The Royal Warrant

CENTENARY OF THE GRANT OF THE ROYAL WARRANT

The Royal Warrant

On 31st July 1914, as the country trembled on the brink of war, Stanley Gibbons Ltd was able to announce, on the cover of the ‘Monthly Journal’, that the company had been granted a Royal Warrant, and could henceforward display the Royal Arms, with the legend ‘By Appointment Philatelists to H.M. the King’. The letter from the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace, dated 1st July 1914, was proudly reproduced, and it was noted that ‘This is the first time that any firm of Stamp Dealers or Philatelic Publishers has ever received this much coveted honour’.

One hundred years on, we are now privileged to mark the centenary of that grant, succeeded by Royal Warrants from H.M. King George VI in 1940 and H.M. the Queen in 1956, and continuously renewed. Although there are currently some 800 holders of Royal Warrants (awarded to ‘tradesmen’ supplying goods or services to the Royal Household), it is rare indeed for any firm to achieve the landmark of the centenary of its award, and a source of great pride and satisfaction here at ‘SG’.

By 1914 the company, established in 1856 at Plymouth by the young Edward Stanley Gibbons in his father’s chemist’s shop, was already the leading name in the world of philately, through its catalogues, albums, other publications including the ‘Stanley Gibbons Monthly Journal’ (from 1890), and the remarkable scale and scope of its dealing activities; even before 1914 we had experimented with a branch in New York, and another (short-lived) branch was operating in Buenos Aires. Stanley Gibbons himself, who had sold the business in 1890, died in 1913, and so just failed to witness the award of this royal seal of approval.

The King undoubtedly aspired to a complete representation of all the stamps listed therein, with relatively few exceptions. He did not, for instance, collect Indian Feudatory States (or Indian Native States as they were then known), although the overprinted Indian stamps used by the so-called Convention States were a particular favourite, but otherwise it is known that one of Sir Edward Bacon’s duties on the arrival of each new edition of ‘Part I’ was to mark up the Royal ‘want list’. The King’s main concern was with unused examples, if available, and in line with the fashion of earlier times he had comparatively little interest in postmarks or covers, but his wants among issued stamps (including varieties and errors of course) fell into three categories, each with its own notation – just the sort of approach which any serious collector will recognise. First came the stamps which he still lacked in any condition, second those which he still needed unused, and thirdly those where he was looking for an unused block of four. This last category was a real challenge, for there are many stamps (and not just among early classics) which do not exist in this form or are of considerable to extreme rarity, and here the King was certainly ahead of his time; he is often said to have been among the first to pursue this aim. A nice touch is that the King himself liked to erase these markings, as long sought items were finally acquired, as he regarded them as a ‘defacement’ of his catalogue.

This marked up copy of ‘Part I’, kept permanently up to date, was an indispensable tool when it came to checking new auction catalogues, or making selections from collections that might be offered to the King by dealers. This assiduous approach, maintained to the very end of his reign, with important purchases still being made in for instance the ‘Manus’ (1932-33) and ‘Hind’ (1934) sales in London, meant that his collection, by the time of his death in 1936, was and always will be ‘sans pareil’.

The King did of course have certain advantages not available to private individuals, such as the supply of all new issues by the Crown Agents in matching plate number blocks, presentations of imprimaturs held by the Inland Revenue at Somerset House, and the agreed retention of the original essays submitted to him by printers for Royal approval, but he was a true philatelist of the highest order, and a very careful and astute buyer, with the assistance of his professional advisers. As the famous 1856 ‘One Cent British Guiana’, long known as ‘The world’s rarest stamp’, comes on the market once again in 2014, it is worth remembering that the King passed up two opportunities to bid for it, in 1922 (Ferrary) and 1935 (Hind), considering the price asked too high in relation to its condition.

Since the death of King George V in 1936, first King George VI and now Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II have both fully recognised the great value of maintaining stamp collections of their own reigns, on the same principles as before, as a historical record of national importance, under the care of Sir Edward Bacon’s successors as Keepers of the Royal Philatelic Collection – Sir John Wilson, Sir John Marriott, Mr Charles Goodwyn and now Mr Michael Sefi. As in King George V’s time, sections of the Collection are regularly exhibited both at home and overseas.

SG Journal Cover

Total discretion is naturally required of all Royal Warrant Holders, as to their relations with the Royal Household, but we can look back with pleasure at the warm words with which Sir John Wilson opened the exhibition held in 1956 to mark the centenary of the foundation of our company. As reported in GSM that April he noted ‘The Gibbons Catalogue is one of the really great publications of the universe; it is for most of us our bible in stamps and no trouble is spared to ensure that their lists are as accurate and as fair as we can possibly expect them to be’. More recently, in 2010, Mr Michael Sefi kindly consented to open our refurbished premises at 399 Strand. And the sale in 2000 to the Royal Philatelic Collection of the unique first day cover with the ‘Penny Black’ block of ten is a matter of public record.

As we now celebrate the centenary of that original grant of the Royal Warrant in 1914, Stanley Gibbons Ltd is indeed honoured to have retained this royal seal of approval. It confers the obligation to set the highest standards of integrity in all our activities.

Since 1893 the company’s shop and offices had been at 391 Strand (‘opposite Hotel Cecil’), which we vacated only in 1981, when we completed the move to today’s headquarters at 399, just a few doors along. The degree of continuity is indeed extraordinary. The Hotel Cecil may be long gone, having been largely demolished in 1930, but its grandiose red and white ‘Wrenaissance’ façade still survives.

The key to the original granting of the Royal Warrant was of course King George V himself, who by 1914 had developed from an enthusiastic general collector to an exceptionally knowledgeable philatelist who had set himself the aim of a complete and comprehensive collection of the stamps of his realms, embracing Great Britain and the entire British Empire. Philately was truly his passion, and his chief leisure activity and means of relief from his arduous Royal duties. It is recorded that when in London he tried to spend three afternoons each week in the Stamp Room at Buckingham Palace, and the collection he formed during his lifetime is today housed in some 328 red albums, meticulously researched and written up by his faithful curator, (Sir) Edward Denny Bacon.

The King’s interest seems to have begun c.1890, possibly with the encouragement of his uncle, the first Duke of Edinburgh (1844-1900), whose general collection he later acquired. The Royal Philatelic Collection preserves the then Duke of York’s copy of the 1890 edition of the Stanley Gibbons catalogue, marked up in his own hand with the stamps already in his collection, and when as a naval officer he visited Trinidad in February 1891 a special ‘limited edition’ set of 9d surcharges was created in his honour. One suspects that later in life he would have strongly disapproved of such a proceeding, but these were the early days !

In 1893 he joined the Philatelic Society, London, and was soon invited to become its Hon.Vice-President, being elected President in 1896 – a position he retained until he succeeded to the throne in 1910, when he became Patron of what was now the Royal Philatelic Society, a Royal Charter having been granted by his father King Edward VII in 1906. It is a measure of his enthusiasm that he gave regular displays of selections from his already very important collection, beginning a tradition that continues to this day. The first RPSL meeting of each new season is always a presentation by the Keeper of the Royal Philatelic Collection.

Yet it was only in 1906 that the now Prince of Wales ceased to be a general collector, and decided to focus exclusively on Great Britain and the Empire. That was two years after two of his most famous individual purchases, namely the 1847 Mauritius ‘Post Office’ 1d, used on a ‘Ball’ cover, and the splendid ‘Post Office’ 2d in fine unused condition, acquired separately in 1904. For the latter he paid at auction, anonymously of course, the then record sum for a stamp of £1450. The story goes that a Courtier unwisely commented that he would be interested to know who was the damned fool who had paid such a sum for a little piece of paper… Those two items remain among the greatest gems of the Royal Philatelic Collection, and it is strange to reflect now that those classic rarities had been issued just 57 years earlier, and how quickly the science and art of philately had developed.

Such is the background against which the first philatelic Royal Warrant was granted, to Stanley Gibbons Ltd. The King himself was, and was known to be, an enthusiastic stamp collector, and this meant that philately had a higher public profile than ever before.

Sir John Wilson, Keeper of the Royal Philatelic Collection in succession to Sir Edward Bacon, reveals in his monumental catalogue of the collection, published in 1952, the extent to which the King recognised the central importance of SG to the hobby. Not only did Stanley Gibbons Ltd supply his albums, but the scope and ambition of the collection were largely determined by the authoritative listings in the SG Part I catalogue.

Dr Philip Kinns first joined SG in late 1970. After 12 years at Cambridge he returned as a Commonwealth specialist in 1983, becoming a Director in 1989 and Director of Philately in 2002. Since 1997 he has been the Grantee (named recipient) of the Royal Warrant.