Astley Clerk

Biography

The duty has fallen to us; something which, because of our recognised inability properly to render it, we would willingly, readily surrender to some one else; to record the passing on 20th May last, of this much and highly esteeemed member of our Society.

He was one of the pioneers of philately in Jamaica; we believe him to have been the most outstanding of that very small number, and is one of the last to leave us. His work for philately in general, and that of Jamaica in particular; much or most of it yet unpublished; is monumental, a fact which the present Society recognised, and sought to have widely recognised, by nominating him for enrolment on the British Roll of Distinguished Philatelists. That nomination was not accepted, by the Committee charged with such matters, and while a disappointment to us, it made no sort of difference to Astley Clerk, to him it was Philately that mattered, all else was and remained of smaller, incidental importance. Although burdened with years much beyond the allotted span, he remained up to the time of his sudden death, a devoted devotee; if one may use that term without tautology to impress.

A foundation member of this Society; the present Jamaica Philatelic Society; he had already borne with just one or two others, the disappointing labour of endeavour to operate and carry on, more than one or two predecessors, each of which had gone out of existence, because of lack of support. He found; as we have found; that except for a dire paucity of numbers, there is willingness to receive, accept. and take all that one may be able to give; that lack of co-operative effort for benefit of the whole, prevails in large or small measure, and always is important enough to bear heavily on individual enthusiasm, to discourage. He did not permit that condition to diminish or destroy his keeness; for years when alone, he worked alone, satisfying his personal, individual urge. We believe the present Society provided a measure of satisfaction to him; we know it disappointed in many ways, largely because of that lack of co-operation to which we have referred. He dearly longed and wished to see the Society operated, carried on, enthusiastically supported, with an ever increasing number of younger persons, taking their full share of responsibility, widening its activity, "only in that way can its continued existence be assured. The present team is of men well on in life, what will happen if and when they may, have to, give' up?" We ask the same question.

We mourn his loss, we have our measure of satisfaction, in the experience of pleasant, cordial association spread over many years, and honour him as the eminent Jamaican philatelist of his time.

We have written of him as a philatelist and member of our Society. Tributes have been paid to his achievements as a musician, a composer poet, churchman, a generous donor of his time, ability, and of his purse to its possible limit, by several religous denominations and in the lay press. We do not need to repeat them here, we do take saddened leave of one who, in quiet, unspectacular fashion, was a great .Jamaican, a pride, example, a stimulus to us all.

In the early hours of Saturday, May 21, 1944, member No. 1 of the Jamaica Philatelic Society passed into eternity. Jamaica had lost one of her distinguished musicians, welfare worker, poet, writer of local history and patriot, and the Jamaica Philatelic Society one of its chief corner stones. The writer sorrowfully adds his tribute to Astley Gunter Clerk, whose death leaves a gap in Jamaican Philately that may never be filled.

Born in Montego Bay in May 1868, Astley Clerk came to Kingston a young lad, and received his education at the Kingston Collegiate School. He started work in a firm of prominent music dealers where he gained much popularity and the welldeserved esteem of the general public, whom he never ceased to serve until he passed away. In 1912 he established his own business until his retirement from active work in 1940.

Mr. Clerk was a man of outstanding genius. He loved to write in song about his island home, one of his favourite songs being "Hail to Jamaica the Island of Springs," which is now frequently sung in England by West Indians. As a musicain his many musical compositions bear eloquent evidence of his ability and as Editor of the "Musical Monthly" he gained the admiration of the music loving people of the island.

His love for art was shown in the many art exhibitions he organized. He was an outstanding conchologist and gave evidence of this in a beautiful exhibition of shells in 1928. The Board of Governors of the Institute of Jamaica awarded him in 1937, the Musgrave Medal for his effort in development of music and to maintain interest in the folk lore of Jamaica.

As a Philatelist, Astley Clerk did notable work for the hobby. This is the opinion of the best judges in Jamaica and elsewhere. His philatelic compositions in the local press over a period of many years, and his work for the committee that compiled the book "Jamaica," give silent but abundant evidence of his work for Philately. He once truly wrote of himself that he was "a stamp collector, and to put it squarely a Philatelist, that is to say a stamp student."

The present Jamaica Philatelic Society owes its origin chiefly to him, but long before the year 1920, in which the Society was formed, Astley Clerk had laid the foundation of earlier Stamp Societies, which alas! have all passed away. These "passings" were sad experiences for him who loved the hobby, and studied it as no other man in Jamaica had done; but he never lost faith in his ability to place Philately on a sound footing in Jamaica and his work in doing this was a pleasureable experience for him. He loved the Jamaican Philatelic Society and nothing was too much for him to accomplish in its behalf. The Society's yearly magazine "The Jamaica Philatelist," was started by him, first as a monthly magazine issued in manuscript form, and later in its present form, with him as its editor until 1939, when on account of his failing health he retired from the position.

So concerned was he for the advancement of the study of Philately in Jamaica that he made many unsuccessful efforts to form a junior stamp club but eventually his efforts took shape in 1942. He was in close contact with the "juniors" up to the time of his passing.

Of Astley Clerk's local Philatelic writings the most popular was the "Stamp Album," published weekly in one of the Jamaica daily papers. The writer is fortunate in having many of these weekly articles which provide evidence of his wide philatelic knowledge. He was fond of controversy and always believed in giving the "other man", fair opportunity to air his views, but he never gave ground, holding to his opinion, and in most cases proving himself correct. His glossary of philatelic terms was not compiled in the conventional style, but in a manner peculiar to himself. This glossary has never been published, nor can I say where it is now, but of its value I cannot speak too highly. It contains references to philatelic subjects which, although common to the most elementary collector, give new meaning to the study of such subjects.

Of Astley Clerk's generosity there can be no doubt. Many a young collector has started a collection with abundant material freely given from his large assortment of duplicates. This writer has pleasant recollections of his unselfish nature. It was shortly after the Jamaica Philatelic Society had started, and I had exchanged the position of President for that of Honorary Secretary, that Astley Clerk after reading a paper on the Arms Stamps of Jamaica requested the new President to present me with a block, of nine Jamaica 5d., arms stamps, with multiple watermark the middle stamp showing the Ser.et error. This was typical of his nature, and I know of many other generous acts which gave him pleasure while proving beneficial to the recipients.

His faith in the value of Jamaica stamps could not be shaken and he was often heard to declare that he would not part with certain of his Jamaican stamps at the catalogue price. His desire to see Jamaican history commemorated through her stamp issues was very strong, and it was chiefly on account of his importunity in this respect that Governor Probyn decided to issue a set of stamps which is known to Philatelists as "The Pictorials of 1919-1921." The Jamaican Government did not issue this set of stamps as a commemorative set and Mr. Clerk was disappointed; nevertheless he was happy in the knowledge that he could write into the description of the stamps a great deal of Jamaican history, reminiscent of the times when such subjects were current.

Mr. Clerk was much against the issue of speculative stamps. I can recall his indignation at the time when Jamaica wanted a theatre for Kingston and neither Government nor Parochial Funds, were available for building same, and a visitor to the island suggested, in a letter to the local news papers, the raising of the necessary money for the purpose, by the issue of a special set of stamps from ½d. to 4s., and to turn the issue over to a special committee to be sold by them to philatelists all over the world. Astley Clerk retorted, that he would protest most emphatically if the suggestion were ever entertained. He, however, took the opportunity to score the Jamaica Post Office on keeping the stamp issues too long without a change, but he preferred an over-used issue to a speculative one, and concluded in summing up his love for philately, which showed his character, in the following words, "I am a Jamaican philatelist and proud of the clean name that my island has ever presented to the philatelic world, and I desire to see that name kept clean all through."

Astley Clerk was a great patriot in the true sense of the word. From his boyhood days he studied the habits and interests of the people of Jamaica whom he loved so well. He was a fountain of knowledge of every phase of Jamaica life. His poetical writings told the story of Jamaica's old homes, her flowers, fruit, rivers, shells and wonderful moonlight; her traditional history of the men and women who had done something for Jamaica. He wrote about the aborigines, the Arawaks, and of the birds of Jamaica. In fact everything Ja-maican was his subject; and we of the Jamaica Philatelic society shall miss a man who was loved and respected, not only for his personal worth but as one who worked unselfishly for the advancement of his fellow countrymen and who was an inspiring example to others.

G. C. GUNTER.

The twenty first of May 1964 marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of Astley Clerk of Hope Glen, Cross Roads, Jamaica, His name is familiar to most serious collectors of Jamaica as one of the compilers of the classic 1928 Jamaica Handbook, but few appreciate how much of our current knowledge of Jamaica Postal History we owe to him. Astley Clerk was born in Montego Bay in May of 1868. He was educated at the Kingston Collegiate School after which he accepted employment with Louis Winkler and Company of 18 King street, Kingston, a firm of music and musical instrument dealers. This was a period, prior to the advent of radio broadcasting and television, when no home able to afford one was without a piano or organ and at a later date a phonograph,, and the sale of such instruments and the sheet music and records to go with them was a major business, Although badly damaged in the Kingston earthquake: of 14 January 1907, the firm quickly resumed business. in temporary quarters at 58 Duke Street which it occupied for several years,

In 1912, Astley Clerk established his own business at 14 King Street, operating as, "Astley Clerk, Cowen Music Rooms". By 1926 his address was 18 King Street. He continued to operate this business until his retirement in 1940.

To Astley Clerk, music was not merely an occupation. He loved to compose songs of his native. island. One of his favorite songs, "Hail to Jamaica the Island of Springs", enjoyed considerable popularity both in Jamaica and England. He was editor of the "Musical Monthly" magazine, Like most philatelists. he had many other interests among which art; conchology and the study of Jamaican folk lore were prominent.

As a .philatelist Astley Clerk was more concerned with acquiring knowledge than preparing elaborate displays. His work with the Winkler Con and later on his own involved much correspondence. Anything displaying a new or unusual Jamaican postal marking or usage was pasted on to a loose leaf album page and annotated with details of its use. These notes were hastily scribbled in either pen of pencil and often took the form of unanswered questions. For example , on a page with early-examples of the Kingston "6 Wavy Lines" machine-cancellation he notes: "Query - is this 6 lines pmk being used elsewhere in Jamaica than Kingston? Are the wavy lines significant of any P/O meaning?" As he acquired more information on an item, he added additional notes to the pages scrawling them at all angles with no attempt at neatness. Thus the poorest looking pages were the most valuable from the standpoint of philatelic information.

When in doubt as to the use of a postal marking, he would sometimes write to the postmaster for an explanation' Thus a query in Jamuary 1893 as to the significance of the "On Post Office Business" stamp and how its usage differed from the "Jamaica Paid" stamp brought a reply from Postmaster George H. Pearce, (incorrectly spelled Pierce in the ice Handbook;) that "Stamp 1 is the Official Frank Stamp used on Post Office corrrespondence only, Stamp 2 represents the payment of newspapers in bulk, on the original wrapper of which postage stamps had been affixed".

Although Astley Clerk was a prolific philatelic writer, many of his articles were published in a daily newspaper, locally, with little circulation outside of Jamaica. Thus his writings are seldom seen today. However, much of the contents of these articles, been preserved in the writings of others who drew heavily upon them as a reference source.

He was largely responsible for organization of the Jamaica Philatelic Society in 1920 and edited the Society's official organ, the Jamaica Philatelist, until 1940 when poor health forced him to retire from his position, He had also been organizer of a number of short-lived earlier. philatelic groups in Jamaica including the Kingston Philatological Society which held the first stamp exhibition in the West Indies in May 1911 in the Cowen Music Rooms.

The popularity among philatelists which Jamaica currently enjoys can be credited in a large part to Astley Clerk whose enthusiastic efforts over half a century to generate an interest in the stamps and postal history of his beloved island, have preserved for such a wealth of knowledge.

Resources

Link Type Date Title Description
Link Articles 1909 to 1913 Postage Stamp, The Article author
Link Book 11 Apr 1905 Jamaica – Its Postal History, Postage Stamps and Postmarks Compiler
Link Journal 1927-40 Jamaica Philatelist Editor