The Story of... Stanley Gibbons

For stamp collectors worldwide, the name Stanley Gibbons is synonymous with philately.

For over 150 years, it has been at the forefront of collectible stamps as a stamp dealer and philatelic publisher.

Today, the Stanley Gibbons Group has grown from its humble origins to become a leading stamp business, with a London showroom and stamp sales of £13m ($20m) a year.

The story of Stanley Gibbons began on June 21, 1840, when Edward Stanley Gibbons was born at his father William Gibbon's chemist shop at 15 Treville Street, Plymouth, UK.

As if by fate, Edward was born the same year that the Penny Black, Britain's first postage stamp, was issued; and also on the site of what is now Plymouth city's main Post Office.

While attending Halloran's Collegiate School, the young Edward developed his passion for philately.

His boyhood stamp album is said to have included the 1d. black Western Australia and a 1d. Sydney View.

The making of a young entrepreneur

Like many boys at the time, Edward left school aged 15.

He worked for a short time at the Naval Bank in Plymouth before joining his father's business as a shop assistant in 1856, following the death of his eldest brother.

Young Edward was apparently a sharp operator with good commercial instincts, and these were encouraged by his father who allowed him to set-up a stamp stall using a counter in their chemist shop.

The counter was positioned next to a side window, so Edward could expose his stamps - the beginnings of his first ever stamp shop.

Then, one day in 1863, luck came knocking...

A 1691 Cape-of-Good-Hope stamp
A 1691 Cape of Good Hope


Two sailors visited Edward's stall and asked if he was interested in stamps from abroad. He said he was.

They returned the next day and offered him a sack full of Cape of Good Hope stamps: the first-ever triangular stamps, so-designed that they would be easier to spot in sorting offices.

The bag contained many strips and blocks. The sailors said that they had won it in a lottery during a church bazaar.

Edward gave the men £5 for the bag - at that time, a respectable month's salary. He then set about selling the stamps to interested parties, mainly other dealers.

The first famous Gibbons Catalogue

From 1861-1871, Edward developed his stamp business.

With stamps like the Cape of Good Hope collection, he made a lot of contacts abroad and steadily built up a large stamp stock. Eventually, Edward's father died, and he took over the chemist's shop.

By 1862, the stamp business was outperforming William Gibbon's chemist's shop.

Business was good: Edward had his own office in a chamber on the first floor and was able to employ a girl as a shop assistant.

Because of this, Edward sold his late father's business to concentrate solely on philately. First, he used the name ES Gibbons and then later changed it to E Stanley Gibbons.

In 1865, Gibbons edited his first price list in the form of a magazine.

The lists contained prices for used and unused stamps from various colonies and other countries. With it, the famous Gibbons Catalogue was born, with Edward designing the albums himself.

Business continued to grow.

In 1872, Gibbons moved to a bigger shop in Plymouth, before taking the plunge and relocating to London in 1874.

The five wives of Stanley Gibbons...

In 1890, after 34 years of dealing in stamps, Gibbons - by now aged 50 - decided to retire.

He sold his business for £25,000 - equal to almost £2m today - and embarked on a new life.

Stanley Gibbons
One of Stanley Gibbons' legendary London


Inspired by the stamps from all over the world that had fascinated him since he was a boy, Gibbons apparently became a great Edwardian globetrotter.

He visited Monte Carlo, Ceylon, Burma, Japan, Hawaii and the United States on his travels.

His passion for stamps wouldn't abate, and in many countries he continued to buy stamps for his old company.

However, this period of Gibbon's life is tinged by questions and controversy - chiefly relating to the serial relationships he had during this time.

Gibbon's first wife, Matilda Woon, clergyman's daughter, died just five years after their 1872 marriage. The cause of her death was recorded as marasmus - a wasting disease similar to anorexia.

Later that decade, in 1887, Maggie Casey, a barmaid became the second Mrs Gibbons, having been part of his life for six years.

In 1899, after 12 years of marriage, Maggie died of cirrhosis of the liver.

Just three months later, Gibbons married wife number three, Georgina.

No record of her exists except for a rather matronly-looking photograph. She too died after five years.

Then Gibbons moved swiftly on to wife number four.

Bertha, a railway clerk, was 27, and Gibbons by then, 64.

She died three years later died from an illness of the liver, just like Maggie, wife number two - only this time it was cancer.

Later that same year, true to form, Gibbons had already found a new partner.

However, Sofia Crofts outlived her husband.

Edward Stanley Gibbons died, aged 72, on February 17, 1913. Legend has it that he died of syphillis in a London brothel.

Gibbons Stamp Monthly, as it is today
Gibbons Stamp Monthly, as it is today


Records show that he left his estate not to Sophia, but to Mabel Hedgecoe; a "dear friend".

"They all died - four of them - very young - very young and in some mysterious circumstances. And Stanley Gibbons was trained as a chemist!" says David Randall, Assistant Editor of the Independent newspaper, who has researched Gibbon's life.

Randall believes that the Victorian chemist-turned-philatelist may have had access to drugs or poisons that could have induced liver failure.

Either that, or he was a man whose personal life was blighted by unbelievable bad luck.

The truth, whatever it may be, remains a mystery.

The birth of Gibbons Stamp Monthly

Upon retiring, Edward Stanley Gibbons sold his affairs to Mr Charles J Phillips.

Phillips - as managing director, with Gibbons as Chairman - turned the business into a private limited company. 

He began to publish a monthly magazine, Gibbons Monthly Journalm a precursor to today's famous Gibbons Stamp Monthly.

Gibbons Stamp Monthly was published throughout World War Two, though reduced in size.

The whole May 1941 issue was destroyed by enemy bombing and replaced by an "Emergency Issue", sometimes produced by candlelight due to energy cuts.

The first all-colour edition was published in 1963, and an American sister journal, Gibbons-Whitman Stamp Monthly, briefly ran between 1967-69.

After seven years as just "Stamp Monthly", the word Gibbons was reinstated in the title in June, 1977 and the magazine has since then more or less retained its format.

Paul Fraser at Stanley Gibbons, 1990-2007

In 1978, Paul Fraser was dealing in Collectibles in Bristol, UK.

Like Edward Stanley Gibbon's visit from the two sailors with a bag of Cape of Good Hope stamps, Paul's shop received a visitor who made an offer he couldn't refuse: £45 for a signed Beatles LP hung on the shop's wall.

This chance experience led Paul to found Fraser's Autographs that same year; one of the first companies to make people realise that you can make money from collectibles.

In 1989, having established Fraser's as Europe's largest autograph and memorabilia dealer, Paul decided to invest in Stanley Gibbons, purchasing his shareholding from New Zealand Businessman Sir Ron Brierley.

At that time Stanley Gibbons was a loss-making company in need of new ideas.

Paul Fraser was appointed Executive Chairman of the Stanley Gibbons Group in 1990 - the same position held by Edward Stanley Gibbons himself 100 years previously.

During his time as Chairman, Paul was involved in many high profile sales, including selling the famous Kirkudbright Penny Black First Day Cover to The Royal Philatelic Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

It has since been valued at £500,000.

Just like Edward Stanley Gibbons had intended in the 1860s, Paul Fraser and Stanley Gibbons were able to successfully promote philately across the whole world - not only as a fascinating and rewarding hobby, but also as a viable investment.

Indeed, rare stamp investment is now one of the most popular alternative investment assets. Investing in stamps is becoming more mainstream with investment funds becoming involved.

By 2008 Stanley Gibbons was a $100m global business and Paul Fraser sold his remaining Stanley Gibbons shares in April that year to focus on Paul Fraser Collectibles, now the world's leading collectibles information service.

Philately continues to thrive as a global hobby and investment, with an estimated 48m collectors worldwide and counting.

If you want to learn about rare stamps from the man who owned Stanley Gibbons, don't forget to sign up to our free newsletter at the top of this page.


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