As senior correspondent of the London Times, Sir Harry Perry Robinson travelled the world in search of a good story. In November 1921 he was invited by the newspaper’s proprietor, Lord Northcliffe, to make a passage to India, following the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) on his nearly five-month goodwill tour of the East. For Robinson, this was a poignant visit to the land of his birth, a place he left in 1861 when he was two years old.
Correspondents like Robinson travelled with the prince in a special train by day and bunked at night along with staff and retinue in a “Prince of Wales’s Camp” set up outside whatever palace the prince lodged in that particular evening. “One of the wonders of the Prince’s tour has been the cities of tents which are put up – ‘built,’ one is inclined to say – before we arrive, and, we are told, are generally demolished the day after we have left,” he wrote. “The tents stand on each side of wide streets, laid out at right angles, the ground plan of a veritable town.” Robinson was impressed by each tent’s electric lighting and lavish appointments, “that of a comfortably-appointed study at home, with writing table, what-nots, and deep easy-chairs; and on the soft carpeted floor heavy rugs are thrown. I have even had tiger skins.” Rounding out the camp were “a post-office tent, a telegraph-office tent, an inquiry tent, a camp doctor’s tent, a central club or drawing-room tent, and mess tents for the various grades of European and Indian members of the population. It is a White City of several hundred souls, spreading over a much wider area than a corresponding settlement of bricks and mortar; and it may be occupied for one single night; then it vanishes again.”
A philatelist, Robinson was especially impressed by the postal arrangements. “The thaumaturgist is a gentleman of the name of Vas Dev (improbable as that may sound) whose laboratory is a cream-coloured post office on wheels on the Royal train,” he explained. “Possibly the words Vas Dev are an abbreviation of some magic formula or he may be a reincarnation of Merlin or Cagliostro or the Witch of Endor. Certainly he has much influence with the powers of darkness.”
We arrive in the early morning at the capital of some Native State, and an hour later, the ceremonies of arrival over, repair to our temporary home in the camp. By the time we get there; propped up on each writing-table stands a neat card printed all in gold, with the Prince of Wales’s Feathers for crest at the top, informing us precisely at what hours each day the mails for various parts of India and the world will be collected from the brand-new post pillar erected on our doorstep. On the trains at odd hours of night and day similar gold-printed missives, crested and beautiful, flutter in upon us in our compartments informing us that “if the trains arrive on time,” it is expected to distribute the next English mail on the day after to-morrow at 11 a.m. At 11 a.m. on the appointed day a bowing chuprassi steals silently to your tent door with your share of home letters in his hands.
“It is all magic,” Robinson concluded. “In Burma the mail reached us faster than we could calculate that trains and ships could possibly have brought it.”
Image one: The special postmark for mail sent from the Prince of Wales’ Camp in India.
Source: Sir Harry’s private album, provided by Joseph McAleer
Robinson also wrote about the special camp postmark. “Strange and appetizing tales are told of the enormous prices now asked and paid in philatelic circles for stamps of high denomination cancelled with the similar postmark used on the Indian tour of the King and Queen,” he noted. “It is announced in the Indian Press that in exchange for the proper amount of money Mr. Vas Dev will send to anybody whole sets or partial sets of current Indian stamps duly cancelled with the coveted mark.” Although Robinson doubted “whether any stamp of less than 10 rupees in value can ever be very precious,” the end result was clear: “the Post Office revenue must be profiting considerably; and that – if magicians can consider such sordid things – is probably what Mr. Vas Dev, like a good public servant, is after.”
Although he admitted that “the ephemerality of the ordinary canvas cities prompts to moralizing,” Robinson concluded, “we shall hardly enjoy such sumptuousness again; for India is the only country where it could be.”
Not for long. Even Robinson could not deny that the sun was slowly setting on the empire. Protesters greeted the prince at early every stop on his tour of the subcontinent, proclaiming the cause of independence under their leader, Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Featured image: Edward, Prince of Wales (seated, second row, center) and his entourage in Delhi, India, in 1922, during his tour of the Subcontinent. Sir Harry Perry Robinson is standing in the rear, second row from top, right of center. Source: Sir Harry’s private album, provided by Joseph McAleer