Valira Torrent - bulletin of the Andorran Philatelic Study Circle. Issue 1, pp1-6 (Jan 1975)
Little has been written in detail concerning the postal history of Andorra, perhaps because the sparse correspondence originating from the four to five thousand inhabitants of former times has left virtually no material to stimulate interest and upon which a study of the subject could be based. In the absence of such material one can only trace the development of the posts by seeking out and examining the scattered, and sometimes contradictory, references to the postal service which have appeared in history and travel books and combining those with the literature to be found in the philatelic press of years gone by. This it is proposed to do in the present series of articles, and references will be given to all the sources of information used in the compilation of the notes. There undoubtedly exist other references to the subject which are unknown to the writer, for example in articles and books written by early travellers in the Pyrenees, and it is hoped that any reader who is in possession of such articles or any additional information will kindly inform the Secretary so that these notes may be revised at a later date. These present notes are themselves a revision of a series of articles which began to appear in "Andorra Philatelist" of Mexico City in 1971, and contain several corrections and additions arising out of other articles in that publication.
The earliest official reference we have been able to find to any organised postal service to Andorra is contained in a lengthy report compiled by a Spanish Infantry Colonel, Bonifacio Ulrich, who spent seven years In Andorra, from 1841-1848, as a Special Commissioner of the Spanish Government, and who states:-
"Posts. Formerly the Andorrans used to collect their mail individually from the post offices of the City of Urgel and of the town of Ax, in France, but in view of the large number of emigrés who were in their Valleys during the last civil war, a post was established which conveys the Andorran mail from the said post offices to the town of Sant Julia, from which it is distributed." (1)
The civil war here mentioned was the Carlist War in Northern Spain of 1831-39, and that the postal service was established during this period is confirmed by another writer, Don Francisco Carreras y Candi (2) quoting a history book of 1874 (3) which gives the year of its establishment as 1837.
"when it was agreed that a Spanish courier should take the correspondence from the City of Urgel to Andorra, and that an Andorran should receive it there and convey it to Ax (France), and viceversa: although letters from this nation, though addressed to Andorra, are passed to Urgel, from which point they are sent to the postmaster of the Republic for him to distribute."
There is a seeming contradiction here, i.e. that while mail to and from France was conveyed by the Andorran courier, mail from France was sent to Urgel. A likely explanation is that while in the normal course of events a letter from France addressed to Andorra would be sent into Spain to reach its destination via Seo de Urgel, those Andorrans with friends and relatives in France would sometimes make use of the office at Ax and have correspondence addressed to them at that office for collection by the Andorran courier. Due to the difficulties in direct communication between Andorra and France, the mountain passes being frequently snowbound in the months from autumn until late spring, the Andorrans always depended on Seo de Urgel to conduct the bulk of their business, postal or otherwise and that city was their principal point of communication with the outside world, including with their northern neighbour.
From these two early references it is evident that Spain merely undertook the conveyance of the mail from Urgel to Sant Julia de Loria, while the distribution inside Andorra and the direct service between Andorra and France were matters for the Andorrans themselves. Whether the Spanish service continued after the war ended, or whether it was then discontinued and the Andorrans were again left to make their own arrangements for the collection and despatch of their mail from Urgel is not definitely known as we have been unable to trace any other references to the postal services existing in the first half of the 19th century. France first issued postage stamps in 1849, followed by Spain in 1850, and while it might be supposed that the development of the postal services in these two countries would have had some effect on the position in Andorra we have been unable to find any record of postage stamps being available in the principality until some twenty-five years later, following a further Carlist war in Northern Spain, that of 1873-76. During this war all the Spanish territory bordering Andorra was occupied by the Carlists, and any postal service between Andorra and Spain during this period must therefore have been carried on by arrangement with the Carlist authorities. Mail for Carlist controlled areas could presumably have been despatched from Seo de Urgel in the usual way as the Carlists organised their own postal services in the territory under their control, and communication with other areas could have been effected via l'Hospitalet which, by about 1870, had replaced Ax as the outlet on the French side of the Pyrenees.
After the Carlist War of 1873-76 a reorganisation of the postal arrangements took place, and according to Sr. Francisco Carreras y Candi it was in the year 1877 that the rudimentary postal organisation came into being, with the appointment of an Andorran subject, Tomàs Rossell y Moles, as postmaster. He sold postage stamps of both France and Spain, which had to be affixed to the mail depending on its destination. In the case of Spain the letters were postmarked at Seo de Urgell as if they had originated in that city, while the mail bearing French stamps was postmarked at Porté which had now taken over from the l'Hospitalet office the handling of the mail for France. In the interior of Andorra the mail was always conveyed free of charge, requiring no stamps of any kind. (2)
One year later, at the Universal Postal Union Congress held in Paris in 1878, Andorra was officially allocated to Spain for postal purposes, article XXXII of the Detailed Regulations for the execution of the Convention reading as follows:-
"The following are considered as belonging to the Universal Postal Union:
4.......... the Republic of the Valley of Andorra ... as subordinate to the Postal Administration of Spain." (4)
In pursuance of these provisions Spain alone was encharged with the postal Organisation of Andorra, but another half a century was to elapse before the Spanish Postal Service finally came into being.
The early 1880s brought a strong increase in French interest in Andorra, culminating in a bid by France to gain control of the country by offering to install postal and telegraph services, and to provide money for the construction of roads, provided Andorra became a French "département". By July 1881 these preparations for a take-over were in an advanced stage and telegraph poles had been erected by the French on Andorran territory. (5). This attempt to seize their country was strongly opposed by the majority of the Andorrans and eventually failed following rioting and the intervention of the Bishop of Urgel.
It is to this period that the earliest recorded postmark for Andorra belongs, this being of the same type as those at the time in use in France and consisting of two circles or rings, with the inscription "ANDORRE-VAL D'ANDORRE" between the rings. Examples dated 15th October 1882 have been found on contemporary stamps of both France and Spain, and the existence of the mark has led several writers to assume that France opened a post-office in Andorra circa 1882. While this was not the case, it is more than likely that the date-stamp was made during the French take-over preparations referred to above, and sent to some French agent in Andorra for use when the proposed postal and telegraph service came into operation.
Even though the attempt to absorb Andorra had failed, France made renewed efforts in the succeeding years to increase her influence in the small state, and was later able to install a telegraph service and establish a postal service between Porté and the Andorran capital. Some official information concerning this service is contained in an article submitted by the French Ministry of Posts to the Universal Postal Union's magazine "Union Postale", from the July 1945 number of which we take the following:-
"Notwithstanding the stipulations of the Convention (which had allocated Andorra to Spain) France organised in 1887 a rudimentary postal service consisting of two postmen who went on foot direct from Porté (France) to Andorra la Vella, delivering the letters which they carried in the different localities on their route. In this manner, that part of Andorra situated between the French frontier and Andorra la Vella, also the capital itself, was worked by these French postmen, while that part between the Spanish frontier and Andorra la Vella was served by Spanish postmen." (This reference to Spanish postmen appears to be incorrect in view of a later sentence in this same article and an account given by a visitor to Andorra in 1888 which will be recorded here later.) "The service was subsequently modified and improved and the correspondence was carried from Porté to Soldeu by two postmen who lived at Soldeu, and from Soldeu to Andorra la Vella by two other postmen living in the latter locality."
The modification and improvement in this service was an important step forward in the French attempts to gain control of Andorra's posts, as for the first time the employment by France of personnel actually resident in Andorra, and the use of local premises became necessary. While the date is not given in this article, it was undoubtedly in the year 1892 when, despite fresh opposition and strong protests from the Spanish Co-Prince, France constructed a telegraph line into Andorra, opening telegraph offices at Encamp and Andorra la Vella on the 1st November 1892, and additional offices at Soldeu and Sant Julia de Loria a short time later. (6) It is on record also, that in 1892 some correspondence took place between the French Ministry of Posts and other government departments concerning the wording of a poster regarding the postal services which was to be displayed in Andorra. This poster was headed "REPUBLIQUE D'ANDORRE" and the French Prefect of Pyrenees Orientales returned it to Paris with the request that the word "republique" be substituted by "VALLEES" seeing that Andorra was not a republic and that the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs would recognise only the designation "VALLEES D'ANDORRE". (7) This poster almost certainly referred to the new (or "improved") postal service mentioned in the article quoted, which continues:-
"At Andorra la Vella an agent appointed by the French Postal Administration sorted out the mail brought by the postmen from France. He himself delivered that for the capital and sent the rest to the distributors in the other localities. He sold both French and Spanish stamps. The delivery of mail in the different localities was made by municipal agents appointed and paid by the mayors. Private persons who had correspondence to send, or other postal transactions to perform, entrusted it, according to its destination either to the drivers of vehicles going to Seo de Urgel in Spain or to the postmen who in fine weather went to France every day."
The agent appointed at Andorra la Vella was a French shoemaker who was established in Andorra, a Monsieur Bridé of whom more later. Seemingly his duties were mainly of an administrative nature, the actual postal work in the capital being delegated to the already mentioned Tomàs Rossell y Moles, who remained in charge until his death in 1897 when he was succeeded by his son, Tomàs Rossell y Duran. (2) The statement that mail was entrusted to the drivers of "vehicles" (?mules?) going to Seo de Urgel conflicts with the earlier statement that Spanish postmen worked to the Andorran capital, hence our remark on this point. That there was no Spanish service to Andorra la Vella appears confirmed by a visitor, Pedro Vidal, who
"describing his trip to Andorra in 1888 explained that the post was installed in a small store, in the window of which there was always to be seen a number of letters waiting to be claimed. Mail arrived via Sant Julia de Loria and Seo de Urgel. A girl of 12 worked the route between Sant Julia and Andorra la Vella; she carried a leather letter-case, and knitted socks while walking along." (2)
While Spain possibly conveyed the mail as far as Sant Julia de Loria, this industrious twelve-year-old would seem to have been one of the local distributors who were paid from Andorran funds.
Another brief reference to the postal service of this period occurs in an article written in 1893 by a Señor José Aladern:
"It consisted of two foot-postmen, one for the route from Seo de Urgel to Llorts by way of Andorra la Vella, the other leaving the capital and going in the direction of France. The cost was paid by the parishes or by the Andorran State which recovered the small amounts from the parishes". (2)
The postmen here described as going in the direction of France from Andorra la Vella would, in fact, have been one of the couriers employed by the French Postal Administration, so this writer confuses the internal services (paid for by the Andorran State) with the service to Porté(paid for by France). It is also extremely unlikely that one person would ever have worked the entire route from Seo de Urgel to Llorts, this being a journey of some eight hours march according to Colonel Ulrich.
While the position with regard to Spain's part in the postal service remains none too clear at this time, it is well established from later accounts left by travellers and visitors that the French courier service inaugurated in 1892 continued to operate, virtually unaltered until 1931 when the present postal service came into being. Andorra being separated from France by a range of mountains the passes through which are at an altitude of over 2000 metres and frequently snowbound, the mail-carriers operating between Soldeu and Porté had a dangerous and difficult task to perform. They were frequently unable to make the journey during the winter months, accidents occurred, and it has been stated that more than one of these postmen lost his life while making the perilous passage over the mountains. In addition to carrying mail these couriers also transacted other postal business on behalf of residents in Andorra, such as the sending from Porté of money orders, or the collection at that office of the money payable on incoming orders. In the latter case long delays sometimes occurred before the payee received his money, as the form had first to be sent from Porté to Andorra to obtain the necessary signature and then taken back by the courier for payment. The postmen did not always give receipts for the money entrusted to them and if an accident occurred it was sometimes difficult to find out to whom the money belonged. It is understandable therefore, that the inadequate service gave rise to criticism but France could not officially reorganise the service while the U.P.U. Convention allocating Andorra to Spain remained unaltered. (4)
Some interesting details of the postal arrangements as they existed in August 1898 are on record thanks to an account given by a visitor and published in the French journal "Le Collectioneur de Timbres-poste" No. 219 of January 1899:-
"It will perhaps be surprising to learn that there exists in the Valley of Andorra a postal and telegraph service although there are no roads suitable for a vehicle.
I. International Franco-Andorran service. The letters from Andorra for France are all brought to the capital up to 10p.m. The next morning at 5 o'clock a courier takes the assembled mail and carries it to Soldeu, the last Andorran village, where he meets at about 11a.m. the courier from France, who has come from l'Hospitalet or Porté, the nearest French post offices. Mails are exchanged and each courier returns to his starting point. At Andorra la Vella the letters from France are delivered about 3 or 4pm. At Porté the letters from Andorra are forwarded by post-van to Ax-les-Thermes, on the railway to Toulouse, where they can be delivered the same night. In the service with France French stamps of 15 centimes are used, for there are neither stamps nor postmarks of Andorra. A letter sent to me from Lille on August 13th 1898 passed Ax (second collection) on August 15th to Porté (fourth collection) on August 15th and was delivered to me at the inn at Andorra la Vella at 4p.m. on August 16th. One of my letters posted at Andorra at 9.30p.m. on August 15th passed Ax on the 17th and was delivered at Acheux (Somme) on August 19th.
II. International Spanish-Andorran Service. This is also carried on by couriers. The Andorran courier goes to Seo de Urgel (Spain) and brings back incoming mail. Spanish stamps are used, the present war tax (on letters during the Spanish-American War of 1898) is not obligatory.
III. National Andorra Service. Between Andorran villages and small communities the service is free of charge. A piece of paper of any kind posted in a village will be delivered to the addressee the same night or the next day. This very primitive service is carried on by peasant boys taking the mountain paths.
IV. Telegraph Service. This exists between Andorra and the French office at Porté. There is no line from Andorra to Seo de Urgell; to telegraph there the message has to be sent via Toulouse - Perpignan - Barcelona. The French line goes from Andorra via Soldeu and Porté. A wire which I sent at 10.45a.m. from Soldeu arrived at Pas de Calais at 2.30p.m. the same day; ordinary French tariff of 50 centimes."
One slight misunderstanding appears to have arisen in this account, this being in regard to the service between Soldeu and France. The courier stated "to have come from l'Hospitalet or Porté" was not a mail-carrier based on one of these offices as might be inferred, but the courier resident at Soldeu who had been to Porté and back by 11 o'clock, (while the courier resident at Andorra la Vella was making his way to Soldeu). With regard to l'Hospitalet, the Andorran mail may still have occasionally been taken to this office for despatch in some exceptional circumstance, but Porté was the normal outlet.
The information provided by this French visitor has recently been considerably augmented by Mr. Manuel Barò of Andorra, who in that very year of 1898 was closely connected with the postal service and may quite conceivably have handled some of the letters mentioned by the French visitor. Mr. Barò's reminiscences, supplied in 1970 during an interview with the noted Mexican philatelist Mr Ernesto Fink, were recorded in full in "Andorra Philatelist" No. 2, a bulletin circulated by Mr. Fink in February 1971, and are now summarised here as they provide at first hand some more interesting details of the postal organisation towards the close of the century.
Mr. Barò who was born in 1877, was apprenticed in the 1890s to Monsieur Bridé, the shoemaker in Andorra la Vella who was also the French postal agent and was paid a monthly salary of 33 francs by the French government for his services. Tomàs Rossell y Moles, who also worked for Mr. Bridé, normally attended to the postal business but Mr. Barò himself also assisted with this at times, and distributed the mail in Andorra la Vella in 1897 and 1898 no doubt because of the death of Tomàs Rossell in 1897, as already recorded.
In those days Andorra la Vella itself consisted of only some 40 houses, and there was only the one office - presumably on Mr Bridé's premises - which handled mail for both France and Spain, and sorted the letters received from the different localities. There were no roads of any kind, and the journey from Andorra la Vella to Soldeu took five hours on foot. This journey was undertaken daily by a Mr Samion, usually on foot but sometimes with a mule, although the outgoing mail to France at times consisted of only two letters, and the incoming mail averaged from two to five letters and two newspapers a day. From Soldeu a Mr Canaro carried the mail over the difficult route to Porté, again daily when the weather permitted. There were no refuges or dwellings up in the mountains, the only shelter being a primitive little shepherd's hut near Pas de la Casa. The route via the Port Dret pass was usually taken in preference to that via the Port d'Envalira, as although the climb was more difficult it avoided the heavier snowdrifts of the latter. For their combined efforts - totalling some seventeen hours walking in this difficult terrain, often in extreme weather conditions - these two stalwarts received a total daily payment of 5 pesetas, which they split between them.
Mail for the localities between Soldeu and the capital - Canillo, Encamp, Les Escaldes was left with the local distributors by Mr Samion as he passed through, and the outgoing mail collected also.
The cost of delivering mail to other parts of Andorra was met from funds provided the General Council of Andorra, the carriers receiving 25 centimos for the journey from capital to La Massana, and 50 centimos to Ordino. These two parishes were faithfully served by a Mrs Olivett who made the trip - a walk of some four hours duration - all the year round, regardless of the weather.
In the south of the country the mail from Spain for Andorra was delivered to Sant Julia de Loria, its conveyance as far as that town being paid for by Spain. At Sant Julia it was taken over by a young woman popularly known as "La Polleta" ("Chick", or "Our Chick" - Mr Barò did not remember her real name; perhaps this was the same person as the industrious young lady of 1888). As Spain did not pay her anything for distributing the mail she charged a delivery fee of 5 centimos on the letters which came from Spain for her part of Andorra. Sometimes people could not pay the 5 centimos, but "La Polleta" was willing to extend credit and delivered the letters anyway. The mail for the other parts of Andorra she took daily to the office at Andorra la Vella, a round trip of some three hours, for which she received 50 centimos.
From this information supplied by Mr Barò it can be seen that all the main villages of Andorra were covered by the courier services paid for by France and the General Council of Andorra, and controlled by Mr. Bridé.
One other point mentioned by Mr Barò was that no cancelling device was available which confirms the statement by the French writer of 1898. However, the four telegraph offices possessed circular date-stamps for use on the telegraph forms, and a few rare examples have been found on covers, in one or two cases struck on the stamps. These were applied contrary to the regulations, usually to oblige a philatelic request. It is hoped to deal fully with these early cancellations in a separate article covering the postmarks of Andorra.
(1) "Apuntes sobre los Valles Neutrales de Andorra", Bonifacio Ulrich, Barcelona 1848.
(2) "Andorra, su Correo y sus Sellos", a series of articles appearing in the journal "El Filatelico Español", Barcelona 1928-1935.
(3) "Historica political, social y administrativa de la Republica Federal de Andorra", Barcelona 1874.
(4) "The French Postal Service in the Valleys of Andorra", "Union Postale" Berne, July 1945.
(5) "La Ceca, La Meka, et Les Vallées d'Andorre", Sant Julia de Loria 1952, pp 52, 53.
(6) "Schweizer Briefmarken-Zeitung", December 1943, p.338.
(7) "Statut juridique des Vallées d'Andorre", p 237.
Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
A more recent account of Andorran postal history up to and including 1931 is available in "Les Services de la Poste Francaise ... a Partir de 16.6.1931" published by CIFA. Available from W. A. Jacques
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