The Perforations Found in Victoria

The perforations found in Victoria form a complex and fascinating study. It is an area of active research on my part, and an area in which surprisingly little has been published. The only major study, that I can find, was published by Yardley way back in 1918. If you are aware of any more recent studies, I’d be interested in hearing about them.

For starters, it seems that there may have been as many as a dozen different perforating machines used in the colony, with many of those machines being repaired or converted from line perforators to comb perforators during the course of time. Each machine and each new repair created distinctly different characteristics – different holes sizes, different gauges, sharp round holes, ragged irregular holes, line perforations, comb perforations, and so on.

The intent here is not to provide a detailed analysis of all those variations but, rather, an overview of the basic evolution of the perforating types found.

The first stamps were all issued imperforate. The postal clerks cut the stamps individually from the sheet using scissors, or by other means. Certainly the vast majority were separated from the sheet using scissors, but there is evidence that, occasionally, the postal clerks folded the sheets between the margins then ripped the sheet to separate a column of stamps from the rest of the sheet. These show the ragged edge associated with such a technique. Still others were likely separated using a sharp knife, and a few examples are known which appear to have been separated using private, unofficial roulette wheels or perforating machines.

The first official attempt to create a perforated stamp occurred in the Fall of 1857, when the clerks at the General Post Office in Melbourne were given a simple rouletting device to assist in the separation of stamps. The rouletter consisted of a simple axle with 7 discs on it, evenly spaced to the width or height of a stamp. Each of these discs had a sharp edge, similar to a modern day pizza cutter, with a series of notches cut equidistantly into the circumference of the disc. When these were rolled over a sheet of stamps, it would slice through the paper, leaving a trail of short cuts with remaining tabs of uncut paper between each cut. Using this technique, the roulette wheel did not completely separate the stamps, but made it easy for a clerk to give a stamp a quick pull and the remaining paper tabs would tear and the stamp would release from the sheet. The discs on the axle were held in place by a series of washers and nuts, and some time and effort was required to disassemble it and reassemble it with different spacing between the discs. Since most stamps were rectangular in shape, the clerks usually rouletted one way only, and used scissors to complete the separation. As a result, these early examples are typically found with roulettes along the horizontal or along the vertical but generally not both. There are exceptions, especially with the one shilling octagon stamp, which, conveniently, was square. Stamps rouletted by this machine gauge about 7.5 to 9, and are often found rouletted on one or two sides. The roulettes have a characteristic wide `tooth’ between each cut of the rouletting wheel. Beware of fakes, especially for the very scarce issues.

The following year, a contract was given to Calvert to roulette all stamps prior to them being issued to the post offices. He used a rouletting device that had slightly different characteristics than the one issued to the GPO. The discs on his machine left a much shorter uncut tab, resulting in much finer `teeth’ when pulled apart. As well, his contract required that the stamps be rouletted on all 4 sides before being released to postal officials. These differing characteristics make it easy to separate Calvert's roulettes from those done at the GPO.

Calvert experimented with three types of perforating machines. In addition to the rouletter, eh also used a serrated cutter that gauges about 18, and a serpentine cutter that cut wavy lines gauging about 10-10.5. In addition to the examples shown, there were also some compound usages, with the serpentine cut along the top ofr bottom and serrated on the other three sides.

There is an interesting side-story attached to this phase of stamp development in Victoria. It appears that Calvert was caught pawning some sheets of stamps, which led to the termination of his contract with the government. As a consequence of this, there was a brief period when imperforate stamps once again appeared at post office wickets.

The government intervened and hired F.W.Robinson to be the official Stamp Printer for the colony and all the associated tasks, such as perforating. Robinson decided to replace the rouletting with the more efficient perforating methods that had been adopted by many postal authorities around the world. He purchased a line perforator that gauged between 11.4 and 12. Despite the discrepancies, all examples of this perforation are listed as perf 12 gauge. The machine was a simple stamping machine with a row of wire pins and a steel plate bed with corresponding holes to match the pins. A sheet of stamps was placed on the bed, aligned so that the margins between two rows or columns of stamps was in lines with the pins, and a lever was depressed by a worker, punching one row of perforations into the sheet. This process was repeated to perforate between each row, then the sheet was turned at right angles and the process repeated to perforate between each of the columns. For a sheet with 10 rows of 12, it required 24 separate steps to perforate a single sheet. Often the workers misplaced the sheet slightly resulting in badly off-centred stamps. One can only imagine the tedium of perforating hundreds of sheets and the opportunity for misplaced perforations. Some examples are known with additional, corrective lines of perforations – these are generally quite scarce.

In 1864, Robinson purchased a new line perforating machine which gauged 12.5 to 13. and for almost a year, it was the only machine in use, at which time, it was sent for repairs and the original perf 12 machine was returned to duty. When the perf 13 machine came back, both machines were used to keep up with the increasing volumes of stamps being printed.

As stamp volumes increased, the perforating machines suffered repeated breakdowns and repairs, creating a complex study. A number of rare perforation varieties emerged from this period, and special care must be taken to properly identify these. To identify many of the rare types, one must examine the characteristics of the perforations as well as the gauge. Many examples are improperly identified and many apparent rarities are not what they appear to be.

Starting in the mid 1870s a new and improved type of perforator first saw usage. Known as a comb-perforator, it had the ability to perforate three sides of a stamp in one operation. Instead of the previous single line of perforating pins, these new machines were augmented by a number of short rows of pins at right angles to the long row. When depressed, the pins along the main axis would punch the full length of a column on a stamp sheet, and the short rows would punch the short distance along the horizontal margins of one row in the sheet. The number of operations required to perforate a sheet of stamps was reduced by half. To accommodate these machines the size of the normal postage stamps was standardized, so that the vertical distance between the `comb’ rows on the perforating machines was always the same. Stamps which did not fit this norm, still had to be perforated using the line cutters. The example shown above illustrates quite dramatically the effect that occurred if the machine operator did not place the sheet of stamps accurately before perforating – in this example the perforations wander upwards and downwards with each column on the sheet.

One of the characteristics of comb-perforated stamps is that they are all exactly the same height, as the spacing of the perforating pins was pre-determined at the time of manufacture of the comb perforating machine. Stamps that were comb-perforated are 24.5 mm tall. Here, we see a comb-perforated stamp on the left, with another example that was obviously line-perforated on the right. This stamp had not been previously recorded as a line perforated stamps until this example was found.

The combined usage of line perforating machines and comb perforating machines continued until the end of the colonial period. In the later years, the comb perforators were used whenever possible, but some usage of the line cutters, even on the standard sized stamps, is encountered right to the end, with some examples being very rare.

Even with the comb perforating machines, it was still possible to create a badly off-centred row of stamps. It would appear that perforated sheets were inspected prior to release, because the most obvious examples of misaligned perforations were repaired. Usually this was done using a line perforator to produce a new row of perforations in the correct location. The stamps affected are often found with two rows of perforations along one or more margins. Extreme cases are found in which 3 sides have a second row of perforations.

Some of the repaired stamps involved machines with different gauges, known by collectors as mixed perforation varieties. Many of these are extremely rare with only a handful of known examples. In some instances, only a single example is known.

An example of a mixed perforation pair is illustrated above. This pair was comb-perforated but did not pass inspection, and was subsequently perforated again with a line perforator to add another column of perforations to better center the stamps. The added line perforation gauges 11, while the original comb perforator gauged the standard 12 horizontally and 12.5 vertically. Most such examples of mixed perforations are rare, and this example is no exception.

If you have any unsolved puzzles or new findings relating to the perforations of Victoria, I’d like to hear from you – it is an area of special interest to me

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