Seapost -> French Sea Posts and French Ligne Cancellations

French Sea Posts and French Ligne Cancellations

By Julian H Jones

French Sea Posts commenced in earnest in the 1860's with services to the Caribbean and Mexico operated by the Compagnie General Transatlantique (CGT) steamship line of Paris. Precursor services had operated from 1827 between Bordeaux and Mexico via the French Antilles. Naturally, these mail carrying ships were known in French as paquebots, long before the phrase entered the UPU lexicon. The maritime mail routes were designated as ligne (or 'lines' in English). Letters, posted on board these ships during the course of their voyage, were struck with distinctive octagonal cachets de ligne indicating the destination (outbound from France) or route within the network. The following are some early examples taken from the major reference work by Raymond Salles 1.

Cachets de Ligne (destination post marks) of the early France to Mexico maritime service Cachets de provenance (route post marks) of the early France to Mexico maritime service

In 1865 there was a major reorganisation of routes giving rise to LIGNE A (line 'A') which operated between Colón (on the Caribbean coast of Panama) and St Nazaire (France) almost without interruption from August 1865 to November 1932. From 1933, the home port changed to Havre giving rise to LIGNE L from Havre to Colon, calling at Plymouth (England) on the return route. LIGNE A alternated with LIGNE D which operated from Bordeaux to Colon via a different route through the Caribbean from 1875 to 1940, also calling at Plymouth. The other principle French mail route to the Caribbean was LIGNE B operating from St Nazaire to Vera Cruz between 1865 and 1886.

All these routes adopted, in the main, octagonal cachets de ligne similar to the following examples for lines A, B and L.

LIGNE A No 2 in use 1879-1886 LIGNE A type in use 1879 - 1890 LIGNE A types in use 1914 to 1923+ LIGNE B types in use between 1881 and 1901 LIGNE L types in use between 1933 and 1939

LIGNE D No 3 outbound type in use 1926 to 1939
Cover with LIGNE D strikes of the BORDEAUX A COLON / L.D.No.3 cancellation dated 18th December 1931

Other 'branch' lines (lignes annexes) operated in conjunction with lines A, B, D and L to connect with outposts in the Caribbean and South America. These were designated as lines C, E, F, G and M, all with distinctive cachets de ligne. Refer to the Appendix for a list of the extensive French sea post office network.

The French also operated packet boats between the USA and France from 1847. These are listed in Hubbard and Winter 2 as well as Salles. The latter, however, also illustrates the cachets de ligne, including those of LIGNE H operating between Havre and New York from 1864 to 1880.

LIGNE H types in use 1866-1872 LIGNE H cachets de provenance types in use 1866 - 1869

LIGNE H mark used on letter from  France to Boston
Ligne H mark on letter sent from France to Boston (via New York) in 1867. The mail was forwarded from New York to the Boston office where exchange markings were applied when the bag was opened.
Ligne H mark on letter from New Orleans to Paris via New York 1869
Ligne H mark on letter from New Orleans to Paris via New York 1869

Pre- LIGNE H cachet naming the steamer Lafayette on a letter from France to New York, 1865

LAYFAYETTE PAQ FR mark of LIGNE H Letter from France to New York carried on the steamer Lafayette in 1865.
The French CGT line service to the USA started in June 1864, and used 'name of ship' markings until February 1866. From March 1866 to December 1872, the "Ligne H" markings were used.
Examples of covers between France the USA shown by kind permission of their owner.

From 1881 until 1908 there were no cachet de ligne in use on the Havre to New York route. In July 1908 the French postal authorities introduced the term Bureau Flottant (Sea post office) for operations on this route which continued to operate between New York and Havre (or New York and Bordeaux, war period 1915 to 1919) until 1939.

LIGNE DU HAVRE date stamps of the type in use 1908-1916 and 1919-1939 LIGNE DU HAVRE date stamps 1908-1912 period and 1919-1939 LIGNE DU HAVRE date stamp of the 1939 period

These cachets à date de ligne were used 1908-1916 and 1919-1939 and are typical of those employed on the Havre to New York route. The index letters A through F indicate the postal duty. Index F was introduced in 1923.

PPC of French Line ship SS La Touraine LIGNE DE BORDEAUX A NEW YORK date stamps 1915 to 1919 period
PPC of the French Line vessel S.S. LA TOURAINE with an octagonal cancel
NEW YORK A BORDEAUX / B dated 12th August 1917, during the war
period when Bordeaux was the eastern terminal port.

Joint US - French seapost operation, east bound post mark in use 1912-1917 on La Touraine A joint Seapost operation with the USA was introduced on this route between 1912 and 1917. In the Havre to New York direction the sea post was considered to be of French nationality. On return, New York to Havre (or Bordeaux), it was considered to be American. Instead of New York - Havre postmarks, U.S FRENCH SEA P.O. marks were used with numbers 21 through 26 in the obliterating oval. Salle's book lists correlations between the number and French Line ships which differ slightly from that in Cockrill3. [See also British Transatlantic Seaposts and USA Seaposts.]

U.S. FRENCH SEA P.O. / 23 cancellation on reverse of PPC of La Savoie
PPC 'La Savoie' with sea postoffice mark U.S FRENCH SEA P.O. / 23 dated Feb 6th 1913 and French post mark CHELLES SEINE ET MARNE dated 7th February 1913.

This article discusses examples of French maritime mail in the North Atlantic. French packet boats also operated in the Mediterranean and the South Atlantic, even as far as Japan.

LIGNE N Marseille to Kobe seapost type in use 1933 to 1939
Envelope posted from the MV ATHOS II. It bears strikes of the LIGNE N octagonal cancellation KOBE A MARSEILLE / No.4 dated 14th February 1939. It also has a small two line cancel KOBE A MARSEILLE which is believed to be quite rare.

Brazil to Stuttgart via TPO and Seapost

From BRAZIL: a fine printed card from Brazil with strikes of double round circular TPO mark "RIO-CLARO/ 7 OUT 1902 /(AMBe.S.PAULO)" and TPO double round circular "TREM - AMBULANTE / 7 OUT/ 3a.T" mark together with an octagonal cancel "BUENOS AYRES A BORDEAUX 2o / 8 OCT 02 / L.K.No.2" indicating that it was sorted on board the French Seapost Line K on its way to Germany. The French sea post office 'Ligne K' operated between Buenos Ayres and Bordeaux. This cover was a lot in our Autumn 2009 auction.

The article depends heavily on Raymond Salles' book which the author wishes to acknowledge. We would welcome further examples of French Seapost covers to illustrate the earlier periods discussed, especially of lines A and B.



1. La Poste Maritime Française Historique et Catalogue, Tome IV, Les Paquebots De L'Atlantique Nord, Edited by Raymond Salles of L'Académie de Philatélie. Published in the early 1960's by the author and available to members from the TPO & Seapost Society library and also from that of the Royal Philatelic Society, London. This excellent work not only illustrates the whole range of postmarks employed by the French postal authorities on their sea post offices, but also lists the main sailing schedules right up to 1939 - a particular bonus for the philatelic student of the North Atlantic.
The list of titles of the Salles volumes follows:

2. North Atlantic Mail sailings, 1840-75, Walter Hubbard and Richard Winter, US Philatelic Classics Society, Inc., 1988.
3. United States Sea Post Cancellations Part 1, Transatlantic Routes, Edited by Philip Cockrill, Cockrill Series Booklet No 54, Published by the author, and also available from this Society's library.
4. French CGT Packets between Le Havre and New York, Part 1: June 1864 through December 1869, S Walske, USPC Chronicle 246, 2015, pp 174-193
French CGT Packets between Le Havre and New York, Part 2: January 1870 through December 1872, S Walske, USPC Chronicle 247, 2015, pp 270-283

Philatelic References:

The 1857 Postal Treaty Between U.S. and France Carried by the French Line by Richard Frajola, USA

See Marcophilie Le Havre which illustrates marks associated with this famous French port.

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Article published in TPO Journal No. 17, [1963].

From "Les Paquebots Français et leurs cachets" by Bourselet, Maréchal, François and Gilbert, our Dutch member J.P. Visser sends us the list which follows:

Line   Route  Dates 
Ligne A.   Saint-Nazaire à Colon (Aspinwall)   1866-  
Ligne B.   Saint-Nazaire à Veracruz   1866-  
Ligne C.   Forte de France à Cayenne   1866- *  
Ligne D.   St.Thomas à Jamaica   1866-1868  
  St.Thomas à Colon (Aspinwall)   1868-1875  
  Le Havre / Bordeaux à Colon   1875-  
Ligne E.   Forte de France à St.Thomas   1866-1878  
  Forte de France à Santiago (Cuba)   1886-1888  
  Forte de France à Haïti   1888-  
Ligne F.   Vera Cruz à Matamoros   1866-1868  
  Panama à Valparaiso   1872-1877  
  St.Thomas à Jamaica   1878-1886  
  Le Havre à Haïti   1886-  
Ligne G.   Forte de France à Pointe-à-Pitre   1866-1875  
Ligne H.   Le Havre à NewYork   1866- *  
  Bordeaux à NewYork (only)   1915-1919  
Ligne J.   Bordeaux à Buenos Ayres   1869-1872  
  Bordeaux à Rio de Janeiro   1866-1869  
  Bordeaux à Buenos Ayres 1o   1872-  
Ligne K.   Rio de Janeiro à Buenos Ayres   1866-1869  
  Bordeaux à Buenos Ayres 2o   1872-  
Ligne L.   Forte de France à Porto-Cabello   1866-1869  
  Forte de France à Curaçao   1869-1889  
  Dunkerque (Bordeaux) à Loango   1889-1908  
  Le Havre (Bordeaux) à Matadi   1908-  
Ligne M.   Havana à Nouvelle Orléans   1866-1869  
  Marseille à  ? (in the Far East)   1869-1870  
  Marseille à Cotonou   1889-1891  
  Marseille à Loango   1891-  
Ligne N.   Marseille-Alexandrie, Suez-Hongkong   1868-69  
  Marseille à Hongkong   1869-1875  
  Marseille à Shanghai   1875-1889  
  Marseille à Yokohama   1889-1933  
  Marseille à Kobe   1933- *  
Ligne O.   Pointe de Galles à Calcutta   1868-1882  
  Colombo à Calcutta   1882-  
Ligne P.   Singapore à Batavia   1868-1890  
  Singapore à Semarang   1890-  
Ligne Q.   Aden à Bombay (no postmarks known)   1888-  
Ligne R.   Saigon, Hongkong à Shanghai   1868  
  Hongkong à Shanghai   1868-1875  
Ligne S.   Shanghai à Yokohama   1868-1889  
Ligne T.   Suez à La Réunion (or Mauritius)   1868-1882  
  Marseille à Nouméa via Australia   1882-  
Ligne U.   Marseille à Constantinople   1866-1875  
  Marseille à Odessa   1875-1876  
  Marseille à Constantinople   1876-1888  
  Mauritius à Mahe   1888-1895  
  Marseille à La Réunion (-Mauritius 1o)   1895- *  
Ligne V.   Marseille à Alexandrie   1866-1888  
  Marseille à La Réunion (-Mauritius)   1888- *  
Ligne W.   Marseille à Messina   1865-1867  
  Marseille à Naples   1867-1868  
  Marseille à Civitavecchia   1868-1870  
Ligne X.   Marseille à Alexandrie (via Smyrne)   1866-1870  
Ligne Y.   Constantinople à Smyrne (no postmarks known)   1866-1876  
Ligne Z.   Constantinople à Salonique   1866-1876  
Ligne AB.   Constantinople à Trébizonde   1866-1876  
Ligne AC.   Constantinople à Ibraila   1866-1876  
  *These probably worked until World War II (1939)   

It should be noted that there are some minor date differences between this source and those in the referenced book by Raymond Salles. However, the table provides a guide to the extent of the French sea post operations.

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