A Forwarding Agent is a person or a firm that arranges for letters entrusted to them to reach their destination.


Most Forwarding Agents placed some sort of marking on the letters entrusted to them. In the earliest days, this was a manuscript endorsement [none are know from the Straits Settlements], then later, handstamps because the custom. The earliest recorded Forwarding Agent marking is a manuscript endorsement on a 1579 letter from Venice to London. [See PP0001]

In Europe, the first Forwarding Agents were the operators of coffee houses in England. In the 16th century, coffee houses were meeting places frequented by ship captains, merchants and others.They were the idea places to learn about shipping and business information arriving from around the world and for making arrangements for cargoes and insuring them. As a service, ship captains would place a bag on the wall of the coffee house to collect letters for deliver to the ports they were intending to visit. The operators of the coffee houses would collect a fee from those depositing letters.

In isolated locations such as Singapore, as a matter of survival, trading firms were aware of the most direct and efficient means for sending and receiving their mail. It was then natural for them to offer to forward letters for others using their established contacts. Even where a postal service was available, firms might choose to send letters through a Forwarding Agent because they knew cheaper, reliable and faster means of getting them to their destinations.

The importance of quick and reliable communications caused some firms to send staff to act as their agents in faraway locations or to appoint a local person or firm to act on their behalf. Others established branch offices to both forward mail and goods for the parent company. So important was having someone in place looking after the firm’s interests that many firms, in ports such as Singapore, besides acting as forwarding agents were ship brokers and commission agents as well.

British Malaya Forwarding Agents

Singapore A. L. Johnston & Co. 1 January 1829 Boustead & Co. 1940
Penang Fraser & Co. 1860 [PP0001] The Asiatic Stamp Co. 1909
no Forwarding Agents recorded


Why They Were Need

Before the development of reliable postal systems it was up to individuals to arrange for the transmission of their mail. As a necessity for conducting commerce, firms worked out routes for sending and receiving their mail. Often times, there was no direct mail route between distant locations and Europe. Wars also forced Forwarding Companies to abandon customary routes and develop new ones. Some countries had a mail service but these were generally costly, unreliable and did not provide transmission beyond their boarders. The creation of the General Postal Union in 1874 followed by the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1878 saw the establishment of efficient postal systems in member countries. As countries joined the UPU it became progressively easier to dispatch and receives cross boarder mail. Thus the need for the services of Forwarding Agents was gradually disappeared.

The dates some countries joined the UPU are given below. For a complete list see: Wikipedia - Universal Postal Union and the UPU Official website

  • United Kingdom 1 July 1875
  • Germany 1 July 1875
  • United States of America 1 July 1875
  • France 1 January 1876
  • India 1 July 1876
  • Straits Settlements 1 April 1877
  • Indonesia 1 May 1877
  • Siam 1 July 1885

How Letters Were Forwarded

  • A letter was delivered to the Forwarding Agent. A fee was paid up front or added to the account of major clients. Some agents provided their services free of change to advertise their other services such as commission agent, ship broker, etc. Some clients would tie together a number of letters in a package and have these sent to the Forwarding Agent. Large firms that produced price current lists might handover hundreds of these at one time to be forwarded.
  • If necessary, the Forwarding Agent applies the required postage to the letter, often tying the stamps to the envelope with their handstamp, to prevent the stamps from being stolen.
  • In many parts of the world, before the establishment of the UPU in 1874,postal services did not exist or if they did they were unreliable. It was the job of the Forwarding Agent to arrange for letters to be sent to a location where they could be deposited into an exiting mail system that would deliver them to their final destination or to another Forwarding Agent who would move the letters closer to their destination or hold them for their clients to collect. In his book, Kenneth Rowe illustrates a letter showing the markings of four Forwarding Agents who handled it en route. [See PP0001]

Their Demise

As more and more countries joined the UPU the last leg of the delivery process was usually when the letter was dropped into the mail system of an established postal service. The need for Forwarding Agents was greatest before the various packet lines,operated by the English, French and others, came into being in the 1800's and before the creation of the UPU in 1874. As more and more countries joined the UPU, the need for the services of Forwarding Agents gradually disappeared.

The Markings Used in Singapore and Penang

Wording Found on Forwarding Agent Chops


a) Wording: All the handstamps contain the words FORWARDED BY, the company's name and the city where they are located. Maclaine, Fraser & Co. of Singapore, used the form STAMPED AND FORWARDED BY. Some of the earliest handstamps contained the polite expression, YOUR OBEDIENT SERVANTS at times abbreviated Yr Ob Sts. Some firms added their street address to their handstamps and others added the year.

b) Location of the handstamp:

Initially the Forwarding Agents applied their handstamps to the back of letters leaving the front for the various postal markings. With the introduction of stamps, they started to apply their handstamp to the stamps to prevent them being stolen. At times, sheets of mint stamps were marked with the agent's handstamps a soon as they were purchased.When the handstamp was larger than would fit on a single stamp it would spill over onto more than one stamp. Then when the stamp was applied toa letter, only a portion of the agent's handstamp would be seen. If one did not know this fact, then the appearance of this stamp on cover would make one suspects that a used stamp had been added to the cover by a faker.

c) Manuscript markings = none known.

d) Handstamps:

The handstamps were never circular so as not to have them confused with post office date stamps. Most often they were oval followed by rectangular. A small number of handstamps were frameless. As for the colour of the ink used, black, violet, blue and red predominated and the occasional green and orange markings are seen.


Frame Type: Oval
Frame Colour: Black



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© Michel Houde

Last updated: 12 Aug 2014


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