Some damned fool

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This week, author and journalist Eugene Byrne takes a closer look at a popular historical joke relating to King George V and his rather obsessional hobby of stamp collecting. But did the king really pay £1,450 for a single stamp?

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The joke

Knowing that King George V was a passionate stamp-collector, one of his secretaries was one day making conversation with the king about an article he had read in the paper.

“I see some damn fool has paid £1,450 for a single stamp,” he said.

“That damned fool was me,” replied the king.

The story

This is a yarn commonly told about George V, whose philatelic hobby bordered on obsession, and it could well be partly true. The stamp in question was a very rare blue 2d (1p) stamp produced in Mauritius in 1847.

George did indeed purchase one at auction for £1,450, but it was when he was still just Prince of Wales, rather than king.

The purchase was reported in The Times (Jan 14, 1904), though that particular account makes it clear that the buyer was widely believed to be the Prince, so if the secretary was reading The Times, he should have paid closer attention. In any event, the joke was on the wretched courtier, as the same stamp is thought to be worth over £500,000 today.

Various members of the Royal Family were collecting stamps from mid-Victorian times. The basis of George’s formidable collection, which would eventually run to several hundred albums, was given to him by his own father, Edward VII. George even had a special functionary – titled ‘Philatelist to the King’ – to help him administer the collection.

The Royal Philatelic Collection still exists, valued at several hundred million pounds, and is the most comprehensive collection of postage stamps from Great Britain and the Commonwealth. Items are regularly lent for exhibition or shown to the public by the Royal Philatelic Society.

The story is also characteristic of the many anecdotes about George’s grumpiness and/or philistinism. It’s good, but doesn’t quite match the wonderful tale of how he agreed when a functionary suggested he should send Thomas Hardy a congratulatory telegram on his 70th birthday. Next day, the great novelist did not receive a telegram, but Thomas Hardy, maker of the king’s fishing rods, did.

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Read more of Eugene’s historical jokes and amusing tales at www.historyextra.com