From Philately to Philanthropy

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From Philately to Philanthropy

hundred of colourful stamps from all over the world spread out with the words, SU Stamp Bureau overlaid in large white text

Apart from perhaps the difficulty spelling and pronouncing these words, what do philately (the study, collection and appreciation of postage stamps) and philanthropy (the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes) have in common? The answer is the SU Stamp Bureau!

For over 50 years, SU Scotland has received donations that resulted from the sales of postage stamps. But where did it all begin and could you be a part of keeping it going? We spoke to Alistair, long-time leader and organiser of the SU Stamp Bureau, to find out more.

What is the SU Stamp Bureau, and when did it begin?

an unorganised pile of colourful stamps from around the world.

unsplash: ali bakhtiari

The “Stamp Bureau” is simply a rather grand name for “stamp shop”. The idea came from Jim Meiklejohn (known as “Boss Meiklejohn”), who was a long-term SU employee in the 1950s to 1970s.  When he went on schools visits, he took with him in his briefcase a quantity of stamps which had come in to the SU office or to his own home. He tipped them out on the table and said to pupils, “Take what you want, 2d each“.  So, the beginnings were very modest, informal and unbusiness-like.

How did you get involved in the SU Stamp Bureau?

The “Boss” used to visit the school where I was teaching at that time (1970-ish), and on seeing his cheap and cheerful way of doing things, I felt things could be improved so offered to help.  Being a life-long collector, I felt that I could use my knowledge of philately to “develop the business”.  As it happened, a couple of other long-term collectors became available around that time, and, as a team of three, we started selling to the philatelic societies to which they belonged, rather than just to school pupils.  That snowball grew, and we came to develop contacts with over a dozen philatelic societies, mostly in Scotland, but also including the N-E of England and Northern Ireland, as well as a couple which operate throughout the UK.  In recent years, we have begun using eBay, which, of course, has a world-wide reach, and that has boosted income significantly.

Image of 2 USAirmail stamps side by side featuring Samuel P. Langley, Aviation Pioneer. Both stamps have the same hand-drawn image of a bearded man in a straw hat, wearing a red bowtie. In the background is an early flying machine and clouds. The shades of blue sky, blue jackets and blue aircraft differ in the 2 stamps, as does the depth of colour in Langley's face. Top RH corner, "45"

The reason for the colour variation on these two USAirmail stamps is unknown but difference like these can make stamps more valuable to collectors.

Where do the stamps come from?

The stamps are donated by SU Scotland supporters, on whom we are totally dependent.  Everyday stamps, both British and foreign, are welcome, but the most valuable donations are old collections.  Very often, a family finds itself left with the life-long collection of a deceased elderly member and with no-one else in the family wanting to continue with the collection.  Given that a 90-year old collector may have been collecting since childhood, such collections go back to the early years of last century and generally provide us with the best material.

What has been the most interesting / valuable donation?

What our supporters donate varies hugely, from multiple copies of low-value beginners’ material right up to desirable items which are bought by serious collectors.  Over the 50-year lifetime of the Bureau, many significant items have flowed through our hands, but a recent example serves best to answer the question.

Penny Black stamp from 1840

1840 “Penny Black” donated by an SU Scotland supporter, which sold for £100 to a collector in London.

During the war, printing offices in London were bombed, and the work was farmed out to other companies.  Inevitably, there was confusion and there were departures from standard procedure, resulting in variations in perforation, watermark and colour – just the kinds of thing which serious collectors love to seek out.  We recently found a Ceylon stamp of the King George VI period which had its watermark inverted (i.e.upside down).  We informed Stanley Gibbons, who are the world authority on stamps, and they admitted to never having seen this variant before.  So, SU Scotland found itself sitting on a rare stamp, possibly the only known example of its type!  It will appear in the next edition of the Gibbons catalogue, with a four-figure price-tag!  We are currently taking advice as to how to sell it.

What has the money generated by stamp sales been used for?

Since the 1970s, stamp sales have brought in over £40,000.  At first, that was measured in small hundreds per year, but recently, particularly since we started using eBay, that has jumped to over £2500 in each of the last two years.  The “central office” of the Stamp Bureau just happens to be located a mile from Lendrick Muir Outdoor Activity Centre so more recent funds have been used to purchase outdoor activity equipment for the use of the Lendrick Muir guests. A few years ago the SU Stamp Bureau funded the purchase of paddleboards and most recently a “Gladiator Challenge” , soon be added to the High Ropes course.

Who makes all this happen?

Smiling teenage girl wearing a yellow helmet and a red wetsuit and life jacket stands waist high in water. She is resting each of her hands on a blue and white paddleboard.

The SU Stamp Bureau has funded the purchase of 9 paddleboards.

The Stamp Bureau team consists of ten volunteers, spread around central Scotland in Perthshire, Stirlingshire, Clackmannanshire, the Lothians, East Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire, the advantage of which is that they are all within an hour’s drive of each other. The core of the team consists of four life-long collectors, without whose knowledge we could do nothing.  The others are willing “unskilled labour”, content to do simple tasks as directed.

How can others get involved?

There are 4 ways that people can get involved:

1) become a new donor – absolutely vital

2) become a collector and an SU Stamp Bureau “customer“. Shop on eBay

3) become a new Stamp Bureau volunteer –  help with the processing of donations and the readying of them for sale

4) become a new “facilitator” – open the door for us to your local philatelic society, with a view to our selling to their members, or co-ordinate eBay sales

A shoulder-length blonde lady, wearing glasses and a lilac textured fleece holds one end of a charity cheque made out to SU Scotland from the SU Stamp Bureau for the amount £2,500. A man with short brown hair and beard, wearing a dark green hoodie holds the other end of the oversized cheque.

Karen Todd, from the SU Stamp Bureau, hands over the generous donation raised over the previous year to Marek, Centre Director.

Lendrick Muir Outdoor Activity Centre is extremely grateful for the hours or work that the SU Stamp Bureau has put in to raising funds for the Centre. Anyone wishing to donate or to volunteer should contact SU Scotland’s head office at Milton Street or  Lendrick Muir.






Featured image: Unsplash – Robert Linder