Tag Archives: British Empire Exhibition

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.

Bertram Mackennal

As part of our continuing series of events on themes related to George V, the BPMA’s Curator of Philately Douglas Muir will give a free talk next month on the work of Bertram Mackennal. Mackennal was a noted sculptor who designed coins, stamps and medals during the reign of George V. Douglas Muir’s talk will include images from the Royal Philatelic Collection and the Royal Mint as well as the BPMA, together with examples of Mackennal’s work in sculpture.

The unpopular “Downey Head” (left), the frame of which was designed by Bertram Mackennal and G.W. Eve. George V disliked the three-quarter profile and the replacement “Profile Head” (right) was issued the following year. The “Profile Head” effigy of George V was designed by Mackennal and the frame by Eve.

The unpopular “Downey Head” (left), the frame of which was designed by Bertram Mackennal and G.W. Eve. George V disliked the three-quarter profile and the replacement “Profile Head” (right) was issued the following year. The “Profile Head” effigy of George V was designed by Mackennal and the frame by Eve.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1863, Edgar Bertram Mackennal received his early training in sculpture from his Scottish immigrant father John Simpson Mackennal and at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School. At age 19 Mackennal left for Europe, where he undertook further study in London and Paris and began to be commissioned to produce reliefs, figures and busts.

Having completed a number of significant works in England, Australia and India, including statues of monarchs and other notable persons, Mackennal was commissioned to design the medals for the 1908 London Olympic Games. Two years later, when George V ascended the throne, Mackennal was commissioned to prepare an effigy of the King for coins and medals. The Post Office was also keen to employ Mackennal to work on the new definitive stamps, and although initially reluctant, Mackennal agreed.

The popular Seahorses design depicts Britannia being driven through the sea on a chariot pulled by three horses. In her hands are a trident and a shield bearing the Union Jack. Mackennal took inspiration from Greek and Roman depictions of chariot races for this design.

The popular Seahorses design depicts Britannia being driven through the sea on a chariot pulled by three horses. In her hands are a trident and a shield bearing the Union Jack. Mackennal took inspiration from Greek and Roman depictions of chariot races for this design.

Mackennal was involved in the design of all definitive stamp issues during the reign of George V, including the much-loved Seahorses design. Originally issued by the Post Office on 30th June 1913 this design was seen as revolutionary for its time, being the first British stamp to bear a pictorial illustration alongside the monarch’s head and the value. In many ways it can be said to be the pre-cursor to the first British commemorative stamp, issued to celebrate the opening of the British Empire Exhibition 11 years later.

Douglas Muir’s talk on Bertram Mackennal will take place on Thursday 7 October at the BPMA. Information on how to book can be found on our website. Tickets are free.

Douglas Muir’s book George V and the GPO: Stamps, Conflict & Creativity is available from the BPMA online shop.

King George V Registration Sheets

by Stuart Aitken, Collections Assistant

The entire collection of King George V registration sheets is now fully accessible on our online catalogue. Registration sheets, often imperforate, exist as the very first prints taken from the printing plate for each stamp in sheet form. The collection consists of 1,027 sheets in total.

The reign of King George V (6th May 1910 – 20th January 1936) marked one of the most fascinating eras of British postage stamps; a period of change, progression and vast improvements with stamp production. The King himself was a proud philatelist so it is no great surprise that such diversity and experimentation occurred during this time.

2½d Downey Head 1911

2½d Downey Head 1911

The first King George V stamps, the ½d and 1d Downey Head, released on the 22nd June 1911 to coincide with the King’s coronation, immediately faced a storm of criticism as it was the first time a three-quarter profile of the monarch had been used (up to this stage all Great Britain issues had previously used a side-on profile). It was also argued that the use of a typographed image from a photograph had not been hugely successful. Consequently the Downey Head was replaced in August 1912 by the designs of Bertram Mackennal, which saw a return to the profile head. Since the Downey issues, all Great Britain stamps have used a profile head design.

½d Photogravure 1935

½d Photogravure 1935

In 1934 a new design for definitive issues was introduced which was printed using the Photogravure process. Utilising high-speed production and at a lower cost, these stamps underwent subtle resizing and modifications over the years to allow improvements. Information such as this can be found in the description field of each catalogue entry, along with a scanned section of each sheet.

1d British Empire Exhibition 1924

1d British Empire Exhibition 1924

The first British commemorative stamps were also issued during the reign of King George V to mark the 1924/25 Empire Exhibition at Wembley, featuring a Lion in a striking stance. Following this issue other commemorative issues were subsequently produced to mark the 1929 London Postal Union Congress and the 1935 Silver Jubilee of the King.

Also included in the collection are registration sheets of the high value Seahorse issues, the first ever postage due stamps, colour trials, black proof sheets and official governmental overprints relating to their official use in various British territories outside the UK.

Each catalogue entry in the collection is detailed, comprehensible and provides a great research tool and insight into this unique collection of British registration sheets.

Philatelic Congress of Great Britain

The Philatelic Congress of Great Britain, one of the highlights of the British philatelic calendar, takes place in Kenilworth next week. Amongst the special guest speakers is our Curator of Philately Douglas Muir who will speak on the work of Bertram Mackennal, designer of stamps, coins and medals during the reign of King George V.

Bertram Mackennal’s “Seahorses” stamp design, issued 1913

Bertram Mackennal’s “Seahorses” stamp design, issued 1913

Bertram Mackennal’s most admired stamp design was for the “Seahorses” High Values, originally issued by the Post Office on 30th June 1913. This design was seen as revolutionary for its time, being the first British stamp to bear a pictorial illustration alongside the monarch’s head and the value. In many ways it can be said to be the pre-cursor to the first British commemorative stamp, issued to celebrate the opening of the British Empire Exhibition 11 years later.

Other speakers at this year’s Congress of Great Britain will also cover stamps and postal history from the era of George V. In addition there will be a number of static displays, society meetings and social events taking place throughout the three-day event.

The full programme of events and booking details for the Philatelic Congress of Great Britain can be found on the Association of British Philatelic Societies website.

Treasures of the Archive

by Zoe van Well, Archives Assistant

Hi, I am Zoe van Well and this is the first time I have blogged for the BPMA. So why now? Well, recently I contributed to the leaflet for the Treasures of the Archive exhibition. It is housed in the Search Room of the Archive and is free for all to view. You can also download a copy from our website.

In writing the leaflet I was able to not only test my knowledge built up over the past year as an Archives Assistant but also to gain more! I found it so exciting to make connections between the themes highlighted by the Treasures of the Archive exhibition.

The Machin Head mould

The Machin Head mould

One item is The Machin Head mould. Other themes include; Stamps That Never Were, featuring a page from David Gentleman’s design book, and also a World Cup Stamp commissioned for the Scotland team; Design in the GPO, The Mail Coach; and the list goes on!

I found that so many pivotal moments of postal history exposed by the exhibition directly influenced each other. The Machin Head, for example, is a mould sculpted and cast by Arnold Machin and was used to create the definitive stamp still in use today. (Everybody will have used one at some point in their life!) After I read some of Douglas Muir’s book on the topic, titled A Timeless Classic and sold in the search room, I became aware of the challenges which arose during the design process. In particular I realised the roles David Gentleman and the then Postmaster General Tony Benn played, given they were questioning the very use of the Monarch’s Head being present on stamps!

Colour trials for the Postal Union Congress £1 stamp of 1929

Various colours were trialled for the Postal Union Congress £1 stamp of 1929. Eventually, grey was selected.

This lead to me realising special stamps were very limited in number until the 1960’s, full stop! The Postal Union Congress commemorative stamps featuring George V (of which the £1 Stamp, 1929 is displayed in the exhibition) was only the second Commemorative Stamp to be commissioned. The first were designed for the British Empire Exhibition held in1924 and 1925. These stamps can currently be viewed at the Empire Mail: George V and the GPO exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery.

I must say though, whilst looking into these stamps I unearthed other research material which can sometimes be overlooked, including supplements issued in the Philatelic Bulletin. The Philatelic Bulletin is a small newsletter published by Royal Mail, and it includes articles on special stamps about to be issued. One supplement in particular does a great job of explaining the difference between definitive and special stamps. We have a complete collection of these Bulletins in the search room and they can be a great starting point for projects undergone by school pupils. They are also a great way for everybody to learn about events in philatelic history. Of course, if you become interested in an event and would like to see original material relating to it, either I or one my colleagues in the Search Room will be pleased to help you locate some if you wish!

One of only eight penny black proof registration sheets, produced before letters were inserted into the plate

One of only eight penny black proof registration sheets, produced before letters were inserted into the plate

Getting back to the Treasure of the Archive Exhibition, don’t forget we also have on display a Penny Black Proof Registration sheet (1st April 1840), of which there are only eight and all are cared for here at the British Postal Museum and Archive. We also have a Queen Victoria Channel Islands Pillar Box, one of the very first to be made and which were trialled on the Channel Islands during 1852 and 1853.

Don’t miss out on the opportunity to visit us while this exciting and rare material is still on display! Why not make a day of it by browsing our catalogue either online or in our search room after viewing the exhibition. You may also prefer to take inspiration from the search room information sheets such as Travelling Post Offices, Mail Rail, Animals in the Post Office, The Post Office in the Second World War, Women in the Post Office and Airmail. If you find something takes your interest, we can help you find a particular item and produce it for you from the repository.

We enjoy showing you original material as it can often be a thrilling experience; both for staff and visitors, whether it is a time bill, a report or a list of ingredients for cancellation inks!

Treasures of the Archive can be viewed in our Search Room until April 2011. For information on visiting the Search Room please see http://www.postalheritage.org.uk/visiting.

London 2010: International Stamp Exhibition

Last Saturday the London 2010: International Stamp Exhibition opened at the Business Design Centre in Islington, London.

Eagerly awaited by enthusiasts, and taking place just once every ten years, this 8-day stamp spectacular is one of the highlights of the London 2010 Festival of Stamps.

Royal Mail's stand at the London 2010: International Stamp Exhibition

Royal Mail's stand at the London 2010: International Stamp Exhibition

There is much to see (and buy!) at the show, with over 200 stand holders, including many foreign postal administrations, plus numerous societies represented.

The centre piece is the impressive Royal Mail stand, surmounted by two arches of giant stamps. Around the exterior of the stand is a display put together by the British Postal Museum & Archive with unique items from both our collections and the security printers Enschedé.

Half the display deals with the low value stamps of King George V’s reign, including the Downey head stamps – the first stamps of George V’s reign – and declared a ‘disaster’! The display includes dies, rollers and printing plates, including some for unissued stamps.

The intaglio printing plate used to print The King's Stamps, alongside some examples

The intaglio printing plate used to print The King's Stamps, alongside some examples

The other half of the display brings the story up to date with describing how the printers Enschedé produced the new 2010 stamps, based on the 1913 Seahorse and 1924 Wembley stamps.  This includes the actual intaglio printing plate.

Other things to look out for include the competitive displays. Over the 8 day show there will be 2400 frames of competitive exhibits on show. Each frame holds 16 stamp album sheets, so that’s a lot of stamps in total! There are many different entries on every conceivable subject, from the British Occupation stamp issues of Iraq (1917-1923) to ‘A Glimpse into the World of Beer’! The full list of entries can be seen here.

The world’s largest envelope

The world’s largest envelope

Hanging from the ceiling you might notice a large grey envelope. In fact it is officially the world’s largest envelope – sent by Stanley Gibbons to Brian Trotter, organiser of the show.

One of the rarest and most valuable stamps in the world is also on display; the only known example of a Swedish 3 skilling stamp inadvertently printed in yellow instead of green. It will be put up for auction after the exhibition.

The show lasts until Saturday 15 May.

Empire Mail: George V and the GPO

by Jennifer Flippance, 2010 Exhibitions & Project Manager

Empire Mail: George V and the GPO, hosted by Guildhall Art Gallery, in the heart of the City of London, is the BPMA’s flagship exhibition for the London 2010: Festival of Stamps, produced in conjunction with the Royal Philatelic Collection.

King George V riding his horse, Anzac

King George V riding his horse, Anzac, a gift from the Australian government. This photograph was later used as the basis for the Australian Silver Jubilee stamps, issued in 1935.

The exhibition explores the reign of King George V (1910 – 1936), an era of conflict, change and innovation. Investigate the passions of the ‘philatelist king’, alongside the extraordinary period of design and creativity in the General Post Office during the period.

Displays include some of the rarest and most valuable stamps in the world alongside vehicles, pillar boxes, posters and pioneering works from the GPO Film Unit. Empire Mail: George V and The GPO will explore themes from the King’s reign such as innovations in mail transportation, the first Atlantic air crossing, the rise of graphic design in the 1920s and 1930s, and the impact of conflict.

The items on display are sourced from the unique and complementary collections of the BPMA and the Royal Philatelic Collection. These include a sheet of unused Edward VII Tyrian Plum stamps plus the only one known to have been used – sent on an envelope to George V on 5 May 1910 when he was Prince of Wales and arriving the day he became King following the death of his father.

'Post Office' Mauritius: The most famous stamps in the world?

'Post Office' Mauritius: The most famous stamps in the world?

There are many gems from King George V’s own collection, including two examples of the famous Post Office Mauritius stamp, among them an unused 2d, bought by the King when Prince of Wales in 1904 for the then record sum of £1,450.

Other highlights include: items and original film footage from the 1911 Coronation Aerial Post; original stamp artwork for the first ever UK commemorative stamp produced for the 1924/5 Wembley Empire Exhibition; the only Victoria Cross won by the Post Office Rifles during the First World War; mail carried on pioneering (successful and unsuccessful) transatlantic air crossings; and objects and images from the Post Office Underground Railway.

The BPMA’s fully restored blue airmail pillar box will be seen in public for the first time, alongside other pillar boxes of the period and vehicles, including a 1945 Morris “Red Van” in George V livery and a 1933 BSA motorcycle.

As an added attraction, between 8–15 May, there will be regular demonstrations by staff from the security printers Enschedé, who will be printing reproductions of the 1929 PUC £1 on an intaglio press.

A series of free lunchtime talks will also take during the exhibition’s run.

For further information on Empire Mail: George V and the GPO please see the BPMA website. An online taster of the exhibition has also been produced.

The King’s Stamps

On Tuesday 11th May, right in the middle of the main London 2010: Festival of Stamps activities, we will welcome Paul Eimers of stamp printers Joh Enschedé to the BPMA. Joh Enschedé have printed many British stamps over the years, but their latest work for Royal Mail is The King’s Stamps miniature sheet, to be released on 8th May to mark the start of the International Stamp Exhibition.

The King’s Stamps miniature sheet features two reproductions of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition stamps designed by Harold Nelson set within a contemporary border with the present value (1st) and the Queen’s head profile. In addition two reproductions of the “Seahorses” design by Bertram Mackennal are also featured; both high value definitives, first issued in 1913, are set within a contemporary border with the value (£1) and Queen’s head. The top of the Miniature Sheet’s plain border contains the text: London 2010 Festival of Stamps with a crown.

The King's Stamps miniature sheet, released 8th May 2010

The King's Stamps miniature sheet, to be released 8th May 2010

This sheet is printed in both intaglio and lithography. The red, brown, grey and blue ‘stamps’ are printed intaglio, to be as faithful as possible to the original stamps, while the Queen’s head, stamp values and Sheet surround is printed in litho. The technical and design challenges of producing this miniature sheet will be one focus of Paul Eimers’ talk.

First day of issue postmarks to accompany the King’s Stamps have been produced. The London postmark replicates the lion on the British Empire Exhibition stamps, while the Tallents House postmark features part of the “Seahorses” design.

The King's Stamps first day of issue postmarks

The King's Stamps first day of issue postmarks

The King’s Stamps miniature sheet and related products, including a Prestige Stamp Book written by our Curator of Philately Douglas Muir, will be released on 8th May and can be purchased from Royal Mail.

Tickets to Paul Eimer’s talk on The King’s Stamps are free. For booking details and further information please see the BPMA website.

The Royal Society 350 Years

This year is the 350th anniversary of The Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence. In celebration, Royal Mail has today released ten 1st class commemoratives featuring significant Royal Society figures whose portraits are paired with dramatic and colourful imagery representing their achievements. 

Royal Society 350th Anniversary stamps

The Royal Society 350th Anniversary stamps

The “brainstorming” design was the idea of Hat-trick Design, responsible for the interlocking “jigsaw” approach used for the 2009 Darwin stamps. But with more than 1,400 Fellows and Foreign Members to choose from, how were ten significant scientific figures to be selected?

Fittingly, it was The Royal Society itself which suggested the solution: a case of basic division. It was agreed to split the 350-year history into ten 35-year “blocks” in which it could be demonstrated how, through the work of its Fellows, The Royal Society has had a major impact on the World.

Royal Mail consulted with experts from the Society to determine the ten Fellows, and due to the global nature of the organisation, non UK citizens were included, such as one of the United States’ Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, and the New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford.

Lister Centenary Stamps, 1965

Lister Centenary Stamps, 1965

Science, scientific achievement and scientists have long been featured on British stamps. It could be argued that the British Empire Exhibition (1924 and 1925) or Festival of Britain (1951) commemoratives in part marked scientific and industrial achievement, as both events featured scientific displays. Even the National Productivity Year commemoratives (1962) hint at the business imperative behind much scientific research. However, the first British stamp issue explicitly celebrating scientific achievement was the Lister Centenary stamps (1965). Fittingly, Sir Joseph Lister, who first developed antiseptic surgery, is also commemorated on the new Royal Society stamps.

300th Anniversary of Isaac Newton's Principa Mathematica, 1987

300th Anniversary of Isaac Newton's Principa Mathematica, 1987

Newton's Moon and Tides Diagram with Early Telescopes stamp, released as part of the Astronomy issue, 1990

Newton's Moon and Tides Diagram with Early Telescopes stamp, released as part of the Astronomy issue, 1990

Other notable scientists commemorated on the Royal Society issue are appearing on British stamps for the second or even third time. The 300th anniversary of astronomer Sir Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking Principa Mathematica was celebrated in 1987. Newton’s achievements were again celebrated in 1990 as part of the Astronomy issue.

Bicentenary of American Independence stamp, 1976

Bicentenary of American Independence stamp, 1976

A bust of Benjamin Franklin (commemorated here for developing electricity) appeared on the 1976 stamp marking the Bicentenary of American Independence, and Edward Jenner’s development of the smallpox vaccine was commemorated in 1999 as part of The Patients Tale issue. The birth bicentenary of Charles Babbage, who pioneered the computer, was commemorated in 1991 as part of the Scientific Achievements issue, and crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin was previously featured in the Women of Achievement issue (1996).

Jenner's development of smallpox vaccine stamp, released as part of The Patients Tale issue (1999); Birth Centenary of Charles Babbage (computer pioneer) stamp, released as part of Scientific Achievements (1990); Professor Dorothy Hodgkin (scientist) stamp, released as part of the Famous Women issue (1996).

Jenner's development of smallpox vaccine stamp, released as part of The Patients Tale issue (1999); Birth Centenary of Charles Babbage (computer pioneer) stamp, released as part of Scientific Achievements (1990); Professor Dorothy Hodgkin (scientist) stamp, released as part of the Famous Women issue (1996).

Newcomers to British stamps are chemist Robert Boyle, naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford and earth scientist Sir Nicholas Shackleton.

One Royal Society Fellow not present on this issue is Rowland Hill, although from a philatelic point of view Hill’s work has been celebrated many times. You can find out more about Rowland Hill and the Royal Society by reading the speech given by Philip Parker, Head of Stamp Policy at Royal Mail, at last night’s launch of this stamp issue, which is now on our website.

COMPETITION! We have a number of Royal Mail’s Royal Society 350 Years wall posters to give away. To win one e-mail us at blog@postalheritage.org.uk with your comment(s) on what you’d like to see more of on this blog. Please include your name and postal address. Posters will be allocated on a first come first serve basis. And yes, we will post overseas.

Bath Postal Museum King George V Exhibition

An Air Mail cover on display at the exhibition

An Air Mail cover on display at the exhibition.

As part of the London 2010 Festival of Stamps, the Bath Postal Museum’s King George V Exhibition opened on 1st February.  The overall Festival marks the centenary of the accession to the throne of King George V, and Bath’s display shows through stamps and other memorabilia the important events of his reign and how these were either affected by the postal service or influenced the post.  

Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition Wembley

Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition Wembley

Included in the exhibition are rare items from the first flights to carry air mail in the UK between Hendon and Windsor in 1911.  The Great War caused problems for the Post Office and inflation meant huge increases of 50% and more in the cost of sending a letter.  But better times followed and by 1924 the British Empire Exhibition had been created with the first commemorative stamps being issued in the UK.  Many souvenirs were created for the exhibition which lasted for two years and some of these are on show.

special preview of this exhibition is now on the London 2010 Festival of Stamps website.

The exhibition runs until 30th October at Bath Postal Museum, 27 Northgate Street (corner of Green Street), Bath BA1 1AJ, http://www.bathpostalmuseum.co.uk/. Bath Postal Museum is open daily from 11am to 5pm (last entrance 4.30pm). Entry is Adults £3.50, Concessions £3.00, Children £1.50. There are reductions for groups of 10 or more.

Image courtesy of The Trustees of the Bath Postal Museum