First Air Mails from Hong Kong by the Imperial Airways Service

by Duncan G. Crewe and Richard A. Whittington

This article was published by The Hong Kong Study Circle in its Journal 371/2 in October 2014. For more about this group see the information and link below.

On 27 March 1936 the DH-86 aircraft RMA Dorado departed from Kai Tak with the first air mails by Imperial Airway’s direct service from Hong Kong.

It had always been the intention of Imperial Airways to operate a feeder service from Hong Kong that would connect with their main service between Great Britain and Australia.  The preferred connection point was Bangkok and negotiations with the Siamese government started as early as February 1935.  These continued without success mainly because of the Siamese demands that the route be operated jointly by one of their companies and Imperial Airways.  The British were completely against this and, in order to try and put some pressure on the Siamese, decided to operate a series of survey and trial flights from Malaya to Hong Kong that commenced on 2 October 1935.  However, this tactic failed to break the impasse in the negotiations and in February 1936 the aircraft RMA Dorado was flown back to Malaya to carry out further trial flights between Penang and Hong Kong prior to the inauguration of a regular service.  Meanwhile negotiations continued but to no avail, and so on 14 March 1936 the postal authorities in London despatched the first mails through to Penang for connection by air to Hong Kong.  These mails arrived at Penang on 22 March 1936.

It was not until December 1937, some 21 months later, that the connection point was changed from Penang to the favoured Bangkok.  The last service flown to Hong Kong from Penang by RMA Dorado arrived at Hong Kong on 14 December 1937, while the first service from Bangkok by the aircraft RMA Delphinus arrived at Hong Kong on 20 December 1937.  The first service flown from Hong Kong to Bangkok by RMA Dorado departed on 19 December 1937.

The RMA Dorado, carrying the first scheduled mails ever brought direct to Hong Kong by air, arrived at Kai Tak on Tuesday 24 March 1936, after leaving Penang at 6am the previous day and flying via Saigon and Tourane, where there was an overnight stop.  Public interest was evident in the crowd of about 200 including the Governor that had gathered at the aerodrome for some time before the arrival.  Shortly before 11:30am, the scheduled arrival time, six RAF planes took to the air to escort the Dorado to Kai Tak.  Within a few minutes and after a short circle round the airport the DH-86 made a perfect three point landing and taxied into the hanger.

Immediately the plane arrived in the hanger, Mr. Whittaker of the Postmaster General’s department checked in the 47 kilos (103 lbs) of mail, contained in 16 bags – 14 from London and one each from Penang and Singapore.  The mail dated at London up to 14 March was delivered at 2pm.

Outward mails by RMA Dorado, which was scheduled to depart on Friday 27 March, were advertised at the post offices and in the newspapers of the day as “Letters for ‘Imperial Airways Direct Service’ – due London 6th April” and “Letters for Australia by ‘Imperial Airways Service’ – due Darwin 31st March”.  The acceptance of registered letters for both mails closed at the Kowloon Branch and GPO at 5pm on Thursday 26 March, while the acceptance of ordinary letters and postcards closed at Kowloon Branch at 5pm and at the GPO at 5:30pm on the same day.  Air mail postage rates for the new service had been advised by Government Notification No. 266 of 1936 and they came into effect on 20 March 1936.  A purple first flight cachet was applied to all items of mail, as can be seen from the covers depicted in Figures 1, 2, 4 and 5, as well as the postcard included as Figure 3.

The cover included as Figure 1 addressed to London was posted at the GPO on 26 March 1936.  It was a part of the mail flown by Dorado to Penang on the following day.  The Arethusa flew the mail by the Imperial Airways IW430 service from Penang to Karachi, where Hadrian took over and operated through to Alexandria, arriving on 4 April.  Satyrus then flew the mail to Brindisi, where it was sent by rail to Paris and onward by the aircraft Heracles to Croydon, where it arrived on 7 April, a day later than scheduled due to a delay in Sharjah.  The cover is correctly franked at 50 cents (½ ounce rate by Imperial Airways to England as set down in Government Notification No. 266 of 1936) and 20 cents for the registration fee.  The cover is signed by the pilot of the Dorado, Captain John H Lock; sadly he was killed on 9 January 1943 when the aircraft he was testing, the Golden Horn, crashed at Lisbon.

HKSC Imperial Airways Fig 1Figure 1. 1st air mail to London from Hong Kong on 27.3.36 by Imperial Airways Dorado

HKSC Imperial Airways Fig 2Figure 2. 1st air mail to Australia from Hong Kong on 27.3.36 by Dorado

The cover included as Figure 2 addressed to Brisbane, Australia was posted at the GPO on 26 March 1936.  It was also part of the mail flown by Dorado to Penang the following day.  It was then flown by the Imperial Airways IE429 service from Penang to Singapore on the AW15 Athena.  There it was transferred to the DH 86 City of Brisbane, which flew it to Darwin, leaving Singapore on 30 March (it was running late because of a delay at Karachi caused by engine trouble) and arriving at Darwin on the following day after an overnight stop at Rambang.  From there it was flown on 1 April to Brisbane by the DH 86 City of Melbourne, arriving there on 2 April after an overnight stop at Longreach.  The cover is correctly franked at 80c (½ ounce rate by Imperial Airways to Australia as set down in Government Notification No. 266 of 1936).

Hong Kong’s response to the first direct air mail to England, etc. exceeded all expectations and 26 March 1936 was the busiest day that the Post Office had yet recorded.  All day the stamp selling and air mail windows in the General Post Office were crowded and towards 5:30pm, the time of closing of the mail, the last minute rush necessitated the deployment of additional staff.  Behind the scenes in the sorting rooms there was similar activity and the sorting staff did not complete tying the last mailbag until 8:15pm.  Fortunately, everything went smoothly and the Superintendent of Mails, Mr. T. Hynes, reported that there had been no complaints received during the day.

When everything had been checked and re-checked by Mr. Hynes and his assistant Mr. S. Randle, it was found that the mail for the Dorado aggregated 18 bags weighing a total of 207 lbs and comprising more than 10,000 letters.  The Daily Press reported that the mail to London alone comprised 6 bags weighing 123 lbs and containing 6,800 letters.  The China Mail and The Hong Kong Telegraph both reported that the bags for London contained 6506 letters and 194 postcards, while there were 3648 items for other places.

Clearly it is much more difficult to find postcards sent in the mails carried by the Dorado and they are considered to be quite rare items (less than 3% of the total mail items).  The Figure 3 example was posted at the GPO on 26 March and followed the same route described for the cover included as Figure 1.  The postcard is correctly rated at 26 cents (single postcard rate by Imperial Airways to England as set down in Government Notification No. 266 of 1936).  Another known example is a postcard that was sent to Australia and posted at the Tai Po Branch Post Office, which is most likely unique.

HKSC Imperial Airways Fig 3
Figure 3. Postcard on 1st flight from Hong Kong by Dorado

One of the scarcer destinations for mail sent by the Dorado was South Africa – only 18 covers being despatched.  An example is shown on page 31 of Duncan Crewe’s book; it was posted at the Kowloon Branch Post Office on 26 March 1936.  Perhaps the scarcest destination though was Kenya; the commercial cover included as Figure 4, addressed to Lamuria, Kenya was posted at the Kowloon Branch Post Office on 26 March 1936.  It was also part of the mail flown by Dorado to Penang the following day, where it connected with the Imperial Airways IW430 service.  The Arethusa flew the mail from Penang to Karachi and Hadrian then took over for the sector to Alexandria, arriving there on 4 April.  Hadrian then flew the mail through to Kisumu, as African service AS332, where it arrived on 8 April.  The same day Amalthea flew the mail on to Nairobi, where the cover would have been offloaded and sent on by surface to Lamuria.  It is thought to be the only example of mail to Kenya carried on the first flight of the direct Imperial Airways service from Hong Kong.  The cover is correctly rated at $1.50 (½ ounce rate by Imperial Airways to Kenya as set down in Government Notification No. 266 of 1936).

Fortunately for the Post Office staff the volume of mail experienced on 26 March was not expected to continue, and Mr. T. Hynes estimated that about 70 – 80% of the letters were purely “collector’s covers” posted by ardent philatelists.  Despite this huge mail, Mr. Hynes observed that there were very few insufficiently stamped envelopes and generally speaking the public had adhered well to the postal regulations.

HKSC Imperial Airways Fig 4Figure 4. Cover sent to Kenya on 1st flight from Hong Kong by Dorado

Mr. Hynes also noted that several of the letters to London were for dispatch to the east coast of the United States and Canada.  They appeared to be genuine business letters, indicating that local businessmen were quick to see where several days could be saved for letters to New York and Canada.  An example of a commercial cover sent by this rare routing is included as Figure 5; it was sent to Wisconsin and was handled at the GPO on 26 March.  It followed the same route described for the cover included as Figure 1, arriving at Croydon on 7 April 1936, where it was transferred to Southampton and sent by sea to the United States; it completed its journey by surface transport and has a Chicago transit stamp of 16 April and a Kenosha arrival stamp of the same day.

The Figure 5 cover is franked at 90 cents, i.e., 70 cents postage and 20 cents for the registration fee.  The 70 cents postage charged by the Hong Kong postal authorities was an unpublished (no official notice of this postage rate has been recorded) combination of the 50 cents per ½ ounce rate by Imperial Airways to England, as set down in Government Notification No. 266 of 1936, and the 20 cents for the first ounce of surface mail sent to the USA, as set down in Government Notification No. 181 of 1931.  Members are requested to check their collections and report any other usage of this 70 cents combination rate for letters sent by Imperial Airways to London and then onward by surface to the U.S.A.  Such examples should theoretically only exist between the dates of 20 March 1936 and 31 May 1936, as the 1 oz. surface rate to U.S.A. was increased to 25 cents as from 1 June 1936 (Government Notification No. 438 of 1936).HKSC Imperial Airways Fig 5 Figure 5.  Unpublished 70c per ½ oz. rate by IA to GB + 20c per oz. by surface to USA

The RMA Dorado, under the command of Captain John H Lock, left Kai Tak with the mails at 11am on Thursday 27 March 1936.  The aircraft’s departure does not appear to have been accompanied by the same fanfare that occasioned its arrival in Hong Kong 3 days previously.  It proceeded via Tourane and Saigon, and arrived at Penang on the following day in time to connect with the Imperial Airways IE429 and IW430 services to Australia and Europe, respectively.


  • Hong Kong Airmails 1924-1941, Duncan Crewe, 2000, Hong Kong Study Circle
  • The China Mail, various editions
  • The Hong Kong Daily Press, various editions
  • The Hong Kong Telegraph, various editions.

See: The Hong Kong Study Circle The Hong Kong Study Circle was founded in 1951 to record and circulate information on the philatelic and postal history of Hong Kong and the Treaty Ports. It is UK-based and regular meetings are held in London. Provincial meetings are also held from time to time. Overseas meetings are a feature as well and are arranged as opportunities arise.

Membership is world-wide and is linked by the Journal plus the Newsletter, which are the medium for reporting, exchanging and recording infomation, normally submitted by members, The Journal has been published continously since 1951 and is issued quarterly free to members.

Thanks to Nick Halewood the Editor of the HKSC Journal and Newsletter.

The image shown on the Home Page of this article is taken from the one linked below.

This article was first posted on 13th February 2015.

Related Indhhk articles:

  1.  Imperial Airways – including first scheduled flight into Hong Kong 1936
  2. Imperial Airways

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