Art, Culture, Books and Travel

A world ‘first’ for Sierra Leone

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Monday, 10th Feb is a significant day in the history of letter-writing. No, honestly. On that date, in 1964, Sierra Leone issued the world’s first self-adhesive stamps! Yep, you read that right.

I was 9 years old and 1964 was a significant year for our country in so many ways: it was the year our first PM, the man who led us to independence, Sir Milton Margai died; ironically, a day after that year’s Independence Day celebrations. It was also the year Sierra Leone had a pavilion at the now-legendary New York World’s Fair. A pavilion which featured, among other things, the abstract mural by French-Canadian artist, Jordi Bonet, which still adorns the front of Sierra Leone’s Central Bank.

February 1964, was a pretty momentous month and year, all told:

  • In 1964 Kwame Nkrumah declared Ghana a one-party state;
  • 9th February 1964 that was the date The Beatles appeared on America’s Ed Sullivan show, a date and an appearance that, by common consent, marked the real beginning of the ‘British (musical) Invasion’
  • On the 25th February 1964, Muhammad Ali (then called Cassius Clay) defeated Sonny Liston to capture the World Heavyweight crown for the first time.

But, back to stamps. In 1994, I decided to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Sierra Leone’s historic achievement by writing about the excitement I remembered as a nine-year-old, when the stamps were issued.

There then happened the sort of coincidences, which if included in a movie script would have been thrown out for implausibility.

At the time, I worked at the BBC World Service at Bush House, in the Strand, in London, as did my sister Janette. I was not working that day and had gone to visit her when, on my way back, along the Strand, I got caught in a downpour. I decided to nip into Stanley Gibbons, 399 The Strand, which advertised itself as ‘The world’s biggest stamp shop’. I had patronised it many times and it seemed a good place to pass the time, browsing and waiting for the rain to cease, as I had no umbrella. As I was absent-mindedly leafing through a box of stamp-related artefacts, the assistant said: “we’re just about to file these. Take a look”, handing me a slim box with an assortment of letters, stamps and postcards.

My heart nearly stopped beating; there, among the nondescript items (to me, anyway) was a postcard featuring Freetown’s Lumley Beach on the front and on the reverse, the cause of my shock: it was clear that this was a postcard posted with the first of those now-legendary self-adhesive stamps and, a message by the director of the company that produced them. His handwritten inscription said it all: “From the land of the “Lion Mountains”, iron ore and diamonds, palm edged beaches and sunshine – Samuel Jones & Co. Ltd, London, England, send you greetings on the occasion of the issue of THE WORLD’S FIRST SELF ADHESIVE FREE FORM POSTAGE STAMP!! Our paper was approved by the Government of Sierra Leone for this truly new page in the 124 year history of philately. It was signed ‘Samuel Jones’.

He had taken the trouble to capitalize and underline the words about it being the world’s first. It cost me £4. I would have gladly paid £40 or £100! How many times am I likely to come upon a piece of world history? Well, twice, as it turns out. Mr Jones also sent the same postcard to an MP, and I also picked that up, some 10 years later, for £6.

The stamps were not issued to mark any event of national significance but to commemorate that year’s aforementioned New York World’s Fair.

I tried to track down Mr Jones as part of my 1994 article and found, by searching Companies House, that the company Samuel Jones & Co Ltd, had been incorporated in 1920.

The successor company SJP (UK) Ltd, told me they were aware of their place in history, but that Mr Jones had died. However, they were still in touch with his former secretary and they would ask her if she’d be willing to be contacted. Indeed, she was, and she clearly recalled the excitement within the company and their historic achievement. She also sent me samples of some of the designs that were never used. She was delighted that someone was finally shining a light on this piece of history.

Unfortunately, the company that was so innovative in designing and producing those stamps fared less well, Samuel Jones & Co. Ltd went into Administration and then liquidation in December 2003.

It is my conviction, that had this philatelic feat been achieved by one of the bigger (and louder) nations, the whole world would know of it and, they may even have convinced the UN to name 9 February as ‘International Day of Letter Writing’. Hmmm, now, there’s a thought!

 

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