March 2020

Meet Edward Stanley Gibbons



The founder of the company shares his love for collecting and the future of the business with a Stanley Gibbons Monthly Journal special reporter in this July 1893 issue.

A button-holed Mr Gibbons as he was jauntily parading the Strand in holiday attire. We turned back, and making our way up to the private sanctum at the new business premises, we were soon buried in what the autobiographer of the day would term ‘Recollections of Forty Years.’ As the more formal history of the firm will be given elsewhere in this special number, I have been instructed to confine myself to our interesting conversation; and a more interesting philatelic conversation I have not had for many a day, nor a more interesting and easy subject to interview since I said ‘Good-bye’ to poor old Barnum at the hotel Métropole.

As a purveyor of public amusement Barnum was facile princeps in his line, and, as an industrious and ever-obliging coadjutor in promoting the establishment and enjoyment of a most popular recreative hobby, Mr Gibbons has been facile princes in his line. Both seemed to me to possess the same remarkably sanguine temperament that takes the world as it finds it, and make the most of its pleasures and the least of its alloy of care and trouble. Both were as buoyant of spirit as ever they could have been in their school years.

Barnum was a most agreeable and candid conversationalist. His 80 years sat lightly on his shoulders, and you never felt in speaking to him that his life stretched away back into the beginning of the century. So with Mr Gibbons, There were the same buoyant spirits, the same evident content with life. But Barnum with his 80 years of age, was still in harness, though he talked of retiring in favour of a bright little lad who was the pride of the old man’s soul; whilst Mr Gibbons, in the prime of life, has thrown up the sponge and retired from fortune-making to enjoy the abounding pleasure of a suburban villa on the banks of the Thames, where, with Mrs Gibbons, he gives himself up to the rollicksome entertainment of his numerous friends.

Long ago Mr Gibbons made what our American friends term his ‘pile’, and he seized the first opportunity of severing the tie that bound him hand and foot to active business life, for while he was in business he worked as hard as a slave. He never seemed to cultivate the modern art of being simply a directive head surrounded by workers.


SG: ‘My business was always carried on by correspondence’ said he.

MJ: ‘And why did you never open a shop, as Mr Phillips has done now with so much success?’ I asked.

SG: ‘Because’ said he, ‘I could not be bothered with it. You know how people will talk if you give them a chance. I could get through twenty letters while I was seeing one person’.

MJ: ‘That would be an argument against the shop?’

SG: ‘I know it: but then I was not fitted for the shop style of business. My rule was to stick to my correspondence and see no one.’

Herr von Ferrary cold-shouldered

MJ: ‘You must have been a sort of business recluse. Surely you were not allowed to enjoy such a quiet time as you indicate? There must have been lots of collectors anxious to have a chat with such a repository of philatelic lore?’

SG: ‘Yes there were many callers, despite my known determination to do business by letter only; and I have no doubt I turned away many good customers. Business literally showered in on me, and I have so much of it to attend to that I could afford to be a bit too offish. People came from far and near to do business with me. While I was at Plymouth, Herr P von Ferrary came down to see me. I did not then know he was, and consequently gave him the cold shoulder.’

MJ: ‘The dickens, you did?’

SG: ‘Yes; but he has since been one of my best customers.’

MJ: ‘Now what was the biggest collection you bought in your Plymouth days, Mr Gibbons?’

SG: ‘I gave £100 for Mr Erskine Beveridge’s collection. It was magnificent, and included some superb Confederate locals, especially Knoxville, Petersburg, and Nashville, used, very fine.’

MJ: ‘And what did it pan out?’

SG: ‘I should think on that collection I realized £500 or £600.’

MJ: ‘For a single stamp what was the highest price in your Plymouth days?’

SG: ‘Roughly speaking I should not think I ever made more than £6 for a single stamp while at Plymouth.’

MJ: ‘And that.’

SG: ‘I cannot call to mind just now any stamp sold at £6 but I remember having several 13c. Hawaii, first issue, for which I got about £5 each.’

MJ: ‘You had some of the Cape errors, what did you get for them?’

SG: ‘Yes, I had a great quantity, but I only charged from 2s.6d. to 4s. each for them.’

MJ: ‘Got any left at that figure?’

SG: ‘You had better ask Mr Phillips.’

MJ: ‘Had you any of the errors in pairs?

SG: ‘I have no doubt I passed a great many errors because I never thought of looking for them attached to the 1d. They would have been sold by me at 8s. to 10s. a dozen. I had the woodblocks, especially fine dark blue shades, in strips of eight.’

MJ: ‘Were you not in the habit in those days of cutting everything up into single stamps?’

SG: ‘Yes, unless they were sold wholesale to dealers. Customers in those days never asked for pairs.’


Sacks of Triangular Capes

MJ: ‘You seem to have a goodly stock of triangular Capes?’

SG: ‘Stock! One day a couple of large sailors came in, each carrying a sack as large as he could manage. Both sacks were full of triangular Capes. We dragged the sacks into the dining room behind the chemist’s shop where I then carried on the stamp business and emptied both sacks on to a large dining table. They heaped up in a formidable pile and littered the floor in all directions. Quite one half of that lot consisted of woodblocks.’

MJ: ‘Woodblocks! What for the lot?’

SG: ‘I gave the sailors £5 for the lot’

MJ: ‘Were such sacks plentiful in those days?’

SG: ‘No; not very’

MJ: ‘Had you any sacks of British Guianas?’

SG: ‘No; I never got any sacks of British Guianas; but I had from 500 to 600 of the type-set 1862 provisionals.’

MJ: ‘Did you sell them at a shilling each?’

SG: ‘Not quite as bad as that. I got from 15s. to 25s. each for them. I see they are now worth an average price of £9 each. A great many were on the original envelopes.’

MJ: ‘Of course you floated them off?’

SG: ‘Always!’

MJ: ‘Any more scoops?’

SG: ‘Ysasi sold me a very fine lot of Spanish and Philippines, which I considered a momentous transaction at the time, as it involved an outlay of over £100. There were a great many 1854 and 1855 Philippines and the early rare Spanish, which he had obtained through some Spanish dealer.’

The move to London

MJ: ‘When you first moved to London it was not Gower Street, was it?’

SG: ‘No, to Clapham. There I had a sort of Suburban Villa, but the neighbourhood was so very aristocratic that anything like a house of business was looked upon with marked disfavour, and I migrated to Gower Street.’

MJ: ‘And all this time you were never tempted to open a shop where you could spread your net in the open?’

SG: ‘No, never. I had a rooted horror of having my attention distracted from my correspondence, and wasted by personal visits.’

MJ: ‘Then you don’t believe in the enterprise of your successor?’

SG: ‘My dear fellow, that’s a horse of quite another colour. Different people have different ways of doing business. I was rather circumscribed in my ideas. I wanted to attend to everything myself. When it comes to employing other competent people to devote their attention to seeing callers, then it is another matter.’

MJ: ‘Well, you started next at Gower Street?’

SG: ‘My first important transaction there was the purchase of Major Evans’ collection. We had a notable assemblage of philatelists when the collection was purchased and put on view.’

MJ: ‘On view?’

SG: ‘Yes; I broke through my rule now and then, and especially on this occasion. We had Mr Tapling, the two Mr Caillebottes, Mr Philbrick, Mr Ysasi, Mr Burnett, and Mr Ferrary looking over the collection, which was a general one, but especially rich in Mauritius and Transvaal. About that time I purchased from a Mr C G Wyatt a very remarkable parcel of early British Guianas, including a great many of the oblong, but the majority of parcel consisted of circulars. There were no two cents, the existence of that value being then unknown. I remember particularly that there were over 30 of the yellow, about 15 of the green, and not less than 700 of the blue. A large number of the blue were very bad specimens, being torn at the edge. I sold the damaged at from 5s to 10s each.’

MJ: ‘And the good copies?’

SG: ‘Well the blue never made more than 20s each. I see they are now worth about £14.’

MJ: ‘When did you commence the publication of your catalogue?’

SG: ‘While at Plymouth. I turned it out as a monthly pamphlet of about 40 pages, getting through about a 1000 a month. Even in those early days it was looked upon as one of the best catalogues going. Others were published, but they were unpretentious affairs.’

MJ: ‘You never published a journal in those days?’

SG: ‘No, I always fought shy of publishing a journal; but I turned out several albums, notably the “Imperial album” which is still a general favourite. I did all the literary work myself. In fact the whole of the philatelic literature sent out by me was my own unaided work.’

MJ: ‘Had you no employees at all?’

SG: ‘Oh yes several; but they were kept busy making up sheets and packets.’

MJ: ‘What was the best part of your business?’

SG: ‘Approval sheets of rare stamps.’

MJ: ‘And did you do much in packets?’

SG: ‘Yes, quite a considerable trade.’


Collecting: Then and Now

MJ: ‘What difference do you find in the collecting of your early days and now?’

SG: ‘The marked difference is that the philatelist of today is a searcher after minor varieties. In my early days a collector was content with one copy of the penny Sydney view, instead of a hundred shades and slight varieties in the plate.’

MJ: ‘You have been in the stamp business for 40 years; in that 40 years has stamp collecting fluctuated much? Has it shown any signs of dying out altogether?’

SG: ‘At one time there was a great fright among collectors, and the panic showed itself in a considerable diminution in our cash returns for one year—the year 1878—and there was an idea with some people that the mania, as it was called, was coming to an end. But in the following year things brightened up, and our returns improved. The depression was only temporary, and I cannot assign any reason for it.’

MJ: ‘Since then have you known any falling off of interest?’

SG: ‘None whatever. The business has been increasing and increasing.’

MJ: ‘And no signs of its dying out?’

SG: ‘Certainly not. The emphatic and steady increase in the prices of good stamps is the reply to all croakers.’

MJ: ‘How did you manage the accumulation of general stock in the early days?’

SG: ‘My brother, who was an officer in the navy, helped me considerably in purchasing when abroad. He visited the Fiji Times Express office, and cleared the place of their postal issues, sending them home direct to me. But unfortunately, a re-issue very soon made its appearance. I sold that lot at double face value. My brother also visited Vera Cruz and bought a quantity of Mexican stamps. He also visited Havannah, and purchased the entire stock of the 1⁄2 real, 1862, at face value. But one of his most curious experiences was a visit he paid to the Post Office at St. Lucia, where, through his official connections, he was permitted to see the stock of the postage stamps of 1859—the 1d., 4d. and 6d. in the State Treasury. But although they were out of issue the authorities would not part with a single specimen. He has often made my lips water by describing those stacks of early issues done up in bands of paper.’

MJ: ‘And what became of that stack?’

SG: ‘I can’t say. None of it has ever come on the philatelic market.’

MJ: ‘They are yet to come?’

SG: ‘Perhaps so.’

MJ: ‘You have, I suppose, often cleared out Government stocks?’

SG: ‘Yes, I have made many purchases of stocks. The sale of most of them was occasioned by a change of currency necessitating an entirely new issue, not only of stamps, but also of postcards and envelopes. I particularly remember my purchases of the remainders of Cyprus and Mauritius.’

A ton of Cyprus stamps

SG: ‘In the case of Cyprus, the stock left was the surcharged English series, and was indeed an enormous one, weighing over a ton! Included in this, to make it such a weight, was of course a vast quantity of postcards and other postal stationary. But the remarkable part of the transaction remains to be told. The purchase was made direct from HM’s Chief Commissioner in the island. The sum required being duly paid, a delivery of goods was expected in due course. Instead of this, however, on their arrival in England from Larnaca, naturally they had to be passed by HM Customs. This however they refused to do, for they could not understand the arrival in the United Kingdom of such a mass of unused English stamps. Of course unused British stamps are never demonetized, being always worth their expressed face value and available for postage. Consequently, the officers were suspicious, and the Custom-house authorities therefore communicated with the Post Office who in turn consulted with the Colonial-Office, that I succeeded in obtaining possession of the consignment.’

MJ: ‘That was a very good stroke of business in the end?’

SG: ‘Very good; but it was not all beer and skittles buying Government remainders in those days.’

MJ: ‘There were some disappointments eh?’

SG: ‘There were, particularly with the Mauritius purchase; for, unknown to me, every stamp of the entire lot a very large one, numbering a great many millions had prior to dispatch, been carefully overprinted with the word “CANCELLED”. This, of course, greatly reduced their value to collectors; but I made no objection, for even under these circumstances the purchase was a most valuable one. These cancelled specimens are no doubt familiar to every collector, and many have been queries addressed to as to their origin.

A Serbeckian proposal

MJ: ‘You have never cast sheep’s eyes at any little territory, à la Seebeck, I suppose?’

SG: ‘Not at all. But I once had a curious invitation from an eminent English firm of stamp engravers and contractors to assist them in surmounting a difficulty caused by the issue of the well-known Seebeck postal series. As you know, those issues are made under extremely beneficial arrangements to the funds of the various South American Post Offices that thought fit to accept them; in fact, it is stated in some cases, the whole supply of postal stationary, including adhesives, are supplied gratis on certain conditions very profitable to the contractor, but the most disadvantageous to stamp collectors in general. One of the larger American states received a like invitation, but before accepting communicated with the English firm who had hitherto so ably supplied their needs. They in turn consulted me, so as to ascertain if I felt disposed to entertain an arrangement somewhat similar to that proposed by the Seeback Bank Note Company. That was, however, hardly to my taste, and I am now thankful to be able to say that I declined the offer.’

So concluded the interview with Stanley Gibbons, our ‘Special Reporter’ moving on discuss more recent developments with the new owner, Charles J. Phillips.

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