The Royal Philatelic Society is positively raucous on a Thursday evening. Old friends greeting each other in the hallway, mugs of tea in hand, dressed to the nines and chatting away furiously. What's that they're speaking about? Why, it's the art of stamp collecting of course.
For the uninitiated, that's exactly what philately is. The Royal Philatelic Society is the oldest society of its type, founded in 1869.
Looking at the log of members who're in attendance this evening, it's clear that though most Londoners haven't heard of this institution, it's world-famous to followers of philately. Today there are visitors from Germany, South Africa and China. More than half of its 2,000 members are from overseas.
We head off on a tour with the personal assistant to the President, Nick Martin. He takes us around the building's numerous libraries, its council chambers and the museum.
Nearly every room is stuffed full with books pertaining to stamps. We move on before getting a chance to read Weekly Philatelic Gossip, Vol. 65, 1957-58, but we're sure it's absolutely riveting. The society is in the process of digitising it's extensive library; they don't let members take out a lot of their books because they're so rare.
This could all change in the next few years. 41 Devonshire Place has been a faithful home to the Society, but they've outgrown the 18th Century building. It's Grade II listed, meaning they can't extend or modernise it, in ways that are desperately needed.
As many of the Society's members are in their later years, accessibility is a huge issue. We see this ourselves, when one member turns up in a wheelchair and there's a struggle to get him up the steps and in through the front door. 41 Devonshire Place is tall and thin, so once he's inside he's constricted to the ground floor and later has to watch a live stream of the talk going on directly above him.
It's because of these issues that the possibility of change is afoot, and the society plan on moving to a more modern and accessible building in the next few years.
We head upstairs where the walls are lined with medals. Philately is not a solo pursuit; instead, collectors do battle with each other via stamps for the right to be declared the greatest. It's not exactly a vicious competition; judges decide who has the best display based on the quality of stamps, rarity of stamps, most informative descriptions, etc — all very refined. The medals are elaborate beauties, although they're not stamp shaped. Surely they missed a trick here?
Ian Harvey works in the experts' room, a place where a stamp's veracity is tested.
The activity has grown out of people taking the hobby seriously, partly through academic interest. Back in the 1890s, people quickly realised that some stamps were more difficult to get hold of than others, so people would produce facsimiles. You'd buy one of these for 5p, then much later your album gets sold or rediscovered and someone else thinks 'oh, this is the real thing!' Instead of a 5p stamp they think that maybe it's a £1000 or even £10,000 stamp.
There were a lot of facsimiles produced in those days partly for ordinary collectors to fill stamp albums with an image instead of a real (more expensive stamp). Are they genuine? Is it a forgery? Perhaps it looks like an unused stamp, but someone's cleaned the postmark off.
Ian and the other experts work to determine what's real and what's not, to give a stamp a certificate of authenticity.
The whole thing is incredibly scientific. Ian shows off the Visual Spectral Comparator that they use to study the stamps with. "About 25% of everything that comes in, we say is not right for one reason or another." They test 2,500 stamps each year, and a single stamp can take 40 man-hours.
We see the most expensive stamps in the world. For instance, the British Guiana 1c magenta stamp, which was sold by Sotheby's for $9.5m. Before that was sold, it came here and we examined it and gave it credibility. I think that shows, we're considered to be quite competent in our area.
Down in the basement there's a small philately museum, and one item makes it crystal clear why the experts are necessary. The Sperati hand-press, created by Jean de Sperati, was used to create some of the stamp world's most famous forgeries. These forgeries are now collector's items in their own right, worth more than the stamps Sperati was copying.
Next it's time for tonight's stamp based talk. The Society regularly has its members give talks about their particular area of expertise. This evening Society president Frank Walton is speaking on Chinese International Air Mail up until 1949 [pdf].
It now dawns on us quite how niche this hobby is. Most members aren't just general stamp collectors. Instead they have their own precise interest in one small part of the huge world of stamps. Nick says: "I know some people here who aren't actually philatelists. Instead they're collectors of books on philately."
After the talk there's a party atmosphere in the air. There's a reception with drinks and we chat to a few longtime members of the society about their passion. "I found a big bag of old letters upstairs in the loft, and I was drawn to the stamps in the top right corner. From then I was hooked." Similar stories chime in from other members about how they fell in love with stamps. They're an incredibly welcoming bunch, who just really, really love stamps.
It can't go unmentioned that most the members here are into their more mature years. Nick says: "philately isn't a cheap hobby, and it's time consuming, so often it's only older people who have both the time and money to pursue it." The whole society is still hopeful for younger members, knowing that they are the future. It will be fascinating to see if the hobby's popularity endures with later generations, who — thanks to the internet — have less frequent interaction with the mail and stamps.
Before we leave we pop into the men's loos to see one beautiful final touch. Right next to the urinals is a vintage wooden postbox. Perhaps this is the Victorian version of the modern condom machines found in pubs. We asked, but no, the postman doesn't still make trips down here. Well, maybe when nature calls, but he's not collecting mail.
Find out more about the Society here, their museum is free to visit, but by appointment only.
See also: London's top postal curiosities