The First Large Canoe Stamps (1907) of British Solomon Islands

In the decade following Mr. Woodford’s appointment, the white popu-lation of the Protectorate showed a steady increase. Trading stations were set up by Messrs. Burns, Philp & Co. Ltd., in connection with their business as traders and shipowners, and coconut plantations were estab-lished by Messrs. Levers Pacific Plantations Ltd.

The gradual development of the islands was reflected in the increase of correspondence, and the provision of postage stamps had become a necessity.

The colonial authorities were still slow in appreciating this, and again Mr. Woodford was forced to take the initiative. In the first instance he pressed for a provisional issue of stamps, as his own corre-spondence shows:

“The postal work had so much increased that in my estimates for the year 1906-07 I had asked for an issue of postage stamps, and had estimated a revenue of £600 to be received from their sale. The High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, in submitting my estimates to the Colonial Office, reduced my estimate of revenue likely to be received to £100, but did not disapprove of an issue. The Secretary of State, in approving the Estimates, said, ‘If Mr. Woodford likes to try an issue of postage stamps there was no reason why he should not do so.’ I had previously suggested to the High Commissioner to supply me with Fiji stamps overprinted ‘Solomon Islands’, but he disapproved, although my suggestion was afterwards adopted in the case of the New Hebrides and the Gilbert Islands.”

Thus, owing to the High Commissioner’s viewpoint, no overprinted or other provisional stamps were issued for the Protectorate. None, incidentally, have ever been issued since; nor any commemorative stamps apart from the “standard” Crown Colony series (e.g. Silver Jubilees, Coronations, etc.) which were more or less “wished upon” the Protec¬torate—a record possessed by few other colonies.
Mr. Woodford’s letter goes on:

“Having waited until November ’06, and having heard nothing from the High Commissioner about the issue of postage stamps, I ordered stamps (from a design prepared by myself—a view taken from Tulagi) from the firm of W. E. Smith of Bridge St., Sydney, and they arrived in the middle of February 1907. Up to the end of the financial year ended 31st March 1907 an amount of £36. 10. 0. had been received from their sale. If I had waited for the High Commissioner to order the stamps I should have had to wait certainly another two years, but by forcing his hand he was bound to get the stamps recognised.”

The latter refers to recognition both by the Colonial Office and the Universal Postal Union. The Protectorate was admitted to the UPU on 3rd September 1907, so that, strictly speaking, during the period 14th February to 2nd September these stamps were to some extent “locals”, i.e. they prepaid postage as far as Australia only, at which point any letter for an onward destination (e.g. the United Kingdom) required an additional New South Wales stamp to be affixed. The postage rates fixed by the Commissioner were 1d. per ½oz. for letters within the Protectorate, and 2d. abroad. Very few of these “combination” covers are known, and most (see illustration above) were in Mr. Woodford’s own handwriting. As he said himself:

“At first there was some trouble with the Federal postal authorities over the recognition of the new stamps, and letters were restamped at Sydney, but the High Commissioner now assisted me in getting them officially recognised, and this was accomplished without much trouble, although I have an envelope with the local date of Feb. 14th which went through the post to England without trouble.”

In the first instance Mr. Woodford obtained essays of various designs (illustrated above), but for some reason these were not acceptable, and he therefore proceeded to design the stamps himself. The result (known to philately as the “Large Canoe” issue) depicts a view of Tulagi har¬bour with the island in the background, and flanked by groups of coco¬nut palms (representing the islands’ main source of revenue). In the middle distance is a Solomon Islands tomoko (war canoe) with its crew of paddlers, and in the foreground three more or less unrecognisable “blobs” which the designer intended to represent a pearl, turtle, and snail shell (also items of commerce in the islands), but which suffered in detail owing to the printing process employed.

The Commissioner forwarded his sketch to the printers, W. E. Smith & Co., of Sydney, and they engraved the design on a copper plate about the size of a lady’s visiting card. The printing process was lithography, and from the copper die lithographic stones were prepared. After the appropriate denominations had been included on the intermediate stones, transfers were made to the plates. The values were ½d., 1d., 2d., 2½d., 5d., 6d., and 1s.

In the cases of the ½d. and 2½d. the transfers were made horizontally in strips of three, and in the cases of the other values, in strips of six, finally completing the plates of 60 impressions, i.e. 10 horizontal rows of six. Each transfer strip (of three or six) possessed certain blemishes, which appear as constant variations on the stamps, and enable each stamp in the strips to be allocated to its correct position. Thus, in the case of the ½d. and 2½d., there are three varieties appearing twice in each horizontal row of stamps (or 20 times on the sheet), and with the other denominations, six varieties in each horizontal row (or 10 times on the sheet). These may be referred to as the “type” varieties. In addition there were a number of constant minor varieties, associated with individual stamps.

Each sheet had a prominent inscription in the left-hand margin reading “sixty stamps at one halfpenny” (“penny”, etc.), and the sheets were numbered consecutively in the top of the right-hand margin. In addition the 2d. and 6d. possessed a roughly-inscribed cross in the centre of the top margins.

The paper employed was a somewhat thickish and coarse white wove, without watermark, and the gum (which ultimately caused much trouble) was of thick white consistency. The shades of colour in all these stamps vary from pale to deep; as a general rule the sheets with the lowest mar-ginal numbers (i.e. presumably printed first?) were of the deepest shade. There is little difference, if any, in the quantities, as between shades, and none (in my opinion) are worth any premium over others of the same denomination. Only one printing was ever made, so that none of the variations in shade can be ascribed to different printings, although some were quite probably due to climatic action after the stamps had reached the islands.

The deep philatelic interest attaching to this series of stamps is largely due to the fact that the printers had no experience in this field, a fact that is also indicated by the weird method of perforation that was em¬ployed. This was carried out by two single-line machines gauging 11, one making large, clean-cut holes, and the other with smaller, rough, holes. These were sometimes used in combination, and a number of variations exist, e.g. mixed, double, or omitted perforations, the latter giving rise to the rarest varieties of the Protectorate’s stamps.

The practice appears to have been to perforate all but the last line of stamps, either horizontally or vertically, and then turn the sheet round to complete the final row, sometimes by the companion machine. Also, they were frequently perforated “back to front”. On some of the sheets perforated by the combination of large and small holes a “blind” per-foration exists, resulting from a broken pin, in the vertical rows; its position varies, indicating that the sheet had been turned round before completion of the perforating. This practice is further indicated by the fact that the top or bottom lines of perforation are from a different machine, are frequently out of alignment, or in some cases are omitted altogether. The whole, of course, indicates very poor workmanship, again probably due to inexperience, and well-centred copies of these stamps are the exception rather than the rule.

The numbers supplied by the printers were 60,000 of the ½d., 1d., 2d., and 2½d., and 30,000 of the 5d., 6d., and 1s. The gum employed (again probably owing to the printers’ inexperience) was quite unsuitable for tropic conditions, with the result that a number of the sheets became hopelessly stuck together and had to be destroyed.

The Commissioner maintained an accurate record of all stamps sup-plied and destroyed, and observed a rigid etiquette in the matter. Destruc¬tions took place on 16th March, 21st November, and 1st December 1908, and on 23rd March 1909. On each occasion these were conducted in the presence of witnesses, including the Assistant Commissioner, the manager of Messrs. Levers, and the master of the Government vessel Belama. The stamps remained officially on sale until 1st November 1908, when they were replaced by the equivalent denominations in the succeeding (“Small Canoe”) type.

The official figures, as recorded by the Commissioner, were:

Denomination Total printed Total destroyed Total issued
½d. 60,000 14,636 45,364
1d. 60,000 34,402 25,598
2d. 60,000 39,359 20,641
2 ½d. 60,000 47,928 12,072
5d. 30,000 21,690 8,310
6d. 30,000 22,147 7,853
1s. 30,000 22,709 7,281

The higher values of the series were largely used for parcels and small packages containing insects, curios, etc., exported from the islands. None are difficult to obtain in used condition, but well-centred copies with clear postmarks are much scarcer. Of the mint copies remaining on the philatelic market, complete sheets have become very scarce with the passing of the years and are very seldom seen. The same applies in somewhat lesser degree to strips of three or six respectively, showing the main type varieties. Of the latter, the lower denominations are more easily acquired, but strips of the 5d., 6d., and 1s. are becoming very rare indeed.


This heading is in fact a misnomer, as it cannot be too clearly em-phasised that no proofs of this issue are known to exist. Despite this, certain imperforate examples of all values are occasionally offered for sale (often in quite good faith) as “proofs”, and the precise facts should therefore be placed on record.

The first example is that of issued stamps, on which the perforations were so erratic that they partly missed one or other of the stamps on a sheet. This left exceptionally wide margins (sometimes showing the frame line of an adjoining stamp), and such copies, when separated and trimmed, have the appearance of imperforate examples. As no wholly imperforate stamps of this series ever existed, these are frequently, but erroneously, labelled as “proofs”.

The other and more dangerous examples are those of the clearly printed copies on thickish white art paper, also imperforate. They can be found singly or (more rarely) in blocks, or in strips of three or six showing the usual type varieties. These were unauthorised reprints made by an employee of the printing firm some years after the stamps themselves had become obsolete, and they have no philatelic value whatsoever except possibly as curios, and if offered as “proofs” they should be rejected without hesitation. The circumstances of their issue are nevertheless of some interest, if only as a warning to collectors against the often fantastic prices asked for them.

In the original contract entered into between the Resident Commissioner and the printing firm, it was stipulated that no reprints were to be made from the plates, and that the latter should be defaced as soon as the first (and only) printing was completed. The printers, in fact, entered into a bond to this effect.

The latter part of the contract, regarding the defacement of the plates, was not adhered to, and some years after the stamps became obsolete a number of these imperforate copies appeared on the philatelic market. A supply was acquired by an Australian firm of stamp dealers, who in turn sold a quantity to a well-known dealer in London (long since dead). The original proprietor of the printing firm had by then retired, and it is clear that he had no knowledge of the reprints having been made; they were, as stated, the unauthorised work of an employee who had had access to the lithographic plates. There is no doubt that the dealers, both in Australia and London, had purchased these reprints in good faith, under the erroneous impression that they were proofs which had come in legitimate manner from the printers’ archives.

When the Commissioner learned of this affair he took energetic steps in the matter. In a letter of October 1912 Mr. Wopdford said:

“The trouble about the unauthorised stamps of our first issue has been settled. It now appears that several sheets of stamps were ab-stracted from the stock of the printers by a confidential employee, who in turn sold them to a well-known London dealer. They were mostly imperforate. We have recovered the whole with very few exceptions, and they have now been destroyed. If you see any imperforate stamps of our first issue on the market you may take it from me that they are fraudulent and were never issued with authority.”

As a matter of further record, it may be stated that the Commissioner took legal action to enforce the return of the stamps as far as possible.

The London dealer, in a letter of May 1912, wrote:

“I was visited by a representative of the Government who required back from me any of the proofs I had not sold, which I accordingly gave him. He did not afford me much information beyond that the printers had no right to take these proofs at any time or dispose of them, and, being under a bond not to let any stamps or proofs out of their possession, save to the Commissioner of the Islands, they were likely to get into trouble.”

Although this letter mentions “proofs” it is clear that it refers to the unauthorised reprints, and that the specimens which appear on the market from time to time are from the small stock sold by the London dealer before his remaining supply was confiscated. No other genuine imperforate copies are known, and in another letter Mr. Woodford was emphatic that none were ever delivered to him or placed on sale in the islands. The original copper die was sent by the printers to the Com-missioner with the original supply of stamps, and it was thrown into the sea when the final remainder of this issue was destroyed in 1909.


Forgeries of this series appeared some time after its issue, some being crude reproductions made on the Continent and others being the “fac-similes” manufactured by the notorious Francois Fournier. None is dangerous, as a comparison will easily show the differences between the genuine and the forgeries. The main points of distinction are:

Genuine Forgeries
Perf. 11

Perf.    11½ (large holes).

Perf 15-17 (small holes).

Bow paddle does not touch shore in foreground Bow paddle touches shore.
The type differences occur in each strip Type differences absent.

There are a number of other minor differences which the interested collector may care to work out, especially if he possesses artistic gifts and likes to make a series of sketches.

“Used” copies of these forgeries can be found on occasion, which have the postmark of Munia (completely bogus).

This series of stamps, in my opinion, is one of the most philatelically interesting of all time; chiefly because it was produced by printers who had had no previous experience of stamp production. I venture the opinion that it can be regarded as a “classic” of the 20th century.


  1. Harold G.D. Gisburn, British Solomon Islands Protectorate: Its Postage Stamps and Postal History, 1956.