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The Stamps of Helgoland


Helgoland (Heligoland to the English and on the stamps) is located in the North Sea about 30 miles from Schleswig-Holstein and sixty miles from the great Elbe river port of Hamburg. It was taken from the Danish and given to the British as a part of the settlement following the Napoleonic wars. While the British used it for its naval facilities and tourism local fisherman and farmers inhabited it.

This article is the first in a series of ten relating to the stamps and postal history of Helgoland. #1/10

Stamps were issued for “Heligoland” from 1867 through 1890 under a rather complex arrangement between the British and the Germans. The postal administration was tied to Hamburg (and to Germany after the unification in 1872) and the stamps were printed by the Prussian printing office (which became the Reich Druckerei after unification) for a German speaking populace and yet the stamps bore the profile of Queen Victoria.

In 1890 the British conveyed the island to Germany in exchange for a bit of African territory. The island came under the Reich postal administration and began to use the stamps of Germany. Thus Heligoland stamps became the past issues of a “dead territory” and very collectable.

There were more than twenty reprintings of the stamps for collectors in the nineteenth century, some of them official, some semi-official, and some purely private. Few of these reprintings were “forgeries.” 1.3 million valid stamps were printed for use, but only half of them were ever used. The rest were bought for resale to collectors. Then there were over five million reprints.

Map of Helgoland

A Brief Helgoland History

  • 1402 — The Friesian island was acquired for the independent Hanseatic League City of Hamburg.
  • 1714 — The island was seized by Denmark.
  • 1796 — The first postal agent was stationed on the island by Hamburg and remained there until June 30, 1866. The postmasters and their dates of service were: Paul Volckers (1796-1866), Peter Volckers (1866-1873), Robert Pilger (1873-1879), and Detlev J. Hornsmann (1879-1890).
  • 1807 — England seized Heligoland during the Napoleonic Wars.
  • 1814 — Following the final defeat of Napoleon, Denmark paid the price for being an ally of the French. At the Kiel Peace Treaty the island was ceded to England.
  • 1826 — Mail service from England to Hamburg via Heligoland by two fast sailing ships was established. A tradition began which became the service by the two principal German steamship companies, North German Lloyd and Hamburg Amerika. The former served Bremen on the Wesser River via Geestemünde and the latter Hamburg on the Elbe River via Ritzebüttel (later a part of Cuxhaven).
  • 1862 — Hamburg stamps are used for Heligoland postage sometime in the summer. Hamburg first introduced stamps in 1859.
  • 1866 — On July 1, the post office of Heligoland, previously operated by the city of Hamburg, was turned over to British administration. Herr Volkers was appointed British postmaster. The stamps of the city of Hamburg continued to be used on the island for postage until the following year.
  • 1867 — The British introduced Heligoland postage stamps following a postal agreement with Hamburg. The stamps were produced by the Prussian State Printing Office (Preussiche Staatsdruckerei).
  • 1873 — Postal rates for letters, postal cards and printed matter were aligned with German rates.
  • 1875 — On July 1, German values were introduced for postage stamps.
  • 1890 — On August 10th Great Britain ceded Heligoland to Germany. This was a part of a general settlement treaty signed on July 1st between Germany and Great Britain involving territorial claims in Africa too complex to be related here. The Kaiser arrived on his yacht, SMS Hohenzollern, and with pomp and ceremony, he formally took possession in the name of Germany.
  • 1914-1918—In 1914, the first sea battle of World War I was fought near Heligoland, called by the British, “the battle of Heligoland Bight.” The German navy turned the island into a submarine base.
  • 1940 — Germany issued a stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Island’s acquisition. Heligoland again served as a submarine base during the Second World War. The island was ringed with anti-aircraft gun emplacements.
  • 1945 — On April 18, a raid of 1,000 British bombers smothered the island and destroyed almost all buildings including the post office. On May 5, British forces occupied the island without resistance. On May 12, the British evicted the populace and mail service ceased.
  • 1947— Great Britain shipped some 6,700 tons of war-surplus explosives to Heligoland. The intention was to obliterate the island. The resulting explosion was the largest non-nuclear detonation in history. The faces of some of the cliffs were destroyed leaving great masses of rubble and ruining part of the distinctive façade of the island. The submarine pens were certainly obliterated, leaving a crater where the pens had been. A friend tells me the result was referred to as “Der Krater.” The island was otherwise intact.
  • 1952 — On March 1, Heligoland was returned to Germany, and postal service began again. A commemorative stamp was issued with the inscription “Helgoland Wieder Frei.”
  • 1967—Germany issued a centenary commemorative stamp.
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