I visited the Postal Museum which opened earlier this year - and despite my initial cynicism I was suitably impressed.
The museum is next to the site of the Mount Pleasant sorting office, which is the main London postal depot. But most excitingly, as part of the museum, the Post Office’s underground electric railway is open to the public. And visitors can take rides on the old trains.
The train service was opened in 1927 and was used for sending mail around the central London area. In fact it went quite large distances - about seven miles from Paddington in the west to Commercial Road in the East End. The trains were unmanned and were operated a bit like a large train set. Mailrail - as it became known - was only closed in 2003. But it was kept in good condition in case it was ever needed.
It has now become part of the museum and the carriages have been adapted to allow passengers to ride on them. Visitors go on a short (20 minute) ride, which includes stopping at some of the stations and listening to an audio visual presentation. You can see where the trains ran, where they were unloaded and there is even a short section -‘the graveyard’ - where the obsolete trains were kept, simply because it was cheaper to keep them underground, than to dismantle them and take them up to the surface.
The rest of the museum is definitely worth seeing. Lots of old vehicles, devices for moving the post and descriptions of how stamps are designed and printed. There is some interesting artwork for proposed stamps. However there are very few old stamps on display. Unlike the Smithsonian Postal Museum in Washington, which contains some of the most valuable stamps in the world, there is little here for an avid collector to get excited about.
This is probably a good thing. Most visitors are more interested in looking at vehicles and the social history of the postal service, than they are in rare stamps. And if you want to see some rare stamps, it’s only about ten minutes walk to St Pancras, where - entirely free of charge - you can see some of the superb stamps in the British Library.
And, in case I didn’t mention it, there’s a very nice cafe at the museum, or you can nip around the corner where there is a very cheap cafe where the postal workers get their bacon sandwiches and cups of tea.
The postal museum is open almost every day. Check website for details. Tickets are £14.50 or £13 for concessions.
see also - The Smithsonian stamp museum
At one time almost every town had a stamp shop. Until a few years ago, there were several stamp shops in London. Now I can only think of three - Stanley Gibbons, the stamp shop in the Strand, and Enfield Stamp Centre.
Brighton and the surrounding area was always a good place to buy stamps. There were three stamp shops in Brighton, one in Lancing and one in Saltdean - just five miles out of Brighton. I had never been to the shop in Saltdean, so last week I decided to pay it a visit. Because it was a nice day, I decided to cycle.
Brighton happens to be on the South coast of England, in a county called Sussex. It happens to be around 60 miles from London. (Most British people will know all this, but I mention it for the benefit of readers from overseas.) It’s not an easy cycle ride, because you have to take the cliff top road, which is quite steep in places, but it is a beautiful view. On the right you’ve got the sea and on the left the rolling South Downs.
Saltdean is a really interesting town. Most of it was built after the First world war. It’s quite a sleepy place, but it doesn’t seem to have changed for decades. Anyway, I got there and was horrified with what I saw.
I was five days too late! The shop had closed last Saturday after six years of trading. I arrived on the following Friday. The stamps and the stock were still in the shop, so I presume that the closure had been fairly sudden. There was a notice saying the owners were moving to Morecambe - in the north of England. It was a bitter blow.
Worse, one of two remaining shops in Brighton is looking precarious. Evidently the owner isn’t entirely well. When I visited the owner was being helped by his son-in-law. So I’m praying for his speedy recovery. And remember, with stamps shops as with so many things, you have to use it or lose it. Support your local stamp shop!
see also - How much should you pay for a £1 PUC?
Yesterday (Thursday 14 September) the stamp season began in earnest. Most people don’t realise that there is such a thing as the stamp season, but traditionally most collectors are very quiet during the summer months. From the end of May until the middle of September, there are relatively few auctions and fairs. Trading is generally poor. One stamp dealer told me that traditionally dealers were advised to ‘Sell in May, and go away!’
Anyway the stamp season opened formally yesterday. The Royal Philatelic Society opens its season with a display from the Royal Collection. This year it was stamps of the West Indies - some very fine pages - mostly written up in the neat copperplate of Edward Bacon, who ran the collection from 1913 until 1938.
It was well attended - nice crowd. And it could be the last time that the season starts in the current premises in Devonshire Place - because these have been sold and the new buyers are keen for the RPSL to vacate.
Meanwhile, across London - in the Building Design Centre in Islington - Stampex was in full swing. It seemed fairly subdued and there were lots of stands selling cheaper material. In previous years there has been a lot more of the really classy stuff - £10,000 upwards. Nothing really took my fancy. I spent £4 on a sheet of Australian stamps. For the sake of the trade, I hope most philatelists are less close-fisted than myself.
Great Philatelic Crooks
One of the most talked about stamps these days is the 1980 Chinese Monkey stamp which had a face value of 8 Fen. The stamps are now highly prized and a sheet of 80 was recently (December 2016) sold for £141,000 - almost £2,000 each.
What is interesting about this stamp is that it is not particularly rare. Around five million were printed. But it was very popular - not least because red is a lucky colour to the Chinese and the monkey is a lucky animal. It was also designed by Huang Yongu, who was quite a famous artist. When the stamp was issued there were huge queues to buy it.
The high price is a testimony to the strength of stamp collecting in China. When it was initially produced, European dealers were only charging around 20p for a mint stamp. But because stamp collecting is so popular and the Chinese have so much money, the prices have rocketed.
It’s something to look out for - especially if you are sorting through kiloware or old albums. Incidentally, be careful when you buy these. The high prices mean that there are plenty of forgeries being sold on ebay - some good, some appalling - and it’s easy to get caught out.
See also - The famous seahorse stamps
Great stamps of the world
Some stamps acquire an almost mythical status. They are seen as incredibly desirable and the pinnacle of a collection. One such group of stamps is the ‘Bomba heads’ of Sicily.
The Bomba heads weren’t around for very long. They were first put on sale in January 1859. By the middle of the following year, Garibaldi led a popular revolt that swept away the Bourbon monarchy of Sicily and pulled it into a united Italy. The Sicilian stamps were immediately withdrawn.
The stamps were issued in seven denominations. They are seen as some of the finest stamp engravings ever made. They were engraved by Tommaso Aloysio Juvara and have a wonderfully balanced design and the colours are extremely attractive.
They depict King Ferdinand II, who was known as ‘Bomba’ because he put down a revolt in 1848 with a five day bombardment of Messina.
Another peculiarity of the stamps is that King Ferdinand didn’t want images of his face to be defaced by a cancellation. So the cancellations were in the form of an arch, which neatly cancelled the sides of the stamps of the stamp without defacing King Bomba!
The stamps are highly collectable. Although there are only seven values, there are numerous printings, papers and shades.
And because the stamps were made at a time of political upheaval, the covers are very interesting and sought-after. Because of the various wars of unifications in Italy, various different routes might have been taken for a letter to go from Sicily to Florence, for example. And they would all require different markings from different postal authorities.
A couple of years ago, the RPSL ran an exhibition by Francesco Lombardo of his collection of covers. I went with a friend of mine - an Austrian judge who collects Sicilian covers of this period. He told me that he bought a couple of covers 20 years ago. Because they are so costly, they are now completely out of his price bracket.
see also - The One Pound PUC stamp
The Five pound orange - a prize for serious collectors
As a collector, I often spend money on stamps. Today I did something a bit different. I spent money on a stamp company.
I decided to buy some shares in Stanley Gibbons. As most people will know, Gibbons is the most famous British stamp dealer and its catalogues are famous throughout the world.
I bought the shares for a number of reasons. A couple of years ago, the shares were at £3 each. Now they are around 10p.
The reason for this fall is primarily that they tried to become a huge collectibles and auction enterprise. They bought up an auction site, which was a disaster, and started dabbling in all kind of things that were frankly beyond their expertise. And they started touting these collectibles as investment products and made excessively optimistic promises about the returns that would accrue. Initially their accounts showed vast profits, but these were largely illusory and the shares became virtually worthless.
Anyway, they are now mending their ways. They have appointed a new chief executive, Harry Wilson, who happens to be a serious stamp collector. They have got rid of a lot of their collectible businesses and are concentrating primarily on stamps - although they are still associated with antiques and autographs.
And they are taking a more pragmatic view on their stock. Stanley Gibbons must have millions of pounds worth of modern mint decimal stamps. In a few years’ time, it is quite possible that the privatised post office won’t accept them and they will be virtually scrap paper. I noticed that the Stanley Gibbons website is now offering them as postage - ‘100 first class for £50’ - where the face value is £65. This is the first time that Stanley Gibbons has recognised that large parts of its stock are not worth much. So they have allowed the light of day to intrude into their offices in the Strand.
Anyway, I haven’t invested a fortune: just a thousand pounds. If there is a future in stamp collecting, it seems likely that there will be a place for Stanley Gibbons. So, while I’m not advocating this as a sure fire investment, I figured it was worth a punt. But if any of you decide to buy shares in Gibbons, please don’t blame me if it comes unstuck.
Incidentally, this new realism could affect ordinary collectors. Modern first class stamps are currently catalogued at £1.25 each by Gibbons. Since Gibbons themselves are selling them at 50p each, it will be hard to justify the high catalogue prices at which Gibbons are currently offering these stamps.
See also - Mr Woo and his expensive birds
Here’s an interesting story that spans over 100 years and goes from Germany to North London. It also explains part of the charm of postal history.
A few weeks ago i went down to my local auction house and paid £31 for a carton, which was primarily full of old letters. I bought it because there were some interesting German covers - dating from between 1911 and 1946.
One batch of covers seemed to be a correspondence between Adelheid Schiff and Dr Fritz Heinemann. The correspondence was on letter cards, so there was nothing very smutty in it. There was also some military Feldpost covers, which indicated that Dr Heinemann had served in the Hoher Kavalier Fort on the border with Poland.
I looked up the two characters on google. I realised that they were probably Jewish, because one of them was briefly staying with a family Epstein in West Hampstead.
Anyway, I quickly learnt that Adelheid and Fritz had got married. They had left Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933. He became a Philosophy Professor at Oxford. And they had children. I also found out that the Heinemann family - particularly Fritz’s grandfather Marcus - had been very important in the town of Luneburg about 50 miles from Hamburg.
On looking at the website of the local Luneburg museum, I found out that Luneburg kept an archive of the Heinemann family. And that - only a couple of years ago - there had been a reunion in luneburg. I emailed the museum, offering to sell my collection of cards and covers for £60. Within twelve hours I had a reply from Mark Heineman, who happens to be the grandson of Fritz and Adelheid. He was delighted to buy the covers and cards.
He lives in North London, about eight miles from my house, so I met him and his wife at a hotel near where I live. It was lovely to meet them and to see pictures of Fritz and Adelheid. And I realise that I’m going to have to visit Luneburg, because it really is a very beautiful town.
Who is this deranged looking woman on this Czechoslovakian stamp? Although it appears to be lunatic, breaking out of her strait jacket, it’s actually supposed to be an allegorical figure of Czechoslovakia.
Presumably this woman, who is quite a hefty girl and obviously capable of looking after herself, is breaking asunder the chains that had held her. The design was first used in 1920, shortly after Czechoslovakia had been formed out of the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian empire. So the design probably seemed very relevant to the new nation.
A lot of stamps feature personifications of the country. For example, British stamps often feature Britannia ruling the waves. Early German stamps featured Germania, a woman with some sort of armoured helmet and steel breast plate. New Zealand stamps had a figure known as Zealandia - a European woman often depicted with the classical staff carried by Mercury. Oh, and that's another interesting thing. Some of these figures have names and others don't.
Then there's the Marianne figure -an attractive woman with a revolutionary cap - on numerous French stamps. She’s often depicted as sinuous and sexy - unlike the warlike or matronly figures on the stamps of other nations. New South Wales stamps often carried an allegorical figure of Australia with a long sash. For some reason, all the figures are female. The only exception is possibly Uncle Sam - a sort of allegory of the United States.
If anyone comes across any other allegorical figures of nations, please let me know.
See also - Is this the ugliest portrait of Queen Elizabeth?
When Guernsey was invaded, local philatelists knew what to do. They started chopping up stamps.
I bought these two items - an envelop and a postcard - about two weeks ago. I think I paid about £20 for them. During the war, the Channel Islands were occupied by the Germans. Obviously, the postal services to the British mainland were suspended, but you could still send letters around the island or indeed to France or Germany.
Within a very short time, stocks of stamps began to fall. So the local post office in Guernsey, announced that it would allow 2d stamps to be bisected and used to pay the standard 1d rate, until new stamps could be printed locally. Bisects could officially used from 27 December 1940 to 22 February 1941.
Bisects are usually very collectible. The stamps are generally cut corner to corner. And there are many instances where this method has been used as a temporary expedient when stamps are in short supply.
However in this case, allowing the bisects just made matters worse. All the local philatelists started chopping up 2d stamps and posting them, so they could have superb items for their collection. They not only started chopping up the modern 2d stamps, but many of them also dug out old George V 2d stamps - which had relatively little value - and started bisecting them as well.
There was very quickly a shortage of 2d stamps as well as 1d stamps. Both of these items shown were sent for philatelic reasons. There was no message written on the postcard and the envelop was not sealed down - so presumably there were no contents.
Among stamp collectors ‘philatelic’ is almost a dirty word. Collectors want items that were sent for genuine postal reasons, rather than manufactured by keen stamp collectors. If the postcard, for example, had a message on the back and been sent to a local tradesman with an order for some item, it would be worth significantly more than I paid.
Another interesting sidelight, is the mania of stamp collectors. The island of Guernsey was occupied by the Germans, it was suffering all sorts of privations, lots of things would have been commandeered by the occupying soldiers and there was the prospect that Britain faced defeat. And yet the stamps collectors were still looking for ways to improve their collections. Critics might way that they were very hard-hearted. Others would suggest that they were just continuing their hobby, even in the most adverse conditions.
Collecting Control numbers on British stamps
Was the emperor of Ethiopia a keen skier?
Last week a friend of mine phoned me because he was getting rid of his father's stamp collection. He asked me if I would like it. So I went over to Crystal Palace in South London to pick it up.
Most of the items in the collection were of no real value. Lots of tatty first day covers and pre-decimal commemoratives. But there was one thing that grabbed my attention. The £1 Prestige booklet with the history of Wedgwood.
Over the last 45 years, the British Post Office has issued a large number of 'Prestige booklets'. These booklets contain stamps as well as lots of interesting information on a particular subject. They cover such subjects as trains and newspapers.
Although they are often very attractive, most of them are not really worth anything. Almost any stamp shop will sell them for around the face value of the stamps. However there is one exception. The £1 book of stamps issued to tell the story of Wedgwood currently has a catalogue value of £60. The reason for this is that the booklet contains one particular stamp that you can't find anywhere else.
The booklet contains four panes of stamps. The final pane (illustrated here) contains six stamps - two of which are 2 1/2p stamps and four of which are halfpenny stamps. It is the halfpenny stamps which are the interesting ones.
The halfpenny stamp on the right of the pane has a single phosphor band running along the left side. If you collect Machins, this booklet pane is the only place where you can obtain a halfpenny stamp with a left hand phosphor band. As a result, this single stamp catalogues at £60 mint. It's almost impossible to get it postally used because relatively few were issued.
The £60 is probably rather an overestimate of its worth. You can usually buy the panes on ebay for between £10 and £15. But it's an interesting item. And I was glad to put it into my collection.
Jack Shamash is a top journalist who writes for The Times, The Guardian, The Independent as well as various stamp magazines. He is a member of the Royal Philatelic Society London and the author of the book George V's Obsession - A King and His Stamps.