The art of letter writing may not be dead but it’s declined exponentially since the advent of email. So anyone’s efforts to communicate with others on paper are always of value. The letters of major literary and political figures are often collated and published for posterity but there will always be notes deemed too trivial to be worth our attention.
And here is a prime example just recently on sale at the market.
Field Marshall Sir Henry Evelyn Wood (1838-1919) was a distinguished British Army officer who won the Victoria Cross for rescuing a local merchant in India who had been ambushed by robbers and taken into the jungle to be hanged. He served in all the major hotspots in the British Empire, being made a Field Marshall in 1903.
Written on War Office stationery, the only date on this note is 5th May. It reads “My Dear Mr Chamberlain, I must, like Sir Charles Coldstream in ‘Used Up’ answer “There’s nothing in it”. Merci mille fois tout le même. [A thousand thanks all the same.] Yours Evelyn Wood”
‘Used Up’ was a comic play co-authored by Charles Dickens and Charles Matthews. The dramatic high water mark of the latter was his role as Sir Charles Coldstream in that very play. Although it is tempting to believe that this was in reply to an enquiry by future PM Neville Chamberlain, their chronology does not really overlap. It is far more likely that the intended recipient was Neville’s father, Joseph, who was Secretary of State for the Colonies from June 1895 to September 1903.
From a distance of over a hundred years, we have no way of knowing what the original question was. But it’s fun to guess. There’s “nothing” in what exactly…? Rumours of war with another country? A spat between the army top brass? Calls for independence in one of the colonies? Or something much more mundane like the War Office tea fund?
No fancy name for this one – it’s exactly what it says on the tin. What began in the 1880’s as a simple scorecard with players’ names and positions has evolved into the modern matchday programme. It is still a decent source of revenue for some clubs (and printing them was required by the English Football League until 2018) but has also become a famously niche area of sporting memorabilia.
The traditional matchday ritual of a pie, a pint and a programme is still a possibility at many grounds (if you allow for variations like Forest Green Rovers’ delicious vegan Q Pie!) but paper shortages in the forties and fifties limited the size of post-war programmes. Certainly they are a far cry from today’s glossy, advert laden magazines. And, as one might imagine, the rarer the programme the more likely it is to command a high price.
Programmes which attract the strongest interest are still ones from the various FA or World Cup Finals. A record £35,250 was paid for the 1882 FA Cup final between Old Etonians and Blackburn Rovers. A programme from Manchester United’s first FA Cup victory in 1909 realised £16,000 the same year. Original price: one penny. But print run anomalies and the significance of the occasion (such as Manchester United’s first game after the Munich Air Disaster and featuring a blank team sheet) can make a huge difference to the price.
The rarest British coin of the 20th century will surprise many since that distinction belongs to a humble penny. Thanks to an excess of the coin still in circulation by 1932, the following year the Royal Mint didn’t produce any at all – or almost.
For some time there had been a tradition of placing a full set of coins of the realm under the foundation stones of important buildings as they were being built. To facilitate this, a very few were struck featuring Britannia on one side and King George V on the other. The year ‘1933’ was the only thing that would distinguish them from preceding or subsequent years. For a time this prompted attempts to create forgeries which would dupe unsuspecting buyers into believing they were buying one of perhaps just seven such coins in the world. When one of the ‘pattern’ coins (a prototype not used for production) recently came up for auction it sold for £72,000. The currency coins are believed to be worth much more but are now all in museums or private hands.
Well, lots of money potentially. If that name is George Washington and it’s a matter of his signature on his personal copy of the US Constitution then some way north of $10 million. If it’s star of the silver screen Sophia Loren, who signed many thousands of autographs during and since her heyday in the sixties and seventies, then you’re probably talking at least £60. While the age of the autograph may have given way to that of the selfie, there are any number of notable figures from the past whose personal presence can still best be obtained in the form of a signature.
Autograph collecting has enjoyed a close association with the cult of celebrity and autograph hunters were once the bane of many a star’s life. Such was the commercial appeal of signatures from the great and the good that some hunters were able to make a handsome living from it. Many celebrities, such as basketball star Michael Jordan, flatly refused to sign autographs at all for years. John Lennon’s killer approached him in New York with a request for an autograph because he knew this would be a common enough request. On the flip side is the experience of sportsman Joe DiMaggio who was able to earn more from signing baseballs than he ever had on the field. Anyone badgering comedian Steve Martin could be out of luck though. He has been known to hand out business cards stating “This certifies that you have had a personal encounter with me and that you found me warm, polite, intelligent and funny.”
Whether it’s your first foray into collecting or you’re already an enthusiast, you’re sure to find something to spark your interest this weekend at Charing Cross Collectors Market. Browse to your heart’s content among the stamps, coins, postcards, militaria, ephemera, ethnography and all kinds of other historic items which have found their way down the decades to a stall in central London. Just holding items like these in your hands can summon up a sense of time and place which you may only have read about in the history books.
It’s not every day that you can see such a cornucopia of the unusual and unique. It’s just Saturdays. Between 7am and 3pm. At Charing Cross Market.