In The Spotlight


GBCC President Gordon Milne interviews John Holman, Editor of the British Philatelic Bulletin

John Holman, editor of the British Philatelic Bulletin

Published in the January, 2001 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club. Reprinted by permission.

Milne: Thank you, Mr Holman, for having agreed to be the subject of this issue’s “In the Spotlight.” For those GBCC’ers not familiar with the British Philatelic Bulletin, how would you, as its Editor since March 1988, best describe it and its place in GB philately today?

Holman: The Bulletin started out as a duplicated newsletter for the newly-established Philatelic Bureau in 1963. Primarily, it gave news of recent and forthcoming British stamps.

Cover of the British Philatelic Bulletin It changed to its current magazine format in 1965 and is now an accepted part of the British philatelic press.

Since taking over in 1988, I have tried to broaden its content, to make it as one reader said “less parochial.” Although it is not on sale in newsagents, I regard it as a main player along with the established commercial titles — Gibbons Stamp Monthly, Stamp Magazine, and Stamp and Coin Mart.

Milne: The GBCC has a worldwide membership, although centred mainly in the U.S. and Canada. Is the Bulletin available by subscription to stamp collectors around the world?

Holman: Yes, the Bulletin is available to collectors in any country. About 20% of our subscribers are resident outside the U.K. We do have quite a large number of readers in the U.S. and Canada, also, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

Each year in our stamp poll, we receive voting forms from readers in over 40 countries.

Milne: What does an annual subscription cost? And how does that price vary by the collector’s location?

Holman: The subscription is £9.50 for collectors in the U.K. and Europe and £13.50 for the rest of the world. Outside the U.K., all copies are sent by airmail.

Milne: What is the address — postal and/or e-mail — to which someone should write to take out a subscription?

Holman: All subscriptions are handled at our Philatelic Bureau. The address is : Royal Mail, 21 South Gyle Crescent, Edinburgh, Scotland EH12 9BE. Orders can be faxed on +44 131 316 7337 or see the Royal Mail Website at

For a free sample, write to me at Royal Mail, 2-14 Bunhill Row, London EC1Y 8HQ or fax at +44 020 7847 3359.

Milne: Thank you for that kind offer. I hope that some of our members who are not familiar with the Bulletin will take advantage of that since it is, truly, a fine publication.

As I personally recall it, the Bulletin’s home location has changed quite a few times over the years, but, unlike the Edinburgh-based Bureau, has always been in London. Why the separation?

Holman: The Bulletin was originally based at the Bureau in London. As I said at the outset, it started as the Bureau’s Newsletter. The Bureau moved to Edinburgh in 1966 and has had four different addresses in that city. The Bulletin stayed in London where stamps policy continues to be made. Its office has been in six different places in London, as the parent department has moved home. The latest move — to Bunhill Row — was in 1999.

Milne: I had forgotten that the Bureau had started in London. Thanks for reminding me of that.

At one stage in its history — I think it started in 1986 — the Bulletin came under the aegis of the National Postal Museum, but I believe that has also since changed. What was the Royal Mail’s thinking behind those moves?

Holman: There was a change of Editor in 1986, Douglas Muir replacing Charles Gowan. Douglas was already working at the National Postal Museum, so it was agreed that the Bulletin would be based there.

I took over the Bulletin two years later when Douglas became Curator Philately at the Museum. I stayed at the Museum until 1992 when I joined Royal Mail’s Stamp Products Group. I am now based in the Design and Editorial Section of the Stamps and Collectibles part of the Post Office.

Milne: Some seven years ago, I recall the Bulletin’s future having been in major question. At that time, as I remember it, three options existed: 1) to cease publication; 2) to charge subscribers the full cost associated with publication; and 3) to include advertising and make it a broader-based philatelic publication. Happily, no changes were made, but, for perspective, what, at today’s prices, is the level of subsidy the Bulletin receives?

Holman: Only the third of these options was ever really likely. I argued strongly for this option and was disappointed when the decision was taken to maintain the status quo. It was agreed that, as long as the Bulletin broke even, or made a modest loss, it would be kept going. That remains the situation today.

Milne: The Philatelic Bulletin’s sister publication, The Postmark Bulletin, used to be published in Edinburgh, but in 1988 that was transferred to London and put under your Editorship, too. What can you tell GBCC’ers about it?

Holman: The aim was to make the two of them companion publications and the Postmark Bulletin is now in similar format to the Philatelic Bulletin. I have introduced some articles, literature reviews and some news of activity in the postmark world, and I think it is now a more useful publication. It continues to be printed in Edinburgh and despatched from the Bureau.

Milne: How many subscribers does each publication have today? And are these numbers declining or rising?

Holman: There are 25,000 subscribers for the Philatelic Bulletin and just under 2,000 for The Postmark Bulletin. The number for the Philatelic Bulletin is now holding steady after a decline a few years ago. The number of subscribers for The Postmark Bulletin has grown in recent years.

Milne: I know at one time around 1989/90 you compiled and typeset the Bulletin yourself, but when the move to Turnmill Street occurred in 1992, professional typesetters took over. Didn’t that increase the publication costs (and thereby the level of subsidy) considerably?

Holman: At the Museum I used a typesetting machine, but after the move in 1992 the Bulletin was professionally typeset for a while. Now technology has caught up with us and nearly all copy is either supplied on disk or e-mailed direct to the typesetter. This cuts down on production time and costs.

Milne: I have been an avid reader of the Bulletin almost from day one when it consisted of 11 duplicated pages, stapled together. I, therefore, know that for the most part of its six-editor life (including your first eight years) it maintained a similar style and format that was most easy to read. What prompted the major change in June 1996? And can you explain, for non-subscribers, what that was and the thinking behind it?

Holman: In 1995 I was transferred to the Design & Editorial Section responsible for Royal Mail stamps, presentation packs, year book, first day covers etc.

Endagered Species stamp showing a dormouse It was felt that the Bulletin was rather old-fashioned looking and needed a new appearance. The existing designer and two others were invited to come up with new ideas and the contract for designing the Bulletin went to New York-born Robert Maude, now based in London.

His new look was introduced in June 1986. Robert also designed the Endangered Species stamps of 1998, the Dormouse stamp of which set was voted the most popular stamp of the year.

Milne: I didn’t know that. How interesting!

What I do know is that when the Bulletin’s future went under the microscope in ’93, one change that was considered was to a different (bigger) page size. Why did that not happen? (The question is prompted further by your move in ’96 to the use of a smaller type-face that, personally, in my advancing years, I find much less easy to read!)

Holman: In 1993 we invited readers’ views on proposed changes and there was opposition to changing the format to A4 size. The current small size is difficult for the designer and every month some article or feature has to be left out as we are always short of space. I still hope for a bigger magazine one day.

Milne: That’s good to hear.

Having been blatantly critical in that last question, let me move to a more complimentary tone!

In terms of content, the Bulletin has, over the years, I believe, truly gotten “bigger and better.” But, having covered almost everything there is to cover in G.B. philately in those last 37 years, how difficult is it to come up each month with new features/ideas and still keep them, as you do, “fresh?”

Holman: We are fortunate in having a small team of good writers — all active philatelists who know the sort of articles fellow collectors want to read. I try to think ahead for features that will be topical at the time of publication and also to find writers on somewhat neglected subjects — for example, Colin Baker’s articles on postal stationery proved popular as are Ron Negus’s features on eminent collectors of the past.

Milne: Readers of the Bulletin over the years have been fortunate to “learn” from an array of highly knowledgable regular contributors — sadly, some of them no longer with us — on all facets of G.B. philately. Do you, as Editor, elicit specific articles from these authors? Or do they, of their own volition, submit contributions to you?

Holman: I receive very few articles “on spec.” Most result from my commissioning writers or them suggesting topics to me. Sometimes I phone a writer to ask if he or she will write on a particular subject and they’ll say, “I was going to suggest that to you” or even “I thought you would want an article on that; so I’ve already started writing it!” Somewhat telepathic!

Milne: If there’s a GBCC’er out there with expertise and knowledge that he/she would like to share, can he/she contribute an article for possible publication? If so, how does he/she go about it? And is a fee paid for publication?

Holman: I am always willing to consider articles — for both Bulletins — on any G.B.-related subject. Articles should normally be no more than 1500 words and a fee is paid when the article is accepted for publication. It may, however, be several months after that before it appears in print.

Milne: Although I know you’ve previously described it as “routine,” it would interest me a lot (and, I suspect, others, too) if you could take us through how a typical Bulletin is “put to press” from its conception through publication.

Holman: An issue of the Philatelic Bulletin is normally planned about six months or so in advance. I make a list of the regular and special features and commission writers where necessary — or write the piece myself.

However, active work on a particular issue normally starts about three months ahead. As I answer your questions now in mid-December, so I am working on the March issue.

As press releases and other information comes in, so I update the computer files for Royal Mail News, Stamp Scene, Covers Review, and other sections of the magazine.

Often work on the preview articles on future British stamps starts before the stamps are printed, so I have to amend details when I have the stamps in front of me for examination.

Finding the material for illustration takes some time — often the writers will supply material. Other items come from the Bulletin files that I have built up over the past 13 years, and on occasion they come from my own collections or are borrowed from collectors I know.

About seven weeks before publication, all copy and illustrations are passed to Robert Maude to design the pages. Robert sends me galley proofs of the text to check; then layouts with spaces left for the illustrations; and, finally, layouts with the illustrations in situ.

Finally, we get to colour proofs about 10 days before publication and only essential changes are made then, as it is expensive to alter things at that stage. Changes then are also likely to delay the printing.

Once the proofs are passed for press, any really important late news will be printed as a supplement to go out with the Bulletin. For example, the January 2001 Bulletin will include a supplement about the Occasions stamps for issue on February 6th.

Milne: Before publication each month, do you have to seek anyone’s approval? Or have you the final say as to the Bulletin’s contents?

Holman: The contents are my decision. Copy relating to new Royal Mail stamps and products is shown to the relevant Product Manager to check for accuracy and to add any information I may not have been aware of.

Milne: Two additions that have come about in your time as Editor are the monthly Commemorative Covers Review (which, I suspect, has a narrow audience) and your Special Publications (which I personally adore). What spawned these two new features and, again for the benefit of current non-subscribers, can you explain what they are?

Holman: Details of commemorative covers have been included in the Bulletin since the 1970s. By 1992 the number of such covers was growing and their announcement was taking up quite a lot of space. Consequently, I decided to start the Covers Review, and a readers’ survey some years ago showed that about 30% of readers have an interest in such covers.

Milne: That is a much higher figure than I would have thought.

Holman: The Special Publications started in 1993 when I was in the Stamp Products Group. A series of publications was envisaged and the first two — British Special Stamps: 1985-6 and British Stamp Design: 1993 were sold to the public. However, sales were poor and it was agreed that the series should continue but given as a free gift once a year to Bulletin readers. Non-subscribers can still buy copies.

We have so-far published seven titles and an eighth will go out with the April 2001 Bulletin. It has been written by Richard West and should be of interest to many readers.

Hopefully, the ninth Publication — in 2002 — will be on Elizabeth II stamps to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

Milne: In some of the more recent issues, I have detected the Bulletin moving towards a slightly broader stance, from being exclusively G.B.-based/focused, to broader areas more typically associated with general stamp publications. Why?

Holman: This is indeed my intention. The Bulletin will remain essentially about British stamps, but readers in other countries like to see their own stamps featured occasionally. Sadly, many collectors in the U.K. only collect British stamps and I see no harm in showing them some other countries’ issues from time to time, like the Christmas or Europa stamps, for example. I firmly believe in keeping abreast of the wider philatelic world, whatever one’s specialist interests.

Contents of the February, 2001 issue

  • *Forthcoming Issues and Withdrawals
  • *Stamp Scene — news of societies, publications and exhibitions
  • *Royal Mail News — announcements of upcoming issues
  • Occasions Stamps — illustrations of material related to the stamps being issued on February 6
  • Weather Stamps — feature article on the next set of stamps to be issued (all new issues are featured about a month before date of issue)
  • Special Draw — Contest for 10 packs of Machin high values (worth about US$15)
  • Loughborough University Smart Mail Trail — report on an automatic postage dispenser tested in 1989
  • Manchester Postal Museum — description of the founding of the museum and current collection
  • T. W. Hall, Eminent Early Collector — one of a series on famous collectors
  • *Post Office Heritage Collections — featured item from Post Office Heritage (Post Office Archives and National Postal Museum)
  • Glasgow 2000 — report on the exhibition held in 2000 (show reports are a regular feature)
  • Born To Stamps — interview with noted collector Dr. Jean Alexander
  • Philately On-line — report on the web site of the Philatelic Computing Study Group
  • Prestige Book Labels — feature on the Northern Ireland prestige booklet issued in July, 1994
  • *Postbag — letters to the editor
  • *Posting Boxes — photos of old or unusual posting boxes
  • *Competitions — regular contests for valuable prizes
  • *Events — listing of upcoming events in the U.K.
  • *Late News — various items received too late for inclusion in the rest of the magazine

Items preceded with a * are regular features.

Milne: Not surprisingly, in the last two years you have given much Bulletin space to the Millenium issues. I hope my next question is not impolitic but do you, personally, subscribe to what I hear is a fairly popular belief in the U.K. today, namely that these ultra-modern designs have gone “over the edge” and been, consequently, unpopular with and a turn-off to the average collector?

1999 Millennium Pilgrim issue Holman: Certainly the 1999 Millenium issues were not popular with Bulletin readers and I received a lot of adverse comment. However, it has been much less so in 2000 and, indeed, I have had quite a few complimentary remarks about the subjects chosen. One stamp from the 1999 series is on the left, a 2000 stamp is on the right.

2000 Millennium artist issue Despite their dislike of the 1999 designs, I don’t think many collectors stopped collecting British stamps as a result. Collectors love to moan, but they still add the stamps to their collection!

The Philatelic Bureau tells me that very few of their standing order customers closed their accounts and that they recruited several thousand new collectors who responded to the newspaper advertisements for the Millenium stamps.

Milne: I suppose this is an obvious follow-up to my previous question. From where you sit and from what you see, do you envisage a likely return to the more traditional and popular designs of a decade or so ago?

Holman: I haven’t seen all the designs for the 2001 issues yet, but those I have seen are more traditional than the Millenium issues.

Stamp design is a very subjective matter and, as always, some collectors will like particular sets and others will not. Overall, I don’t see anything in the 2001 subjects and designs that should upset collectors too much.

However, it should be remembered that the stamps are intended to interest the public at large, not just philatelists, and often the designs that the public tell us they like are less popular with stamp collectors.

It is impossible to please everyone. If we did, the stamps would most likely be rather bland.

Milne: Since the bulk of the GBCC membership is resident outside the U.K., what can you tell us about the health, as you perceive it, of stamp collecting in Britain today?

Holman: It varies somewhat. Some sectors of the hobby are growing, others standing still or stagnating. Thematics, postal history and cover collecting seem to be growing in popularity, whereas the more traditional one-country collecting is less popular.

At the top end of the hobby there are always people willing and able to buy rare stamps, and the cheaper end of the market seems quite buoyant. It seems it is the middle ground that has been hit.

Fewer collectors go to exhibitions. Membership of local societies is down, but specialist societies seem to be flourishing, publishing useful journals and publications.

Modern technology has been a boon to philatelic publishing with specialist books on all manner of esoteric subjects.

Sadly, fewer youngsters are becoming collectors, but those who are take the hobby seriously. There are, indeed, a number of young collectors who will be the leading philatelists of the future.

It is a pity there is not more on television or in the national press to encourage interest in the hobby. Even the highly successful Stamp Show 2000 last May got little press coverage. Stamp collecting is seen by the press and by non-collectors as old-fashioned and the province of the slightly eccentric. I don’t think that is fair, but it is how we are seen. It is up to philatelic societies and individual collectors to improve the public perception of the hobby.

Milne: Your annual Bulletin Poll — the 2000 one, as I recall it was your 14th — elicits, it would appear, active subscriber response from around the globe. But on a regular daily basis with how much collector mail are you inundated? And what’s the most popular theme for those letters?

Holman: Yes, the stamp poll gets a good response and as I answer your questions the 2000 returns are arriving. Although we no longer invite comments, many collectors still do so and I enjoy reading these. They range from well-argued comment on stamp design principles to abuse. The results of the poll are always given to the Stamp Advisory Committee.

The volume of mail varies — more in the winter than the summer (when collectors go on holiday or sit in their gardens) and the subjects range widely from requests for back issues to lengthy diatribes about our stamps and service. I try to ensure that a wide-ranging selection of letters is published in the Bulletin, and often show letters to Royal Mail directors so they are aware of what our customers think.

Milne: I know you are a prolific philatelic writer yourself. My personal Bulletin reading also has identified your special interest in British Private Posts and Railway Letter services. What led to your fascination with the latter? What else do you write about philatelically? And for what publications?

Stamp from Lundy Holman: My two main specialized collections are British Private Posts and British Government Mail (Postal History). I was first attracted to the private issues as a schoolboy when a fellow collector showed me a local stamp from Lundy — a small island in the Bristol Channel. I gradually acquired island, railway, bus and other private issues and now have a very large collection of those. I particularly like the parcel stamps of the bus companies. Very few companies now issue these unfortunately and it is not easy getting the issues of companies that have now ceased.

My interest in Government mail started when I worked in the Civil Service in the 1970s. I was very lucky when I worked at Stanley Gibbons to buy a large collection of covers from government departments — with all sorts of interesting markings.

I write on these two collections and many other subjects. My main articles are in Gibbons Stamp Monthly but I have also written for Stamp Magazine, Stamp and Coin Mart, The Cinderella Philatelist, Railway Philately and other specialist magazines. I even had an article on tennis stamps in Tennis World sports magazine and an article on stamps and postmarks featuring the Stuart Royal Family in The Jacobite — the journal of the 1745 Association in Scotland.

Milne: I do recall your having written in the Bulletin some time ago that G.B. collecting for you stopped with decimalisation and that you are a Wildings rather than a Machins man. Is this still so? And if so, why?

Holman: I stopped collecting British stamps at decimalisation, mainly because I didn’t find the single Machin design as interesting or attractive as the Wilding series. My G.B. interests are now mostly confined to postal stationery, postal labels and postmarks and I write about these in the Gibbons magazine.

I might return to G.B. stamps when a new definitive series starts but that may be a long way off. I would like to see pictorial definitives — single colours and same size as the Machins — rather like the U.S. Great Americans and Transport issues. There are endless subjects for such issues — famous Britons, British scenery, buildings, heraldry etc. I rather like the new Scottish and Welsh stamps and am looking forward to the Northern Ireland set in March.

Milne: How much time, outside of your Bulletin work and other writing, is left over for John Holman, the collector? And how is that time spent?

Holman: I try to spend at least an hour or two each evening on my collections…

Milne: I’m envious!

Holman: …sorting and mounting items for the specialised collections and also sorting and soaking off stamps from kiloware for my general All-World collection — very useful when writing articles. I also write away a lot to Post Offices for postmarks and correspond with collectors on specialist subjects.

Saturday is normally free of stamps — for shopping and domestic matters and my other hobby (Scottish history). Sunday is normally spent writing philatelic articles.

Milne: When your days at the Bulletin are over — hopefully far-distant — do you see yourself following some of your predecessors in a move to the National Postal Museum?

Holman: Two of my predecessors worked at the Museum after editing the Bulletin — John Memmott who became Deputy Manager (an administrative rather than philatelic post) and Douglas Muir who became Curator Philately (he also worked at the Museum before becoming Editor).

At the moment the Museum is closed and all stamps are in store at Post Office Heritage and can only be seen by appointment Should a new museum open and suitable jobs be advertised, I might apply but I think the emphasis will be on recruiting staff with qualifications in museum management and marketing rather than philatelic interest or knowledge.

Milne: What is your favorite G.B. philatelic item? Why? And where did you get it?

Holman: That’s a difficult question. In my government mail collection I have a cover sent from the War Office in 1914 — it is said to have been written and initialled by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor who worked in the War Office at the time. The cover bears the War Office certifying stamp and London official paid postmark. It was in a collection of government envelopes I bought in the 1980s.

Milne: I know you started as a collector in 1957 with the 2 1/2d Scout Jamboree stamp. Can you, for the benefit of of those who don’t know the story, expand on it? And, separately, has you enthusiasm for and interest in stamps carried over to any other members of your family?

1957 Scouting stamp Holman: The 2 1/2d Scout Jamboree stamp was on an envelope addressed to my father. Because it was different to the usual Wilding definitive, it caught my attention and I asked him for the stamp. Soon after, he bought me a small album and a packet of stamps and I started collecting.

My father collected as a schoolboy but didn’t keep up the interest. An old friend of his had kept his schoolboy collection although no longer collected. My father mentioned to him that I had started collecting and he gave me his album. So I acquired a lot of Victoria and Edward VII stamps — nothing wonderful, but I was really pleased with them at the time, aged about nine. My young nephew Tom, aged 12, is interested in stamps as well as old books and postcards. However, he only seems keen on Victorian stamps and has no liking for modern issues.

Milne: John, I thank you most warmly and appreciatively for all the time you have generously given from your busy schedule to answer my questions, the final one of which is: If you had one philatelic wish for 2001 and beyond, what would it be?

Holman: That collectors should enjoy their hobby more, look to expanding their interests and moan less about the things they dislike about the hobby. It is a wonderful hobby and it is such a pity that so many collectors, at least in Britain, seem so negative about it.

Thank you, Gordon, for asking some very penetrating questions. I hope your readers find some of my answers of interest.

Milne: If they’re anything like me, John, they’ll have found ALL the answers and comments of interest. This has truly been a great pleasure. My thanks again!

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