By Ian Smillie
The first meeting of the Ottawa Philatelic Society (OPS) – Canada’s oldest stamp club – was called to order at the prestigious Russell House Hotel at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 25, 1891.
The room was “filled to overflowing,” according to minutes written by OPS Secretary W.J. Beatty, who noted the club would meet “every second week in each month” and was in “good working order under the management of the President, who is a hustler.”
John Reginald Hooper, a 32-year-old post office clerk, was considerably more than “a hustler” – whatever Beatty may have meant. A lifelong stamp collector, Hooper had four years earlier formed the Canadian Philatelic Association, a forerunner of the Royal Philatelic Society of Canada (RPSC). He was a prolific contributor to Canadian and American philatelic journals and later in life moved to the United States, where he was editor and publisher of The Hobbyist.
Hooper, in the midst of an affair with one Alice Stapley, was also later sentenced to 25 years in prison for the attempted murder of his wife, whose death occurred soon after she inherited her father’s substantial estate. Paroled after 10 years in prison, Hooper carried on with the hobby until his death in 1944 at age 84.
Hooper notwithstanding, a roll call of club members and officers reads like something from a historical “Who’s Who.”
Fabien René Edouard Campeau, author of The Illustrated Guide to the House of Commons and Senate of Canada (1879), was a noted numismatist and founder in 1891 of the Ottawa Numismatic Society. He served as president of the OPS between 1909 and 1911.
A.T. “Gus” Sesia, who served as OPS president in 1950, was an intelligence officer assigned as the historian to the First Canadian Infantry Division during the Sicily Campaign in 1943 and then the 2nd Canadian Corps in Normandy.
George Geldert, OPS president from 1957-58, was an anesthetist, civic politician, founder of Ottawa’s first radio station CKCO in 1924 and an avid stamp collector.
In more recent times, Ralph Mitchener, who served as OPS president in 1963, was a Fellow of the RPSC, a national philatelic judge, an award-winning exhibitor and a prolific philatelic author.
COLLECTORS CAME TOGETHER SOON AFTER PENNY BLACK
Only a couple of decades after the world’s first stamp was issued in 1841, special clubs began forming in Canada and abroad with the explicit focus of collecting and studying postage. Known as philatelic societies – or simply stamp clubs – these early groups opened the door to Organized Philately. Over the years, clubs have bolstered the hobby by providing collectors an outlet for their interests, knowledge and camaraderie. It’s believed the world’s first stamp club was formed by a group of Parisian collectors in 1865. They met under the banner of the “Socíeté Philatelique” but folded within two years, according to the American Philatelic Society Hall of Fame listing for Jacques Legrand, who was a member of the early Paris club. Four years later, the world’s longest-running stamp club – the Royal Philatelic Society London, which is still among the most active philatelic groups on the planet – came together in England. In present-day Canada, clubs began popping up a couple of decades later. The country’s oldest club – the Ottawa Philatelic Society – was established in 1891. A year later, the London Philatelic Society formed in southwestern Ontario. Less than a decade after that, in 1900, the Winnipeg Philatelic Society came to the fore of the philatelic scene. All three clubs remain active today.
HALCYON DAYS FOR OTTAWA PHILATELY
George LeMesurier, a stalwart of the Ottawa philatelic community today and president of the OPS between 1976 and 1977, recalls the 1970s as halcyon days for Ottawa stamp collectors.
Then, there were dealers to spare – Kelly on Queen Street, Fergusson in The Glebe and Jim Mackintosh, to name a few. There were stamp counters at Kresge’s and Woolworth’s, and Sears had an especially good stamp department.
The OPS was very friendly, LeMesurier recalls. It met every Thursday in a room at the Chateau Laurier Hotel. Members – all men – always wore ties and jackets, and all were professionals of some sort or other. One was a retired commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The OPS had competition from the RA Stamp Club, part of the Recreation Association for public servants. In those days, LeMesurier recalls the RA Club was for stamp collectors.
“They would buy anything, as long as it didn’t cost more than five cents.”
The OPS, he says, was for philatelists. These were very knowledgeable people, men who wrote learned articles and even books about stamps. When people like Robson Lowe, sometimes called the father of postal history, or the great U.S. philatelist Alfred Lichtenstein came to Ottawa, it was especially to meet with the OPS.
The problem for the philatelists of the OPS was there seemed to be only nine or 10 willing to shell out the membership fee. On a typical Thursday evening, only five or six of them would show up. They enjoyed themselves, but it was a fairly exclusive club, and its future seemed uncertain.
LeMesurier was asked to run for president because everyone else in the club had already held the position. One of his first initiatives was to place an ad in the Ottawa Citizen telling readers about the OPS. In short order, he managed to double the membership.
For many years, the Chateau Laurier offered inexpensive meeting rooms for non-profit organizations like the Rotary Club, the Ottawa Women’s Canadian Club and the OPS. But as costs rose, the OPS sought other venues, moving several times during the 1980s and alighting briefly in church basements and at the University of Ottawa before settling in its current home at the Hintonburg Community Centre, about three kilometres west of downtown.
By then, much had changed. Members started bringing stamps to trade and sell. As Dick Logan, OPS president between 2004 and 2006, puts it, the club became “a five-cent mecca,” where a box of inexpensive stamps barely hit the table before being grabbed by someone. Far from being disdainful, Logan – a philatelic author of considerable repute – says the club began to cater not just to specialists but to generalists, topical collectors and middle-of-the-road philatelists.
It has three “study groups” that meet four times a year after the general weekly meeting – a Canada Study Group, one for the United States and a third for Great Britain and Commonwealth collectors. There are three or four guest speakers in a season, and potluck dinners are a tradition at Christmas and the spring annual general meeting. There is an active youth program.
The club maintains good relations with Canada Post, and OPS members are frequently invited to Ottawa stamp launches in rarified venues such as the National War Museum or Rideau Hall. Over the years, auctions became a regular feature and circuit books were popular until, ironically, Canada Post made the cost of postage prohibitive.
The OPS works with the RA Club and Amicale des pilatélistes de l’Outaouais in organizing Orapex, one of the biggest and best annual stamp shows in Canada. They also organize a joint “MiniEx” show and auction each February.
As Logan says, the OPS gives its members pretty good value – regular, interesting meetings, good discussions, an opportunity to buy, sell and trade plus a camaraderie based not just on shared philatelic interests but on years of Thursday night gatherings, where there is always something new to learn.
Ian Smillie is currently serving as the 74th president of the Ottawa Philatelic Society.