July 2021

The Tale of Triangles

tale of triangles

I expect a few people reading this will know the story of how Edward Stanley Gibbons came to set up his stamp trading business. However, we recently unearthed a few extra details – thank you George James for locating Fifty Years of Philately: The History of Stanley Gibbons Ltd by Charles Phillips, which is a fascinating book about our company history.

The book is from 1901 and written by the then Managing Director of Stanley Gibbons, with chapters such as ‘Some Collections We Have Purchased’, ‘Our Stock and How it is Arranged’ and even the latterly added chapter ‘Stamp Collecting as an Investment’. It isn’t just the chapters that are interesting, every other page is an advert for a part of the business, some of which you may see crop up in SG’s advertising as I like them so much!


There is a very interesting commentary and insight into the day-to-day running of Stanley Gibbons and each department is highlighted. Testament to the times in which it was written, there is an interesting paragraph in the ‘Our Staff’ chapter:

‘Our Lady Assistants – From the earliest days in Plymouth our firm has employed girls in several departments, and our business is one for which they are specially suited; they handle stamps quickly and neatly, and easily learn the making up of packets and sets, sorting of common stamps, and general office work. There is, however, one decided drawback, viz. that having such a nice and good-looking staff there are frequent resignations on account of marriage; last year alone we lost five ladies in this manner.’

Of course, as an employee of Stanley Gibbons (and a lifelong fan of the company), I found this book particularly interesting and read it from cover to cover.

Back to these new facts about how the company was set up. Most of us know that a bag of Cape Triangles came over the counter at Edward’s father’s pharmacy in Plymouth. What we didn’t know and what Charles goes into great detail in the book is how the sailors acquired the bag whilst they were in Cape Town.

‘In 1863 Mr. Gibbons had one of the best transactions of his life, and the following are exact particulars I have got from him. ‘One morning two sailors passing by the chemist’s shop noticed the sheets of stamps in one of the windows, and went inside and said, “Do you buy used postage stamps?” On Mr. Gibbons replying in the affirmative, they said they had some on their ship and would bring them in.

‘Sure enough next day the men turned up, and one of them carried a kitbag full of stamps over his shoulder.

‘They were asked into the back parlour, and turned out the contents of the bag on a large round table.

‘The stamps were all the triangular Capes, thousands and thousands of them, many in large strips and blocks of eight or more – Perkins Bacon and Co’s printing and woodblocks mixed up anyhow.

‘Mr. Gibbons, even in those early days, could not imagine how two sailors could have got a sackful of triangular Capes, and asked them for particulars.

‘One of the men said: “When our boat got to Cape Town we had leave, and some of us went on shore for a spree, and me and my mate here happened to go in a show we found folks crowding into and found a bazaar going on. Some ladies persuaded us to take a shilling ticket in a raffle, and we won this here bag of stamps which the ladies had begged all round Cape Town for this bazaar.”

‘Well, the men were delighted to take a five-pound note for the lot, and departed highly pleased.'

Despite our own connection to this issue, the triangles are famous in their own right, of course, and are a triumph of the printers Perkins Bacon. This item doesn’t strictly fit the brief, but it is certainly my favourite philatelic book and one that I read avidly, immediately after receiving it.

This article is written by Managing Director Victoria Lajer.

Further Reading

Here are a few facts about these curiously shaped stamps:
• Usually cancelled by a triangular postmark
• First postage stamps issued in Africa
• First triangular stamps to be issued
• Printed on paper with an Anchor watermark
• The rarest Cape triangulars are the 1861 ‘Woodblock’
 errors of colour – 1d. blue and 4d. vermilion
• First stamps to be printed in a tete-beche format
• Design is based on a sketch provided to the printer by Charles Bell, who was the Surveyor-General of the colony

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