day.

Thereafter, ships of the Nord Deutsche Lloyd Company ran a monthly service between Bremerhaven and Shanghai that was routed via Antwerp, Port Said, Suez, Aden, Colombo, Singapore and Hong Kong. It should be noted that during 1893 the ports of Genoa and Naples were added to this itinerary.

When the Postal Agency was first opened in Shanghai, the services that it offered were limited to the carriage of letters (both ordinary and registered), printed matter and postcards. Next, on 21st October 1887, the Postal Authorities in Germany authorised their post office in Shanghai to forward parcels. At first the route by which these parcels reached Germany was through Bremen but in 1890 the German Post Office authorised the opening of a shorter second route, via Brindisi in Italy and Austria.

In April 1890, the German Postal authorities sanctioned the introduction of a system of insurance for the carriage of money and goods by post up to the following amounts:

  • Letters carried by this system could be insured for sums up to 8,000 marks.
  • For parcels there were two maximum figures for Insurance:
    1. For mail forwarded through Bremen - 3.000 marks
    2. For mail forwarded via Brindisi and Austria - 800 marks
The third step in the expansion of the services offered by the German Post Office in Shanghai took place in January 1891 when a system for the sale of Money Orders was introduced. This final step in the broadening of the German Postal Agency's services being offered to its customers in Shanghai came at the end of 1891, when a subscription system for the carriage of items such as newspapers was introduced.

The Russian Post Office in Shanghai

Despite the fact that the Imperial Russian Post Office had been running a postal service between Kiakhta and the cities of Peking and Tientsin in Northern China since the early 1860's, Russia was the last of the foreign nations to open Postal Agencies in Shanghai: an event that occurred in November 1867.

Dr.Raymond Casey, while researching in Tomsk, found a telegram giving the exact date for the opening of the last three Russian Post Offices to be opened in China. In this context, Dr. Casey comments: "The telegram, which is dated 6th November 1896, is from the Chief of the Russian Postal - Telegraph Administration in St Petersburg (one General Petrov) to the Priamur Governor-General of Eastern Siberia stationed at Kharbarovsk, with copies to other interested parties. The telegram announced that:
'With effect from 19th November, 1896, the Russian Consulates in Chefoo, Shanghai, and Hankow, will accept International Mail Matter' from the general public. This will be taken by ship to Vladivostock and forwarded from there. In addition to Ordinary Mail, Registered Letters could be accepted.'

Contemporary correspondence from these post offices indicates that, by the end of December 1897, the original instructions regarding the transmission of mail matter via Vladivostock had either been withdrawn or were no longer adhered to by these offices, as far as foreign mail to be forwarded westwards was concerned."

The closure of the Foreign Post Offices in Shanghai

Apart from the German Post Office in Shanghai, which closed on 16th March 1917, the other foreign Post Offices and Agencies in that city finally closed on various dates in November 1922.