From the office: Stamp collecting and family history

By Jon Bauckham, 30 October 2014 - 10:03am

Rifling through her family's stamp collection has made editor Sarah Williams realise that the hobby has more in common with genealogy than she thought

Sarah Williams is editor at Who Do You Think You Are? MagazineThursday 30 October 2014
Sarah Williams, editor
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Sarah Williams' stamp collection

Philately is a wonderful name for a hobby that has never interested me in the slightest but clearly held a certain fascination for many of my kin. Ever since the very first penny black, collectors have steamed or cut off the queen’s head and stuck it in an album.

And as time went on the Royal Mail cottoned on to the idea of creating different kinds of stamps to keep the growing number of philatelists happy and so I have found myself, this half term, sorting through small pictures of birds, animals, bridges and foreign heads of state. I knew we had some stamps in the family, but I certainly wasn’t expecting my mum to turn up with two old suitcases full!

The plan was to take them to a dealer to sell them but I didn’t want my mum to get rid of them before I had gone through and taken down any important addresses as many of the stamps were still attached to envelopes.

And so I found myself sorting through dozens of childhood collections, many in a woeful state, going right back to the 1860s. Many postcards said little more than ‘Having a wonderful time’ but I got a tantalising glimpse of something more exciting from the back of a stamp that had been cut from a postcard. I could read ‘Shocking’ and ‘I must tell’ on the back, but whatever needed telling is now lost in time.

I discovered someone in the family was at the front line during the Boer War but can’t quite make out a name or rank (a fascinating link to follow). I now know that my great grandfather borrowed a copy of The Yellow God from the Bankipore Library and was late returning it and I have names and addresses that mean nothing to me now, but may well prove vital later.

I even rather enjoyed discovering a letter showing my Jamaican family visiting their cousins in Bromsgrove one Christmas. I had followed their separate lines assuming that the geographical distance meant these cousins had no connection with each other. Well, this stamp collection proved me wrong.

Unfortunately the collection turned out to be far less valuable than we supposed. Our stamp dealer scorned our page of penny reds and even our penny black was considered of little value due to it not being in mint condition. Our stamps from all over the world were clearly the wrong stamps from the wrong countries.

Still, we can’t hold onto everything and so we parted with our musty Victorian albums and schoolboy stamp collections (including my father’s from the 1950s) and in exchange I have a sheet of paper full of addresses and names. I suppose it’s just a different kind of collection and perhaps my family tree is just a different kind of album.

Perhaps philatelists and family historians have more in common than I had thought!

 

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