On the 13 February 1971 an important meeting took place in the Old Building of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Only ten people were present, but the level of interest was indicated by the receipt of twenty-six apologies for absence - no doubt prompted by weather similar to that which threatened this year's anniversary meeting.
The meeting was chaired by the Reverend A.W.R Hughes, who explained that the Welsh Postal History Study Circle, which had existed some years previously, was now defunct. However, since 1958, when the first regional stamps had been issued, Welsh philately had become increasingly a field in its own right, and it was felt that the time was ripe to start a society to cater for collectors of Welsh postal material of all types.
As we now know, that society was founded, with seven of those present on that first day forming the initial core of members, three of whom - Ron Cowell, Ken Evans and Ronnie Hughes - remain as members to this day. Within a year membership had reached fifty-two, and twenty-five years later the total of members enrolled stands at four hundred and twenty. Would that they had all continued their membership, but of course time has taken its toll, and many have departed. After a steady climb during the 1970s and early 1980s the number of members has remained very stable for the past six years, at around the 185 mark, with enrolments matching resignations.
One would imagine that most members live in Wales, but this is far from the case, with a third resident in England, and with a number of overseas members - presently we include citizens of Japan, Italy, Holland and the USA amongst our number. It remains something of a mystery, though, as to what attracts our overseas members - but we are delighted to have them!!
As with any society comprising such a widely-distributed membership it is impossible to hold meetings which all can manage to attend. There were a few forays to 'foreign parts' in the early years, including a meeting in London, but the pattern was soon established of holding meetings four or five times a year, in Wales and the border counties, alternating between the North and the South of the Principality. Venues have varied considerably - swimming baths, a plant breeding station, wildlife and national park study centres, a miners' institute, country house hotels and other hostelries, universities, an aircraft engine service depot, colleges of catering and memorial halls - but all share the same attributes - somewhere for us to sit, to listen to the speakers, to see the displays and to have some refreshment. There is one other requirement - for some strange reason there appears to be a preference for places which hold a licence for the sale of alcohol, but I suspect the WPS is not unique in this respect!?
Many meetings have been held in conjunction with other regional and national groups, including the Lancashire & Cheshire Postal History Society, the Shropshire Postal History Society and the Letter Box Study Group, as well as with many local societies within Wales - but such arrangements are, we believe, symbiotic rather than parasitic!!
Each meeting follows a similar pattern - commencing mid-morning with coffee, a chance to greet old friends and an initial visit to the dealers who are often present with their wares; then the main proceedings begin with the first of, usually, two main displays, given by a member of the Society or by a guest speaker. The fortifying luncheon break is followed by a further main display or by a number of mini-displays, but always leaving more time for talking and for negotiations with the dealers before finishing with tea to refresh us for the journey home.
The Society is fortunate in having amongst its members several national and international authorities on a wide range of philatelic topics, whose names are well-known outside the Society. The number of displays given over the years by some of these is now in double figures, and the success of our meetings depends to a great extent on their participation, as well as on that of some 'lesser mortals' whose interests are more localised - how many people could possibly be interested in the cachets of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll - llantisiliogogogoch, for example.......?! Perhaps once a year we are privileged to welcome an eminent speaker from outside our number, and we have been treated to superb displays on such diverse topics as Parcel Posts, Stamp Design, Alice in Wonderland, Forgeries, Auctioneering, and Aggelliography, for example.
By invitation we have mounted static displays in the Anglesey County Library Headquarters, at the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales at Cardigan in 1976, to coincide with the release of the British Cultural Traditions stamps, and in the Welsh Folk Museum at St. Fagans. Many members are active also in giving displays to non-philatelic groups, such as the Women's Institute and local historical associations.
From the outset it was recognised that the majority of our members do not wish to have an active participation in the Society's affairs, but holding just five meetings a year, attended by roughly 20% of the membership, would seem to be a recipe for disaster rather than success - what is the answer? Without a doubt it must be the combined appeal of the Society's award- winning Newsletter and the postal auction. These are a real combination in a number of ways - they link all of the members, wherever they live, to each other and to the Society; they are both, by chance, edited/organised by one person; and in the early days the postal auction list was actually an integral part of the Newsletter.
It is interesting to look at these in a little detail - the first Newsletter appeared exactly a year after the Society was formed, and comprised five sheets of paper, quarto size (remember that?!), in a card cover. That first cover bore a design showing a mail coach traversing an outline map of Wales, the whole surrounded by the name of the Society - bilingually, of course! In the mid-1980s we experimented with a more modern cover design, but quickly reverted to the original by popular demand. Apart from members' advertisements the first issue contained only one article, being the first part of a series on the history of the Welsh Travelling Post Offices, plus details of a competition to design a Society cover, a list of the Officers, and the postal auction details.
There were 44 lots in this first auction, with estimates totalling c.£40, ranging from 12p, for three postcards with early double circle cancellations of Glamorgan offices, by way of £1.30 for an 1804 entire with a Brecknock 192 boxed mileage, with the 'top' item being £7 worth of 1/6d Menai Bridge stamp with a 2mm shift of the turquoise print, depicting the Menai Straits threatening to flood Anglesey! By contrast, the latest auction (no. 47) has 184 lots with estimates totalling c.£1100, the maximum of £45 being for a 1781 EL from London to Denbighshire bearing Mold and Denbigh straight-line marks.
Issue no. 71 of the Newsletter, now twenty-eight A5 pages, contains Society business, recent news relating to Welsh philately, and detailed articles about, amongst others, Cann Office, counter handstamps at Newport, Francis Freeling's unsinkable rowing boats and coding machinery at Cardiff, as well as a wealth of shorter items. Little wonder that this publication has received several awards from Stampex and other exhibitions, and that it continues to be probably the most important factor in the Society's stability. Over the years several monographs written by members have been published by the Society - these include The Bangor Penny Post, The Postal History of Caernarfon, Machine Cancellations of Wales and A Bibliography of Welsh Philately and Postal History - together with a supplement to the authoritative work published a year before the Society was founded, The Welsh Post Towns before 1840.
Although it is the Newsletter and the postal auction which bind all the members of the Society together, many look forward with eager anticipation to the meetings which take place between September and June each year - and in particular to the four-day gathering in mid-June at Plas Tan y Bwlch, the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre at Maentwrog, near Porthmadog in Gwynedd. This year will be our twentieth annual visit there, and there can be a no more magnificent location in which to enjoy good company, good food and good philately - and, of course, a good bar! Many residents arrive on the Thursday evening, and spend the following day either relaxing or visiting the local attractions - for example, the Ffestiniog Railway passes through the grounds, and some board the train at the appropriately-named "Plas Halt", which has several times seen the transfer of souvenir covers. The 'formal' programme begins on the Friday evening, with a very light-hearted egg cup competition, followed and/or preceded by liquid refreshment; Saturday is a day of displays, a live auction, the Annual General Meeting, visits to the stalls of the dealer members who are present - and more food and liquid refreshment. Sunday begins with a brief religious service, continues with a display, and ends with luncheon, before everyone goes their separate way, saying "see you next year".
That Sunday luncheon is the source of at least two bits of Society folklore - there is a secret annual competition, to name the most hearty eater of the weekend, with the laurels usually going, alternately, to two members who shall be nameless - but they know who they are, and we have photographs to prove it!! Their downfall really started in our early years at Plas, when, after an excellent Sunday luncheon, we lounged around until about 4.00pm, to then be served an enormous afternoon tea. These days we struggle to cope with the luncheon, which ends with what to most (but, strangely, not all) is the piece de resistance - the Plas' famous bread and butter pudding.
We frequently look back and reminisce about many events of the past twenty-five years - such as the meeting we had at an awful hotel in a town just over the border in England; the tenth anniversary gathering in Aberystwyth when we were almost all marooned by snow, which started falling in earnest during the meeting; speakers who spent an hour talking to the display boards rather than to the audience, and speakers who spent an hour and a half talking to the audience after the bar had opened (yes - I am holding up my hand!!). However, probably the most enduring memory of this sort came from a much-loved senior member of the Society, now sadly no longer with us, who, on displaying page after page of superb penny blacks, said "of course, once you've seen one, you've seen them all".
But we look forward also - at our Silver Jubilee meeting at Aberystwyth on 10 February 1996 we were able to announce the inauguration of the Society's page on the World Wide Web (the Internet), for which the address is http://www.bangor.ac.uk/~fos057/wps.htm (NB - that is the old address). Could anyone have foreseen such a development twenty five years ago? I wonder what we shall be reporting for our Golden Jubilee? I could be there!!
[This article was written for, and published, in the July
1996 issue of Stamp Magazine.]
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