They stand opposite each other on the Strand and their businesses couldn’t be more different.
The Savoy Hotel offers its guests sumptuous rooms and fine dining, with original paintings decorating its walls, opposite there’s Stanley Gibbons selling second-hand stamps, and yet they are linked in this story of a man who collected stamps . . . and wives.
[T]HERE could not be a more prosaic past-time than stamp collecting, and the man whose name is still synonymous with that respectable hobby surely must be William Stanley Gibbons.
It’s as if he was destined to become the world’s leading authority. Born in 1840 in a house on the site of what is now, appropriately enough, Plymouth’s main post office, on the same year as the Penny Black, the first world’s first postage stamp, was issued.
The word ‘philately’ comes from the Greek for ‘a love of the exemption from tax’ now ascribed to be freedom from charges (taken to mean recipient’s freedom from delivery charges by virtue of the stamp which sender affixed to the letter.
He was an avid swapper as a schoolboy and was fortunate enough to purchase a sackful of rare Cape of Good Hope triangular stamps from two sailors.
After leaving school he joined the family business, a chemists, learning to mix and dispense medicines and potions from his father’s shop. This early career could have given him the knowledge to pursue a lifestyle far removed from sticking stamps into an album.
The first stamp was collected on the day the first stamp was issued in 1840 when a British Museum zoologist bought a couple of Penny Blacks to keep for himself.
Having caught the stamp collecting bug he realised there was money to be made buying and selling them. By the age of 16 he was laying the foundations for what was to become the world’s biggest philately business – trading stamps from a little desk in the corner of the chemist shop.
The first-ever commemorative stamp was issued in 1871 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Peruvian railway.
Having dispensed with the chemist business, in 1872 he married a clergyman’s daughter, Matilda Woon, and two years later they sold up in Plymouth and moved to Gower Street, where business boomed.
In 1891 Stanley Gibbons opened at 435 Strand consolidating both retail outlets. It now operates up the road at 399 Strand, opposite the Savoy.
All the distractions of running a business were behind Stanley by now for in 1890 he sold the company for the equivalent of £2 million and started collecting mistresses and wives.
By 1972, you could increase the pleasure of stamp collecting by playing the board game Collect, the lid of which promised ‘All the excitement of the stamp collecting world!’
Matilda had died in 1877 cause of her death was recorded as marasmus – a wasting disease similar to anorexia.
Maggie Casey became wife number two in 1887 but had in all probability been his mistress prior to his first wife’s death.
Twelve years later she too died of cirrhosis of the liver.
Now globetrotting the World visiting, among others, Monte Carlo, Ceylon, Burma, Japan, Hawaii and the United States, he found time to marry wife number three – Georgina – only three months after the demise of number two.
Georgina managed to survive as Mrs Gibbons for five years before expiring through unrecorded symptoms.
But Stanley, not wishing to curtail his new collecting bug swiftly moved on to wife number four, Bertha Barth, a 27-year-old daughter of a railway clerk. At the tender age of 30 she died of cancer of the liver.
Less than a year later, Sophia Crofts, became wife number five.
However, she outlived her husband – he died aged 72, on 17th February 1913.
The practice of stamp collecting unexpectedly went underground in the mid-19th century, with collectors meeting in London backstreets to avoid prosecution for unlicensed trading.
Here we have the connection with these two esteemed, but diverse companies.
He was officially recorded to have expired at a nephews property near the Strand, but rumours soon circulated that it was while in flagrante with a floozy at the Savoy Hotel he died, and his corpse was smuggled out rolled in a carpet.
While his death certificate records a heart attack, only two wives have themselves certifications of their deaths.
At Sotheby’s, New York on 17th June 2014 a one-cent magenta from British Guiana became the World’s most valuable stamp when it sold for $9,480,00.
It would appear that Sophia (No. 5) had a lucky escape for when his will was published, he had left the bulk of his estate, not to Sophia, nor to his progeny for he remained officially childless, but to Mabel Hedgecoe – a ‘dear friend’.
Image: London – Savoy Hotel: Luxury hotel on the Strand, built by impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte with profits from his Gilbert and Sullivan with profits from his Gilbert and Sullivan operatic productions, opened 1889. © Colin Smith (CC BY-SA 2.0)