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Colleges’ outlawed postage system may have been legal
Buy this photo Prof Simon Catling, left, and Bill Jackson, president of Oxford Philatelic Society, examine the Cambridge College Messenger Stamps
OXFORD University colleges are known for doing things their own way.
And at one time they had their own postal system too, before it was outlawed in 1886.
Now a retired professor says his grandfather may have found ‘proof’ that they should have been allowed to keep it.
Former Oxford Brookes University lecturer Simon Catling, of Wheatley, was clearing his mother’s Norfolk home after she died in 2010 when he found an old trunk.
Inside was a manuscript and rare stamp collection owned by his grandfather, Harry Catling.
His grandfather was convinced he had found legal evidence which showed the stamps should not have been banned, but didn’t manage to publish it between 1939, when he completed his research, and when he died in 1947.
Prof Catling, 66, said: “He did try to publish it, but the Second World War got in the way.
“He had sent it to his son, but his son went to war and when he returned there was more pressing business to attend to, so it was put away and completely forgotten.
“It seems to make a very strong case to me and I have spoken to expert stamp collectors who agree.
“Even though it has been in an attic for 75 years, the arguments it makes have never been made before.”
The colleges in Oxford had been using their own messengers for years for an internal mail system, but after Keble College was opened in 1870, cash-strapped staff members decided to start charging students and staff for the service. To do that, they created their own stamps.
The practice spread to seven other colleges in the next decade and even across to Cambridge University in 1882.
But in 1886 the Postmaster General of the UK, Henry Carteret, launched a legal challenge, claiming it infringed on the government-owned General Post Office’s monopoly of the market.
As a result the stamps were outlawed and, over time, intact versions became very difficult for collectors to obtain.
Harry Catling had become interested in them in the 1880s and began to research them when he lived in Cambridge in the 1920s and 1930s.
In his manuscript, he wrote: “I turned to the authorities and carefully investigated the Post Office Acts from their first appearance.
And he made reference to “the Act of Charles II in 1660, which confirmed in 1661... the privileges of the two Universities of the Land were reserved to them ‘in manner as heretofore hath been used’.”
After discovering the manuscript, Prof Catling showed it to friend and Oxford Philatelic Society president Bill Jackson.
Mr Jackson said: “This essay has been completely unknown until now and the stamps are the best collection from Cambridge ever found.
“I doubt it will prompt the colleges to resume their old system, but it is very interesting.”
An Oxford University spokesperson said: “The essay makes for interesting reading, but at present we have no plans to revive the University’s postal service.”
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