RFA Wave Baron
RFA tanker 1948 – 1972
In 1909 the P&O liner RMS Morea altered course to pass close to Direction Island in the Indian Ocean, the Captain W. L. Brown, notified the cable station staff that he would drop a barrel containing fresh meat, vegetables, books, magazines and mail. Other P&O and Orient Line ships were to follow the practice and it became the norm for some of the mail to and from the island to be collected and delivered in this way. Apart from a six year break because of World War II, the service continued until 1954 even though a regular air service began in 1952.
Mail from this source is usually franked with Australian or occasionally Ceylonese stamps. Most were Australian as the down run to Australia passed the islands in daylight and it was easier to pick up the mail. The up run from Australia passed the islands at night which made it impossible to recover barrels or pick up mail. Mail from the period 1949-51 is even easier to identify as one member of the cable station staff, E. R. Leigh Parkin, began applying cachets such as TIN CAN MAIL, Orion Barrel etc.
A liner approaching Direction Island would notify the cable station they would be dropping a barrel and members of staff would set out in their two jukongs ‘Matey’ and ‘Diana’ to collect the barrel and hopefully get their own mail on board. BARREL MAIL was the incoming mail, being enclosed in a wooden barrel along with other items. This was lowered over the side of the ship to waiting cable station staff or on occasion dropped over the side with a marker flag. TIN CAN MAIL was the outgoing mail. It was sealed in a tin can and attached to a line trailing from the ship making the drop. The normal practice was for one jukong to pick up the barrel while the other attached the tin can to the line trailing astern.
Problems with this service occurred from time to time. On 5 January 1951 RMS Orion dropped a barrel but was unable to pick up mail, so RFA Wave Baron did the honours. Outgoing mail from this pick up was endorsed ‘Per Wave Baron’. These were taken to Colombo for posting and so bear Ceylonese stamps.
Once the airmail service began Barrel Mail became more of a ceremony than a necessity. Some mail from 1952 to1954 was endorsed with TIN CAN MAIL or BARREL MAIL cachets, but it was by now a souvenir rather than an essential way of getting mail to and from the island. In 1954 Cable & Wireless asked P&O to cease making the drops as it was extremely difficult for the remaining staff to collect the barrels. The station finally closed in 1956.