The Ortega Odyssey: Spoons, Splashes, and Bravery at Sea

In the realm of collectibles, few items stir the heart and imagination quite like maritime memorabilia. And within this ocean of treasures, items linked to historic voyages are particularly coveted, valued not just for their rarity but for the stories they carry across time and tides.

Today, we have the privilege of peering into such a time capsule, thanks to letters penned by a certain Fred Cobb of Doncaster, England. These aren’t just any letters; they were written aboard the RMS Ortega during its maiden voyage in April to March—a pivotal moment before the world was engulfed in the turmoil of the First World War.

Fred’s letters to his parents capture the innocence and adventure of sea travel at the time. He recounts an amusing deck game, a quirky tradition where passengers hurled the ship’s spoons into the swimming pool, diving in after them. With a triumphant tally of 44 spoons, Fred emerged as the victor of this whimsical competition. Such lighthearted moments stand in stark contrast to the grave destiny that awaited the RMS Ortega.

The dealer who discovered these letters reminds us of the RMS Ortega’s dramatic history. As war erupted, the ship’s captain, Captain Kinnier, refused to yield to the threat of capture. Instead, he made a daring escape through shallow, uncharted waters—a move that would earn him the Distinguished Service Cross from King George V and other commendations from the French Government and the Admiralty. This tale of bravery on the high seas is the stuff of legends, the kind that adds immeasurable worth to these seemingly mundane letters.

These papers do not just recount a young man’s maritime adventures; they are silent witnesses to a captain’s valor, to a world on the brink of change, and to the spirit of an era that valued honor above safety. Captain Kinnier’s legacy, his awards, and the thrilling escape of the RMS Ortega through the Nelson Strait, only to be met by the Chilean warship Admiral Lynch, are narratives woven into the fabric of these letters.

As we unfold these yellowed pages, we’re not just reading words; we’re summoning spirits of the past. We’re reliving the gaiety of a bygone era of steamships and the valorous acts that defined it. These letters are more than paper; they’re portals to the past, and they are priceless.

While technical details from The Ships List provide a dry account of the RMS Ortega’s specifications and journey, it’s the personal anecdotes and the connection to historical events that truly captivate us. After all, it’s the human experiences, the stories of individuals like Fred and Captain Kinnier, that transform objects into treasures. In the vast ocean of collectibles, items like these are the rare pearls that remind us of the depths of human courage and the timeless allure of the sea.

All Stamps Deserve A Happy Ever After

The stamps pictured here are a type of philatelic issue often dubbed “wallpaper” by those in the stamp trade due to their high color, abundant limited editions, and the fact that they are seldom used for actual postal services. Commonly produced in large quantities with vibrant designs, they often feature popular themes like Disney characters and are aimed at the collector’s market rather than everyday mail.

Such issues are considered an excellent entry point for novice philatelists due to their aesthetic appeal and accessibility. Despite their name, which suggests a less prestigious standing among more serious collectors, they have the potential for appreciation over time.

For example, if purchased in the early 1970s for 15 pence today they might fetch about £1.50 today. This represents a tenfold increase, demonstrating that even “wallpaper” stamps can serve as a modest investment vehicle!

Collectors might view such stamps with mixed feelings due to their mass-produced nature and minimal postal use, but the return on investment over several decades shows that they can still hold financial value. Obviously, certain sets – like this one – may have a higher cultural value depending on the theme.

Frankly, my dear…

we most definitely do give a damn about postmarks. Very often the collector’s nemesis when they desecrate the intricate details of an especially rare stamp, the right frank mark can actually add value in some cases.

They’re especially interesting when they show how quickly the wheel of history can turn. Famously, the crazy price increases in Weimar Germany meant some stamps had to be overprinted, sometimes twice, before they got to the post office counter. Today’s featured example stem from an even more significant event: the Russian revolution. The communist regime have overprinted the old Tsarist stamps with a hammer and sickle within a star shape. Our other examples are from the Orange free state, when the republic was occupied by the British in 1900 and used the initials “V.R.I.”, denoting Victoria Regina Imperatrix – Latin for Victoria, Queen and Empress.

‘Banknote Issue’ Stamps

Another classic US example this week: a 12-cent black stamp featuring a portrait of Henry Clay, an American statesman who served in the House of Representatives and the Senate. This stamp is part of a series issued during the 19th century, specifically around the 1870s, which are known among collectors as the “Banknote Issues” due to their intricate, banknote-like engravings.

These stamps are highly valued for several reasons: their historical significance, the craftsmanship of the engraving, and their age. The Banknote Issues were printed by private banknote companies, which were contracted by the U.S. government before the Bureau of Engraving and Printing took over stamp production in 1894. The companies—National Bank Note Company, Continental Bank Note Company, and American Bank Note Company—printed these stamps, often with slight variations that make each issue unique and of particular interest to philatelists.

For the general stamp collector, owning a piece from the Banknote Issues is like holding a piece of history. Each stamp tells a story not just of postal history but also of the printing arts and American politics in the 19th century. Collectors seek out variations in color, perforation, and watermark, which can significantly affect a stamp’s value. Additionally, the condition of the stamp is paramount, with well-preserved examples demanding higher prices.

Other examples shown here include a 1/2-cent deep blue Benjamin Franklin issue, a classic late 19th to early 20th-century U.S. stamp, recognizable by its detailed engraving and color. To the top right is a 1-cent blue Benjamin Franklin, commonly used for postcards or additional postage, from the same era as its half-cent counterpart. On the bottom right, the 2-cent brown George Washington stamp reflects the workhorse of everyday mail during its time, facilitating standard letter postage while the bottom left stamp also presents a 2-cent brown George Washington issue, similar to its neighbor, and it stands as a testament to the era’s intricate print craftsmanship and widespread postal use.

The New Gold Rush

On a typical day at the market a full page of US postage stamps can be had for just a few pounds. And there’s no better time to get in on this trade since interest levels in American stamps is on the rise – along with prices. The recent sale of a red 2 cent example for £900 is just one reason why people are checking their collections!

Featured here are two 5-cent Jefferson stamps, specifically the issue known as the “Buffalo Bill” due to the cancellation mark often found on it that resembles the famous showman. They feature a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. These particular stamps are from the mid-to-late 19th century, likely between 1861 and 1881, a period that saw various designs for the 5-cent denomination.

The design of these stamps is intricate, with a central vignette featuring Jefferson’s profile surrounded by an elaborate frame that includes the text “U.S. Postage 5 Five Cents.” The left stamp has a lighter cancellation mark, allowing for a clearer view of the portrait, while the right stamp has a heavy, dark cancellation that obscures much of the design. Collectors often seek stamps with clear cancellations for their aesthetic and historical value, and the condition, as well as the type of cancellation mark, can significantly affect a stamp’s value. These stamps represent a time when postage was a vital part of communication, and each stamp has its own history of travel and use.

Christmas Wishes from Egypt (1934)

Quite an unusual envelope this week… Sent in 1934 from a member of the armed forces based in Egypt, there’s an unusual addition to the envelope. Forwarded from Reading to Brighton to what we can only assume was its final destination in Ealing, the letter bears a quaint reference to the season of good will. We might more often associate whimsical stickers like this to modern post but it clearly has a much longer pedigree. Marked ‘Sealed until Dec XXV’, it must have proved a mighty test of the recipient’s self discipline, arriving as it did in the first week of October!

Below are some of the series of stamps and Christmas seals for letters sent from pre-war Egypt which would have been available in the NAAFI during the mid-late1930`s. 

Post from Overseas Postings

While overprinted stamps are very popular, it’s quite rare to find any relating to military campaigns so these examples are a real find.

In most cases, soldiers used the free ‘on active service’ system which supplied free envelopes. Or they might simply write ‘OAS’ on the cover. However, as with the examples here, some members of the armed forces bought stamps which were overprinted to show their military designation.

These examples are from the North African campaign in Tunisia and Libya. The overprinted BA stands for ‘British Army’, MEF is ‘Middle East Forces’ and MAL is ‘Military Administration Lira’, the currency surcharge. The two postage due stamps indicated that the recipient had to pay an excess before their mail would be handed over.

Envelopes With A Story To Tell

The circuitous routes taken by some mail items, particularly during the war years, is a useful reminder of a time when postal jurisdiction, no less than the prying eyes of the censor, tells its own story.

Among the superb examples here is an envelope sent in February 1943 to Monaco during the Italian occupation. It was opened and resealed by both the German and the Spanish authorities – just to be sure!

Seeing other examples marked ‘Gone Away’, ‘Return to Sender’ or bearing entirely new forwarding addresses in far flung locations around the globe, one can only wonder about the stories behind them all.

On His Majesty’s Service

This well franked envelope certainly passed through a lot of hands before it reached Captain Stabb of the S.S. Lahore in 1941. Passing the censor’s office by way of the Bombay General Post Office and various other bodies, its route makes more sense when we consider the fate of the Lahore.

The envelope is postmarked 5th May in Bombay. It was presumably still in transit when, just three days later, the ship was torpoedoed by U-124 (a type IXB ‘Edelweiss boat’) just north of the Cape Verde Islands. One of four ships sunk in the attack, it caught fire and was abandoned the following day. Fortunately, all 82 crew were rescued by the British destroyer, HMS Forester. The mail ship’s wasted journey may well explain how the letter came to be surcharged twopence when it was eventually delivered to Captain Stabb!

My thanks to the redoubtable Michael Burroughs of Anything Militaria for sending the photos and information.

Home Front Fundraising Abroad

Last week, we featured pins which showcased the success of Britain’s ‘Spitfire Fund’. This was far from the first way to raise popular financial support for the war effort – as we can see with these stamps issued by some members of the First World War’s Triple Alliance.

This complete book of stamps from Imperial Germany is superbly preserved and features a back page illustrating how the monies raised up to that point had helped provide the troops with cigarettes, tobacco and knitwear.

Their neighbour and ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had their own version as we see here with a well equipped soldier presumably thinking of the public’s generosity with great affection!