Published by kind permission of the author.
The first uniform Australian Commonwealth stamp issue made its appearance amid controversy. Probably no other Australian stamp design created more discussion and debate in the community and in political circles as the Kangaroo and Map design.
Left is the first design released to the public in April 1912. The other two
are paste-up essays (now in the Australia Post Archival collection) in the
development of the final accepted designs.
In January 1911, the competition to produce a design for the first Commonwealth stamp issue was organised. It had originally been intended that four designs would be selected for the full stamp series, but a Federal Cabinet meeting in early December 1910 decided that only one design would be used. Out of the 1,051 designs submitted by 533 participants, the first prize of £100 was awarded to Hermann Altmann of St Kilda, Victoria, for his elaborate, full face portrait of George V flanked by a kangaroo, emu and six shields bearing the emblems of each state. The second prize of £50 was shared between Donald Mackay of North Finchley, England and Edwin Arnold of Annerley, England. Mackay’s design featured the Commonwealth Coat-of-Arms and Arnold’s depicted a kangaroo.
The competition closed on May 31 1911 and the results were announced a few weeks later. It was a condition of the competition that prize-winning designs would not necessarily be adopted for the issued stamps. Little appears to have happened over the next few months until a new Postmaster-General, Charles Frazer, took office in October 1911. Frazer, who at 31 was one of the youngest Federal ministers in Australia, took an interest in stamps and had questioned the Government in 1907 about its future intentions for a Commonwealth stamp issue following the report of the Board of Inquiry into the subject. Fraser wanted an assurance that Parliament would be consulted concerning the choice of stamp subjects.
When Frazer assumed office as Postmaster-General he was shown the winning competition entries. However, Altmann’s Royal portrait design did not please him – it was “execrable” he told Parliament later. It was decided that the Victorian Artists’ Association would be asked to nominate an artist to produce an alternative stamp design. The Association chose Blamire Young, a noted watercolourist, who was commissioned to prepare a group of new designs that would be typically Australian in character. “If a picturesque stamp can be provided in which an outline of Australia is featured, I am certainly favourably inclined towards it” Frazer was quoted in the press at the time.
Charles Edward Frazer (1880-1913) was the Labor
Postmaster-General who played the leading role
in developing the Kangaroo stamp design.
Blamire Young submitted 10 designs to the Post Office in January 1912, all of which are believed to have featured scenes within an outline map of Australia. None of these designs survive today, but it is recorded that one design featured two kangaroos the map, The exact sequence of events is unclear, but it appears that Frazer resolved to have a design which featured a single kangaroo within a map of Australia. He penned a short instruction on his Ministerial notepaper (the document passed eventually into philatelic hands) which read: “1. Get coastline of Aust. 2. Insert Baldy’s Roo. 3. Produce in colours for different denominats.” Baldy was the nom-de-plume of Edwin Arnold, the equal-second prize winner in the 1911 competition and it was Fraser’s wish that Arnold’s standing kangaroo be the principal motif of the very first Commonwealth stamp.
An intial design was produced in horizontal format featuring a kangaroo (Baldy’s Roo) on an outline map of Australia, flanked by draped flags and enclosed in an ornamental frame. This was rejected in favour of a vertical design in the basic style of the issued stamp. The first version in the vertical format had the kangaroo within a map that omitted Tasmania! Also, the denomination was featured within two value circles in the top half of the design. This desien was amended to include Tasmania and the top right value circle was dropped, as this could not be accommodated with the increased depth of the map.
Printed examples of this design were produced and released by the Postmaster-General to the Press on April 2 1912, together with the announcement that this was the stamp. In itself, this was an unusual occurrence. Normally, new stamps were issued unheralded and the public’s first look after the stamps had gone on sale. Frazer clearly was proud of his Kangaroo stamp and wanted to show it to the public well before the stamps could be issued. On April 3, Fraser distributed examples of these printed essays to his colleagues in the Cabinet.
The newspaper reaction to the released design was generally hostile and mocking in tone. A selection of press comments is presented below:
• Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, April 4 1912: “Today the Postmaster-General, Mr Frazer, had a little surprise for his colleagues when they assembled in Cabinet. He presented each with a copy of the new Commonwealth postage stamp…Mr Frazer set to work and worried out something which he thought would suit the simple tastes of the residents of Australia. Once having struck the idea he called on the Victorian Art Society to his aid, and Mr Blamire Young, with pen and brush, put the Postmaster-General’s views into effect. It was a copy of this that the Ministers saw today. The new stamp is simple, decidedly so. The main feature of the design is a map of Australia. This is in white, on a background of fine lines running across the stamp. There is no lettering on the map, the bareness of the continent being eliminated by the figure of the kangaroo on a plot of ground. It is not barren country either, for in front of the animal there is a small plant-like substance. Officially it is Kangaroo grass, but the uninitiated might easily take it for an inkpot with two pens sticking up in it. One gentleman who saw it facetiously expressed the remark that it was a rabbit sticking its head out of a burrow.
• Argus, Melbourne, April 4 1912: “Our postage stamps go all over the world; they become, in the course of time, a sort of national symbol; and it is therefore very annoying to find that our country is to be represented in the eyes of the world by a grotesque and ridiculous symbol, and that she will be a laughing-stock even to childish stamp collectors of every nation. Mr Frazer had no good reason for departing from Imperial usage in this matter. Australia should do as the rest of the Dominions do; we should all alike have the King’s head printed on our stamps because it is the most obvious and unmistakable symbol of the constitutional bond between the various members of our far-scattered empire. But even if Mr Frazer entertains republican sentiments, and thinks it his duty to express them by means of the national postage he might surely have found some heraldic device more noble and dignified than that absurd kangaroo and that humorous rabbit.”
• Punch, Melbourne April 11 1912: After a very great deal of trouble, the spreading of much ink on acres of bristol board, a Commonwealth stamp has evolved. The Federal Minister spared no labour and no expense, he was appreciative of the talents of the artists, and called their society to his aid. many clever draughtsmen contributed designs, and the result is forthcoming, it has been printed – it is as dull, flat, ugly and brainless as the dullest bourgeois could desire. Mr Frazer knew enough to employ artists, but he did not know enough to subordinate his own rather indifferent, untrained judgement to that of the specialists. He had the good designs, but he had not the ability to recognise them. It is quite foolish to call upon experts in any line to do a certain thing, and then allow a wholly inexperienced, tactless and tasteless person to sit in judgement on their products, maul them about and chop out and rebuild. By that means, you get only the tasteless person’s work after all. This is what has happened in the case of the Federal stamp. We get Mr Frazer’s work, nothing better, and whatever fine qualities Mr Frazer may have he knows no more than a child about design and decoration. The Postmaster-General took a blank map of Australia from one artist’s design and a “blanky” kangaroo from another, slapped the kangaroo on top of the map, and there you are. The result is simply childish; it represents a child’s tastes, a child’s mind. Mr Frazer was pleased with the kangaroo, so would any child have been, but an educated taste might ask for something with a brighter fancy and a higher significance.”
• The Daily Telegraph, Sydney, April 11 1912: “Mr C.E. Frazer, Postmaster- General, who had been staying in Sydney since Wednesday last, left for Brisbane by the northern express yesterday. Mr Frazer said there was nothing of any great public interest connected with his visit. Conversation then turned in the direction of the new stamp. Mr Frazer was enthusiastic “They’ll be in use in about eight or nine months,” he declared triumphantly. He was toying with a bulky envelope at the time, and suddenly suddenly pulled out half-a-dozen specimen prints of the stamp, in various colours. “Could you wish for anything better? Neat, simple and artistic. Look at that stamp,” demanded the Postmaster-General holding it at arm’s length, “and show me where’s the suggestion of the “seven years drought” which “The Daily Telegraph” found in it. (This was a reference to the cartoon featured in the paper a few days earlier and reproduced at left). The design is not half as bad as it is made out to be, and when the people get used to it they’ll love it. What else could you get to represent our continent more thoroughly than a kangaroo?” “You might have brought in the symbol of the golden fleece,” was suggested. The Postmaster-General thought for a moment, and then dismissed the suggestion. “No! You couldn’t improve on the kangaroo,” he said with an air of finality as he stepped into the car and made himself comfortable, Then reminiscently, as the train steamed out of the platform, “You can’t beat Sydney for a holiday, stamps or no stamps.”
• The Weekly Times, Melbourne, April 6 1912: “The design is exceedingly simple. It consists of a dark background with the continent of Australia outlined as a white blank. In the centre of this blank is a kangaroo. Across the top of the stamp is the word “Australia”, while at the bottom is the denomination, such as “halfpenny,” “penny” as the case may be. The denomination is again shown in figures in a small circle. A different colour has been selected for each good taste of this part of the King’s denomination.”
The last item quoted is merely descriptive and is no doubt taken from official publicity, as the same remarks have been seen in other publications. In the National Library, Canberra, there is a scrapbook of newspaper clippings which Charles Frazer compiled during his political career. Only one clipping relating to the Kangaroo stamp design appears. This is taken from the Adelaide Advertiser, which quotes some approving remarks about the design by a local philatelist, R.W. Sharples. Obviously Frazer did not want to be reminded of the harsh critiasm that had been heaped on his stamp.
In the face of this criticism the Postmaster-General did not abandon the Kangaroo & Map design, but he did order two changes as a result of observations made by critics. The first was the insertion of POSTAGE, which in any event, was the usual practice so that postage stamps could be distinguished from revenue stamps. The second was the deletion of the small tuft of grass, likened to a pair of rabbit’s ears by critics, and an animal which by then was one of the country’s greatest pests.
Frazer promised that the new stamps would be issued by January 1 1913, but there was a delay in the shipment of watermarked paper from England on which the new stamps would be printed. The initial consignment of paper did not reach the Stamp Printing Office in Melbourne until December 30 1912, which meant that only a limited quantity of 1d Kangaroo stamps could be printed and despatched to post offices by the beginning of January 1913. The remaining 14 denominations in the series were issued progressively over the next three months. When the 1d Kangaroo stamps went on sale, a new surge of debate started about the design and, in particular, the omission of the King’s portrait:
• The Daily Telegraph, Sydney, January 13 1913: “It is not surprising that there should be an unmistakable expression of public indignation against the new Commonwealth stamp. A feeble-looking kangaroo, perched on the continent of Australia – that is the best idea which those responsible for this production have been able to evolve as to what is required in such circumstances. The kangaroo, be it observed, replaces the head of his Majesty, a result which is likely to arouse in the outside world dubious speculations if not as to the loyalty or at any rate as to the good taste of this part of the King’s dominions. This aspect of the matter alone should have been sufficient to explain the popular feeling that has been evoked by the new stamp. But apart altogether from this important phase, it sins in other directions, not merely against good taste, but against the canons of art. For in what possible way is a dejected kangaroo representative of Australia? Australia is just as much a part of his Majesty’s dominions as England, Ireland or Scotland, and his mails run throughout the Empire without any discrimination between its different parts. And we venture to say that the true sentiment of the Australian people never called for the displacement of the symbol of British unity from the national stamp by the counterfeit presentment of a kangaroo, which, apart from its artistic merits, would be in the wrong place when substituted for the Kings head on a stamp which is Dart of our Imperial system.”
In June 1913, a federal election saw the defeat of the Labor government in which Charles Frazer was a Minister. The new Liberal government’s Postmaster-General, Agar Wynne, had plans for the Kangaroo stamps. Two weeks after he became Postmaster-General, Wynne announced that the stamps would be replaced by the winning design in the 1911 competition. In the event, the Altmann design was too complex to be used and a new Royal portrait design was produced and issued as the 1d red engraved stamp in December 1913. The background to this development is beyond the scope of this article, but Agar Wynne’s decision to scrap the Kangaroo stamps led to a debate in the House of Representatives on August 21 1913, which throws some interesting light on the first Commonwealth stamp. Speaking in the debate, Charles Frazer, explained his reasons for selecting the Kangaroo and Map design:
“A postage stamp is one of the best advertising mediums the country can have. Every letter leaving our shores bears an advertisement of the country on its stamp. Stamps with the King’s head in the design are generally regarded as proper to communications from Great Britain. In designing our stamp we put into it the outline of the coast of Australia. The stamp shows a White Australia, indicating the Commonwealth’s policy in regard to its population. In the centre of the stamp is a kangaroo, an animal peculiar to Australia and common to every state of the Union. That animal was drawn from the design which took the second prize.”
Frazer’s reference to the white map being symbolic of the White Australia policy is interesting confirmation of something that had been long speculated about. Coupled with the omission of the King’s head, the development of the Kangaroo stamp designwas a highly political exercise. However, Charles Frazer did not live to see his beloved Kangaroo stamps effectively ended by the issue of the letterpress 1d George V stamp in July 1914. Frazer died in November 1913 at the age of 33 after contacting pneumonia.