I really ought to tell you that, rather than just reading this article, you should go out and buy Frank Walton's book 'Sierra Leone King George VI Definitive Stamps', published by the West Africa Study Circle (Contact us if you would like a copy). He has extracted all the information from the Crown Agents' and Waterlow archives, and been able to use all the work published earlier by Frank Saunders and others, which he has done to excellent effect. Like all of us who are interested in the background to British Commonwealth issues, he has reason to be grateful to the staff at the British Library and to the fact that so much information has been retained, and made accessible, there.
The original set of 13 values was issued in May and June 1938, with two colour changes (the 1½d and 2d) in 1942 and a 1/3d value added in 1944. The designs are the standard colonial mixture of native scenes and views. As so often, the designer or designers are anonymous, being assumed to be a Waterlow staff artist. However, Frank publishes a picture of an envelope bearing the ½d and 1½d values, endorsed in manuscript with the words 'with the designer's compliments/F. Welch'. Father Welch was, as Frank points out, the designer of the 1933 Wilberforce set so his involvement would be predictable. I recall seeing a stamp from the set signed by 'F. Welch' in red ink some years ago, so it is a reasonable assumption that he was indeed responsible at least in some way.
The sheet format of the set was 12 rows of 5 stamps each. This contradicts the information given in the Commonwealth King George VI catalogue, edited by yours truly, which states that the sheets were 6 x 10, and then 5 x 12 from 1941. Frank speculates that this was repeated from an earlier catalogue, the Rex Priced Catalogue. This will, of course, be altered in the next edition of Commonwealth, no evidence of the 6 x 10 format having been found. (This is one of the occupational hazards of being a catalogue editor - one is assuming responsibility for the accuracy of the information garnered and repeated by earlier editors. I always welcome additional information or corrections, by the way!) The sheets of single-coloured stamps, as printed, were in two panes of 60, with no distinguishing marks between the panes.
The first plates were unnumbered, and lower right corner blocks with no numbers printed on the selvedge are considered to be plate number (1) blocks. Subsequently, new plates were numbered so that the 1/3d value (appearing in 1944) has the printed plate number 1. The ½d may be found with plate numbers 2 and 3, the 1d with number 2, and the 3d from numbers 2 and 3. The 3d from Plate 3 features on extra cloud below the 'RA' of 'SIERRA', so it is easy to identify even single stamps from this plate. Richard Lockyer published some photographs of top marginal pieces in Gibbons Stamp Monthly in May this year showing the number '41004' in black printed on the top selvedge. I have seen these before, but rarely, if ever, as complete as Richard's examples. This number is the Waterlow reference number for the centre plate used for the 'view of Freetown' vignette. It was, presumably, purely an internal reference and should certainly have been guillotined off.
So, there are marginal markings to collect. There are also plenty of printings of the set, to the extent that this is definitely one of the more difficult colonies for the collector to attempt to reconstruct. The ½d, for example, had the phenomenal total of 30 printings, the last being in September 1955! Although Potter & Shelton introduced their table of printings with the remark, 'This well-printed Waterlow set presents few problems, and has few shades to interest the specialist', there were several more years of additional printings and it certainly seems from this distance in time that there are plenty of good shades to collect. Commonwealth lists shades for 11 values, including 3 for the £1. The familiar pattern of cream paper and off-white gum on the early issues - progressing through the years to very white paper, being thinner than the early papers, with transparent gum and very bright colours - applies here. Fortunately, our reference collection of the later printings is quite extensive - these are usually more difficult to find than the earlier printings. We obtained most of these from a collection purchased from a customer a few years ago. He had obviously found a wonderful source of accurately-identified printings from about 1949 onwards, which we were delighted to obtain. Earlier printings he had identified himself; the results were, to say the least, variable!
The best shades of the lot are the £1s. There were 9 printings, which fall into three basic groups. The 1938 £1 is on paper which is a long way from white - there is a very dark, almost blackish element in the blue, 'indigo' being a good description. There was no reprint until 1947, the paper being whiter (but not bright white) and the colour merely 'dark blue' (I'm using Commonwealth's descriptions). The third and last shade listed by Commonwealth is the 'dark steel-blue' of December 1951. This is immediately obvious, since the paper around the stamp (i.e. between the stamp and the perforations) is blue-tinted on the surface. The sheet selvedge is unaffected.
Other shades worth looking for are spread throughout the set. The ½d started life in quite a dark green, with a particularly bright shade appearing in 1944, and plenty of others evidently different on grounds of paper, shade or both. The original 1½d in the changed colour of purple was quite dark, becoming much brighter as printings went on, whereas with the 2d scarlet (to my eye) it is more a matter of the paper changing colour than the ink - the result being that the later issues are much brighter than the early ones. The 3d and 4d have much brighter frames in the later printings. The original 5d is quite dark, and appears densely printed; the 1944 is greyer and the printing appears to be finer. The 1/- follows a similar pattern, at least as far as the frame colour is concerned. The 2/-, 5/- and 10/- all follow the cream to white paper sequence, with the colours becoming brighter as the years progress.
There is just one major error in the set, the 1d existing in a used vertical pair, imperforate between. Just one example had been recorded, with a very early postmark (18th April 1939); it seems that this was the pair sold at auction in 1957. Forged mint pairs are known. We were shown (at the Washington 2006 show) a further pair, this one being fiscally used and seemingly absolutely genuine.
There are some good (and some very minor) re-entries affecting the set, which captured the imaginations of some of the early KG VI enthusiasts such as Maguire and Bentley Kettle. There are just two which affect the centre plates. Plate 2 has a re-entry affecting the sky at lower right on R11/5 (fortunately, this is in the plate block!); not a major re-entry, showing as a slight thickening of the horizontal lines of shading. R11/2 from Plate 3 is better, in that the mast of the ship at the left side of the design is clearly doubled. There are many frame re-entries, especially on the 4d and 1/- values. Usually they affect the outer framelines. If you have any blocks, have a look for these re-entries. (It can be argued that the majority of these are not true re-entries, but I call them such for the sake of simplicity.)
Frank Walton and the West Africa Study Circle published a fine book on Sierra Leone postmarks in 1990, so it is perhaps not surprising that there is a good section on postmarks in his book on the 1938 definitives. There is a full list of all the post offices whose cancels can be found on KG VI issues, which is most useful, together with some tempting colour illustrations. Ted Proud also published a substantial work in his Postal History series in 1994. Some of the names are splendid - Bananas, Jimmi, Kissy, Sussex, Waterloo and Wellington are examples. Many of the postmarks are relatively easy to obtain and you can add a good deal of material to your collection for not a lot of money, should you wish to!
Acknowledgements; Frank Walton West Africa Study Circle (for details, contact us)