GEORGE CRABB WRITES ABOUT THE EARLY DAYS OF THE FORCES POSTAL HISTORY SOCIETY
"Those were the days” — they certainly were “the days” for those interested in military postal markings — with World War II only seven years into the past and with little known or recorded of World War I and much still to be discovered. There was material in plenty I remember seeing a particular lot in The City Auctions near London Bridge — a tea chest two thirds full of World War II covers — probably from a troops fund office — just thousands of unchecked covers from all over the world.
Another gem I remember was provided by Ted Proud who brought in an auction a large steel ammunition box three to four feet long maybe more than one that again was packed solid with official British Army covers many registered, large parcel pieces all addressed to the Infantry Records Office in Ashford Middlesex. This “dip in at 9d " (4p in todays currency) a time hoard was there for collectors at Ted Proud’s then office at the top of a seventeenth century house in King William IV Street near Charing Cross, now a long time built over by a modern office block. The office was reached climbing three floors of rickety stairs with the office in charge of a plumpish faced (he's still that way) young chap Cliff Rayner later to have his own stamp business. I later corresponded with Major Collier who was based at the Army Record Depot at Ashford and who told me that with an interest of his own in Army FPO’s he had — against all the regulations — amassed some 15,000 covers & pieces of parcels etc covering all aspects of operations in the field. So if you came across one of these covers and they still turn up though most are in collections you can thank Major Collier who lived in Surrey. My own office at this date was in Victoria Street SWI so there were many days that I missed my sandwich lunch and took a bus trip to the Strand area where there was about a dozen stamp dealers in the area. This was then the philatelic market place of London, far more intensively from that angle than it is today and no doubt well known to those collectors of military mail who decided to start a Society for collectors of that philatelic interest who could spend a Saturday morning in the Strand Area and the afternoon in the company of like collectors in a Society meeting room in London.
The collecting world and the Strand market place have changed since the 1950’s most of the stamp shops in the area with plenty of interesting material have gone. The Stamp dealers and their successors now operate postal auctions from their homes and a trip to the Strand Area is much less interesting collectors now have the alternative to wait for the main London bourses for the opportunity to search through dealers boxes of covers. It would have been disastrous if that area of collecting had not changed for the better. Whereas in the 1950’s there was probably one Stampex each year there are now two Stampex bourses and four Postal History bourses in the London area, though much of the interesting material has gone into collections and comes on the market slowly. The facility to meet your collecting friends have increased abundantly by the satisfaction of obtaining the bargain item and even useful additions has virtually disappeared and much of the material in dealers boxes is the mass of first day covers issued by every country over the last 50 years and still going on!
The first Society meeting took place at the Lawns Hotel, South Kensington where subsequent meetings were supposed to take place but by April 1953 meetings were being held at the Imperial War Museum, South Lambeth and which was the start of about 20 years of logical location for our Society. We had a large room containing a massive mahogany table, white painted upholstered chairs both of which could be seen in a large oil painting on the wall in use surrounded by British and German Admirals during the official surrender of the German Grand Fleet. Car parking was easy.
I have a photocopy of the first Newsletter — not a present day photocopy but from the era of early photocopies, sheets of flimsy photographic paper yellow-brown and indistinct. It is dated in the text "18th October 1952” and fortunately names the first principal Society Officers; Col. Crouch — President, John A Smith — Chairman, D.W Harrison — Hon Secretary, E Jagger — Treasurer, E W Gould — Newsletter Editor.
Newsletter No 2 of March 1953 reported that the Society membership was already 32 full members plus a further six who will become members on receipt of the annual fee of 7/6d per annum — payable on the I st October.
Newsletter No 3 was late in September 1953 the Editor who was a member of the Metropolitan Police apologised and said it was due to 10/12 hour duties over the Coronation period, moving house, sickness and holidays — in that order!
Newsletter No 4 of November 1953 was interesting in detailing items in the display by Col Crouch the President which included a British 1669 military letter, another describing the Battle of Waterloo, the earliest known AB in circle mark, items from Army Manoeuvres in the 1850’s together with items from the Crimea War — so clearly Col Crouch the Society's first President was a collector of considerable note. This Newsletter also tells us that there was a new Newsletter Editor Derek Burney who was one of the stalwarts of the Society in the early days having known Col Crouch through their acquaintance at Philatelic Societies in the Aylesbury area where they both lived and which led to the eventual society formation.
Derek was Editor of the Newsletter for about eight years from Newsletter No 4 to Newsletter No 50. He was at one period Secretary as well as Newsletter Editor. He eventually gave up these jobs for family reasons. The Editorship passed to Alan Brown in 1961 and he carried out a successful continuous editorship for a staggering thirty years through to Newsletter 209 in 1991.
Newsletter No 6 of March 1954 includes the first list of 59 members, their names and addresses and collecting interests. Over the following 45 years a number of our older members have not survived and other have left the Society but with many new members the membership is currently about 350. Other members of that listing of ‘1954 are still active and many in the interim have written books on their chosen interest. Ted Proud is one who's address in the list is c/o Perak Hydro Electric Co and no doubt has a lot to do with his continuos interest in Malaya and the Far East in particular and has a number of philatelic reference books to his name, John Firebrace another on the list is still active with a massive book on Egypt and Palestine to his credit. John Smith our Chairman for so many years was early in the field with his book The History of the RAF Postal Service Overseas 1942-1957 published in 1957. Nowhere else was there such information at that date it was the Bible for “RAFPOST” collectors. For members mainly interested in World War I there was only Rev Raynor’s booklet published in 1920 to help them though this was packed solid with information including Indian Field Post Office cancellations and their locations. The booklet was published acknowledging information provided by Col Crouch, Frank Holland who was a Headmaster at Worcester Grammar School and N E Wallis a most knowledgeable ex Post Office Official, all these were in the forefront of our Society in the early days and whilst the first two were not able to attend regular meetings N E Wallis was a regular and valuable attendee at the Imperial War Museum meetings and all three had been already interested and recording information for the previous thirty years!
Rev Raynor booklet fascinated me at that time and with new information becoming available I wanted to write a book on World War I and did in fact make a start but soon realised that Alistair Kennedy, the arch recorder of the Society - never without a notebook and pencil (later biro) at the ready no less today then just 50 years ago - had much more recorded information and was willing to combine with me to write our book which I published in 1977 and which includes the operations history of each campaign, so necessary to really locate the origin of a particular date stamped cover.
Alan Brown who was greatly interested in the Indian Army campaigns of World War I wherever they occurred and who spent most of his spare time working for the Society as Editor and Auctioneer, was a close friend of mine and we co-operated for many years to include illustrations in the text of the newsletter. A tedious job as at the start all illustrations had to be hand drawn. The illustrations were produced electronically and the stencils then had to be cut up and pasted onto the Newsletter stencils. They added a lot to the Newsletters and fortunately the chore of obtaining stencils and the work involved was eliminated by a single stroke when John Daynes persuaded the Society to use a photocopier for the Newsletter production. Reg Kingston and then John had done the duplicating of the Newsletter for many years. Later, due in no small part to Harry Cope’s generous legacy, we were able to purchase our own photocopier and with spare capacity and members time freely given publish books written by our members. There is much that could be written in this vein but all those members referred to herein joined in the first few years of the Society's formation, which is the intention of writing these notes.
The meetings at the Imperial War Museum have been referred to earlier and were most successful and enjoyable but with larger collections being formed by members it would not have been possible to erect the now acceptable display frames. In any case the Museum decided that they had a greater priority use for our meeting room and we were forced to find an alternative.
A solution was found at Caxton Hall where a large meeting room was available. This well known Victorian building, a registry office for famous weddings and venue for political meetings was also close to the bus services in Victoria Street and the Underground at St James Park Station. We were quite happy there but it was decided by the owners that it should be demolished and we had to move again. I don't suppose any of us were aware that we were close to the origin of important recent military history but Caxton Hall was next door to St Ermins Hotel and next to that on the corner of Broadway is a small building which was the first home of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) in World War II and as it expanded it occupied part of St Ermins Hotel. The Committee began a search for a new venue hopefully with a military connection.
This was found at the Victory Services Club where we had a long narrow room for the next decade. Most members used public transport to reach the Club near Marble Arch and we were very comfortable there with the added availability of a good cafeteria or restaurant for special occasions. We were later able to have some excellent display boards made and for these to be stored and used for every meeting. However the hire rates for our meeting room rose steeply and once again in the mid-1990’s our committee had to search for a new venue.
The result was the move to the Union Jack Club near Waterloo Station where we are happily installed at the present time and hopefully remain there for the foreseeable future. We have all the advantages of the Victory Service Club with a good bar and restaurant facilities. A larger meeting room with a very large room and annex for our special occasions. The Society is in the best ever condition to cross the line into the millennium and hopefully with the core of hard working committee members it will be able to provide an interesting and progressive a Society as it has done over the last 50 years.