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Archived article from the April 2001 [vol2,no2] issue of Princely States Report

A Key to the "Conch Shell" issues of Travancore
- David Heppell

Introduction

The early postage stamps of Travancore, from the first issue in October 1888, had a chank or "Indian conch" shell as the central feature of their design. They were used in large numbers and are among the commonest of the Indian States stamps, second only to those of Hyderabad. This was no doubt on account of the high literacy rate in that state as, during the period of the conch shell issues, Travancore surpassed British India as well as all other Princely States in both male and female education. Despite the abundance of these issues, they have been unpopular with collectors because their exact identification is complicated by the number of different printings in different shades and on different papers with different watermarks. Furthermore, many of the stamps were surcharged or overprinted (or both) in various styles and sizes of fonts, and numerous errors of missing or inverted letters are listed in the catalogues. Most dealers cannot be bothered to separate the different printings and it is sometimes possible to purchase a job lot very cheaply, offering a chance to discover a few scarce items among the commoner ones. In this key scarcity is indicated by one or more asterisks (* = scarce, ** = rare, *** = very rare) after the Gibbons Catalogue number which is shown bold in square brackets, thus: [19a]**.

The stamps of Travancore were also valid for use on mail to Cochin. The currency of Travancore at this time was the chuckram (ch), divided into 16 cash (c); there were 28 chuckrams to the rupee. The conch shell stamps were issued in 14 denominations: 4c, 5c, 6c, ½ch (= 8c), 10c, ¾ch (= 12c), 1ch, 1¼ch, 1½ch, 2ch, 4ch, 7ch and 14ch (½ rupee). This key is intended to help the collector identify the conch shell stamps by indicating which shades, papers, watermarks, perforations, surcharges and overprints occur for each denomination in turn (although in fact more shades occur than are recognized by Gibbons). That should lead to a unique number in the Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth Catalogue for 2001, which is the most complete catalogue listing of issues available. The listing in the current Scott catalogue is far less complete. Elsewhere in this edition of the Princely States Report, Bob Coale has provided a correlation between the Gibbons and Scott numbers which also includes all the numerous errors not dealt with in this key but which are easily noted, as they are listed after the basic catalogue entry for the stamp in question. For a fuller account of the conch shell issues, giving more details of papers, watermark variations, number and arrangement of stamps per sheet in the various printings, jubilee lines, positions of defective clichés, etc, see 'Travancore: the "Conch" stamps' by L.E. Dawson, The Collectors Club Philatelist, vol.39, no.6, pp.287-296 (November, 1960).

Papers, Watermarks and Perforations

Only the first issue, in denominations of 1ch, 2ch and 4ch, was printed on horizontally laid paper. As well as the issued stamps there were colour trials on this paper: black and purple (all values), green (1ch, 2ch) and red (1ch); all were perforated. All subsequent issues were printed on hand-made or machine-made wove paper. The hand-made paper with watermark type B (see below) is a little thinner and more transparent that that with watermark type A. The machine-made paper, introduced in 1924, is generally smoother and of a more even texture; two qualities are known (not distinguished here or by Gibbons): toned, unsurfaced, or pure white, surfaced.

The laid paper used for the first issue had a large sheet watermark consisting of a conch shell about 62mm high in an oval wreath, with the word "GOVERNMENT" arched above in large outline letters and, in similar letters, "OF TRAVANCORE" in a straight line below. Many stamps in the sheet are without watermark and the others will have a small portion of it. All other issues have a conch shell watermark of which three types occur, A, B and C. Types A and B are found on the hand-made papers and are very similar, but type B is invariably well centred and upright. The paper with the type A watermark was probably designed for fiscal use as the watermark fits the 1 anna revenue stamp issued in 1890 fairly well (presumably the face value of the fiscal stamp was determined by the Government of India and was therefore not in local currency). It does not, however, fit the smaller postage stamps and is therefore never found well centred and in some issues some stamps on the sheet lack the watermark altogether. In early issues this watermark is upright but later it was always sideways. Type C is easily recognizable by the more elaborate depiction of the top, bottom and sides of the shell. It occurs only on the machine-made papers and is normally upright. There are two settings: 1. with the shells well centred, 11mm apart horizontally as for type B; 2. the "fiscal" setting with the shells 15mm apart horizontally, resulting in badly-centred watermarks. These settings are noted in this key, but they do not have separate Gibbons numbers. Gibbons does give a separate number to the four stamps on which a type C watermark of setting 2 may be found sideways.

The great majority of the conch shell stamps are perf. 12, sometimes rough on the hand-made papers. From about 1937 most denominations occur with perf. 12½ or with a perf. 12, 12½ combination. Later, probably in 1939, some were perforated 11 and combinations of 12 and 11 or 12½ and 11 also occur. On 9 November 1939 new definitives were issued for the Maharajah's 27th birthday and the conch shell stamps became obsolete for ordinary postage. The official stamps remained in use until about 1942.

Surcharges and Overprints

With changes in postal rates in 1906 new denominations of ¼ch (4 cash) and 3/8ch (6 cash) were required. The new values were surcharged in large figures on various printings of the ½ch stamp until new definitive stamps were issued, the 4c in 1908 and the 6c in 1910. More provisionals were issued in March 1921, 1c on the 4c and 5c, in red, on the 1ch. A 5c definitive was issued in October 1921 but no stamp was issued to replace the 1c provisional. Further 1c provisionals were printed in January 1932, this time surcharged on various printings of the 1¼ch, and 2c provisionals were also provided by surcharging the same stamps. The size of the surcharges was smaller and the figure and "c" were wider apart (5mm) than in the 1921 issues (2-3mm). One printing of the 1932 2c on 1¼ch surcharge, however, on stamps with type B watermark, used the same font and spacing as in 1921. Two months later further supplies of 1c and 2c provisionals were produced by surcharging 5c and 10c stamps, including one printing of the 5c in a slate-purple shade which is not known without the surcharge; the spacing of these March 1932 surcharges was also 5mm but, because of the larger type used, the length of the overprint is 9½mm instead of 8mm. Surcharges of higher values are found on the official stamps: 6c (on 5c), 12c (on 10c) and 1ch 8c (on 1¼ch), all issued in 1932 but involving five different overprint types and both type A and type C watermarks. The surcharged issues offer a rich store of errors such as double or inverted overprints or missing or wrong font characters.

The official stamps, first issued in August 1911, were overprinted "On / S S" or, from 1939, "SERVICE". In some case special printings of the postage stamps were made for official use, so some combinations of shades and watermarks do not occur without the overprint. Most of the official stamps were issued ungummed, with the exception of the first printing of the 1ch, 2ch, 3ch and 4ch values and a few others which were overprinted on stamps which had been intended for ordinary postal use; this was an economy measure due to the scarcity and high cost of good quality gum during the 1914-18 war. The gum supplied to post offices for use with official stamps was frequently inferior and could cause the ink to spread and tint the paper. Gibbons recognizes eight different settings of the "On / S S" overprint. The first two are distinguished by a very rounded "O" and are approximately 12mm high and 13mm and 16½mm wide respectively. As the overprints were individually set from loose type the dimensions vary a little throughout the sheet, especially of the first setting for which widths varying from 11½mm to 14½mm have been recorded. Early printings of the second setting are "clean" but in later ones the overprint is often smudgy. The third and fourth settings are distinguished by much smaller capital letters only 2mm high instead of 3mm or a fraction more; as the third setting occurs only on the 10c and 1¼ch values and the fourth only on the ¾ch they are not separated in this key, where they are indicated as having "small S S". The fifth setting, on the ¾ch and 4ch values, has very distinctively-shaped "S"s with small heads and long tails. The third, fourth and fifth settings, all dating from 1930, are probably provisional settings; they occur only on paper with type C watermark. In the same year new settings were introduced in which the "O" is narrow, or oval rather than round, with the overprint 16mm high (sixth setting) (all three watermarks occur with this setting) or 14mm high (seventh setting) with type C watermark. Later, sheets with type C watermark were printed with a new (eighth) setting 18mm high on the top row of 6 stamps and 16mm high on the stamps of the other 13 rows. Because these overprints were set from loose type it was not uncommon for letters to fall out and be incorrectly replaced, giving rise to the numerous missing or inverted letter errors listed in the catalogues.

The "On / S S" overprints were superseded by "SERVICE" overprints, in tall sans-serif capitals. There are two types: one 13mm wide on the 6c and ¾ch and the other 13½mm wide on the ¾ch and 1½ch. The former has a curved leg on the "R" and the latter a straight leg, so the two different overprints on the ¾ch value are easily distinguished.


SG O14, 5c olive-bistre with On / S S ovpt, first setting; wmk A sideways; error, second setting, left S inverted, se-tenant with first setting. [unlisted]. Click to enlarge.


SG O17, ½ch reddish violet with On / S S ovpt (red), first setting; wmk A sideways; error, ovpt inverted [O17e].


SG O18, 10c pink with On / S S ovpt, first setting; wmk A sideways; error, O inverted [O18d].


SG O26, 7ch claret with On / S S ovpt, first setting; wmk C; error, left S inverted [O26b].


SG O54, ½ch reddish violet with On / S S ovpt (red), seventh setting; wmk C; error, CHUCRRAM [O54b].


SG O59, 1½ch rose with On / S S ovpt, seventh setting; wmk C, perf. 12½; error, left S inverted [O59g].


SG O83, 12c on 10c pink with On / S S ovpt, seventh setting; wmk C; error, On omitted [O83g]**.


Detail of O59g above.

Errors

A full listing of the recorded errors is provided in the Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth Catalogue and in Bob Coale's correlation with the Scott Catalogue. Some arise from faults in the stamp design itself, such as "CHUCRRAM" for "CHUCKRAM" (½ch) or "TRAVANCOPE" for "TRAVANCORE" (5c), but most are due to careless handling and resetting of the loose type of which the various surcharges and overprints are composed. These include double or inverted overprints, or missing, inverted or wrong font characters. The puzzling "inverted O" error is recognizable because the top of the "O" is level with the top of the "n". A selection of the commoner errors is illustrated here for reference, together with one not noted in the catalogues.

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