A Cup of Tea and its Consequences

Chris West explains how he came to write the book First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps.

Chris West

Chris West

Like many of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, I had a stamp collection. A rather mediocre one… But one Sunday, I went to tea with my great uncle.

I happened to mention that I collected stamps, and Uncle Frank said he’d done that too. He disappeared and came back with a dark blue ‘Lincoln’ album. Inside was a treasurehouse of stamps featuring Edward VII and Queen Victoria – including a Penny Black (it had a corner missing, but still…) Frank then said that he didn’t really bother with them any longer – did I want them? The album became my pride and joy. I even took it to school to show everybody. Sadly, one viewer was so impressed that he stole half the stamps. The collection never felt the same afterwards, and vanished into an attic. Forty years later, I was cleaning out the attic when I came across the album. For a moment an old fury came back, but then I decided that a much healthier reaction was to reassemble the collection.

The 'Seahorse' stamp.

The ‘Seahorse’ stamp.

British Empire Exhibition 1924 stamp, 1d value.

British Empire Exhibition 1924 stamp, 1d value.

As I did this, I found myself ever more intrigued with the stamps, as items of beauty but also as tiny pieces of history. Who stuck this Penny Black on an envelope, and what was in the letter? More generally, what was Britain like at the time? I found envelopes that had been sent in Ireland around the time of the appalling famine, a Seahorse sent just before World War One, a stamp celebrating the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 (an event I had never heard of, but which was as big as the Olympics in its day), an envelope that had enclosed a censored letter from World War Two, the classic 4d stamp celebrating the 1966 World Cup win… Stamps, I realised, tell stories.

Finally, I assembled these stories into a book, that would tell the nation’s tale through its stamps – or 36 of them, anyway. It’s been a joy to research and write. And all thanks to my great uncle and a cup of tea one Sunday afternoon.

First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps by Chris West (cover)

First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps is available from the BPMA online shop.

Chris West will give a talk based on First Class: A history of Britain in 36 postage stamps at the BPMA on Thursday 21 February 2013.

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