Ten Letters to Owen Fearnley (1912-1924)

(This article was originally published in Philotelia, partly in issues 645, July/August 2007 and 646, Sept./Oct. 2007. The last section will be published in issue 647, Nov./Dec. 2007. The contents show that these philatelists in England, Belgium and France were enthusiastic collectors of the first Greek stamps and had lively discussions about their classification and errors. The introduction and footnotes by Anthony Virvilis provide additional insights into the philatelic situation with Hellenic philately in these countries at that time. The valuable comments by John Coundouros correct the misconceptions of some of the errors of the control numbers. It is interesting to note that 100 years ago philatelists were debating some of the same questions related to the large Hermes heads that confront present-day researchers in these issues.)


After 95 years from the first letter, good luck brought to light ten letters written the first quarter of the previous century by distinguished students of the Greek stamps (3 by Percival Loins Pemberton, 2 by Walter Dorning Beckton, 4 by Thomas Theodore Groom and 1 by Paul de Smeth) addressed to Owen Fearnley (1870-1948).

The addressee was vice president of the South End Philatelic Society an erudite student and exhibitor of the first type of Greek stamps (bronze, London 1898, diploma, Walthamstow 1908. silver-gilt Berne and London 1910) and in 1923 (?) had composed a hand-written study on the large Hermes heads, which, at a later stage, was in the library of late G. Photiades (G. Photiades, “The first Athens issue of the large Hermes heads of Greece”, London 1965, p. 15, footnote 33).

P. L. Pemberton1 was connected with the “school of Manchester” and Beckton since 1894 when he presented his first paper on the large heads at the Manchester Philatelic Society as well as with Groom since 1903. It is certain that they had exchanged between them thousands of visits and letters with their speculations and ideas on the classification of the large heads and the study of the flaws and control numbers, which unfortunately have not been saved. It was Pemberton’s intention to write a book with Beckton but on the death of the latter it had not been completed and though it was never published, there is the information that manuscript was still extant till 1949 (vid. Obituary of P. L. Pemberton in “The Philatelic Journal of Great Britain”, April-June 1949, p. 26).

1 Percival Loines Pemberton (5.5.1875-11.6.1949), son of Edward Loines Pemberton, one of the great persons of the mythical years of philately of the 19th century, was born in Manchester, became member of the local Society in 1893 and commenced there his profession as a stamp dealer the same year. He moved to London in 1896, in 1922 became partner of A. J. Sefi and after the death of the latter, took over the company. His love for the Greek stamps as well as his writings were famous. When the Roll of the Distinguished Philatelists was instituted in 1921, he was one of the first to be called upon to sign. Vid. one of his many biographies in the obituary signed by H. R. H. in The Philatelic Journal of Great Britain, April-June 1949, p. 26 and J. Coundouros, The Control Numbers and the Classification of the Stamps of the Large Hermes Heads, Vlastos 2000, p. 12.

The “school” founded by W. D. Beckton (1866-18.3.1931), president of the Manchester Philatelic Society for 35 years, is today the foundation of the scientific philately. The study of pairs, blocks, multiples or entire sheets as well as the errors and varieties of an issue applied by the students of the “school”, in comparison with the mere collection of single copies prevailing at that time, has led to the flourishing of studies , as we know them internationally today.

In this studious environment at the beginning of the 20th century, with Beckton and Pemberton who were friends and lovers of the Greek stamps as leaders, a team was formed by T. Groom (pupil of Pemberton in the peculiarities of the Greek stamps), O. Fearnley, G. S. F. Napier, Hausburg, G.B. Duerst, (vice president of Manchester Philatelic Society and editor of PJGB in 1897-99) and possibly others who are not known today. Pemberton, without doubt, was considerably assisted in writing his article “The Stamps of Greece” (PJGB nos. 241/1911-227/1914) as well as in his catalogue with the indicative title “Priced Descriptive Catalogue of the Stamps of Greece, arranged according to an entirely new classification” published in 1923. To this team and their researches, mainly by Pemberton, Groom and Beckton published in The “Philatelic Journal of Great Britain” as well as “The London Philatelist” of the Royal Philatelic Society London in which the latter was president for many years, is due the honour attributed traditionally by the British philatelists to the first type of the Greek stamps.

We are grateful to E. Tempelis, HPS member and owner of the letters who most willingly agreed to their publication, starting chronologically with the Pemberton correspondence with introduction and notes by A. Virvilis and comments by J. Coundouros.


Figure 1


April 27, 1912

Dear Fearnley,

  Are you going to Margate for the Congress2? If not would you mind sending me as many of your Greek errors as possible as Beckton3, Hausburg4 and I are all taking as many as we can take together, with the intention of comparing notes and arriving at conclusions with regard to one or two knotty points in connection with them. The study of the errors is something which I never entered into until quite lately, but they are most interesting and help, in some degree, in the classification of the printings. It is evident that the figures were re-set at various times, and these are matters we want to enquire into, but to do so we must have a large amount of material to work upon. So if you will be good enough to mount your errors on a sheet or so and lend them to me for two or three days we shall all be very much obliged to you, and I can promise that every care will be taken with them. Do not forget the 10 lep. no figures.
  With kind regards in which the MacTavish joins.

Yours sincerely,

P. L. Pemberton

2 The Philatelic Congress of Great Britain was set up in 1909 with a membership of representatives from British philatelic societies and federations which met annually in different towns. This annual Congress is a great philatelic event till today. It established the Roll of Distinguished Philatelists in 1921 and since 1965 represented Great Britain in FIP (vid. G. Photiades' report on the FIP Congress of Vienna in EFO Bulletin, no. 1 September 1965, p. 8). It was demised in 1976 and replaced by the then founded British Philatelic Federation which it was also replaced in 1994 by The Association of British Philatelic Societies Ltd.

3 Quite early Beckton had co-authored with G. Duerst a study entitled The Stamps of Greece, (Plymouth 1897). His collection of Greek stamps was auctioned by H. R. Harmers of London in two phases in 1935-36. Several biographies of W. D. Beckton have been published so far. Vid. his obituary by A. J. S in The Philatelic Journal of Great Britain no. 483, March 1931, pp. 45-46 and in J. Coundouros, The Control Numbers and the Classification of the Stamps of Large Hermes Heads, Vlastos 2000, p. 12.

4 Probably refers to Leslie Leopold Rudolph Hausburg (1872-1917) who was General Secretary of the Royal Philatelic Society London (1913-17) and member of the Expert Committee of the Society. He made plating studies on Victoria, Peru Mexico and Venezuela stamps. He was joint author with Crofton and Stewart-Wilson of the Handbook of the Postage Stamps and Telegraph Stamps of British India (1917). He was vice-president of the Philatelic Society of India and his collection of India passed into the Royal Collection in 1916. When in New Zealand, he discovered the original plates from which the first stamps of that country were printed. At his time, he was a leading tennis player.

Figure 2a

Figure 2b


June 12, 1912

Dear Fearnley,

  I have not time at the moment to answer your letter fully. The point you raise as to the numerals being distributed and reset, the “0”’s being used indiscriminately for several values, had occurred to me. This is a possibility for, as you will see from my notes in the May P.J.G.B.5 the “keyhole” occurs, at different times, on the 10, 20, 40 and 80, sometimes upside down. Unfortunately on these late printings the numerals are generally so badly printed that it is next to impossible to say whether it is the same mis-shapen 0 all through. However we might get other evidence in time.
  I have an entire sheet of the pink 20 lep. of 1882, and have made a note of the positions of the principal flaws. Most of the scratches are very faint on this late printing and the line through the label at top does not show at all!
  All the other varieties which you showed me, however, are discernible. There is one prominent one which you do not show in your lot. This is one with one of the lines of shading on the cheek too short giving the effect of a notch on the cheek. Napier6 called this the “notch in whisker”. It is very marked in clearly printed specimens.
  I admit that the 20 lep. cleaned plate date looks much more like Feb. than anything else, but as it is about 4 months earlier than any other date I have seen on this printing I think we should be careful about accepting it as the letters are so indistinct. Type, when impressed by hand, sometimes gives curious effect (e.g. the date ’74 on Greek stamps which nearly always looks like ’71) and I still think that, in mind of the fact of Feb. being so unlikely this is more likely to be Dec. Perhaps some day we might find a clear Feb. or March and then I will gracefully recede from my position.
  Thanks for sending the two stamps, which I return herewith, with notes.

Yours faithfully,

P. L. Pemberton

5 The Philatelic Journal of Great Britain was a significant journal for the study of the Greek stamps before the appearance of Philotelia in 1924. It was first published by William Brown in 1891 and in 1900 was purchased by P. L. Pemberton. In 1937 was amalgamated with The Philatelist and continued as The Philatelist and Postal Historian. In 1950 was renamed The Philatelist. In 1965, under the ownership of Robson Lowe, became The Philatelist and PJGB.

6 Lt. Colonel George Samuel Frederick Napier (1863-1942) was an international judge and author of The Stamps of the First Issue of Brazil for which he was awarded the Crawford medal of the Royal Philatelic Society London in 1924. He compiled an Index of the Ferrari auctions in 1925 and his collections of Greece, Brazil and Persia were internationally awarded.

Figure 3a

Figure 3b


Jan. 30, 1919

Dear Fearnley,

  Many thanks for your letter. Beckton has apparently made a mistake in noting your stamp. I should much like to have a look at your errors if you would not mind sending them up; I would return them promptly.
  I am enclosing the extraordinary error which is causing all the bother. I think it is undoubtedly genuine, but it seems quite unaccountable. If it were an ordinary inverted 20 off center it would appear thus in stead of . The only feasible explanation is that it may be the error off center, but

this would involve there being two of such errors on the sheet, occurring side by side. We are very loath to accept this explanation, as we had established to our own complete satisfaction that there was only one on the sheet. All we have seen as far are exactly the same. I should be glad to hear your opinion.
  I am afraid I know no one just now who would be likely to buy your Greek collection, but you might let me have some particulars as to the price, etc., so that I can have a try if any likely cuss comes along.
  I wish every success in your dealing ventures. If you get anything nice which you think might suit me you might let me see it.

With kind regards

P. L. Pemberton

Comments by J. Coundouros

These letters show that probably these people first realized that the study of the control numbers flaws as well as control numbers settings help to properly classify large Hermes head stamps.

Initially, the study by Beckton and Pemberton was incomplete, based only on control number flaws. Later, when the great scholar T. Groom entered the scene, the study of control number settings proved to be most significant for any classification method of our first classic stamps. As Pemberton points out, Groom seemed to be a victim (only him?) of that particular charm these stamps provided.

As for the flaw, quoted by Pemberton in his 30 January 1919 letter to Fearnley, it has caused to them -quite understandably- considerable confusion, because they could not explain how it was generated. They correctly rejected the case of an off-centre inverted 20 (Argostolion error). The sketch by Pemberton is not correct. The off-centre 20 should have its “2” to the left and its “0” to the right.

Today, this riddle has been solved, as described in my book Control Numbers and the Classification of the Large Hermes Heads (ed. Vlastos, Athens 2000), no. 63.3 “Patras error”, inverted “2” with complete arch.

It is worth to go over and briefly describe the large number of errors of the setter and printer of the times.

  1. The “2” was set inverted in all positions(!) and most likely only one sheet was printed (fig. A).
  2. The sheet was placed in the press shifted horizontally resulting most likely two sheets to be printed on different paper (fig. B1 & B2). In one sheet, the paper was more porous and the numbers more flattened (fig. B1). This is the case that Pemberton was occupied with.
  3. The paper was placed on the press shifted vertically resulting with the numbers to be printed at the top and bottom (fig. C).
  4. Later, most likely in order to correct the error and to print the 20 correctly with the least effort, he reversed the plate when this time the 2s were correct but the 0s were inverted. Afterwards he placed the 2s in front of the 0s and continued to print the 20 lepta (fig. D). In position 81 of the sheet he did not make the exchange of the digits and the error 02 remained. When he was printing alternatively the 10 lepta and 20 lepta. the 0's remained inverted in this value as well.

These were the last printings of stamps with control numbers.

Figure 4


17 November 1916

Dear Sir,

  I received your stamps this morning and your interesting letter. It is very good of you to send the stamps for me to see. I may have to keep them a little while but will return them as soon as I can. I have written my article now on the Errors and it is being typed.7 I shall be able to check what I have said from your collection which I think is a very nice one. These Errors are really very difficult and were it not that I have got what is supposed to be a fine lot and have had a large number of other collectors' specimens, including Hausberg's, Hall's,8 Weinberg's and now your own, placed at my disposal, it would have been a difficult job indeed.

Yours truly,

Dorning Beckton

7 It is not known whether Beckton's article on the large Hermes heads errors was ever published and where.

8 He most probably refers to Thomas William Hall (1861-1937), President of the Royal Philatelic Society London (1923-1929) and editor of the journal The London Philatelist (1917-1937), a collector and student of the stamps of many countries, international judge and exhibitor with high distinctions. In 1921 he was asked to sign the Roll of Distinguished Philatelists.

Figure 5a

Figure 5b


Nov 26 1917
Dec 3 1917

Dear Mr Fearnley,

  I thank you for your congratulations in your letter of the 26 Oct. to which I should have replied earlier, had I not wished to write to PLP9 concerning your stamps which I received from him and returned some months ago with my notes on some.
  Pemberton tells me he has now returned them & I hope you have received them safely.
  Yes the difficulties of publishing at the moment are too great but we are getting the sets all ready preparatory to going to press as soon as opportunity offers.10
  I will give your message to Mr Taylor when I see him in hope to do at the Society meeting on Friday.
  Whenever you happen to come across anything new to say or show, needless to say I shall always be pleased to hear from you.

With best regards,

Dorning Beckton

9 He means Percival Loines Pemberton.

10 The lack of Fearnley's letters does not allow us to ascertain the matter of their discussion. He probably refers to the above mentioned article of Beckton's which would have difficulties in the presentation of the errors.

Figure 6a

Figure 6b


Brussels, 20.6.23

Monsieur Owen Fearnley
Westcliffe on Sea

Dear Sir,

  Together with my congratulations on the distinction you have got at the London Exhibition for your collection of Greece Type I, I am taking the liberty to send you the catalogue of these stamps, edited by myself in 1912 during the Paris Exhibition, when my collection was honoured with a Gold medal.11 This catalogue [of my collection], which exists partially in double, mint and cancelled, the last ones with dates, which have allowed me to establish the periods of the printings or emissions.
  Since I am now particularly occupied with the stamps of Sardinia (from 1851-1863), and as I also own a large stock of stamps of Greece, in double, mint and cancelled, in singles, pairs and blocks, I thought that we could reciprocally go into exchanges or purchases of these stamps on the basis of the Gibbons or Yvert & Tellier catalogues, as you wish. In case this kind of exchange is not convenient, you could send me the stamps of Sardinia, mainly the emissions between 1855 and 1863, mint and cancelled.
  Kindly accept Sir my best regards.

Paul de Smeth
Président de la Société Philatélique Belge
126, rue Defacq

11 Paul de Smeth (7.11.1859-10.12.1940) was the founder of the Philatelic Society of Belgium and a prolific writer. He authored important studies for the stamps of Belgium, Transvaal, Serbia, and Mexico with Compte Fayolle. In 1926 he was asked to sign the Roll of Distinguished Philatelists. To his honour the homonymous philatelic literature award was established in 1950. Most probably he had published in L' Echo de la Timbrologie a relevant article in 1912, prior to the publishing of his work Grèce Premier Type, Classement, Essais, Oblitérations in 1925, based on his great collection.

Figure 7a

Figure 7b


Sept. 20th, 1923

Dear Mr. Fearnley,

  I think you told me that you still had a portion of your collection of Greeks left: I wonder if it includes the 10 lepta of the final type. I have been looking up a point in connection with this value, and if you could let me see some copies, especially pairs, strips or blocks I should esteem it a great kindness, and would return them in a few days.
  I have only lately returned from a long stay in Italy, during which I did nothing in stamps except purchase some dozens of useful copies of the 20 lepta, which I unfortunately lost the next day, my pocket book being stolen. Any time you have any 20 lepta to dispose of I should like to see them, or if you hear of any going I should be glad to know.
  We had a magnificent time in Italy, with good weather most of the time. Hope you are all right.

With kind regards,
Yours sincerely,
Theodore Groom

Figure 8a

Figure 8b


Oct. 12th, 1923

Dear Mr. Fearnley,

  I am much obliged for your kindness in lending me once more your beautiful collection of the 10 Lepta. It is a collection that makes one quite covetous. I found it very useful, one of the pairs enabled me to fix the position of 8 units I had recognized, but did not know where to place.
  I now return the album. In accordance with your request I have marked (on the mount) in brackets the plate numbers of those which I could identify. All the numbers below 151 are fine plate numbers. I have also marked a number of copies with the higher provisional numbers I use until I can fix the position of the units.
  I don’t think the plating is more difficult than that of the 20 lepta; I have, I think, all the units except a very few, and know the plate numbers of 111. The flaws are fewer than in the 20 Lepta, but pairs are commoner.
  I have added a few notes which I think you may be glad to see, even if (in case the remarks are justified) the value of one or two of the stamps is somewhat depreciated.
  The 10 lepta are very interesting. I must tell you something about them when I see you next.
  Are you still doing anything at auction work?

With kind regards,
Yours sincerely,
Theodore Groom

Figure 9a

Figure 9b


Dec. 11th, 1923

Dear Mr. Fearnley,

  Many thanks for your note enclosing the prospectus of Philotelia,12 to which I have undertaken to subscribe. I hope I haven’t kept the prospectus too long. I return it now.
  I should sometime value your opinion on the shades of the 20 lepta, as I have them arranged now.
  I hope things are altogether better with you now.

Kind regards,
Yours sincerely,
Theodore Groom

12 The dispatch of an advertising leaflet announcing the upcoming publication of Philotelia, by late S. Macrymichalos, had as a result the attraction of erudite students, such as G. Brunel and T. Groom, whose studies appeared already from the first numbers.

Figure 10a

Figure 10b


Nov. 10th, 1924

Dear Mr. Fearnley,

  The end of my investigations on Greek stamps is now within sight, and little remains for me to do except in the way of detail. I shall, therefore, before long be arranging my collection which at present is merely a working collection. I don’t know whether you are still wishful to part with what is left of your Greek collection, or whether you would care to re-consider the question of an exchange. I have long realized the impossibility of doing justice to all the countries in which I am interested, and have long discarded the rubbish, as well as a number of good countries. I could if you cared to do so exchange for the catalogue value of your Greeks something more than catalogue value of other countries, allowance being made for imperfect copies. There are however, in my collection four of these, and the stamps I have left are nearly all in superb or fine condition, and include many pairs, strips and blocks. The bulk of the value of the countries I could offer is in British Colonials, but there are also some South American, European and Asiatics.
  If you think seriously of this prospective purchase you would send your collection along, and follow yourself a few days later for a weekend here.
  I do not see when I shall ever part with my collection of Greeks. I shall probably leave it in such a way that it will be of use to lovers of Greek stamps.13

With kind regards,
Yours sincerely,
Theodore Groom

13 Groom kept the collection till his death in 1943. His family fulfilled his wish and donated 47 volumes of his Greek collection to the Royal Philatelic Society London (A. Virvilis, “A visit to the Royal Philatelic Society London”, Philotelia nos. 623/2003, 624/2004).

go to top       home