It might be second only to trainspotting when it comes to nerd value, but Sarah Freeman meets the men determined to inject a little cool into the art of stamp collecting.
Richard Smith knows that in the rarefied world of stamp collecting what he’s about to say is unlikely to make him many friends. But say it he must.
“Philatelists can be a little geeky,” admits the retired head teacher who is also assistant secretary of the Leeds Philatelic Society. “What I mean is that the most ardent can tend towards the slightly learned. Sometimes what they want to talk about can be impenetrable to all but the most dedicated collector.”
By way of evidence Richard points to past society events which have included talks on the postal history of Scarborough and an in depth examination by one collector of the stamps which follow the course of the River Wharfe.
“Those kind of talks have their place, but they are unlikely to persuade a novice to give up their Tuesday evening are they? We need to do things a little differently if we want to boost membership and boost it we must if we are to keep the art of stamp collecting alive.”
Along with a couple of other society members, Richard has recently embarked on an uneviable mission to give that very British of pastimes a makeover and in an age of smart phones and games consoles prove that there is a still a place for stamps.
A lot of us tend to end up specialising... One of our members collects stamps featuring volcanoes, for me though it’s all about space.Collector Lester Jenkin
“We are not underestimating how hard that is going to be,” says fellow collector Lester Jenkin, who by day works for the War Graves Commission. “But we have to try. There is something so rewarding about this hobby and we need to let more people know about it.”
The first step on their ambitious undertaking is a roadshow this weekend which they hope will show the breadth and the depth of stamp collecting. The pair are armed with folders which contain examples of First World War postcards, bundles of international stamps as well as an idiot’s guide to beginning a first collection which will form the basis of the exhibition.
“I was given my first stamp when I was nine years old. It was a rather lovely UK stamp and I was hooked,” says Richard, who is now 73. “I’ve got so much out of stamp collecting and we just want to make the society as attractive as possible.
“We’ve had a think and we really want to reach out to youngsters who might never have heard of stamp collecting as well as those coming up to retirement. A lot of people who grew up in the 50s and 60s collected stamps, but then put their books away and forgot about them.
“Often when people find they have more time on their hands they go back to things they enjoyed when they were younger. It’s also a good pastime for the winter when it’s dark outside, plus it doesn’t hurt your knees.”
While neither Richard nor Lester want to overplay their hand by promising to turn new society recruits into millionaires, there is also an investment angle to collecting. While a basic set can be put together for very little money, pick right and the best examples can rocket in value.
“Of course we would all love to discover a rarity,” says Richard. “For me it would be a Penny Red from the Channel Islands bearing a Maltese Cross cancellation mark. But no one goes into this hobby to make money. You go into it because you have a curious mind.”
The world’s very first stamp, the Penny Black, was issued in the UK in May 1840. Just 20 years later there were already thousands of collectors as well as dealers happy to feed their habit. Today no one quite knows how many collectors there are in the UK, but Richard says their motivation is much the same as those early philatelists.
“What we really want to do is spark people’s imagination,” he says. “Designing a great stamp is not easy. The person who is buying it has to be able to tell whether it’s a first or second class, those delivering it need to recognise it and the country of origin also has to be easily identifiable. And you have to do all of that in the tiniest rectangle or square.”
As well as being a bit of a recruitment fair, this weekend’s roadshow will also act as a showcase for the collections of society members.
“A lot of us tend to end up specialising,” says Lester. “One of our members collects stamps featuring volcanoes, for me though it’s all about space.”
It was Lester’s uncle who got him into stamp collecting. The family ran a haberdashers and when customers didn’t have enough cash they would pay with stamps.
“He gave a lot of them to me and before I realised it I had become a collector. At the same time, the space race was really gearing up. Some of my earliest memories are watching those spacewalks and those are the stamps I’ve always gone after.”
Among Lester’s prized possessions are a set of Project Mercury stamps from 1962 which were released to mark John Glenn becoming the first US astronaut to successfully orbit the Earth and others celebrating the moon landing.
“It’s art in miniature,” he says flicking through various first day covers to find the EU stamp David Hockney designed in 1992. “Stamps aren’t just something to throw away, they tell a story of the country and the year in which it was produced. Every one is a little piece of history.
“There is one chap who does a lecture on Captain Cook stamps and his collection has literally taken him around the world. I learnt more from him about Cook then I ever did at school. That’s what we are trying to get across. “While the stamps are the main thing, they also act as a springboard for all sorts of other conversations.
“The sad thing was though I popped into the local post office to put a flyer up about the roadshow and they told me they weren’t allowed to advertise that sort of thing. They have all sorts of leaflets out about ISAs and travel insurance, but it seems they can’t support a group like us.”
Times have indeed changed and while collectors like Richard and Lester use the internet to track down rare editions it has reduced that first personal contact.
“Websites have cut out the middleman which is a bit of a shame because the dealers had an awful lot of expertise and that’s not something you can easily replace. I suppose it’s a bit like what’s happened to second hand book shops. It’s why events like this roadshow are even more important, it’s about sharing knowledge.”
Richard’s own area of interest is in the development of postmarks and he admits he knows more than is strictly necessary than the development of the Leeds system.
“I’m not sure this makes us look any less nerdy does it,” he says reaching for a folder containing some early examples. “I really must learn to stop before people glaze over.”
Well perhaps, but in a world of devastating hurricanes and nuclear threats, like a buttered crumpet there is something strangely comforting about the gentle world of Great British stamp collecting.