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  All text herein Copyright
© Dr. William R. Hanson, 2000,
and used here with permission.


by Dr. William R. Hanson

This writer has enjoyed the hobby of stamp collecting since the age of seven, and has designed several thousand postage stamps (including some Sherlock Holmes designs) for some two dozen of the world's postal administrations. In pursuit of both interests I found myself in London a few years ago. While there I met a number of older dealers and collectors who related tales of the stamp trade in the years between the world wars and in the teeth of the blitz.

"Yes, sir, used to be right interestin' addin' to ones stock when the bombs was fallin' I'll tell you," said one old dealer named MacPherson, who hadn't lost his burr after more than 50 years residence in London, "Used to stand at my front door, this very shop here on the Strand, an' watch my future stock float by."

"Aw, go on with ya," I said.

"Gospel," he said, taking a long pull on his pipe, "turns out one o'the stamp printin' comp'nies an' th' Crown Agents was storin' bales o'sheets o'old stamps, ones they'd printed years back for old colonies what don't do their own stamps no more, in the bank, end o'the street here, at Charin' Cross. Well, bombs was fallin' all aroun' here; one night they knocked open the vaults an' set fire to that bank.

"Firemen was pourin' in the water and thrown' out anythin'd burn; pretty soon, floatin' down the gutter here's sheets and sheets o'stamps from the Old Queen's time, some even out your way: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, mostly tied up in bundles. Everthin' you can think of came afloatin' by; Russian Railway bonds with the Czar's crest, sheets o'money from banks wot went out o'business a hun'red year ago, bundles o'peoples letters, gov'mint files with red tape still wrapped around 'em, everthin'.

"I grabbed what I could use an' threw the rest back, same as did ever'body else along the way. I couldn't take much, no room; sold off what I got years back. But others took the stuff by the bale, thems wots got big old barns to spread the stuff out to dry, and they're still sellin' it.'

"What was the name of that bank, the one on the corner?" I asked.

"Cox's, as I recall. Course, there's a new buildin' there now, and a different company; bombin' did in the old 'un. You want some o'them stamps, you step on down here to Richards. Kept two lads busy, he did, draggin' stuff in and takin' it to a big old buildin' he had down by the docks. Months he spent rinsin' the stuff in clean water an pressin' it flat. But you look at them sheets today, color and paper fresh as can be; they look like they was printed yesterday, not 125 year ago, just no gum on the back is all.

"The old man's gone now; the boy's tryin' to carry on, but he don't know nothin', so you might get a good deal. Tell 'im I sent you."

'The boy' was a gentleman in his sixties, retired from British-Leland, and trying to sell off what stamps he could to pay death duties. He admitted to knowing nothing about the stamp business, but took his guidance from cryptic little notes his father had appended to most everything.

The sheets were still in the old warehouse, and he walked me over. I was ill-prepared for the sight which met my eyes; steel shelving and pallets everywhere, each bearing stacks upon stacks of stamp sheets, criss-crossed over each other like so many bricks.

The first stack I examined was about a two inches high; each sheet of the Nova Scotia 10 cent vermilion of 1860 was separated from the one beneath by a Russian Railway Bond, a French Panama Canal stock certificate, a page of The EXAMINER from 1711, or a sheet of old manuscript. Atop the stack was a note, "1 Pound".

"What's this price mean?" I asked, "Per stamp, or per sheet?"

"Beats me, the old man never told me much. They're old prices, probably gone up since he marked them, but you'll have a lot of bother with all those worthless papers he put between the sheets, so suppose we just say a pound for the pile? Don't know what you're going to do with thousands of the same stamp, but if it suits you, it suits me. Sooner I sell this lot off, sooner I can rent this building out."

I picked at random two other piles and paid enough extra to secure a promise that he wouldn't let anyone else into the warehouse for two days while I went back to my hotel room and looked over my purchases; since it was Friday afternoon and he was closing for the weekend, it wasn't too great a concession.

There's a collector market for old bonds and sheets of currency, and even old newspapers, but it would take a major marketing effort to dispose of SO-O-O many, and then what was I going to do with all the old pages that someone seemed to have laboriously hand copied from an adventure novel?

Wearying of my task after the first bundle, I rang room service for a coffee and biscuit and settled back to sort the manuscript pages. Thankfully they were numbered; unfortunately, there were gaps and two page fives. There being little sense in trying to read a much-interrupted story, I threw it down in disgust and went to bed.

I lay, and tossed, and turned, and cursed, and tossed some more; an hour passed; I could stand it no more, conceded the coffee had won and got up. Reading a disjointed tale might just exhaust me enough to bring on sleep, so I retrieved it from the corner and began on page three. Whatever the story was, it wasn't too bad, the writer seemed comfortable with his subject and the characters seemed familiar. Just as I was getting into it, there was a page missing. I cursed, resorted the pages, still couldn't find page six, and sat fuming; then it dawned on me why the characters seemed familiar...I was reading a Sherlock Holmes story.

So why get myself upset over a few missing pages? Tomorrow I'd go to the nearest bookseller and for a few pounds buy the collected works. Then I'd find out about this mysterious Hawaiian treasure map.

First thing next day bought a complete Sherlock Holmes and spent most of the morning scanning it to find my story. Well before noon I was back in the shop berating the clerk for misrepresentation.

"But, sir," he said, "this is everything Doctor Watson ever wrote about Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur included all the short stories and all the novels in this volume, there is nothing else."

"Nonsense," I said, "back in my hotel room I have a manuscript copy of his story about a Honolulu newspaper and a Hawaiian treasure map, now why isn't in this book you sold me?"

"I know of no such Sherlock Holmes adventure, sir," he said, "and I've read all the stories many times over."

"Enough of this nonsense, get the manager out here. Think he can pass off a defective book on me, does he? Think we Americans are stupid and won't recognize junk when we see it, does he? You just get him out here."

The clerk scurried into the back room, and I could hear him jabbering about a madman in the shop. Presently a dour looking young woman with thick glasses and hair severely pulled into a bun came out and introduced herself as the manageress. She heard me out with ill-concealed impatience, stated categorically that Arthur Conan Doyle had not included any stories about Hawaii when he edited Dr. Watson's Sherlock Holmes memoirs and directed me to the nearby Marylebone Library where I might examine a fine collection of early Sherlock Holmes editions. She further explained that she volunteered in that library, had helped assemble and catalog the Holmes collection, and had never heard of any such story.

The librarian didn't know of a Holmes adventure pertaining to Hawaii, but she pointed out the opening lines of The Adventure of Thor Bridge, where Doctor Watson writes of his tin dispatch box full of Holmes case notes in the vaults of Cox and Company's Bank at Charing Cross.

Could I have gotten hold of some original, unpublished Sherlock Holmes stories, in Doctor Watson's own hand, thrown out by firemen attempting to save the bank building during the blitz? Might there be more in the two stacks back in my room, and still more in that stamp dealer's warehouse?

Back in the hotel I attacked the other two stacks. I didn't find the missing Hawaiian pages, instead there were pages from what appeared to be still other stories which weren't in the collected works, either. Near the bottom of the second stack were two pages written on stationary imprinted at the top, John H. Watson, M.B., B.S., M.D. (Lond.)/ 221B Baker Street/ London. Were these indeed Watson's manuscript pages, and if they were genuine, could I prove it?

Excited now, I called the hotel concierge and asked where I might see original Holmes manuscripts, thinking he would mention some museum which wouldn't be open until the next day. I was lucky, visiting Sherlock Holmes sites seems to be a favorite pastime of American tourists, so he had a ready answer: the restaurant of the Northumberland Hotel, with original Watson manuscript pages framed on its walls. He'd make a dinner reservation for me.

I was probably the first guest in the history of the restaurant to completely ignore the Baker Street Sitting Room recreation at the head of the stairs. The dining room waitress must have thought me terribly rude as I barged past her and went from frame to frame comparing the writing on their examples with the ones in my hand. Undoubtedly I annoyed a few diners by leaning over them for a better look at some pages, but with typical British good-grace they voiced no objections.

When I finished my comparisons I was too excited to eat-the handwriting was identical! Without a doubt I'd stumbled of the literary find of a lifetime. Still, I owed them a good deal for the opportunity to examine their display, so I ordered a big meal which I barely touched, tipped the waitress well, and rushed back to consider my good fortune.

Richards was surprised to find me sitting on his doorstep Monday morning, and more so when I asked him to quote a price for the entire contents of the warehouse and a lease rate for a number of months.

Day and night of the next few months were spent going through seemingly endless stacks of stamp sheets, picking out pages and trying to fit them into the right manuscripts. The fruits of those first months of sorting in London are the adventures which follow, beginning with the "Hawaiian Treasure Map".

The rest of the material was crated up unsorted, and shipped to America. After several years I continue sorting the piles of stamp sheets, still looking for more pages in the handwriting of Dr. Watson. I have several more short stories almost complete and bits and pieces of what must be at least a dozen more, and if the good Doctor hasn't changed his numbering system, one or two books — at least the page numbers are near 300.

There remain many tons of paper to be gone through; hopefully the piles contain the pages needed to fill-in the material already found. Not everything from the bombed-out bank was retrieved by Richards' boys, some may have been picked up by people who still don't suspect what they have, and some likely floated away, lost forever. But perhaps someone else who's come across some old manuscript pages will contact me, and fill the gaps in my reconstructions. Who Knows?"


A bit of historical background

Years ago a well known dealer ran an ad headlined, "From the ruined vaults of Chancery Lane", in which he offered a small collection of stamps from the dominions which later joined to form Canada, ca.1860s; all in remarkably fresh condition but sans gum.

These vaults on Chancery Lane held the stamp stock ordered by the Crown Agents on behalf of their colonial postal administration clients, some going back to the 1860s when dominions like Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had no more need for their own stamps. There they sat quietly forgotten until the blitz of WWII; when the bombs fell on London and their buildings started to burn firemen threw bundles of every kind of paper into the streets, and bales of what had once been scarce colonial stamps (and other paper treasures of all descriptions) floated in the gutters down to the corner and along the Strand, for anyone to take who wanted them.

Meanwhile, down at Charing Cross the bombs had done their worst to the bank on the corner, Watson's 'Cox and Company', and anything that would burn was tossed in the water filled gutters at THAT end of the Strand; including the contents of a certain dispatch box. Paper was scarce and valuable then due to wartime shortages, especially rag paper, so even as the bombs fell people with carts and barrows were scurrying about gathering up what looked most marketable.

Untold numbers of valuable documents were thus toted off to the paper mongers to reappear as the following weeks newspapers, but some were recognized for their value and preserved.