Cover image. David Beech in 2013 with the Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire medal at Buckingham Palace.
The following is an excerpt from an article that appears in the Philatelic Literature Review 1for the third quarter 2022.
It would be hard for anyone involved in serious philately not to know David R. Beech. I would like to think of him as one of the handful of academic and scholar philatelists around, a philatelist of philatelists, a philatelist par excellence.
Starting by becoming the secretary of his school stamp club at the age of 12, Beech has donned many hats over the years; chief of which was being the curator of the British Library Philatelic Collections for three decades from 1983 to 2013. For his services to philately, he was invested as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2012 (Figure 1). In 2013, he was the recipient of the Smithsonian Institution Philatelic Achievement Award for outstanding lifetime accomplishments in the field of philately. After his retirement from the library, he has been busy in philatelic journalism, research, and organization.
Readers of his works (and this interview) will note the precise and economic style of Beech, which says a lot about the person. It’s my pleasure to be interviewing him in the Bibliophile Series.
Hello, David. Your interview has appeared at least twice in the pages of The Philatelic Literature Review. While I am extremely pleased that you have acquiesced for this interview, I will try to ensure my questions do not overlap those interviews. So, starting off, could you tell us more about yourself?
My full name is David Richard Beech and I was born on February 1, 1954. My parents, who married in 1950, were Frank Richard Beech and Eileen Elizabeth Beech (nee Harley). I have one younger brother and one younger sister. I was educated in Wilmington and Dartford in Kent.
You are the cousin of John Holman (Figure 2), editor of Gibbons Stamp Monthly, 1985-1988, and British Philatelic Bulletin, 1988-2010. He was four years older. Did you get into stamp collecting because of him?
Figure 2. John Holman, c.2010.
My cousin, John Richard Holman (1950-2017), was the eldest of two sons of John and Florance Holman (nee Beech). Florance and my father were sister and brother. As you correctly guess, John, was a great influence being four years older. It was he who interested me in philately where we collaborated and collected similar subjects; mainly Great Britain local or private posts. John’s outstanding collection of these and other material from Great Britain and Ireland were donated to the British Library Philatelic Collections in 2019 by his brother, Richard Holman.
You joined the London auction house of H.R. Harmer in 1970, when you were just 16. How did that come about?
I was the organizer of my school stamp club from the age of 12. I arranged a visit (probably in 1968) to the Mount Pleasant mail sorting office in central London, which included going to see the post office underground railway (Mail Rail as it is known today) then still in full operation. In 1970, when I was 16 years old, I organized a public stamp exhibition at my school marking International Education Year. My interest was such that when a vacancy for a philatelic trainee occurred in the Expert Department of the London auction house HR Harmer Limited, I applied and got the job; in the first instance I was paid just £9 a week, but one was paid in philatelic knowledge, too.
Tell us about your time at Harmers? By then, Cyril Harmer must have been running the firm.
Harmers was at this time still in the ownership of the Harmer family. Henry Revell Harmer (1869-1966) had retired some years before and it was his son Cyril Henry Carrington Harmer (1903-1986) who was the Chairman. Mr. Cyril, as he was known to the staff, had joined his father in the business in 1921. After an initial period of about two years, I became an auction lot describer, which I would say is the best philatelic training and experience anyone could have, especially at the world’s leading auction house at the time. I still regard this experience as equivalent to a university degree in philately. Apart from lot descriptions one’s duties included meeting vendors and looking at collections potentially for sale or valuation. This was an education in dealing with people and sometimes managing their expectations!
My love of philatelic literature was gained when I became responsible for the HR Harmer reference library and the reference collection mainly of forgeries, reprints, etc. One was to meet many of the world’s leading collectors and dealers over the years, including, during my first month with the firm, (and during the international philatelic exhibition Philympia held in London in 1970), the renowned American dealer Ezra Danolds Cole (1902-1992), of New Jersey.
I left HR Harmer Ltd., at my bidding in 1979. By then the company had been renamed, for reasons I do not understand, Harmers of London Stamp Auctioneers, Ltd. By this time Cyril Harmer had retired and his younger brother, Bernard Bertram Durkin Harmer (1914-2011), had taken over.
I have remained friends with Bernard’s two sons, Keith and Christopher, and hope to have time to write a history of the Harmer family in philately.
How did you transition to taking up the role of curator at the British Library Philatelic Collections? (Figure 3)
Figure 3. David Beech holding one of two copies of the first Stanley Gibbons Stamp Catalogue, dated November 1865. Image (c. 2008) taken in the Crawford Library book stacks at the British Library. (Courtesy of the British Library.)
Looking back to the time I joined the British Library(hereafter, BL) in 1983 I now fully realize that the curatorial role was one which suited me very much; I took to it like a duck to water. It offered a unique opportunity to study, offer interoperation, context, and communicate with philatelists about philately and BL’s collections of philatelic material and philatelic literature on a worldwide basis. In later years, colleagues were prone to describe me as a “Curator’s Curator.” In fact, we should go back to the time of my first visit to see the Tapling Collection on exhibition, which must have been when I was about 12 years old; I came away thinking that the job of looking after it would be an ideal career. So, the one job in the world which was my ideal I got to do for 30 years.
The Curator and Head of the Philatelic Collections in 1983 was Robin “Bob” F Schoolley-West (1937-2012) (Figure 4). Bob was something of a pioneer in the greater understanding of philatelic conservation and the BL, jointly with the American Philatelic Society (APS), published the book, The Care and Preservation of Philatelic Materials, in 1989.
Figure 4. From left, Bob Schoolley-West, John Davies and David Beech. Photo taken at the London 1990 exhibition Court of Honour at Alexandra Palace in front of the Perkins Bacon D cylinder printing press. (Courtesy of the British Library.)
A junior curator, Helena Whiteside, mainly managed the extensive UPU Collection, which took up nearly all of her time given the large number of new stamps being issued worldwide. Following her departure to another department within the BL, John N. Davies a fine philatelist and curator joined us in 1986 to manage the UPU Collection and the Crown Agents Philatelic and Security Printing Archive. Following John’s retirement in 1993, Rodney V.M. Vousden was appointed, and following him the current lead curator, Paul Skinner (b. 1959), was recruited in 2004.
I became the principal Curator and Head of the Philatelic Collections on the retirement of Bob Schoolley-West in 1991.
In 2004, you co-authored the book New Zealand and Dependencies – A Philatelic Bibliography, with Allan P. Berry and Robin M. Startup. What was the genesis of this work?
The bibliography came about when my good friend, Allan Philip Berry (1937-2010) – a great collector of New Zealand philately and its philatelic literature, not to mention being a sometime editor of The Kiwi, the journal of The New Zealand Society of Great Britain – decided that he would like a catalog of his library. Allan and I had become friends during the time that we were organizers of the independent autumn national exhibition, the British Philatelic Exhibition, held in London in the 1970s.
As I had been at the BL for some years by then, I agreed to assist him in the task. Given that Allan possessed a lot of material, we decided to extend the task in 1988 to be a bibliography of all New Zealand philately with the prospect of its publication. We had little difficulty in persuading Robin McGill Startup (1933-2012) to join us in the endeavor.
The book has an interesting story in that another edition of just 16 was published by the British Philatelic Trust the earlier year. Would you like to go on record on that?
The original intention was for the British Philatelic Trust to be the publisher. It mismanaged the project and let production costs – for which it alone had control – get out of hand. This resulted in the trustees deciding to produce the first edition dated 2003 – not formally published – in a limited edition of just 16 (numbered) copies and bound in red buckram (Figure 6)
Figure 6. The first and second edition of the New Zealand and Dependencies book.
To the three authors, having put many years work into the project (in my and Allan Berry’s case some 16 years each, for Robin Startup much longer) this was unacceptable. This resulted in a second edition dated 2004 (improved and expanded from the first edition) being published in Thames, New Zealand by Allan P. Berry and myself. This second edition (bound in green buckram) was reset to avoid any question of typographical copyright belonging to the British Philatelic Trust.
Apart from the RPSL, you seem to have a special relationship with the American Philatelic Research Library (APRL). In 2001, you visited the place where the philatelic center now stands before it was even bought by the APRL; it was a match factory! On October 28, 2016, during the grand opening of the library, you were called upon to give the dinner keynote. Tell us more about your relationship with the APS/APRL over the years.
Figure 8. With then-APRL librarian, Gini Horn, who shows David Beech photographs of the Match Factory in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. (From Philatelic Literature Review, 3rd Quarter 2001.)
It is not at all surprising given my curator post at the BL that I would enjoy a special relationship with APRL. Relationships are about people, and so regular contact, by means of the then-new email system, with the APRL Librarian Virginia L “Gini” Horn (1951-2022)9 (Figure 8) was normal. She was in the post from 1984 to 2010. We were in contact quite frequently and discussed matters of policy, conservation, books new and old, cataloging, research, librarianship, and bibliography, etc., and assisted each other with some of the more challenging enquires – not to mention philatelic gossip!
The APRL is an outstanding library for several reasons. One is that it has a large collection of books and periodicals covering any philatelic subject, perhaps the world’s largest. Two, it is mainly an open-access library, which permits users to come and look at the shelves. Three, its staff is knowledgeable about philately, about how the library works, and most helpful. Four, is that library space is ideal and this I could see when I saw it empty and undeveloped in 2001 in company with Gini and [Executive Director] Bob Lamb (Figure 9).
Figure 9. David Beech (left) takes a tour of the Match Factory in 2001 with then-American Philatelic Society Executive Director Robert Lamb (right). (From Philatelic Literature Review, 3rd Quarter 2001.
I have been most pleased to make occasional contributions to The Philatelic Literature Review for it is well edited, maintains high standards and is an outstanding periodical for literature and many aspects of research and scholarship. It is a journal of record.
What areas of philately are your currently working on?
These days, apart from my Past President role at the RPSL, which is to take a statesmanship approach to issues and to offer help and advice, and aiding the BL’s philatelic collections by being available for consultation and to give advice and occasionally undertaking some tasks. In addition, I am a member of the Advisory Council of the British Library Collections Trust.
I largely limit myself to research projects and currently the main ones include Mauritius: 1847 Post Office issue printing plates; The H.R. Harmer auction houses; Shanahan’s Stamp Auctions Limited; Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika: 1954-59 issue; British philatelic history; Hejaz: 1916 issue and its literature.
1.Two interviews appeared in quick succession in 2001 and 2002; the subject matter of these were specific to the philatelic collections of the British Library and the libraries of the Royal Philatelic Society London and the American Philatelic Research Library. See Farmer, Bonny. “A Royal Visit. An Interview with David Beech.” Philatelic Literature Review, 50 No. 3, Whole No. 192 (3rd Quarter 2001): 195-199 and Anon. “The British Library Philatelic Collections. “An Interview with David Beech, Curator and Head of the Philatelic Collections.” Philatelic Literature Review, 51, No. 1, Whole No. 194 (1st Quarter 2002): 12-14.
9. I was personally shocked to know that APRL’s greatest librarian of 25 years, “Gini” Horn is no more. The pages of the PLR will show that she was as good a philatelic literature bibliographer as any. I had hoped to do an interview with her. She died February 21, 2022, at Providence Place Senior Living in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. An obituary was published as “In Memory of Gini Horn” Philatelic Literature Review, 71, No. 1, Whole No. 274 (1st Quarter 2022): 15-16. Online obituaries appear here: stamps.org/news/c/news/cat/aps-news/post/in-memorium-gini-horn and here: fcfreepresspa.com/virginia-l-gini-horn-obituary-19512022.