Saturday, 19 June 2021

Stamp collectors preserving our heritage in digital world

IN a world before the internet and email, stamps and envelopes were valuable commodities that allowed people

IN a world before the internet and email, stamps and envelopes were valuable commodities that allowed people to communicate.

Bob Clements, chairman of the Henley and District Philatelic Society, admits there is a certain irony therefore in that the majority of stamp trading and dealing these days is done online.

Yet the organisation continues to survive with 26 members and this month celebrates its 50th anniversary.

It has a vital role to play in preserving the heritage of these highly collectable items, some of which can fetch astronomical prices.

The society was founded by the late C F Weaver, a Henley town councillor, in 1966.

He had first thought of the idea and mentioned it to the then sub-postmaster at the Newtown post office in Reading Road, asking him to tell anyone he knew who collected postage stamps and who might be interested. An advertisement was also placed in the Henley Standard.

The first meetings were held in the Mayor’s parlour in the town hall but as the membership grew, a room was hired at the old Henley Technical College in Deanfield Road for a monthly meeting during the autumn and winter months.

Meetings were then transferred to a site in the old infants school in Greys Road and then to the pub A E Hobbs in Valley Road.

In recent years the society has met at Bix village hall twice monthly for displays from visiting societies, auctions and competitions, offering the opportunity to learn and exchange views and material.

But, as 68-year-old Mr Clements explains, it’s not just about stamps.

Envelopes, or “covers” as they are known in the world of philately, are highly collectable and the group’s members also specialise in postal history dating back to 1400, stationery and adverts relating to post offices and stamps.

“It’s difficult sometimes to explain to people just how important the postal service was because there was no email,” says Mr Clements, a retired research scientist.

“These documents from 1400 onwards wouldn’t be in existence if collectors hadn’t been collecting them.”

When they were introduced in 1840, stamps were known as “adhesive labels” and could only be bought from post offices before they became more widely available. Pillar boxes were introduced in 1852.

With the expansion of the railway network, the postal service grew too and it wasn’t long before there were up to five postal deliveries a day in some cities and large towns.

Mr Clements says he joined the group about eight years ago after spotting a notice in a parish magazine.

At first he couldn’t believe the group met as often as every fortnight and joked that he thought it was a cover for something else.

But after attending a meeting he enjoyed the society’s friendly atmosphere and has made firm friends.

Secretary Anne Stammers, from Wallingford, says: “We have got a very interesting and mixed membership. They are all very enthusiastic and have their own specialisms.”

A former catering manager in Sonning Common, Mrs Stammers is a long-serving member of the society, having joined in the late Seventies because her work colleagues were members. She also joined the British Philatelic Association.

She collects stamps relating a particular theme. Her area of interest is “rocks and riches” focusing on geology, particularly diamonds and gold.

She has about 1,000 stamps and 20 to 30 envelopes in her collection.

Other members collect, for example, only Argentinian stamps, or stamps with a July 1 postmark or early Victorian stamps, also known as line-engraved stamps after their method of production.

Mr Clements and Mrs Stammers admit to being “born-again philatelists” who collected stamps as children but then lost interest.

Mr Clements gave up when he met his wife-to-be Janet in East Ham in the Sixties at the age of 16. He explains: “I met this very attractive girl with a short skirt and somehow the stamps went out the window!”

It was only in 1980 that he rediscovered his love of the hobby when his mother was having some work done to her house and the surveyor couldn’t inspect the area under the stairs because it was so cluttered.

Here he found the stamps that he had collected as a teenager and his interested was re-ignited.

Mr Clements now has a collection of hundreds of stamps.

Another member of the society owns more than a million stamps, proving the importance of  cataloguing.

The “bible” of the stamp collecting world is produced by Stanley Gibbons and lists all the world’s stamps. It also gives a value for each one, at least for a perfect example.

“Good quality stamps will change hands for one third of the catalogue value,” says Mr Clements. “That’s because it’s the real world.

“Stamps are ideally made for internet trading. Because it’s a two-dimensional object, it’s very easy to scan and to post. It’s probably the main means by which stamps are traded.”

Ironically, he says, the internet has reversed the fortunes of stamp collecting, making it easy to trade with markets in China and India which are now booming.

The society holds an auction once a year in March and the last one featured 650 lots. So what is the world’s most valuable stamp? Mr Clements says the honour goes to the Treskilling Yellow stamp. Only one example is known and it sold in 2010 for $2.3 million.

It was printed in Sweden in 1855 and was used on July 13, 1857 in Uppsala. It has a colour error that makes it so rare — it should have been blue-green but was misprinted yellow in error.

In fact, a printing error quite often adds to the value of a stamp.

Another example is an American stamp known as the Inverted Jenny, which features a picture of a biplane in the middle but in some of them the aircraft was printed upside down. These examples sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

With sums of money like this, conditions for storing stamps must be just right.

They should be kept out of strong light, away from pests that may wish to eat them and kept in acid-free, archival quality plastic sheets in a dry area at room temperature.

“That becomes difficult for some of our members because they have got rooms full of these things!” laughs Mr Clements.

“If you have got something that’s rare, you need to flag that up to someone so it doesn’t get thrown out or destroyed.”

He says the stamps of today lack appeal for his society as they no longer feature good designs and he claims that the Post Office appears to have run out of ideas.

The society is predominantly for existing collectors but always welcomes new members.

Membership is open to all types of collector, from novices to the advanced, and the society caters for a wide range of philatelic interests.

Meetings are held on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month and normally take the form of a short introduction followed by a talk by a guest speaker or member on a particular area of collecting with a coffee break.

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