The Nation was in a perilous plight. Cut off by sea, blockaded by U Boats, the people were in a state of near starvation. Children were falling sick and suffering from malnutrition. At one stage there was only enough food for a few weeks. Just across the Channel, the British army was being pounded mercilessly by German shells and troops were being killed by the tens of thousands in desperate offensives that achieved little or nothing.
His associates, colleagues and members of his family were being killed at a tremendous rate. Every family in the country was deeply touched by the slaughter. And, for the king, who had close links to the services, the losses must have been harrowing.
The fighting was so intense and the bombardment so severe, that on quiet days when the wind was in the right direction, the sound of gunfire could be heard in London. It must have seemed as if the whole of civilisation was being sucked into the mud of Flanders.
In October 1915 King George went to Hesdigneul in France to visit the troops The army had deliberately given him a very docile horse, so that it wouldn’t be startled by gunfire. In preparation for the visit, they made the horse stand next to the guns, so that it would be accustomed to the sound of the bangs.
However these precautions were in vain. When the men saw the king, they rushed towards him cheering. The horse was so frightened that it reared up and threw the king. The king fractured his pelvis and for weeks could not sleep without morphine. By his own account, he cracked three ribs and the royal doctor later revealed that the bony nodules around the injury restricted his movement for the rest of his life. The official biography recalls that he was ‘never the same man again after his accident’.
It is hard to comprehend the sense of sorrow that engulfed the country in the First World War. The losses were on a scale never witnessed before or since. The King, who had served for years in the navy, cared deeply about ordinary servicemen and was capable of sharing their pain. He gave large sums of his personal money to the war effort and decided he should show his sympathy for the plight of the ordinary people by having a ban on alcohol at his home. He also insisted that only simple food should be served. He had been known to be fairly stingy at the best of the times. Now visitors complained the food at Buckingham Palace was quite unappetising.
Throughout this bleak period there was one solace. The King had one infallible way of raising his spirits. Around three times a week, King George V would go into the stamp room in Buckingham Palace and - closeted with his stamp albums - would spend the entire afternoon overseeing the arrangement of the royal stamp collection.
In this task, he was helped by the curator of the collection, Sir Edward Bacon. Together they would catalogue and write up the collection. Bacon would buy the latest copies of the Stanley Gibbons stamp catalogues, and have them rebound in red leather. Then the two men would go through the catalogue, ticking off the stamps in the Royal collection. This was one of the great pleasures that the king enjoyed.
The king spent part of almost every day looking at his stamps. His official biographer, John Gore, suggests that his hobby helped to keep him sane. ‘He declared more than once in later years that this hobby helped him to preserve his health and reason in the nightmare of the War years. …Its importance in his life as hobby and recreation must not be overlooked.’
He struggled to escape from his thoughts. ‘The frequent reference to an hour snatched with Mr Bacon and his stamp collection confirms that it was in this hobby that he found the most effective means of brief forgetfulness.’
The reign of King George V spanned some of the most tumultuous periods of modern history. It included the First World War, the post-war depression, the Russian Revolution (in which many of his cousins were killed) and the rise of Hitler. And yet King George exerted very little influence on affairs. He was a conscientious Royal, but extremely mild.
There was only one area in which he showed great drive. When it came to stamps, he was an obsessive - and incredibly greedy - collector. He abused his royal position to acquire as many stamps as possible. Unlike other members of his family, he had no real interest in the arts or womanising. He was disliked by his father’s friends and largely ignored by the country. It was stamps into which he threw his energy. Many of his courtiers were quite scathing about his hobby, but it was the source of his greatest pride. People remember many things about the various monarchs. King Edward VII is primarily remembered for his philanderings and his mistresses and his love of society. King Edward VIII is remembered because he gave up the throne to be with his American mistress. King George VI is remembered for his stammer and his personal courage in the face of his shyness.
But with George V his greatest legacy was 328 volumes of books, bound in red leather and containing a collection of stamps worth millions. His stamps were the source of his greatest pride. He was the philatelist king - and this was his magnificent obsession - the madness of King George V.
This is an extract from George V's Obsession - a King and His Stamps by Jack Shamash. This is the first biography of George V published for 30 years.
See also - Edward Bacon - the quiet stamp expert from Croydon.