A Life of Service

It’s always nice to find a well looked after grouping like this with all the chap’s badges properly arranged. He started off as a shoeing smith in the Royal Field Artillery, saw service at Mons and the star records his very unusual distinction of being in the Maltese R. G. A. (Musketry) in 1908. The pinnacle of his military career saw him reach the rank of staff sergeant in the Royal Artillery. But my own favourite is the nicely crafted brass pin in the shape of a bullet or shell.

The Past Looks Back

Postcard portraits of pre-revolutionary Imperial Russian soldiers and sailors

For all their straight-backed formality from a bygone age, there’s no denying that really looking into the eyes of someone long dead in photographs like these is still an oddly personal experience. Who was this person? What was going through their mind as they sat motionless for the photographer? And, above all, why didn’t they smile?

Any forces personnel posing in uniform but off duty today would more than likely be sporting a huge grin or at least some indication that they were pleased to be in uniform. Yet these men look at best pensive and at worst downright miserable, an interpretation which might well suit someone who is effectively a ghost.

The reasons were mainly cultural and partly technical.

In the first instance, early cameras required long exposure times and it was considerably easier to maintain a straight face than risk spoiling the frame by having to rest your face muscles. Secondly, since portrait photography was a direct descendant of portrait painting, an expressionless or inscrutable gaze was manifestly the done thing. Another reason, and possibly the one most people might guess at, is that smiling was rather frowned upon in Victorian and Edwardian society. Put simply, smiling was for idiots.

Yet theres is an even more interesting and compelling explanation for why we find the gaze of our ancestors so unsettling. While we might have every other hour of our waking lives documented in a selfie or tagged in a happy group photo with friends, photography was really quite exceptional a century ago. Many felt that it might be the only time in their lives when their likeness might be captured on film. The resulting precious photograph would immediately become a family heirloom, passed on indefinitely to kin they would never meet. This also explains the apparently macabre practice of dressing up and posing the corpse of a family member who had died unexpectedly without having previously had his or her photograph taken.

‘Haunting’ might not be the ideal word to describe the look on the monochrome faces in postcards like these. But then exactly what expression would be on your face if you knew it was one day destined to catch the eye of a casual browser in a London underground car park?

A group of French standard bearers and a rarely seen image of some WWI Turkish troops

41 cents face value, cost to USPS: $3.5m

statue liberty stamp

Errors in the printing of postage stamps have cropped up in this blog before, not least because they are usually spotted early doors and so their rarity adds extra value. This is most certainly not the case here.

When the United States Postal Service began looking for the subject of a new ‘Forever’ stamp in 2010, it was hard to get away from the face of New York’s most iconic monument. They sourced an image from a library in Texas but ,unfortunately, it wasn’t the Liberty.

The image was of a much smaller statue in Las Vegas outside New York, New York (where else!) and designed by Robert Davidson. In 2013 he sued for infringement of copyright stating that his version was “more feminine” and some people even found her more “sultry” and even “sexier” than her original inspiration. The court found in his favour and he was awarded $3.5m.

USPS made light of the error, celebrating the heightened interest in stamps which the case had caused but they have every right to see it as a landmark. It is, by some way, the biggest postage stamp error in history with almost 5 billion imprints.

Image credits: left, Wikipedia – right, Flickr

“Re-open Sesame!”

At long last, we can open our doors again to the collecting public. We’ve had to put new steps in place for everybody’s safety (see last week’s post) but the main thing is that trading will resume from tomorrow Saturday 11 July. The usual cosmopolitan mix of stamps, coins, postcards, militaria and ephemera will be on sale so why not come down and see what our traders have rooted out during lockdown. Regular or first-timer, young or old, expert or amateur….we look forward to seeing you!

Open from July 11

It seems like it’s been forever but we’re really pleased to announce that the Market will reopen next Saturday July 11. Of course, some changes are necessary to make sure that we’re keeping everybody safe and your cooperation with these measures is appreciated. In summary, these are:

  • all dealers and visitors will be subject to a temperature test with a non-contact infra-red sensor. Anyone failing this test will be asked to return home and self-isolate
  • a one way system will be in place requiring visitors to enter by the Villiers Street entrance (by Costa Coffee) and follow the marked circular route around the stalls. Floor stickers and a wall map will be used to clarify this
  • the number of visitors inside the market must be controlled so members of staff communicating via walkie talkie will be stationed at both the entrance and exit to manage this
  • visitors may not arrive before 7am and must leave at 3pm
  • a one metre social distancing protocol will apply in all areas
  • all visitors must wear a suitable face covering

Although these measures are clearly inconvenient, this is the only way that the market can reopen as things stand at the moment. When restrictions ease, we will review them immediately.

To assist with enforcement, Dougal, the market dog, has been appraised of the new regulations and promoted to Head of Security (extra biscuits).

Market Update

Although market operations remain suspended for now, we are keen to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so. A comprehensive risk assessment has been submitted to our landlord showing how we propose to manage this. If this is accepted, we hope to reopen at some point between mid July and early August.

We’re really looking forward to seeing everyone again after what has been a very trying time so thank you all for your patience. Keep safe and we hope to see you soon.

Big Cat Formation Patches

The ferocity and power of big cats have an obvious appeal as a choice for formation signs and the first lot of three tiger heads was worn by members of the South Eastern UK Aldershot Command. Its HQ was in Reigate and its principal job was to oversee regional domestic defence in the event of invasion. It was disbanded in 1944 when the operational areas were changed and the prospect of invasion was remote.

The two other sets are (locally made) Singapore district patches showing a lion under a palm tree. Also used by British forces in Sierra Leone, they remained part of the Singapore district outfit until 1947.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve

An original British Army recruitment sergeants patch from the early 1900’s, this would have been worn on the lower arm. The crossed union flags are nicely detailed with wire and silk. At the outbreak of war in August 1914, the regular army was 700,000 strong (today it stands at 117,000 including 30,000 reservists). The government appealed for 100,000 volunteers but by the end of September they had 750,000.

Young men had to be 18 to sign up and 19 to be sent overseas to fight. The stories of young lads lying about their age in case they missed out before it was “all over by Christmas” are true. It’s estimated that over 250,000 underage boys signed up. This was facilitated by recruiting sergeants who turned a blind eye to their obvious youth and adopted a more avuncular approach quite different from their approach on the parade ground!

The Black Cat Division

Originally formed in WWI but gaining fame in the Burma Campaign 1942-45 when it was continually in action, the 17th Indian Division also enjoyed the distinction of being known as the Black Cats. Their original formation sign had been a lightning bolt but changed to this design in mid-1942. The British Indian Army already numbered some 200,000 men at the outbreak of the war. By the end of the war it had grown to 2.5 million, still the largest volunteer army in history.

Unit formation sign patches are a very affordable way of becoming a militaria collector as they start at about £10. Most come in forward facing pairs but contemporary photographs show that soldiers sometimes wore mismatched pairs or a single one on a bush hat. Generally, it is best to focus on a particular theatre or campaign such as Normandy or the Far East. Interest in patches continues to grow and they often crop up on programmes like Antiques Roadshow.

Designated Drivers

These three original British Army patches signify that the wearer is a qualified driver. All bear a steering wheel design but the earliest (top) bears the letters IC (“Internal Combustion”) since some vehicles were still ox/horse drawn at this period. By the 1940’s a star had replaced the letters with a king’s crown signifying that the wearer was in fact a drving instructor.

Like all specialist trades in the Army, such patches were worn on the lower left arm. To save officers the trouble of having to ask though, qualified drivers would usually wear their chin strap tucked up behind the cap’s badge.

During the temporary closure of the market, we have decided to continue posting every fortnight on our blog – beginning with a series on patch collecting.