Unless you are extremely economical with your words, carrier pigeons aren’t much good for sending post. And although letters had been sent by hot air balloon as early as 1785, you will, of course, find yourself at the mercy of the winds. It was only with the invention of the aeroplane that a viable way of sending airmail began to emerge.
The United Provinces Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition, held in Allahabad, India, in 1911, provided just the opportunity to showcase the aeroplane’s capabilities.
The founder of the Royal Aero Club, Walter George Windham, sent to England for eight aircraft to be shipped to Bombay. As for the pilot, that role would be filled by 23-year-old Frenchman Henri Pequet.
Sending a letter or postcard par avion would cost you six annas (an anna was one 16th of a rupee in pre-decimalised Indian currency). The money raised would be donated to the Oxford and Cambridge Boys’ Hostel. For an extra rupee, you could get a signed photo of the flying postman himself.
It wasn’t long before Pequet’s postbag began to fill up: 6,500 pieces of post were collected for the maiden flight, which weighed at least 90kg – a considerable weight for what was little more than a motorised kite.
On 18 February, Pequet’s Humber Sommer biplane shuddered across Allahabad’s polo field and hauled itself into the air. Pequet flew for around 15 minutes, crossing the Jumna River to land six miles away in Naini Junction. There, the post was unloaded and sent on its way over land and sea.
Among the lucky recipients to wake up to a letter bearing the postmark “First aerial post U.P. exhibition Allahabad” was King George V.
As for the boys of the Oxford and Cambridge Hostel, they received 2,500 rupees from the flight, which was, as Robert Bluffield notes in Over Empires and Oceans, “a princely sum considering that one gramme of gold in 1911 had an estimated value of less than two rupees”.