In The Spotlight

GBCC president Tim Burgess interviews David Beech,
Head of Philatelic Collections, the British Library

David Beech

Published in the October, 2008 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club.

Burgess: The Great Britain Collectors Club thanks you for kindly participating in this interview. Your philatelic career and contributions to the philatelic community provide many interesting areas to cover, including your term as President of the Royal Philatelic Society London and current activities as Head of Philatelic Collections at the British Library. [The RPSL library is shown at right.]

RPSL Library

Burgess: Let’s begin with a little biographical information, including when and where you were born, and your school experiences.

Beech: I was born in 1954 in Kent, which is the county southeast of London. An important activity at school was running the Stamp Club and organizing a public stamp exhibition marking International Education Year in 1970.

Burgess: From biographical information provided on the website of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum (U.S.A.), we learn that you began as a general collector at age 9, later focusing on British Private Posts. At the early age of 12 you entered organized philately as secretary of your school stamp club and began organising philatelic exhibitions at age 16. Would you kindly tell us about how you became interested in British Private Posts and please share more information about your childhood experiences with stamp collecting?

Beech: Childhood stamp collecting was in fact a reaction to having a father and brother who were, and still are, sport mad. That is any kind of sport. Being the intelligent one (like all good philatelists), I naturally became interested in something to develop the mind. In those far off days of 1963 one could buy packets of stamps in a local department store for 6d, 9d or 1/-. All I needed was a stamp album, hinges, and I was off.

While it was good to collect as many as possible in a set of colours and designs, I was just as interested in where the countries were and who or what was shown on the stamps. In time this developed into the splendid educational subject that philately has always been. It made one think and ask questions, as a result history and geography were my best subjects at school. The result was that I spent my school days running away from the ball!

I was much encouraged by my slightly older cousin, John Holman, now the editor of British Philatelic Bulletin. We had developed an interest in stamps that were not issued by the Post Office; locals or private posts, as we call them today. These issues include railway letter stamps; railway parcels stamps; island locals (such as Lundy); stamps for the carriage of parcels by bus; Oxford and Cambridge College stamps; delivery company stamps, etc. This eventually led to a study of British postal monopoly, as what was not covered by the monopoly could be carried, and stamps, marks, etc. could be issued and used.

One learnt that postal monopoly was used in different ways across time. Originally it was a method of controlling communication and so plotting against the Crown, as shown by Royal Proclamations, for example By the King, Forbidding the carriage of letters in and out of the Realme. (James I, 15 May, 1609) Later when the posts were farmed out such as to Thomas Witherings in 1635, the monopoly became more of a commercial protection. Thus for me stamp collecting has been transformed into philately. Philately is only limited by imagination in its historical, economic, social political and technical applications.

London 1980 souvenir sheet

Burgess: The same biographical sketch posted on the NPM website covers your involvement in a wide range of philatelic exhibitions, including: member of the Exhibition Committee of the British Philatelic Exhibition (1974), the International Philatelic Exhibition London 1980, and Stamp World London 90. Today, philatelic exhibitions are becoming more and more difficult to manage due to the immense cost and logistical challenges. Are you involved in the organization of the upcoming London 2010 show at the Business Design Centre?

Beech: It is all down to the economics of postal operations. With the advent of e-mail we are all sending a lot less letters. Postal monopoly has disappeared or is reduced in many places. Thus postal revenue is down, but legacy commitments such as pensions remain. The British Post Office, for example, has a pension fund deficit of 6.6 billion as reported in 2007. Times have changed and post offices are much reduced organizations, and this trend is likely to continue. These factors clearly translate into a much reduced commitment to the support of philatelic exhibitions.

The London 2010 exhibition is in fact much more than a conventional philatelic exhibition. Its name is London 2010 - Festival of Stamps. The “conventional” exhibition (exhibits and dealers) will take place from 8th to 15th May at the Business Design Centre in north London. In additional to this and for a much longer period, various mainly philatelic organisations (including the British Library Philatelic Collections and the British Postal Museum and Archive) will be holding exhibitions and/or events. My only involvement, beyond the British Library’s contribution, is as a member of the London 2010 - Festival of Stamps Advisory Board.

Burgess: Please describe how you became involved in the area of philatelic exhibitions. Did your involvement with philatelic exhibitions help prepare you for your current role as Head of the Philatelic Collections at the British Library.

Beech: As I have said, at sixteen I organised a stamp exhibition open to the public. This was a logical progression from running the school stamp club. One had a good feeling of involvement with the managing of an exhibition. It also offered a challenge, like the time I had to take over responsibility for the mounting and dismounting of the exhibits in the frames at the British Philatelic Exhibition (the national exhibition) at two days notice.

Burgess: Becoming President of the oldest and one of the most respected philatelic societies in the world, The Royal Philatelic Society London, must have been exciting. How does one attain the role of President? What are some of the most memorable experiences or responsibilities you recall during the time you served as President?

Beech: Becoming President of the Royal is a great honour. To become President one has to be involved, not only with the Royal, but in wider philately, too. Being involved with managing aspects of the national British Philatelic Exhibition, the British Philatelic Federation and a number of societies contributed to the experience required, not to mention knowing the people. Perhaps the most important event of my time as President was the opening of membership to professional philatelists. This had been discussed for some years and had been a controversial subject. Careful discussions taking into account many views were vital to finding the way forward with all of the protections necessary. All of us on the Royal’s Council did a lot of work and the members who attended our special meeting voted just over 75% for the change. The reform has proved successful. The continuation of the friendly atmosphere at meetings was and is most important. I much enjoyed meeting Fellows and members, displayers and speakers giving papers, nearly all of whom were old friends anyway.

Hawaiian Missionaries

Burgess: You played an important role in an attempt to resolve the controversy surrounding the legendary Grinnel  Missionaries [from Hawaii, pictured on the left], providing a fascinating discussion at the NPM (2003). The talk was video recorded and is currently available for review on the NPM web site. You shared some observations with the audience about the appropriate organization and conduct that should be maintained by expert committees. Viewing the video, I was impressed with your constructive criticism against the bias which adversely affected the objectivity of the expertising community in the U.S.A in regards to the status of the Grinnells. Looking back at the turn of events and the ultimate decision made by the Expert Committee of Royal Philatelic Society London, are there any comments about this event you would like to share with us today?

Beech: It was a great privilege to have been involved. To keep the story simple, a connection had been made with one of the two families (Grinnell and Shattuck) in the US who at the time still owned most of the 80 “Grinnells” stamps. At the British Library we had been working with Professor Robin Clark of University College London, using Raman spectroscopy in establishing the substances used in inks. After some discussions, Pat Culhane of the Shattuck family came to the British Library with six stamps. We examined them and discovered that they were “made” with inks containing the same substances as the genuine copies in the Tapling Collection, which we have held since 1891. This caused me to ask Pat Culhane if the stamps had been expertised by a recognised expert committee to which I was surprised to find that they had not. I suggested one in the US but was told that it was biased against the Grinnells. It was against this background that I suggested the Royal’s Expert Committee. And the rest is philatelic history!

Burgess: I personally found working on a project with you and your staff at the British Library to be very inspirational. I received prompt replies to my questions and the materials I requested were promptly prepared and delivered. Your sincere enthusiasm for research and publication radiated in your correspondence. Therefore I was not surprised when I came across the following comment at the conclusion of a paper you presented to the RPSL on 17 November 2005: “One of the most satisfying aspects of our work is to see a book, monograph or article appear that has to some extent been aided by the collections at the British Library.”

Beech: Publicly held Philatelic Collections are so held for the public. Conservation and access are key. Access equals research; research equals publication. Therefore publication equals knowledge for philatelists including those of generations yet to come.

Burgess: I have read a number of papers you have written on various subjects, including “How to look after your Collection - A Basic Guide” (2005) [Download the article as a pdf file here], and “Philatelic Research at the British Library” [Download here] (2005). [The article “The British Library Collections 1998 to 2005” can be downloaded here.]

The paper I personally found to be the most fascinating was “The Philately of the Edwardian Era as shown in its Literature” [Download here] (2006). I found your examination of British philately from a social and cultural perspective quite absorbing and would like to see more of this type of work. Another study which intrigues me and has been added to my reading list is your study “Hejaz: The first postage stamps of 1916 and T.E. Lawrence” (2005). [Download three parts here here and here.] Which of your publications did you find to be the most rewarding or most important? What future publications are you working on at present?

Beech: Probably the most important article is How to look after your Collection - A Basic Guide as it affects all philatelists. Such a lot of avoidable damage has been done through ignorance and carelessness. Light damage has been and continues to be the main danger. My most recent article Philatelic Research - A Basic Guide has just been published (June 2008). [Download here or here.] I have a range of articles in the pipeline, some of which I have been researching for some years, including “Great Britain: 1889-1891 Court Bureau” and “Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika: 1954 Royal Visit and 1954-59 Set.” [See a video of the Queen’s 1954 visit here, about 4 minutes, 25 seconds in.]

I have been working, on and off, for twenty years on a volume with the title Great Britain and Ireland - A Philatelic Bibliography. So far I have about 2,000 book titles. Unfortunately, I am not covering articles in periodicals as the task is too great and would be likely to have 100,000 entries! I am hoping that the bibliography will be published within the next two or three years.

Burgess: I found a reference on the NPM website that indicated that you were joint founder of the International Philatelic Libraries Association. It is very important that philatelic libraries interact and share materials, ideas and innovations. Please tell me more about this organization and its activities.

Beech: The other joint founder of the International Philatelic Libraries Association is my good friend, the splendid Gini Horn of the American Philatelic Research Library. It is an informal organisation with the aim of introducing philatelic librarians to each other and the sharing of ideas, knowledge, know-how etc and the exchanging of duplicates.

Burgess: I think one of the most exciting projects that the British Library is currently developing is the digitization of the historical newspaper collection. I have found non-philatelic newspapers and journals of the 19th century very useful and sometimes revealing secondary sources of information about the development of the postal system and its inner workings.

The digitization of the Reginald Phillips Collection by the British Postal Museum and Archive in 2007 is equally impressive. The British Postal Museum & Archive must be highly praised for making their collection available in high resolution digital images at no cost to the entire world. Has the British Library given any consideration to presenting digitized resources of its philatelic collections?

Beech: Watch this space. [See some of the Library’s philatelic rarities here.]

Burgess: Managing the Philatelic Collections of the British Library must be a monumental task. I found it to be a challenge just to get my arms around all of the different collections available at the Library. The website, which I understand has just undergone a revision, was very helpful in learning about the many and diverse collections held by the British Library. It was an even easier task after I located and downloaded a paper entitled, Collections and Archives Listed by Name and Subject. It must be an awesome task to develop a working knowledge, arrange displays, and preserve and maintain over fifty Collections and Archives. What is the size of your staff and what are their responsibilities or areas of specialization?

Beech: Yes, it is more than challenging! After twenty-five years I have a good knowledge of its contents. Look at it this way, we do all that any good philatelist does with his or her collection, but we have fifty collections or archives, some of which are large and extensive. The job of the Curator is to collect, to preserve and make available. To do this we are just three including me. My fellow Curator is Paul Skinner, and we are supported by one administrative colleague who has been with us for many years. As a department within the British Library we are supported with many services from other parts. Paul and I are interested in many subjects and areas of philately and rejoice in the diversity of it all - a real and rare privilege.

I would mention that the British Library has collections that number over 150 million items; go to www.bl.uk for further information. For information about the Philatelic Collections go to www.bl.uk/collections/philatelic. For information about the Royal Philatelic Society London go to www.rpsl.org.uk.

Burgess: I wish to thank you again for sharing so much interesting information about your experiences in regards to philatelic exhibitions, your role as President of the Royal Philatelic Society London and Head of the Philatelic Collections of the British Library.

[See a list of David Beech’s publications here. His publications that can be downloaded from the British Library are listed here.]



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