Collecting the stamps of Oxford and Cambridge Universities

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01 May 2013
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Author and postal historian David Sigee provides an intriguing background to collecting the stamps produced by Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the late nineteenth century ...
In 1871 a remarkable event occurred in the history of British mails – Keble College Oxford issued its own postage stamps.

These were for prepayment of letters and notes delivered locally by the college messenger and were for the private use of Keble undergraduates and dons.

1882 Lithographed Exeter College stampThe stamps issued by Keble were quite different from contemporary Post Office issues, embossed on vermilion coloured paper and bearing an imprint of the college crest with the name of the college.

Stamps were supplied to the college by a local Oxford stationer, Spiers & Son, and were purchased at the Porter’s Lodge – price ½d each. A further six stamp issues from this college were to follow in addition to embossed envelopes and cards.

Other Oxford colleges
For five years, Keble was the only college to use stamps. This changed in 1876 when Merton College followed suit - then Lincoln, Hertford,  Exeter, St John’s and All Souls.

All of these stamps had a  heraldic design and (with the exception of Lincoln) cost ½d. Stamps  were cancelled by an official obliterator (Keble, Hertford), a manuscript mark – or simply left uncancelled. 

Queens’ College stamp. A boar’s head upon a cross and crozierCambridge colleges
College stamps were not used at Cambridge until 1882, with just three colleges issuing stamps and no recorded examples of used postal  stationery for prepayment of messenger post. 

As with Oxford, the first college to issue stamps, Selwyn, was a new foundation where prepayment of messenger post was probably regarded as a financial necessity. This was followed by two older foundations - Queens’ (1883) and St. John’s (1884) Colleges.

End of an era
The use of college stamps and postal stationery was clearly a great success, promoting the use of the messenger posts and simplifying the process of payment. The very success contributed to their downfall, with the Post Office seeing a potential source of revenue being channelled into college coffers, and the private use of postage stamps acting as an infringement of their monopoly. 

Selwyn College stampRepresentations by the Post Office to college authorities of both Oxford and Cambridge resulted in withdrawal of college stamp issues in 1886.

From this point on, local deliveries within the universities were mainly carried out by the Post Office. The only exception to this was Keble, which continued to sell stationery for use with its messenger service until 1896.

Research and rescue: The Oxford Philatelic Society
The first report of these stamps was in the December 1871 issue of The Philatelist and interest quickly spread to the general philatelic press.  Members of the Oxford Philatelic Society were particularly active in early research and in recovering covers bearing college stamps from local sources such as local shopkeepers and the University Accountants/Solicitors.

The Oxford philatelists also retrieved original copper dies from the two Oxford suppliers – Spiers & Son and Emberlin & Son, and struck a limited number of proofs from these. The dies were defaced in 1897, with final proofs of the defaced die marking an end to the philately of the Oxford college issues.
 
Unlike Oxford, there was little contemporary philatelic interest in college stamps at Cambridge. The Cambridge Philatelic Society did not exist at this time and there was no retrieval of used items or original dies.

Collecting college stamps
The main phase of college stamp use (1871-86) marks a fifteen-year period of considerable interest to stamp collectors.

Keble College cover to local bootmaker, with double strike of the official 5 dots cancel.The range of material that has survived to the present day is remarkable.
Original essays, mint stamps, used examples on and off cover, original/reprinted proofs and mint/used postal stationery, are regularly offered by dealers, come up at auction and can be found on ebay.

The collectability of college stamps is enhanced by their unusual and attractive designs, and by the fact that they were issued by the colleges purely for domestic use – not for stamp collectors. As an added bonus, there do not appear to be any recorded examples of forgeries.

Further reading
A wide range of information on college stamps is available to the collector, including articles in specialist journals and classic texts by Cummings (1904) and Lister (1966). Most recently, David Sigee has published a comprehensive overview of college stamps as part of a general account of the university posts of Oxford and Cambridge:

University Mails of Oxford and Cambridge 1490-1900 by Sigee, D.C. (2012)
ISBN: 978 1780882 598  A4 Hard back 223p, over 200 colour illustrations. Price £50. 
Available from Matador: http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=1833

Read about unusual stamps in the regular 'Cinderellas' feature, in every issue of Stamp & Coin Mart magazine, available as a print or digital edition.