It is surprising how few stamp collectors know this, but perhaps the most easily accessible display amongst the firmament of wonders available to the general public in the UK’s capital, are the Philatelic Collections of the British Library.
Simply walk in (it’s free!) and head for the back of the building, after 20 seconds there they are, the “Philatelic Collections”
There are a number of collections on permanent display, all wonderful in their own way, the centrepiece being the Tapling Collection, the library’s first philatelic bequest made way back in 1891. Simply walk to the wall and pull one of the frames, out they slide, usually four album pages behind glass and you are just millimetres away from a world of philatelic treasures.
Perhaps, before you take a more structured approach, your random selection will see you face to face with a page of those atmospheric Hawaiian Missionary stamps. Incredibly flimsy those primitive blue stamps (I’ve handled a few, it seems a gust of air might tear them), the paper is so thin it boggles the mind how any survived that harsh, wild paradise. Or perhaps the pages packed with Mauritius classics including a beautiful 1d “Post Office” on a pretty little envelope (one of just a few covers in the entire Tapling collection), there are mint examples too plus many more from the slightly later “Post Paid” series showing in excellent detail the deterioration of the printings as the plates wore.
Go on, before you look at the handy index to find your favourite area, to see if you can find the GB pages…ahh… Penny Blacks and Twopenny blues in mint blocks… in fact pretty much everything in mint condition. A feast.
Talking of feasts the café is next to the stamps so you can calm down with a coffee and sandwich and watch a constant stream of people, easily over one hundred in less than an half an hour, they are mostly not stamp collectors, they look for their home country and stare. A group of young adults has pulled out a frame as I am walking past, it’s the Brazilian stamps and they are debating a particularly beautiful set, there is some disagreement and I presume they are not sure who the whiskery old gent illustrated on the stamps is. I can’t help myself and nod at the frame “Don Pedro”. Ah yes, thank you Sir.
It’s perhaps a shame that Mr Taplings 1880’s album pages have remained unaltered, annotated by hand with just the most basic information available to him back then. I am quite sure that as new knowledge becomes available the treasures in the adjoining room, which include an original Magna Carta and a copy of Boewulf from 1000AD, would have their explanatory notes updated very quickly. Still, it is a small complaint but us stamp people really do think there is a lot to these little bits of paper and we want others to appreciate them and their place in history don’t we?
I mind my own business and look at other frames from other collections, there are some wonderful early pioneer flown covers from back when pilots didn’t often live to a great age, this collection also includes stamps with a US “Inverted Jenny” minding its own business on one unprepossessing page. Another collection has stamps made by Polish POW’s. Fascinating stuff.
This is all just 3 minutes’ walk from either Euston or St Pancras railway stations, if you are ever in London take a look. You don’t need permission and no one is breathing down your neck, you can be transported to a time when a young man from a good family could single-handedly pull together perhaps the single greatest gathering of 19th Century philatelic treasures in one place… and enjoy a good coffee too.