Welcome to Musings and Miscellany at GBStamps.com! Here you will find my various musings plus some comments and opinions by others. You'll also find miscellaneous other topics here. Enjoy!

Royal Mail - Innovator or Greedy Marketer? (Or, philatelyannoyance.com) Part 1

Why is this page labeled philatelyannoyance.com? When Michael Johnson, the originator and designer of the “Fun Fruit and Veg” stamps, was asked about people who criticized those stamps, he linked to my essay below and called it “philatelyannoyance.com.” The interview is here. My further thoughts on the matter will be posted soon.

Go to Royal Mail - Innovator or Greedy Marketer? Part 2
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Royal Mail begins decline into trashy stamps

(Posted December 16, 2002.)

In the past, I have defended Royal Mail’s stamp issuing policy, though with reservations about the future. I also noted an organizational change that was a bad omen for stamp issuing policy. Now, as 2003 begins, the future is here.

The stamp program for 2003 announced by Royal Mail has a number of disturbing elements. First, we’re starting to see commemoratives issued in sets of six rather than the five that has been common. And it wasn’t so long ago that the sets were expanded from four to five.

Multiple Choice Occasions stamps Second, the occasions stamps, formerly known as greetings stamps, each feature three messages with a check box next to each one. The sender can check the appropriate box. Royal Mail is promoting these as “the first multiple choice stamps.” The example shown in the December Philatelic Bulletin has these messages: Oops!, Sorry, and Will try harder. The full set is shown at right. Other than the messages and boxes, the only other design elements are the cameo of the queen and the first-class service indicator.

As a gimmick, this falls flat, and for design, these will definitely be contenders for the ugliest stamps ever produced. In fact, even “ugly” is too kind; that implies there is some artistic quality to them, when in fact there is none. These checkable messages should be on labels, not on the stamps themselves.

By the way, has anyone ever seen one of these stamps used as intended by someone other than a stamp collector? If you have such a cover in your collection, I’d like to know about it.

Fun Fruit and Veg But it gets even worse. In February, Royal Mail will issue a set of ten stamps picturing various fruits and vegetables (the top two rows in the image on the left). There will also be a set of stickers with ears, eyes, noses, mouths, moustaches, hats, glasses, ties and shoes to allow customers to make characters out of the produce. Royal Mail calls this set “Fun Fruit and Veg.” Yes, “Veg.” I guess the word “vegetable” is too long for the intended customers of this set. But how many letters do they expect six-year-olds to send?

After my initial revulsion, I consulted the new criteria for commemorative stamps. They were published in the August, 2002 issue of the British Philatelic Bulletin. I decided to see which criteria were met by this set. Important anniversary, no. Event of national importance, no. UK success on the international stage, no. The British way of life and diversity of cultures, no. A showcase for the best of British contemporary creative talent, I hope not. Meet Royal Mail’s commercial target for philately....uh, oh.

When I first read that criterion, I didn’t expect it to really mean “anything we think will sell, we can put on stamps.” But I guess it does.

Now please excuse me while I write to the American Philatelic Society and ask them to bring back their “black blot” program.


After the above was posted, I received this email, shown just as received (except for omitting some of the contact information):

love the stuff about our stamps larry

keep up the good work

we love your site


johnson banks
(designers of the fruit and veg stamps)

ps you should get out more

Michael Johnson
johnson banks
crescent works
crescent lane
sw4 9rw

I guess I can’t please everyone. However, I did visit his web site, and I found the examples of their work to be very interesting. They have some unique ways of visually getting a message across. I would recommend a visit. top

Is Royal Mail trivializing British stamps?

(Posted April 16, 2001)

Earlier this year, I complained that Royal Mail was effectively ignoring Queen Victoria in favor of dogs and cats. My protest fell on deaf ears, however. As the 2001 stamp program has been unveiled, it seems that the significant is giving way to the trivial across the board.

Buses stamps

Pictured above are the buses stamps to be issued on May 15. These stamps join such noteworthy topics as the aforementioned cats and dogs, the weather, hats and flags, all to be issued in 2001. Each of these sets individually is not bad, but five in one year!

Perhaps I’m being too hasty. The April issue of the British Philatelic Bulletin notes that this year is a significant anniversary of two events: the first double-decker bus was displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and the first London electric tram ran in 1901 (though what does that have to do with buses?). Also, the Public Transport Congress will be held in London next May.

But how is anyone to know this by looking at the stamps? Thousands of people do get the Philatelic Bulletin, but hopefully millions will see one or more of these stamps, and how are they to know that the first double-decker bus was revealed 100 years ago? In fact, unless someone reads the Bulletin or perhaps the presentation pack, he or she would not know that the buses are pictured from left to right in chronological order, starting with a 1908 vehicle and ending with one introduced in 1999. He or she would also not know which buses are pictured.

According to Royal Mail’s web site, the weather stamps mark the 150th anniversary of the first weather charts. This is not noted anywhere on the stamps or on the souvenir sheet (where there is certainly room for it). In fact, it was not even in the Philatelic Bulletin’s article about the stamps. How is anyone to know???

1975 Railway stamp In the good old days, stamps had labels to describe what was pictured. On the left is one of the stamps from the 150th Anniversary of Public Railways issue of 1975. It not only shows the engine, but gives the engine name, the railway name and the date. It doesn't indicate the anniversary, but at least it is informative about the engine pictured.

In fact, let’s look at the issues of 1975 (a year I picked at random):

The sailing issue was purely topical, but the other issues had some substance. Perhaps the Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference wasn’t the most important event of the year, but Turner and Austen definitely deserved recognition, and the architecture and railway stamps (with descriptive text) highlight important aspects of British culture. Can we say the same about hats and the weather?

Of course, there were only eight issues that year, and two (the semi-postal and the conference) had only one stamp, but the subject of whether Royal Mail is issuing too many stamps is a subject for another musing. top

Pets or Queen Victoria?

(Posted January 2, 2001)

Maybe I’m getting more traditional in my old age, but I think it is a travesty that Royal Mail can issue ten stamps featuring cats and dogs, but the 100th anniversary of the death of Queen Victoria is relegated to a label in a booklet.

Granted, today’s postal services are all about marketing and revenue. For commemorative stamps, at least, the main consideration is how many stamps can be sold.

What’s even sadder is that these cat and dog stamps (to be issued on February 13, 2001) don’t even tie in to some event or historical anniversary. In the past, there was some justification for most British topical stamps.

For example, there were, as usual, several topical stamps issued in 1998. The lighthouse stamps marked the 300th anniversary of the first lighthouse at Eddystone on the English Channel. The magical worlds stamps, showing images from childrens’ books, celebrated the centenaries of Lewis Carroll’s death and C. S. Lewis’ birth. The endangered species stamps marked no event or anniversary, but they did serve to inform the public of an important environmental issue.

There’s no reason, however, for the cats and dogs other than simply to sell stamps. Meanwhile, Queen Victoria is hidden in a stamp booklet that few members of the public will ever see, much less save.

Queen Victoria has appeared on modern stamps, most recently a set of commemoratives depicting Victorian Britain, issued in 1987 on the 150th anniversary of her accession to the throne. For a monarch as famous as she, however, I think it is not too soon to honor her again.

I guess there is not much we can do, except wait patiently and hope that Royal Mail treats Her Majesty better on the bicentenary of her birth in 2017. top

Too many stamps?

(Posted November 24, 2000)

There has been some discussion in the philatelic press that Royal Mail is issuing too many stamps. Some of this is related to the Millennium series of commemoratives, which was bigger than a normal year (12 sets instead of the usual 9) and which, at least in 1999, did not meet with universal approval.

The situation got worse early in 2000 with a rate increase and a number of special issues for The Stamp Show 2000 held in London in May.

“The Philatelic Exporter” is a British monthly magazine aimed at the international stamp trade. In the May, 2000 issue, James Skinner took Royal Mail to task for its “flood of issues of biblical proportions.” Skinner is a new issue dealer (doing business as B. Alan, Ltd.), so even though he may make a profit by carrying all these issues, he does have to invest his money to buy them and then spend time organizing them, advertising them, and sending them to his customers.

Skinner makes the claim that during March, April and May of this year, Royal Mail issued £94.82 worth of new stamps. That converts to about US$140 at the current (October, 2000) exchange rate and was even higher earlier this year.

Here is how he broke it down.

Millennium 2000-National Pondlife Merseyside
Millennium series - Water and Coast £1.53  
Five counter booklets with covers containing new phone numbers £8.90*(1) Same stamps and cover design as previous issues
Booklet of four stamps with Postman Pat label £1.04#  
Millennium 2000-ECOS Ballymena
Millennium series - Life and Earth £1.55  
Booklet of four stamps with Royal Botanical Gardens label £1.04#  
Machin £1.50 high value
Reprints of the Machin high values £11.50*(2) Printed by De La Rue instead of Enschedé, very minor differences compared to the original printing
National definitives for the new postal rates £2.32  
Country definitives for the new postal rates £2.62  
Counter booklets for the new postal rates for overseas mail £4.20#  
Machine booklets for the new postal rates £3.00#  
'E' stamp booklet with cover having new phone numbers £1.44*(1) Same stamps and cover design as previous issue
Millennium 2000-Cycle Network Artworks
Millennium series - Art and Craft £1.56  
Jeffery Matthews palette miniature sheet £2.59  
Jeffery Matthews palette miniature sheet exhibition card £4.95*(3) Contains one mint and one cancelled miniature sheet
Smilers stamp sheet of ten with personalized photo £5.95*(4)  
Smilers stamp sheet of ten with Stamp Show 2000 labels £2.95  
Stamp Show exhibition miniature sheet £2.45 This is incorrect. The sheet sells for 2.08. It is the presentation pack containing the sheet which is 2.45.
Package of three Stamp Show 2000 prestige booklets £22.53*(5) The three booklets were issued previously, only the packaging is new
Exhibition pass containing overprinted Timekeepers sheet £10.00*(6) The unoverprinted sheet was issued previously
Millennium counter booklet £2.70# Contains two millennium commemoratives and eight definitives

This theme was also picked up in philatelic publications in the United States. James Mackay, writing in “Scott Stamp Monthly,” came to the same conclusion as Skinner. Mackay’s scope was a little broader, concentrating on the overall issuing policy of the last few years, rather than just a few months. He had a few inaccuracies in his column, but overall he made his point well.

Michael Laurence, editor of “Linn’s Stamp News,” read Skinner’s column and repeated many of the points there in an editorial concerning The Stamp Show 2000 and Royal Mail. Laurence indicated that even a casual collector of British stamps would need to spend this large sum of money, something which Skinner pointedly does not say. I, too, differ with Laurence’s statement.

In the chart above, I have marked several items with an asterisk (*) or a pound sign (#). These items, in my opinion, would be required only by a dedicated collector specializing in Great Britain. There are certainly many such collectors, myself included, but they are a minority compared to the more general collectors who use the Scott catalogs and enjoy keeping their collection in a pre-printed album such as the one Scott produces.

The items marked with an asterisk are all reprints or variations of existing issues. Reviewing them in turn:

(1) These are booklets that are identical to previous issues except for new phone numbers listed on the inside cover. There are no new stamps or cover illustrations. Only a specialist collector of booklets would include these in his or her collection.

(2) The Machin high values, originally printed by Enschedé and issued in March, 1999, were reprinted by De La Rue in April, 2000. The differences between the printings are very minor, and this new printing will probably not be listed by Scott nor included in general albums.

(3) The Matthews exhibition card contains a mint and a cancelled copy of the miniature sheet. General collectors will want one or the other but not both. The mint sheet is listed separately right above this entry.

(4) At The Stamp Show 2000, Royal Mail offered the Smilers stamps with a personal photo in the margin to attendees who were willing to pay a premium. The sheet of stamps with a generic design in the margin was sold at the show and at post offices and the Philatelic Bureau. The single sheet with generic margin should suffice for most collectors.

(5) Royal Mail issued a series of three prestige booklets honoring the show, one each in 1998, 1999 and 2000. These booklets were then packaged in a special folder for The Stamp Show 2000. A collector who already has purchased the booklets is not likely to buy another set simply to get the package. Even I did not go for that one.

(6) The exhibition pass for The Stamp Show 2000 contained an overprinted version of the Timekeepers souvenir sheet that was originally issued in December, 1999. It is possible that this will be listed or footnoted in catalogs, but it is essentially a reprint of an existing issue.

The total cost of these items is £65.27. Subtracting this from the total cost leaves £29.55 or roughly US$45, a significant decrease.

There are also five items marked with a pound sign (#). These are booklet issues that contain new panes but not new individual stamps. Many collectors of British stamps do not collect these booklets. The total cost of these items is £11.98. Subtracting this from the previous total leaves £17.57 or roughly US$26.50.

While this total is a lot, it is a far cry from Skinner’s original US$140. It is, of course, much less than the US$38.05 cost of the single United States Space Achievement and Exploration set issued in July, 2000.

There are a few other considerations. The issues in early 2000 were the result of the confluence of several infrequent events. The Millennium served as a reason to issue more commemoratives than normal. Several special issues, including an expensive prestige booklet and two souvenir sheets, were issued on the occasion of Britain’s international stamp show, and the next one will not occur until 2010. The new definitives were required for a rate increase, an occasional event that is unfortunately necessary from time to time.

Getting back to the original question, is Royal Mail issuing too many stamps? Unlike my fellow philatelic writers, I was willing to be a little lenient on Royal Mail, considering the factors mentioned above. I also weighed Royal Mail’s policies against those of the United States and Canada, which, in my opinion, have been issuing unnecessary and inappropriate stamps for several years.

However, in the last few months, I have gotten concerned that Royal Mail may continue the trend started early in 2000. Two additional prestige booklets were issued later in the year, making a total of three at a cost of well over £20. This is outrageous. One prestige booklet a year is perhaps tolerable; more than one is inexcusable.

Royal Mail also announced in October that it was issuing not one but two special sheets of Christmas stamps that could be personalized by adding a photograph in the margin, along with versions that have generic margins. The generic sheets cost nearly £7, and the personalized versions are twice that amount.

The continuation of these gimmicky issues raises serious concerns that the extra issues early in 2000 were the beginning of a trend rather than a one-time event. Let’s hope that Royal Mail returns to its previously restrained stamp issuing policy in 2001. top

A bad omen for British stamps?

(Posted June 5, 1999)

Linn’s Stamp News of June 7 reports that Royal Mail has formed a new stamps and collectibles business unit “to develop its role in the stamp-hobby market.”

This information probably came from a Royal Mail press release. The story names Mark Thomson as head of the new unit which is called “Stamps and Collectibles.” The unit is responsible for market development, stamp design and production, and the British Philatelic Bureau “as well as expansion into the wider collectibles market.”

As disturbing as this is, what I found really scary is that Thomson would also become chairman of the Stamp Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations on stamp topics and design. This effectively gives Thomson complete control over British stamps.

It appears that Britain’s stamp program is being turned over to marketing, presumably with the goal of turning it into a money-making machine. Will this herald the end of Britain’s fairly reasonable stamp-issuing policy? Will we see the British equivalent of Bugs Bunny on stamps? Along with mugs, neck ties, caps, and paperweights? I guess we will just have to wait and see. top

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Last update: April 13, 2007   Macintosh!
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