James E Lyle…the stamp of approval 60 years on

101631_060 years ago today, the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia 7d* (penny) stamp was released. “So what?”, I hear you say. “Stamps are released every other day. What is so special about this one?” Well, this stamp, or should I say the designer of this stamp, had a close association with my maternal great-grandmother and her family. The designer of this stamp (as well as others) was James E Lyle (Jimmy). Regular readers will recognise the name as I have posted about the work and life of this Brisbane-born artist and his connection to our family. If you don’t know what I am talking about, have a look at James E Lyle … a lost art.

To provide some background, particularly for my international readers, the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia (RFDS) was founded by the Reverend John Flynn OBE, DD (1880-1951) who was an Australian Presbyterian minister. Through his work with the Australian Inland Mission which provided spiritual and practical assistance for those in the “Outback” of Australia, he saw first hand the hardships endured by them. Over time, Dr Flynn saw that one of the major needs was for medical assistance for the scattered population. Dr Flynn was a visionary and in 1928 the beginning of what was to become the RFDS was launched.

“The Royal Flying Doctor Service is one of the largest and most comprehensive aeromedical organisations in the world, providing extensive primary health care and 24-hour emergency service to people over an area of 7.3 million square kilometres.”    RFDS Website 2017

For more detailed information on Dr Flynn and the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia please see RFDS Website.

On a personal note, I have an official first day issue addressed to my great aunt, Elsie Morley, date stamped Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, on 21 August, 1957 (below). While the cover is a little worse for wear, the stamp depicts the map of Australia with the Caduceus and in its shadow, that of an aeroplane covering Outback Australia. The Caduceus, often seen as a symbol of medicine, is a symmetrical staff with wings with two snakes intertwined. This official first day cover came with the compliments of the artist, James E Lyle (lower left corner).

From the author’s private collection.

While the RFDS did not receive any revenue for the stamp, they did receive much needed publicity. On the other hand, I understand that the RFDS received revenue for the Official First Day of Issue which I would imagine was very welcome.

Another first day cover provided by Jimmy’s niece, Gaile Davis, appears below. The following description was provided when she purchased it a few years ago:

  • 1957 Australia First Day Cover The Royal Flying Doctor Service
  • Designer: James E Lyle with modifications by B Stewart – Engraver: Donald Cameron – Printer: W C G McCracken
  • Design shows a map of Australia overshadowed by the Caduceus, this stamp was released as a definitive and available for all purposes, but primarily to cover the postage and internal air mail rate.
  • Issued 21 August with perforation 14¼ x 14
  • First Day Cover 7d Blue Caduceus over Australia.
From the Gaile Davis Collection.

In the process of researching Jimmy Lyle’s life and art, I came across an article in an RFDS Magazine from May 1999. It provides a perspective of the Royal Flying Doctor Service and its connection with Jimmy. It seems that a past patient of the RFDS, Reg Ferguson, a former Troop Sergeant at Tobruk during World War II, conceived of the stamp after he was introduced to philately while convalescing after a number of operations. This new-found hobby led him to think about the design of a stamp to bring attention to the RFDS.  He believed that the publicity the RFDS would receive would go some way to repaying his debt to the ‘Flying Doctor’. This was in 1946. He later enlisted the aid of another ex-serviceman, the artist, James E Lyle to design the stamp. Following some discussions with the grateful patient, Jimmy went about designing the stamp. At this time, Jimmy had never designed a stamp. After many years of lobbying the Post Master General of Australia, the stamp was finally released on 21 August 1957. For the full article, please see RFDS Magazine May 1999.

Interestingly, I also came across an article by Molly Elliott of the Auckland Star, written in the 1960s, where it documents Jimmy’s travels through Europe, Arabia, India and Australia. On arriving back in Australia from Europe and beyond, Jimmy landed in Adelaide. It was the mid 1950s and according to the article, Jimmy wanted to see more of Australia and embarked on a 3-4 month journey north to Darwin. Along the way he encountered the work of the RFDS and wanted to show his appreciation for their inspiring work and started gathering material for a stamp that would provide publicity for the organisation. So, this is probably after initial contact with Reg Ferguson around 1946. As with many things, the exact story is lost in the mists of time. However, the facts remain, that the stamp was indeed designed by Jimmy Lyle and approximately 66,000,000 stamps were sold during the period 1957 to 1959, before the postage price went up. (Some things never change!)

On another note, I saw a copy of a receipt for £100** from the RFDS. This is the same amount Jimmy received in payment by the Commonwealth of Australia for the design of the stamp. Jimmy donated the whole amount to the RFDS. I understand Jimmy had a long relationship with the ‘Flying Doctor’.

A photo and a few documents regarding Jimmy’s connection with the RFDS appear below. Apologies for the poor quality of the photos. The State Library of Queensland is not conducive to good photography! Regardless, I am sure you will get the gist of it. If you take the time to read the fine print in the article, it states that Jimmy was a temporary resident of New Zealand. He lived and worked in Auckland for a number of years during the 1950s.

James E Lyle RFDS article (2)
Assortment of RFDS documents from James E Lyle Scrapbook, OM93-13, James Lyle Clippings, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Australia.
James E Lyle RFDS display c1957
The Royal Flying Doctor Service display including the 7d stamp c 1957. OM93-13, James Lyle Clippings, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Australia.

Another of Jimmy’s artwork included a mural, measuring 17 feet x 6 feet (5.1 metres x 1.8 metres), which was located in the Brisbane General Post Office Boardroom in 1961. It depicts not only various stamps, including the RFDS 7d stamp, but also an assortment of postal department equipment and apparatus.

James E Lyle GPO Brisbane Mural
Mural, Brisbane GPO Boardroom 1961. OM93-13, James Lyle Clippings, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Australia.

In the photo of the initial viewing of the mural (below), Jimmy appears on the left. The other well dressed gentlemen may be some of the “several prominent businessmen” who, according to the invitation from the Post Master General to Jimmy, had also been invited. (I think Jimmy looks quite dapper in his dinner suit!)

Brisbane GPO Boardroom mural 1961
James E Lyle (left) at the initial viewing of the mural located at the Brisbane GPO Boardroom in 1961. OM93-13, James Lyle Clippings, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Australia.

I understand that the RFDS 7d stamp is in the private collection of Queen Elizabeth II, a keen philatelist.

The 60th anniversary of the release of this stamp has given me the opportunity to not only highlight the work of the RFDS but also to recognise just one more of Jimmy Lyle’s remarkable accomplishments, of which there were many. James E Lyle was a complex and multi-faceted character who achieved much in his life both personally and through his art. I trust you enjoyed this short tribute to this remarkable and versatile artist, James E Lyle and the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia 7d stamp.



* The pre-decimal 7d (penny) = approximately 90cents in today’s money.

** Approximately $3,040 in today’s money.