Tim Williams

There comes a time when ageing pack rats must bend to the admonitions of a partner. “And what are you going to do about your stamp collection?” The downsizing and disposal of such long-neglected possessions seems inevitable.

Stamps indeed – the many inherited ones; those received on consignment at boarding school; some in trade for other items desired by antique dealers; and those bought hastily later in life as reminders of foreign postings. The hurly-burly of professional life left no time for pursuit of the hobby. The upshot was some fifteen albums of diverse provenance and size sitting in boxes in a little-used basement room. “Get rid of them!” – the refrain began to tell on aging nerves.

And yet and yet! Were there not some items of monetary value? Did some not arouse memories? Would some tell a story? What did the ensemble add up to? Did they not at least say something about family or inheritance, youthful interests, travel or dreams of wider horizons? The following is a journey of rediscovery of a diverse and only half remembered and half understood stamp collection. It begins like family history because relatives several generations back started collecting and passed on the predilection to their progeny, dunning their relatives and sending back stamps from their various travels. A few attachments illustrate the providers of some stamps or pages from this or that collection.

A Victorian Woman’s Hobby


The oldest album bearing the name “Lincoln” seems, judging by the headings at the top of its pages, to have been intended as a hold-all collection of stamps of many countries going back to the mid-nineteenth century. It must have been taken over by Letitia Brouncker (1876 -1944), our great-grandmother, who came of a monied lowland Scottish family boasting several of the family’s lairds in Ayreshire. Having married Henry Brouncker, a country gentleman with substantial property near Cranborne in Dorset, Letitia had time to dabble in collecting examples of the stamps that had come into use in Britain from 1840 onwards. The families she had been born and married into included relatives involved in overseas colonial administration or commerce so that she regularly received letters or could persuade relatives and friends to keep envelopes and stamps for her amusement. Several years after the death of Henry Brouncker in 1893, Letitia remarried and embarked on travels that took her to Tasmania, Japan and British Columbia. Her family had relations in Holland. This added to the many other items already in a small album she presumably acquired from someone else.


Over and beyond these speculations about family history, the contents of the tattered little album evoke memories of earlier eras in existing nations, third world regions on the eve of conquest and later extinguished empires. The Lincoln album bears no date, but its inclusion of the headings “Alsace and Lorraine” and “German Empire” dates it after 1870. Other clues such as the reference to the “Sandwich Islands” (later the Hawaii acquired by the United States in 1898), along with mention of component regions of pre-French Indochina suggest it was published early in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. What visions of vanished worlds are called up by the mention of such evidently African regions as “Stellaland”, “Griqualand”, “Horta” and “Cape of Good Hope”? Unfortunately the page devoted to American “Confederate States” includes no stamps, nor do the ones on “British Columbia and Vancouver Island”. The early acquisition of statehood by many Latin American countries on the other hand is illustrated by several stamps devoted to many of them. What fun it would have been to acquire items from “The Two Sicilies” or “Sirmoor”, “The Straits Settlements” or “Heligoland”, not to speak of “German China”! That said, most of these early stamps are simple, even unattractive, reflecting the utilitarian implementation of this new system of mass communication pioneered industrially – as one now learns from the internet - by England and quickly imitated elsewhere.

gibbons5.gif Pauline Watson (1877-1940 )

Pauline, the daughter of Letitia and Henry Brouncker, was born on their Dorset estate and grew up a well-bred country girl. In 1904 she married John Watson, the second son of expatriate British shippers in Romania, who was working in the London office of his family firm. With the assistance of well-connected relatives of his wife, John obtained four contracts as a consul with the Foreign Ministry and worked abroad in Algeria and Bolivia and later in Corsica and mainland France. During those years he corresponded with his family and picked up stamps as presents to his long-suffering absent wife. No doubt that, along with letters from other family members, helped Pauline to augment her mother’s collection. We know little about the details of her collecting, but several cryptic notes on envelopes prove that she was active during the years at Spillimacheen in the Kootenays (where our mother was born), persuading neighbours to contribute stamps noticed on their envelopes and later on in Victoria and at Shawnigan Lake, getting her son Henry and even her daughter Gertrude involved.

Henry Brouncker Watson (1906 - 1999)

If there was a guiding spirit behind my accumulation of albums and stamps, it is no doubt Uncle Henry Watson. A chartered accountant, he was meticulous about everything he did. Known as an enthusiastic and competent collector, president of stamp clubs and participant in international philatelic gatherings, he persistently encouraged me. Items he later passed on periodically stimulated my interest. By showing me his collection, sending me extras and promising to give me his collection when he became old, he was not only a role model for me but a guiding spirit in philately from the late 1950’s to the 1980’s.

Post-war Germany – Rule Britannia

After five years service in the Canadian army, my father Rudolph Williams prolonged his European stay by joining the British Control Commission. Our family joined him in 1947 and spent the next four years in Germany. I went to British forces schools, first in Hildesheim, then Braunschweig and for the last two years to the King Alfred Boarding School in Ploen, Schleswig Holstein. It was there that my interest in stamps blossomed. Already several other boys had picked up stamps at German dealers in the various cities where their parents were posted, no doubt at first bartered advantageously for the consumer goods available to the allies and in demand by the German public recovering with difficulty from wartime destruction. At the King Alfred School boys were in contact with several British stamp dealers, notably Stanley Gibbons; the latter offered catalogues necessary for evaluation and selection and sold stamps on consignment.

Two great themes emerged as interesting. The first was of course Britain and its empire. For a trace of this one has only to look at a small blue album memorializing the “Coronation of King George VI”; it contains what appears to be a complete set of mostly the same attractive portraits of George and his wife (later the Queen Mother). There are fifty-six pages devoted to the following: Ascension, Aden, Antigua, Ascension, Bahamas, Barbados, Basutoland, Bechuanaland, Bermuda, British Guiana, British Honduras, British Solomon Islands, Cayman Islands, Ceylon, Cyprus, Dominica, Falkland Islands, Fiji, Gambia, Gibraltar, Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Gold Coast, Grenada, Jamaica, Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika, Leeward Islands, Malta, Mauritius, Montserrat, Newfoundland, Nigeria, Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, St. Helena, St. Christopher and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somaliland Protectorate, Straits Settlements, Swaziland, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Virgin Islands, Canada, Cook Islands, Great Britain, Nauru, New Guinea, New Zealand, Papua, South Africa, South-West Africa and finally Southern Rhodesia. A re-reading of these pages reveals anomalies: Most of the stamps are the same, with portraits of the two monarchs in differing colours but five or six pages just show the King. Those of Southern Rhodesia and Newfoundland (the nicest of the lot) depict more interesting scenes as backdrops, while Canada issued only one portrait stamp. Each page usually explains the location, the origins of the British connection and the country or entity’s constitutional status at the time. The collector learned about Nauru, New Guinea, Papua and all the other far-flung locations. As late as 1948 when I acquired this little album and certainly among the allied community in Germany, we felt British as well as Canadian. Even faced with obvious American pre-eminence and German recovery, one was proud to be part of the empire on which it claimed the sun never set!



The other theme was of course that great defeated country occupied from 1945 to 1955 by the allies and in particular by the United States, the United Kingdom, Soviet Russia and France. No foreign child could escape the fascination of ruined cities amidst a still beautiful countryside and the undestroyed remnants of a historically great culture. The contrast between the societies was evident: Britishers governing and living as if ruling colonists; the locals struggling with difficulty to survive, rebuild and reconstruct physically, morally and politically. The occupiers were often collectors – of weapons, cameras, pictures, books and such things as stamps. The latter, like their counterparts elsewhere, reflected some of the stages, accomplishments and peculiarities of their society. How does this emerge in the several albums and big folders full of unorganized stamps from all periods? In this cursory inspection sixty years after the event, the following fleeting themes or impressions emerge.

In the beginning – around the middle of the nineteenth century - there was the multitude of German states, principalities and “free cities”. In a folder evidently bought to cannibalize for insertion into a more formal album, several stamps issued by “Thurn und Taxis” go back to the origins of the use of stamps by this princely family in Bavaria, which at first enjoyed a monopoly of the German postal services. What they are worth now remains to be seen, but they are certainly of historic interest as they reflect the commercial impulse and technological advances of the times. Along with them are many stamps from the independent components of Germany at the time – Baden, Wuertemmberg, Bayern (Bavaria), Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Braunschweig, Preussen, Sachsen and so forth. They remind the onlooker of how disunited Germany had been before Napoleon introduced revolutionary reforms and by promoting France’s interests involuntarily promoted German nationalism. The Empire that eventually resulted in 1871 was reflected in many stamps. Germany’s acquisition of colonies in the third world is evident in stamps representing Kamerun, German East Africa, the Mariannas and German New Guinea. Like many others of the day, these stamps were unremarkable in appearance and produced for utilitarian reasons. Only with the ending of World War I does a more political note emerge. A black-stamped overlay reminds us of developments such as the short-lived “Volksstaat Bayern” [People’s state in Bavaria], the short-lived Belgian occupation of part of the Rhineland, the French occupation of the Memel Territory and the establishment of the Free City of Danzig, later one of many immediate prextexts for World War II. Use of the phrase “Deutsches Reich” [German Empire] continues into the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). What is most striking is of course the reflection in otherwise dull stamps of the catastrophic phenomenon of inflation: stamps produced with a value of 75 groschen are now stamped 300, 500 and eventually higher figures in the millions. The economic chaos, unemployment and ruin of millions presaged later catastrophes.

In the short term the advent of Hitler and the Nazi dictatorship brought with it a not only aesthetically more interesting stamps but a much greater use of them for political propaganda purposes. Some pushed well-known nationalistic concerns such as the corporate state (takeover of hitherto independent organizations by the state or party), the “day of German art” (ie not degenerate or ‘Jewish-inspired’ art), the perceived heinous loss of colonies after the Versailles Treaty or the murder of the German Nazi Horst Wessel. Others highlighted historical national figures in a more traditional way as if to link the politically radically evolving present with glorious aspects of the past. Celebration of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin went hand in hand with emphasis on the physical fitness associated with military virtues. Depiction of new buildings and roads stressed the economic upswing and progress flowing from increased government expenditures. The “Reichsparteitag” [INazi party congress] in 1936 earned commemoration. As early as 1937 a stamp celebrated defense preparations against air attack. And of course, along with the many depicting Hitler himself, every opportunity was taken to weave the swastika into others. There is no denying that some of these stamps were beautifully produced, increasing their effect and attractiveness to collectors despite the odium attached to the Third Reich. But what other country ever celebrated battle as did Hitler’s Germany?

Back in Canada


In the autumn of 1950 we returned to Victoria to reinvent ourselves either personally or professionally. Uncle Henry Watson, our mother’s brother, reentered our lives in person and supported my interest in stamps with encouragement and gifts. He was not the only one. A cardboard box contains several dozen small envelopes whose addresses or handwritten titles provide clues as to the origins of many of the loose stamps never put in albums but organized by country or region: some were addressed to my parents from their many international correspondents; others were from my few remaining friends at the King Alfred School, including Tessa Wilcox; most came from an antique and stamp shop on Fort Street in Victoria. Over a period of two or three years I traded in many of my other collectibles such as swords or ornamental weapons at the Newberry Stamp and Antique Shop, receiving in return a variety of items, mainly Canadian, British Commonwealth and German stamps. I also established my own relationship with the philatelic section of the Canadian Post Office Department, ordered singles and blocks of the most recent issues.

Some of the German ones I inserted into a small red album, adorning the relevant page with short explanations. Uncle Henry was a prominent participant in the Northwest Federation of Stamp Clubs and persuaded me to participate as an exhibitor in the junior class competition during the May 1951 Pacific International Philatelic Exhibition, held I believe in Victoria that year. Childish as this entry was, there was apparently little competition in the junior category and it sufficed to win a cup, which for a year adorned our mantelpiece in the house on St. Ann’s Street.

Collecting Canadian items was part of a salutary reintroduction to our native land. From them I could reeducate myself in a very basic way about aspects of the political framework, significant historical events, industry and related national symbols including iconic scenes, monuments and animals. The heads of monarchs symbolized continuing loyalty to the “mother country”. The thirty-four pages of a small dark green “Simplex Junior Album” represent my only attempt to record systematically and briefly identify – no doubt incompletely and inadequately - almost forty years of a country’s philatelic issues, some both postmarked and new. Although these stamps are not among the most beautiful ever issued, it is significant I made this effort on behalf of Canada and no other. Separately I had collected several dozen Newfoundland stamps, rather prettier I thought.


rudolphbyknight.gif In those years I also put together the small red F.G. Cadet album to honour our father Rudolph who had come from Austria at the age of twenty-one in 1926 and taken the name of a Canadian aunt married to a Williams. After the hiatus of the Nazi period (during which though already middle-aged he, a leftist, joined the Canadian army), began to receive letters from surviving relatives. The summary annotations I wrote in the margins over the forty pages of my album dip into what had for me been completely unknown aspects of Austria’s history and preoccupations. The first pages are full of stamps depicting monarchs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire such as Franz Joseph and Karl I and those recording the occupation of Balkan countries. The collapse of the empire following the Great War is recorded in new stamps entitled “Deutschoesterreich” [German Austria], the tiny rump state that survived; a new crest emphasizing an eagle and the Parliament buildings became symbols of a difficult birth in a country with an artificially large capital presiding over underdeveloped alpine hinterlands. The catastrophic economic circumstances drove people like our father to emigrate. From 1938 until 1945 there was a philatelic black hole as Austria had become several German regions, with occasional references on Third Reich stamps to acceptably bland or non-national themes as a sop. Following World War Two Austria rapidly reemerged as a democracy that regained independence with a substantially neutral-looking vocation. If there was a philatelic policy, it would seem - from what is admittedly a fortuitous assemblage of items that fell into my possession - to have emphasized some of the following: the initial suffering of the population against a background of beautiful countryside; attractive remaining architectural monuments and costumes reflecting a long tradition; and a magnificent cultural and artistic heritage. Many critics might see in these emphases a reflection of the “life of lies”, ie pushing an image of the country’s historical accomplishments and cultural values to the forefront at the expense of coming cleaner about the acceptance of Nazism by a substantial portion of the population. However, with time, a purposive attempt to convey new values became evident in the choice of democratic role models including prominent past Jewish notables and celebration of independent social organizations such as a free press and trade unions and the Catholic Church. While the recording of Austrian state independence for over 750 years emphasized its national durability, every opportunity seems to have been taken to commemorate international meetings as if to underline Austria’s new open vocation, notably as part of an increasingly united Europe. A comparison with the stamps of East Germany, an entity of comparable weight, would show less emphasis on technology and economic production and links with a political block but more on culture and the reordering of societal directions along more open lines. The struggle against their countrymen’s nationalistic prejudices was taking a long time, but progressive forces were making some headway towards facing up to past problems and consolidating positive new directions.

Also worth mentioning may be the first-day covers, ie envelopes sent to oneself (or acquired from others) on the first day of the issue of new stamps.

gloria1_edited3.gif < Those purchased might come from an institution, event or personage being honoured by the stamp, such as the visit of their Majesties the King and Queen, the establishment of a regular airline flight (still a novelty in those days) or the holding a of an important meeting. According to the internet, this kind of collecting is still practiced. I have some thirty such covers, including several sent to myself postmarked on the date of issue.

It is abundantly clear from the amateurish attempts to organize and comment on the few stamps I arranged in fresh albums that I did not get to first base in my collecting “career”. Apart from selecting three or four national emphases, I picked up little about the technical details that accompany rarities or those aspects of production that make some items desirable. I did not determine any that I preferred. It was really all about places I happened to have experienced or imagined and that had thrilled me. I did not dispose of the many envelopes containing stamps from other countries ranging from the Belgian Congo to Hong Kong, the United States, Egypt, India and so forth.

Perhaps that encyclopedic but superficial interest was part of the reason my enthusiasm waned by grade eleven (1953-54). Also I had started to put more effort into my studies, which soon became obsessive. My friends included no collectors and I do not remember discussing the subject with others of my age. It is true that some of the envelopes suggest I received a few stamps from a colleague at the Victoria Public Library, Keith Littler, and from a fellow student, Victor Bradley, but these were not close friends. In 1954 I started university and in 1961 a career in External Affairs, leaving my collections to slumber in my parents’ basement.


Cuba and Grenada

For an ambitious young officer, a career in External Affairs became all-absorbing. Years turned into decades, and there was, it seemed, no time for hobbies. But – it now appears – stamps were not entirely forgotten. That this rediscovery produces surprises is confirmed by a large brown envelope containing fifteen small transparent ones, for a total of seventy-five stamps. All brand new, they came into my possession during two trips made in 1975 as the newly-minted Director of the Latin American Division. The first took me to Cuba as a member of a delegation to a meeting of our Bilateral Economic Commission. During several hours of leisure I strolled through along the Malecon and through the old centre of Havana. On the lookout for gifts for family members I evidently stumbled across a tourist outlet run by the National Institute of the Cuban Tourist Institute. Probably inexpensive at the time, the Cuban stamps I picked out were beautiful. Scrutinizing them now over thirty five years later, I subject them in my biaised mind to the same political analysis being visited on other totalitarian regimes. Each batch carries a theme, some of them overtly political, as in “Anniversary of Granma” or “Victories at the Montreal Olympics”. Others appeal (in a manner common to those issued by virtually all nations) to understandable pride in Cuban history (“Pictures from the National Museum”, “History of Navigation”). Accomplishments of the regime are evident in “Reforestation”. Does an issue of six stamps on “Childrens’ Drawings” suggest they will be the heirs to a bright future? Do the stamps devoted to “Space and Communications” and “The Future Cosmos” intimate that Cubans are participating in technological advance and despite the blockade not cut off? In any case all of these stamps are unusually attractive, not least the ones depicting “The Development of the Fishing Industry” and tropical fish and birds. Beauty like this softened momentarily one’s reservations about the regime.

Another visit was to the small Caribbean island of Grenada to attend a meeting of the Organization of American States. The stamps acquired there (along with a collection of spices for Gloria) were also quite nice, being devoted to scenes of possible interest to tourists, sports, animals, beachcoming and ships. The acquisition of these and the Cuban ones confirm I had not completely lost interest in stamps, but the fact they languished untouched until now speaks for itself.gibbons6.gif

Paris (1980-1984)

In 1980 we were posted from Boston to Paris. There followed four years of delight in the peculiarities of French culture and society, the beauty and variety of the regions and countryside, and naturally in food and wine. The children learned fluent French. My job as “Minister plenipotentiary” or number two at the Embassy kept me busy, but I strove as best I could to make time for some activities with them. I read to Caroline most evenings. We promoted links with other families and arranged cultural activities and visits to museums and plays. Our son Matthew, nine when we started and thirteen when we left, played some squash with me on Saturday mornings. Another activity of ours, while Gloria went with Caroline to the market, was visits to the stamp dealers who regularly hawked their wares on the shrouded edge of a nearby park. We bought several small albums and made mail orders to several Parisian dealers (for example CECODI S.A. at 36, Ave du 1er, 1936, 91120 Palaiseau) and accumulated stamps of several origins. During the regular visits made every year to Bavaria to stay with Gloria’s parents we also picked up German stamps at places such as M. Axtner, Briefmarken, on the Karlsplatz in Munich. Matthew acquired several small albums, but our interest was threatened by the bustle of returning to Ottawa and readapting to Canada in 1984.


A Hobby in Decline (1984-1986)

The two years following our return from Paris and before our departure for Tunis in the summer of 1986 were the last gasp of family stamp collecting. Matthew was thirteen and heading for fourteen, Caroline ten and then eleven. They both had small albums. At Simpson-Sears we bought – on sale at a dollar – a copy of “The Lyman Standard Catalogue of Canada-BNA Postage Stamps – 38th edition Illustrated in Full Colour!” Tim made desultory efforts to help the children acquire more stamps whether from stores or relatives and encourage their sorting and insertion into appropriate places. This involved dunking postmarked stamps from letters into the bathroom basin to rid them of the envelope. But both he and the children were taken up with their other preoccupations. The only traces of those years are an album of Matthew’s and four envelopes entitled “Traders – already in Matthew’s possession”, “Traders” or “Extras”.

The Schaubeck albums


And yet one vehicle would have existed to house at least part of the loose collection and to help revive interest. There were two heavy albums acquired at some point during our years in Hannover. Produced by a Leipzig company the first album – light red in colour and embossed on the cover with attractive gold symbols of the five continents – was evidently a smaller version of a larger one in several volumes devoted to all the stamps of the world. This one contained 17,400 places for stamps. 4,342 of them were pictured and bore indications of the dates of emission and colour. In a lengthy introduction useful to beginners the producers noted that the stamps indicated were readily available [in 1924] to the average collector, excluding items rare at the time. The breakdown of pages according to continents was as follows: Europe 293 pages; Asia 47; Africa 50; America 83; and Australasia 17. In effect the album was about Europe and its current or future colonies or areas of influence. A beginner interested in the whole world had simply to go in search of items to fill the pages. Had I inherited or more likely acquired this book in Germany “as was” or did I myself find some of the stamps in it? Memory fails. This first album is sparsely filled, but a second one, blue in colour and called “Schaubek Deutschland”, with about seven hundred stamps, is about one fifth full.

While I cannot now remember handling these albums, the blue one contains a list of the pages and most interesting countries handwritten on the inside of the back cover so I did give it some attention as an adolescent in the early 1950’s. At the very least, as a fifteen year old in grade 10A at Oak Bay High School in Victoria, I must have picked up a fair amount of elementary geographical and political knowledge by perusing pages on the European powers and their world-wide reach, the many political changes for example from Russia to the USSR, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to its successor states, from the many vassal Indian principalities to British India and the many other territories that in the late nineteenth century were parcelled out amongst the developed industrial imperialists.

What are these stamps, once considered ordinary but in many cases over a century old, now worth? I no longer possess a catalogue in a hard copy, but for someone who has the time and motivation the internet has seemingly become a mine of information on the current market.

The “Workers and Peasants State”


The last gasp of my stamp collecting now has a faint air of the absurd around it. Following our return from Paris in 1984 and as part of the effort to interest our son Matthew, I picked up some stamps of East Germany, that ill-fated state that was to go out of existence with reunification in 1990. It was a seven page, unorganized collection of about six hundred items in a green Lindner album, now expanded by several pages. The contents may or may not be representative of the German Democratic Republic’s production over its forty-year existence, but one can still read subjective interpretations into these items. The artificial nature of an undemocratic puppet state propped up by the Soviet Union and its troops comes out in overt political themes – the repeated celebration of the anniversary of its foundation and that of the leading Socialist Unity Party; the Party’s leader Walter Ulbricht; factory workers shaking hands with peasants as befits the “workers and peasants state”; the National People’s Army; and slogans such as “For Peace on Earth”. Buildings symbolize progress in post-war reconstruction and depictions of modern technology suggest the uneasy state’s economic viability. The people selected to be honoured on stamps run the gamut from historical personages such as Johann Kepler who can be fitted into Communist iconography to members of the new class of technocrats. Cordial relations with the Soviet Union and other East Block neighbours are highlighted in depictions of Lenin and Stalin, Russian cosmonauts and the Slavic Sorb minority. Perhaps to a greater extent than their West German rivals, the East German authorities obviously made a deliberate effort in later years to engage in large-scale beautification of their stamps to appeal to collectors. Contrasting with the politicization of much their philatelic output, they successfully produced many attractive series devoted to such things as animals, flowers and even the mushrooms common in the region. Their efforts were above-average in terms of variety and beauty and convey an impression of enthusiasm and dynamism. But in 1990 the GDR became history….

Jewels in the Crown

The chief inspiration for stamp collecting in the person of Uncle Henry lived to the ripe old age of ninety-three, dying in 1999. He had for many decades intimated to me that he would leave me his stamp collection, but as he neared the end he sensibly changed his mind, deciding to sell almost all of it to help reward his two principal heiresses, his daughters, and those members of his deceased wife Annabelle’s family who had stood by his side helping him in his last years. For what it was worth I certainly understood that. As a consolation prize he gave me his Dutch collection. While he thought it worth something at the time, I showed it to the principal Ottawa dealer around 2010; he offered me very little. The amount seemed disappointing and I turned him down. That said, I was never mainly interested in the money. Uncle Henry’s interest in my development and loving encouragement to me as a person were worth their weight in gold and precious to me over the many years of our acquaintance.


Henry’s Dutch collection, which reflects the Brouncker family’s links to relatives in Holland, had its origin in items inherited from Letitia and Pauline, complemented by assiduous updating (among other things by a contract with an American dealer) to December 31, 1996. It now consists of three albums, of which the first contains lots of early issues, some mint, some well described in their variations in Henry’s pleasantly legible handwriting. The second album brings the collection up to 1996, while the third deals with “charity” stamps. Henry told me the collection was “pretty complete, especially up to the 1930’s”. We have however lost touch with our Dutch relatives and our Brounckers appear to have died out.


Looking back and forward

What I have before me – some fifteen different-sized albums and several dozen stuffed envelopes and trader booklets – has turned out to resemble a time capsule reaching back a century and a half. Letitia’s wanderings, those of grandparents Pauline and John, and Uncle Henry’s more knowledgeable accumulations fed into my own amateurish youthful adventures on two continents. Stamps once the stuff of family correspondence became part of an attempt to encourage interest in the wider world on the part of our own children. Now much of the focus – the British and other empires, “greater Germany”, the G.D.R. and a host of former stamp-emitting states – have vanished. The geography we learned from them has remained, accessible now through postings and tourism. Stanley Gibbons’ catalogues have been complemented by the internet. This reexamination has evoked glimmers of the fascination that once made me correspond with dealers, trade with schoolmates, solicit items from relatives and use hinges to start filling in the gaps in monster books or devise comments to explain entries in my own nascent albums. But who else is interested now?

The more I delve into stamp collecting, the more impressed I am with the detail that proper collectors and aficionados indulge in. The more acquaintance I make with national postage stamp policy, the more deceptive first impressions appear; clearly most countries now pursue a variety of objectives. My own tentative observations, a belated attempt to comprehend something I thought I knew a bit about, now seem naïve in the face of the subject’s complexity. A recent visit to Ottawa’s principal stamp dealer shed light on developments in the trade. Apparently stamp collecting as a pastime, like so much else, is both profiting and suffering from the development of technology. Across-the-counter retail selling is giving way to electronic communication. Catalogues are being challenged by on-line information and sales both individually and through auctions. While there may have been some decline in stamp collecting by the masses and children, individuals – including more women - are going in for thematic and technical specialization. While the production of stamps for mailing may lose money, their sale to collectors may more than compensate. The source of these speculations, the dealer Ian Kimmerly, is, however, planning to close shop in Ottawa and move to Victoria. That will leave the four local stamp clubs with the internet and regular auctions as sources.



As further evidence of my ignorance, a sifting through correspondence received over the years has produced a wider variety of Canadian stamps. They cover a much wider gamut than I had at first imagined. Several Canada Post publications attempt to describe past policies and practices and open the door to public input. It seems there’s a “Canadian Stamp Advisory Board” that tries to juggle the merits of various representations and that follows policies that include for example the issuance of a stamp commemorating at his death any Canadian Prime Minister, including one on Pierre Trudeau I had never encountered. The mystery deepens. “From failing hands, I fling the torch….”

P.S. Flash forward to today, February 9, 2014: On the positive side I downsized by selling three albums of British and Canadian stamps to Ian Kimmersley, the dealer on Sparks Street. The stamps were partly mint, some in quadruplicate plates, mainly unexciting views of monarchical heads such as the “Coronation Series”. With that satisfying feeling of accomplishment and self-control and with $350 in hand, I then promptly recidivized by falling into the packrat mode of purchasing two brand new empty albums. In them I am innovating by creating an alphabetical record of our family connections with about forty-five countries around the world. For example under “Bolivia” I record Grandfather John Watson’s difficult three-year stint as Consul and Charge d’Affaires in La Paz from 1907-10, our daughter Caroline’s teaching stint in Santa Cruz and our own visit to see her after our retirement. A selection of photos and sundry documents accompanies many of the entries. Of course the bigger countries such as Canada, the U.K., the United States, Germany and France come in for lengthier mention. It’s amazing though how many smaller countries have touched our family members’ lives. This is having some passing success with relatives, some of whom are equally nonplussed about what to do with stamp collections. Another tool to get younger family members interested in genealogy? In a more minor vein I have concocted new Christmas cards each featuring a dozen or so stamps from Canada and around the world; the only problem there is that e-mail is tending to take over. However, paradoxically, all this perusal of my old albums, envelopes full of stamps and removal of them from old correspondence has actually revived some of my interest. I am as simplistic as ever. I remain the custodian of three big grocery boxes of stamps and their albums. The dilemmas still face me. Plus ca change!

Tags: Tim Williams