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British Library Philatelic Collections

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British Library Philatelic Collections

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The British Library Philatelic Collections is the national philatelic collection of the United Kingdom with over 8 million items from around the world.[1][2] It was established in 1891 as part of the British Museum Library, later to become the British Library, with the collection of Thomas Tapling. In addition to bequests and continuing donations, the library received consistent deposits by the Crown Agency and has become a primary research collection for British Empire and international history. The collections contain a wide range of artefacts in addition to postage stamps, from newspaper stamps to a press used to print the first British postage stamps.

A panoramic view of the collections on display.


Penny stamps from New South Wales, block of nine (1850)
A unique block of nine penny stamps from New South Wales, Australia, with an illustration of Sydney, dating from 1850 (August). Part of the Tapling Collection.[3]

The first notable philatelic donation was in 1890 by Hubert Haes of two albums of postage stamps collected by himself and Walter Van Noorden. It was donated with the request that the British Museum library (now the British Library) would create a philatelic collection.[4][5]

The following year the Collections were established with the bequest of the Tapling Collection. The probate value of the Tapling Collection was set at £12,000 but on arrival Richard Garnett (Assistant Keeper of Printed Books) estimated their value at more than £50,000 and described the bequest as the most valuable gift since the Grenville Library[6] in 1847.[7][8]

In 1900 the Crown Agents for the Colonies sent three albums of postage stamps made on their order for colonial governments and then sent specimens of all future stamps commissioned.[9]

In 1913, the Crawford Library was received which forms the cornerstone of the British Library's philatelic literature collection, containing about 4500 works.[10] The Crawford Library was donated by the Earl of Crawford in his Will and was the foremost collection of philatelic books in the world at the time.[11]

In 1944 Mrs A. Cunningham donated her father's collection (Edward Mosley) of African stamps and in 1949 Mrs. Clement Williams donated her late brother's collection (H. L'Estrange Ewen) of railway letter stamps, valued at £10,000.[9][12] After being offered in 1942 but delayed due to the Collections being in secure war storage,[13] in 1951 it was announced that Mrs Augustine Fitzgerald had donated an extensive air mail collection.[14] The Mosley and Fitzgerald collections were valued at the time at £30,000.

The Department of Printed Books had been in charge of the Philatelic Collections by default rather than design. In 1936 there was an unsuccessful proposal to move the Collections to the Department of Prints and Drawings and in 1946 there was a further proposal for the Department of Coins and Medals to take charge. No decision could be agreed and Printed Books continued to manage the Collections until they were passed to the newly formed British Library in 1973.[15]


From 1948, H.R. Holmes had been the curator but in the late 1950s had wished to relinquish the post. A replacement curator was not easily found and the care of the Collections was managed on a part-time basis. A security crisis in 1959 developed after it was discovered that the contents of one of the frames in the Tapling Collection was missing. In 1961 James A. Mackay was recruited as a research assistant to take care of the Collections. In 1971 the police arrested Mackay (promoted to Assistant Keeper in 1965) and charged him with stealing items from the British Museum Philatelic Collections on loan from the Crown Agents. The stolen progressive proofs (test prints of stamp designs) should have been returned to the Crown Agents for destruction and were valued at £7,600. Mackay had exchanged the proofs for Winston Churchill stamps worth £400. He was fined £1,000 and dismissed from the Museum.[16][17][18] As a result of the thefts, security was improved by recruiting Bob Schoolley-West,[19] one of the investigating police officers. The Crown Agents withdrew their agreement for lending new stamps for display in the King's Library.

David Beech joined the British Library as a philatelic curator in 1983 and was appointed Head of the Philatelic Collections in 1991. Beech is a former President of The Royal Philatelic Society London and joint founder of the International Philatelic Libraries Association.[20][21]


The material is organized in 50 collections and archives which have been acquired by donation, bequest, or transfer from Government Departments.[22] The Collections include postage and revenue stamps, postal stationery, essays, proofs, covers and entries, "cinderella stamp" material, specimen issues, airmails, some postal history materials and official and private posts for almost all countries and periods. Philately is interpreted in its widest sense and the more unusual artefacts include original unused artwork, horse licences and the pilot's licence of Captain John Alcock.[23]

A permanent exhibit of items from the Collections is on display in the British Library entrance area upper ground floor, which may be the best gallery of diverse classic stamps and philatelic material in the world. Approximately 80,000 items on 6,000 sheets may be viewed in 1,000 display frames; 2,400 sheets are from the Tapling Collection. Other material, which covers the whole world, is available to students and researchers by appointment.[24]

Perkins D cylinder press used for printing the first postage stamps of Great Britain and Ireland, the Penny Black.

As well as these collections, the library actively acquires literature on the subject. This makes the British Library one of the world's leading philatelic research centres.[20]

Principal collections

Acquisition Title Description
1891[25] Tapling Collection Bequested by Thomas Tapling to the British Museum, this collection was the foundation of the Philatelic Collections.[26]
1900 onwards[27] Crown Agents Philatelic and Security Printing Archive The archive consists of a range of philatelic and written material which were the Crown Agents' working records. It is the most comprehensive record of British Colonial and Commonwealth issues of the last 100 years.[28]
1913[10] Crawford Library The cornerstone of the British Library's philatelic literature collection, containing about 4500 works.
Board of Inland Revenue Stamping Department Archive Contains artefacts from 1710 onwards, and has come into existence through amendments in United Kingdom legislation.[29]
1946 Mosely Collection Consisting of an unusually large number of countries and with many unique items this collection is considered of primary importance and second only to the Tapling Collection.
1949 The Kay Collection A collection of British Colonial Revenue stamps to about 1940.
1949 The Ewen Collection A collection of British railway letter stamps for 1891 to 1912 with sheets, proofs, and covers. Formed by Herbert L'Estrange Ewen.
1951[14] Fitzgerald Collection This is an extensive collection of early air mail stamps and associated artefacts.
1964 Universal Postal Union Collection General Post Office deposit, complying with section 4 of the Public Records Act, being the Universal Postal Union Collection of stamps, comprising 93,448 specimens, covering the period from 1908 onwards including approximately 500 postal administrations.
1966 The Bojanowicz Collection An important collection of Polish stamps and postal history of 1938-1946 including Lodz ghetto post, underground posts, Warsaw Scout post, Polish Government in Exile material, Prisoner of War mail and Polish Free Forces material.[30]
1977 Chinchen Collection Donated by Barry Chinchen, consisting of a unique collection of stamps from Lundy Island.[31]
1989 Fletcher Collection Hugh Greenwell Fletcher's lifetime philatelic collection of British postage stamps and British stamps used abroad including overprints and non-stamp items such as postal stationery.[32]
1992 Davies Collection A collection of Libyan revenue stamps for 1955 to 1969 formed from the Bradbury Wilkinson archive and donated by J.N. Davies in 1992.[33]
1992 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Collection An archive formed by instruction from the Secretary of State for the Colonies on the 23 April 1890 to all territories under his authority. The intention was to have a record of all Colonial Postage and revenue stamps, postcards, embossed envelopes and newspaper wrappers.[34] The archive was closed in 1992 and transferred to the British Library.
2003 The Kaluski Collection A collection of the postage stamps and postal history of Poland from 1835 to 2002 in 46 volumes presented by Janusz Kaluski.

Selected notable items

Unissued 1956 £1 Jamaican chocolate and violet, the first stamp designed for Queen Elizabeth II. Held in the British Library Crown Agents Collection.[35]

The Collections include a unique proof sheet of 26 Revenue 1765 Newspaper and Pamphlet one penny impressions showing the registration certificate. These were issued to apply the Stamp Act of 1765 intended to raise taxes to fund the defence of the American Colonies from the French. The tax applied to legal documents, licences, newspapers, pamphlets and almanacs in the American Colonies, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Florida, the Bahamas and the West Indian Islands. The taxes resulted in public protest and rioting. The tax was abandoned after a few months due to its unpopularity but the political damage contributed to the War of Independence in 1775.[36]

The largest object in the British Library is the Perkins D cylinder press developed by Jacob Perkins and patented in 1819. This press was one of several used to print the first postage stamps of Great Britain and Ireland which were issued in 1840. The press was used for printing many early stamps for British Colonial territories from 1853 including for Cape of Good Hope, Ceylon, Mauritius, St Helena, Trinidad, Western Australia, Ionian Islands, New Brunswick, New South Wales, New Zealand and Victoria.[37]

The Queen Elizabeth II was to be in the same design (chocolate and violet) but was abandoned after printing. There are only seven examples in existence.[38]

The cover of the British Library pocket guide Treasures in Focus - Stamps features the 1913 2/6, 5/-, 10/- and £1.[37][39]

The Collections feature these rarities which demonstrate international scope:[40]

  • Gold Coast: 1883 (May) 1d on 4d magenta, unique[41][42]
  • India: 1854 4 annas blue and pale red, error head inverted, two used on a cover, unique.[43]
  • Mauritius 1847 1d red used on cover and 2d blue, the "Post Office" issue 1d. orange-red, used on cover. The first British Colonial postage stamps were issued in Mauritius in 1847.[44]
  • New South Wales: 1850 1d and 3d essays of the Sydney View issue. The first stamps of New South Wales, being 1d, 2d and 3d values, were issued in 1850.[45]
  • Spain: 1851 2 reales, error of colour, one of three known.[46][47]
  • St Helena: 1961 Tristan Relief Fund 5c.+6d., 7½c.+9d., and 10c.+1/-, used on a postcard. Only the Colonial Office in London could authorize new stamps, a fact clearly unknown to the Governor, and the issue was withdrawn. These are among the rarest of modern stamps as only 434 sets were sold.[48][49]
  • Switzerland: Zurich: 1843 4 rappen, the unique unsevered horizontal strip of five.[50]
  • Uruguay: 1858 120 centavos blue and 180 centavos green, in tête-bêche pairs,[51] two of five known.[26]
  • Western Australia: 1854-55 4d blue, error frame inverted.[52]

See also

References and sources

  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Harris 1998, p. 262
  6. ^
  7. ^ Day 1998, p. 205
  8. ^ Harris 1998, p. 411
  9. ^ a b Harris 1998, p. 562
  10. ^ a b Bierman, Stanley M. The World's Greatest Stamp Collectors. New York: Frederick Fell Publishers Inc., 1981, pp.209-230.
  11. ^
  12. ^ Harris 1998, p. 592
  13. ^ Schoolley-West 1987, p. 46
  14. ^ a b
  15. ^ Harris 1998, p. 599
  16. ^ Harris 1998, pp. 631–632
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ a b
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^ Schoolley-West 1987
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ a b
  27. ^ Harris 1998, p. 414
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^ The Bojanowicz Collection British Library Philatelic Collections. Retrieved 21 February 2011.
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^ Philatelic Collections: Country collections. British Library, 2011. Retrieved 25 July 2011.
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^ a b
  38. ^
  39. ^
  40. ^
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^
  46. ^
  47. ^
  48. ^
  49. ^
  50. ^
  51. ^ In philately, tête-bêche (French for "head-to-tail") is a joined pair of stamps in which one is upside-down in relation to the other, produced intentionally or accidentally.
  52. ^

External links

  • British Library Philatelic Collections introduction

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