This is the law
And I am its vindicator
Imprison the scamp
Who sells a forged stamp
And bless the exterminator
This variant on a well known nursery rhyme was penned by Joseph William Palmer, a stamp dealer who had an obsession with forged postage stamps and wanted (if you will pardon the pun) to stamp out the trade in them. As well as “Nursery Rhymes revised” [1885.4.199], from which the above is taken, he wrote and published a number of other small booklets containing poems of a fanciful nature.
A typical example [The Spirit of Christmas, 1885.4.210] starts with the author reclining beside a warm fire after a hearty dinner and as he sinks into sleep he is visited by the Spirit of Philatelee. They fly away together and after seeing various groups of people involved with forgeries there is a flagrant advertisement for Palmer, the honest dealer.
“The happy land, or, Through time and space” [1886.4.190] again begins with the author sitting around at Christmas, this time musing on the death of friends (a jolly Yuletide subject) the plight of the poor and human misery in general before his spirit soars away to a Utopian land where everyone loves their neighbour, politicians make wise laws, there are no thieves or scamps and (surprise, surprise) no forged stamps and a perfectly functioning Post Office. He then ends with several verses promoting his own virtue and diligence in trying to combat fraud.
His poetical offering for 1890 was entitled “Through fifty years, the romance of the postage stamp, 1840-1890” [1889.4.185]. This time it is a random policeman doing the musing as he stands outside Palmer’s shop in the Strand. While it does give some history of British stamps, there are also side excursions into Palmer’s marriage, the death of his mother and frequent references to the imminent widening of the Strand (which ultimately led to the demolition of his shop). Inevitably though, the last few verses are again about forged stamps and how Palmer is battling against the trade in them.
I became intrigued by these rather quirky Christmas offerings and set out to discover a little more about Palmer. I quickly found that he published a monthly periodical called Bric-a-Brac, which promoted itself as “A collection of curiosities, old and new, and various articles from the newspapers.” Glancing through a copy [1885.7.1096] it soon became apparent that this is yet another vehicle for some flagrant self-promotion.
Cautionary tales about forged stamps abound and Palmer himself is mentioned in almost every article. Clearly he is particularly proud of his part in formulating a clause in the 1884 Post Office Protection Act which made it illegal to make, own or deal in any forged stamp, on pain of a £20 fine. References to this crop up in most of his publications. To quote another of his rhymes:
“Dickory, Dickory Dock
The forgery-monger’s stock
The police strike one
Down they come
And it’s ho for the prisoner’s dock!”
My final discovery was a booklet entitled “Romance in reality, or, The story of an eventful life” [1885.7.1121]. Written by Francis Neale (more of him later) it is the biography of Palmer. It begins with a brief history of stamp collecting, but is soon describing Palmer as “the father of philately.” We go on to learn that he was born in Hackney in 1853 and at the tender age of seven sold his first stamp for sixpence. As he picked up the stamp from the street, this was all profit and in true entrepreneurial style, he invested it in more stamps to sell.
From this his business grew to occupy the large premises at 281 Strand, where he had a huge warehouse and a stock of millions of stamps, valued at a total of £25,000. In his 1874 catalogue [1874.7.736], at the age of 21, he is already thanking his customers for eight years of loyalty. Pictures of the shop in the Strand show it displaying his proud claim to be the “oldest established stamp merchant in the world.”
Joseph William Palmer - another Victorian gentleman with a carefully cultivated moustache
He was clearly an obsessive man, working all hours on his business from the age of seven onwards and barely even taking time off to get married, which he did in 1880. His wife would appear to have been his assistant in the shop and was whisked back there straight after the marriage ceremony. Somehow, he did find time to have two children, “a bright little girl and an intelligent little boy.”
As I read this biography, it struck me that it is again full of overblown praise for Palmer and I began to wonder whether he had in fact written it himself. Then I discovered the name of his wife: Frances Mary Neale. Surely not a coincidence? So, was the author his brother-in-law, or was it in fact Palmer himself using a pseudonym? For a man so full of self-promotion, I know where my suspicions lie.
So, to finish, another of his “new improved” nursery rhymes:
“Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?”
“I’ve been to the Strand and PALMER I’ve seen”
“Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, what did you there?”
“I saw that his dealings were honest and fair”
“Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, is PALMER the man
Who fought single-handed the forgery clan?”
“PALMER it was who strengthened the law”
“Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, give me your paw”