Donald McDonald


(Eesti Filatelist #24-25, 1979)

I was born on 24 August 1889 at Lee, southeast suburb of London, and was educated at Blackheath Proprietary School and University College of London (First Class Honours B. Sc. in Chemistry 1910).

My father was a manager in a seedsman's business in Holborn with considerable foreign connections, which brought to it foreign stamps. These interested him and he discussed them with a younger man who had a room in Holborn and was starting a business in them. His name was the later famous one of Charles Nissen and when my father's small son was mentioned, they agreed that he must be brought up with an interest in collecting stamps. After that Nissen used to visit our home frequently and one such visit is accompanied in my memory with the background of an enormous public bonfire, which could only be that celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria dated 1897. So this confirms that I was aged 8 at the time.

Charles Nissen provided me with two large ornate albums with descriptions and places for every stamp so far issued, one for the British Empire and the other for the Rest of the World, and he saw to it that I was provided with stamps to mount in them. This process he helped me with and, as he was then a well-established dealer, I was able later to meet other collectors in his office. He also encouraged me to win an exhibition at Walthamstow a silver medal. But about 1907, when I was leaving school for college, I decided to sell the Rest of the World and concentrate on the British Empire only. Then in 1914 came the war and in August I took up a Commission in Kitchener's First Army. In May 1915 we were sent to active service in France and eventually to the front line. In November I was seriously wounded and became unfit for further active service. In face of this my employers, whom I had joined as a junior chemist in 1910, applied for my release to them "until fit for active service", and as they were domiciled just off Holborn, I was again in the position to resume visiting Charles Nissen in the lunch hours and to look in the windows of a number of new stamp dealers who had set up in the neighbourhood. But about 1920 1 found that I was getting bored with my general collection and sought advice from him as to what I should do. I asked him what this specialisation was and remarked that it seemed to deal mainly with the printing of the stamps, a process of which I knew nothing. He fixed me with the eye, which he used for that purpose and said at once: "You ought to collect penny blacks". But my answer came at once: "I can't do that, they cost five bob each". He himself had just achieved and published a great feat of philately in identifying and publishing the first description of the plates of the now famous first postage stamp of Great Britain and the World, He never forgave me for this, but our contacts ceased anyhow as he moved to another office higher up Holborn and out of my lunchtime reach. But I found soon another adviser, J. S. Telfer, a partner in the philatelic auctioneer' s business of Plurnridge & Go. , who practiced in Chancery Lane, and handled the sale of The Stamp Collectors Fortnightly, of which I had become a regular reader. His answer to my search for an advance for my collecting was very definite: "My boy, you collect whatever you want to and I will help you.”

And he did so and I rapidly found an entry in the outer world of dealers, auctioneers, journals and collectors. While seeking a subject for my researches I noticed in the dealers windows copies of the King George V and Kangaroo stamps of Australia bearing the overprint N. W. Pacific Islands, about which no one seemed to know anything. So I, with Telfer's approval, decided that I would explore them as a simple beginning to knowledge of the printing of stamps. Knowledge came to me quickly and with it, a number of friends in the stamp business both here and Australia and in 1926 and 1928, 1 published two articles in the Fortnightly, of which the first was reprinted in the Australian Stamp Journal in Melbourne. A year or two later another article on the subject appeared there in the same journal noting that my work was incomplete and proceeding to make this good. It appeared over the name of J. R. W. Purves, whom I knew to be a rising young figure in Australian philately.

Twenty years later, in 1946, I was sent by my employers to make a business visit to Australia and, as I had in the meantime become a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society, London, I told the Secretary and asked if he had any messages for any members living there and a short list came back headed by the name of J. R. W. Purves of Melbourne. Prior to my visit to that city, I wrote him a letter about it and on my first morning there he burst into my breakfast to tell me how pleased he was see me and to make highly complimentary remarks about my paper on the Islands.

Throughout my fortnight of visit he was kindness itself, showing me round city's philatelic places and people and finishing as I left him with: ”Now if ever you think that I can help you in any way with my work, do not hesitate to write to me and ask.”

Meanwhile at home I had decided in the late 1920's that I had practically finished with the Islands and should now look around for another field and one calling for my increased experience in philately generally and in the printing of stamps, I picked up Gibbons' Overseas Catalogue to look for a likely country and eventually lit upon Estonia. This little country was obviously not abusing its stamps in search of money, and, when I looked into its history and origins, I was very favourable impressed. Further I found out that, although they had their own cherished language, they also used German and that quite a lot of their small philatelic literature was in that language, which I could read. There was available plenty of their ordinary current stamps in the London market, were there was a keen demand for what was called "Newrope" at very moderate prices (my price for sheets of 100 was 3.5 shillings, i.e., 17.5 modern pence). My plan was to collect as much of this material as I wanted, while accumulating knowledge of the history of Estonia, its people and its stamps, in which search I found much help from J. Hampden Jackson's History, the Estonian Year Book for 1920, Munk's Briefmarken Handbuch and the catalogues of Malm and Eichenthal. I also ran into a small dealer who had a widowed mother living in Reval, which I got to know as Tallinn!

As the years rolled on, I gradually found time to study the stamps and their story. Apart from descriptive note on the first Estonian air-post in the Stamp Collectors Fortnightly in 1931 there was nothing of mine until 1941, when The Philatelic Journal of Great Britain published my paper on the First Issue of Estonia. This was, I believe the first attempt to this subject and it had shortcomings which have, I think mostly been cleared up, through we still await the final story of a very interesting issue. After that, and twenty years, I was much attracted by the Smith and Weaver's set printed on its selection of papers of German origin. About this I produced a paper in 1962, which I offered to the Royal Philatelic Society, London and they, somewhat to my surprise, accepted it and printed in full in their journal. No comments were made at the time but in the following spring (1964) a notice appeared in the Journal that I had been awarded, their Tapling Medal 1963/64 for it.

By this time I had been tempted to tackle the later and most attractive, Viking Ship issue of 1919-20 which were of undoubted lithographic production but which no one had so far been bold enough to tackle. Work on a study of them meant much more knowledge of the lithographic processes than I had so far been able to acquire, but at once I remembered Mr. Purves's last words to me twenty years before that if ever I thought that he could help me with my work, I should write to him at once. And I remembered too that since then he had become recognized as one of the chief authorities on lithographic stamp printing all over the philatelic world. So I wrote to him and at once he agreed to help. This was in 1966 and our joint paper went to print in The London Philatelist for Nov. 1975. My home was in London and his in Melbourne and we only met once, when he came to London to be on the Jury at Philympia in 1970. Distance of course slowed us a little but was no real obstacle and our co-operation was quite unspoiled. The paper was printed punctually as stated and was finished in the following June, containing Mr. Purves's clear description of the process by which stamps were printed.

After that, at the age of 88, 1 feel now that I am too old to attempt the solution of any more philatelic problems and accordingly I lay down my pen and leave them to those better equipped in age.

30th March 1978