Forty years (and more) on
Exhibitor : Tom Gibbard
Editor’s note : this article first appeared in MLN in April 2003
As a very small boy one of my earliest memories is of sitting on the floor in front of the sideboard, a pseudo-Victorian piece of furniture with cupboards at floor level. These were never locked so became suitable targets for my infant investigation. In one of them was a scrapbook in which my father had mounted matchbox tops. Not only were the subjects fascinating, even looking back 55 years ‘Wigwam‘ remains stuck in the memory, but there was a smell to them, perhaps from the glue used to stick them down, the lingering effects of tobacco, or the wood of the tops themselves, for the labels had not been separated from their backing. I would sit entranced, flipping the pages and remaining quiet for perhaps five minutes.
The scrapbook dated from about three years earlier, when in the latter part of the war my father had noticed normal labels enhanced or disfigured with slogans ‘keep on saving fuel’, ‘waste not, want not’, and ‘loose talk costs lives’; this I learned many years later to be from the back of an American box.
He had kept them, breaking up the boxes as a matter of course and then mounted them along with tops from boxes current in 1946 and 1947. Additions were infrequent, every few months or so probably, which to my childish mind equated to eternity.
The collection grew in this way for many years. I began to add to it by negotiating with other children at primary school and all the while every item added was broken or cut up. In 1952 while convalescing from a serious bout of influenza my father decided to deal with the bookmatches. With new sheets of paper, a loose leaf album specially purchased in Aylesbury, a pair of scissors and my enthusiastic help, the two shoeboxes of bookmatches that had by then accumulated were rearranged so that all the print would be the same way up; the strikers were of course chopped off and discarded.
A few of these mutilated gems are still in my collection today and I look longingly at a pre war Bryant & May cover for Prince Line wishing we had more knowledge. This particular bookmatch cover has been reconstituted at least twice in the last 40 years to try to display the panels in their correct order.
We had graduated from scrapbooks to albums by 1952, but it was in 1956 that we took our next step forward: England’s Glory labels were collected, the jokes being separated from the rest of the label and kept separately. In that year one of them advertised a matchbox label exhibition at the Imperial Hotel, Birmingham. We went; my mother also came with little enthusiasm. However, one of my uncles was a policeman in the city and no doubt the pretext for the trip was a visit to him and his family, though I remember nothing of that.
The exhibition was a cornucopia of delights; I think my father and I would have spent the day there if allowed. We discovered other collectors who professed to be interested in swapping, we learnt that cutting up matchboxes and bookmatches was not the done thing. We learnt that labels should or could be floated from the wood. It had been advertised as an exhibition so we took no swaps with us, not I suspect that they would have been any use if we had. We were dragged away from it by my mother, who felt ill in the smoky atmosphere.
Though I believe we found there was a national society, for some reason we did not consider joining it, though on returning home the collection as it was then was modified. The cut labels were floated from the wood, but to ensure permanent damage to them all and not just to the all-round-the-box types, they were now glued down to loose leaf album pages. The one positive move was that cutting up and removing the strikers from bookmatches ceased. My father had never found these interesting and my collection of bookmatches and related material dates from this time.
As I progressed through grammar school and then an architectural course the bookmatch collection grew. Boys make avid collectors and most of my friends put together mini collections, all but one eventually ending up with me. Even the non collectors would contribute.
When I was about 14 one boy brought two booklets for United States Navy submarines to school; USS Nautilus and Skipjack, one the first nuclear submarine, the other the first to travel beneath the North Pole. I feel embarrassment now for begrudging him the sixpence they cost me. Other activities intervened and collecting was rarely continuous but it was always there.
In 1967 we had some further contact with the BML&BS and went to one of their London meetings. I don’t know how this came about but our name must have reached collecting circles, for we had started receiving catalogues from EHW Ltd of Sicilian Avenue, Holborn, though the only time we purchased from them the result was a packet of mint labels which did not excite us.
This was one of the Bonnington meetings; it had a very busy atmosphere, possibly because the facilities were cramped and we found it disappointing. There was no exhibition to speak of and though we came equipped to swap no one wanted to know us. What we came with wasn’t up to par. I remember leaving before lunch feeling disenchanted.
Later that year I went to work in Edinburgh and some time in 1968 my father finally joined the BML&BS. He may have gone to other London meetings in the late 1960s but I don’t recall any mention of it. Edinburgh was my first experience of life in a large city and the opportunities it offered to the match collector. They popped up in the street, were on the tables in bars and in restaurants, hotels and tobacconists. A couple of colleagues in the office turned up with collections; I accumulated a wide range of boxes and booklets including duplicates of ‘Major’ and ‘Sovereign’ booklets which had clearly been those in demand at the London meeting.
I returned south in 1969 and we tried a meeting in Brighton in the summer of 1970. I’d judged well the swapping material to aim for. I was surrounded by flies attracted to the honey pot. Generous flies too – ten for one they would give, but departed rapidly when the source had dried up.
It did though make me a regular at the London meetings of the 1970s. These, mainly at Sudbury House, were dominated (as far as bookmatch collectors were concerned) by a group seeking only ‘Major’ and ‘Sovereign’ covers.
There was a league table within their grouping; they even had their own club. Later it became clear they did not even belong to the BML&BS but used its meetings for their own purposes. Their insularity as collectors not only blinded or blinkered other collectors as to what might be available but limited the material that was brought to meetings and auctions.
In the autumn of 1973, during a visit to Southampton, I picked up a box in the street – a Whitbread Wessex public house, a numbered label (74) which was clearly one of a set. My father was more interested than I and for the next year we travelled the south of England discovering the set which amounted to 900 items (later extended to 963). He wrote to inns we could not get to and finally when only four eluded us, one of which had evidently been demolished, to Whitbread asking if there was any chance of obtaining the other labels. These they sent to him, explaining that for one reason or another none of them had ever been available. They also congratulated him on winning their prize for being the first to collect the set. This, a tankard, was awarded at a dinner in the autumn of 1975.
He had arrived in the collecting world, but not necessarily in a very welcome way. At a Bonnington meeting in October 1975 John Luker announced the result of the competition, noting that Whitbread had not consulted the Society before awarding the prize. He observed that some members were unaware of the result and although the winner was a member of the society he knew of several others who had collected these labels seriously and might have come near to completing the set. The implication was that Whitbread had contrived the result. We knew this not to be the case for we had unsuccessfully tried to swap with the collectors he mentioned (what a contrast to half-a-dozen years before). We kept our counsel.
No more Majors and Sovereigns
For the development of bookmatch collections one of the best things that happened was when Bryant & May ceased ‘Major’ and ‘Sovereign’ production in 1979. About half the then bookmatch collectors gave up and the rest diversified. In the meantime I had continued to collect anything and everything but only deliberately trying to obtain British-related items. In the 1980s and early 1990s other interests, marriage and a family pushed collecting to a back seat – well, the passenger seat at any rate (my wife wouldn’t even accept that). Problems with space also took their toll. There were now over 300 albums; something had to go, so most of the American with a lot of the Swiss, French and German were consigned to the attic, where they remain to this day.
The result was not to save space at all, for I became more of a specialist, learning that different card finishes and colours, different staples, tiny printing and shade variations meant almost certainly a different date of issue and an identifiable variation. The British (a term loosely connected with any item associated with British advertising) collection grew to over 90,000 and shows no sign of ever being complete. The retained and interesting items from the rest of the world mainly relating to transport and the military also expand at an alarming rate. There are now more than 10,000 American without considering other countries. Research takes almost as much time as collecting and as each new plateau of knowledge and collecting experience is reached, I wince at the thought of how much a novice I was before. However, the key to collecting at whatever levels remains the same, if you enjoy doing it, it’s worth doing.
Thomas Gibbard, 2003
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