Stamp Machine Mystery

There is some mystery surrounding this non-Royal Mail, private stamp vender, first if it ever saw actual service, secondly if it wasn’t part of a museum somewhere. Perhaps a postal museum?

Probably best to start at the beginning; this little stamp machine was designed to sell stamp booklets from Royal Mail, typically these would be fixed at a £1 vend and the quantity and/or value of stamps would change usually depending on the most recent value of a 1st Class stamp. These machines were very much NOT for use on Post Office premises though; they were for private locations only.

The Hillday ‘Marquis’ SVM

The machine itself was made by Hillday Limited of Norwich, who operated from a modest light industrial unit that seems to have been their sole manufacturing and office location. They appear to have specialised in vending machines specifically for stamps, phonecards, tickets; essentially anything flat that an ordinary machine whether magazine or ‘collapsing shelf’ would have struggled with. Royal Mail and the Post Office would appear to have been major customers. That, at least is the impression I got from the last full accounts in 1999, after which new rules meant the company was under no obligation to insert even a single word in their annual returns regarding the specific nature of their business. They appear to have ceased meaningful trading in 2016 and were fully wound up in 2017 after a voluntary liquidation.

These machines are situated at Worcester Sidbury PO and show [an] electro-mechanical Hillday B52 machine. (Image copyright the original holder, linked above, and used for the purposes of discussion and criticism)
Forgive my kitchen worktop; when I photographed this machine, it was very cold. Luckily despite there being no keys, the locks were somehow half open, so access was easy. You might instantly recognise the housing as very similar machines were used for Savings Stamps and the like; I recall from memory that the ‘blank’ above the coin bezel would have been a large ‘out of stock’ warning LED lamp for mains powered models.

We’ll start at the back, let’s try and date this machine; that’s quite easy and that’s how we get the name, too:

“The Marquis”

The coin mech is a Coin Controls ‘S1’ mechanical coin acceptor fixed to a pre-2017 £1 coin. The PCB really is a tiny postage stamp(!) sized affair with a couple of components and a relay. Rather than some sophisticated electronic coin inhibit, that massive bracket you can see swings over to block the coin entry then the magazine is nearing empty.

As for the battery pack, we’ll look at that in a minute. The dialling code on the sticker suggests it being manufactured before ‘Phoneday’ (April 1995) when the codes changed, of course they might also have had 3000 unused stickers to use up. Who knows if the serial number means 1988 – I think this is a bit early myself.

As for the money, 25p got you a ‘1st Class’ stamp from 1993 to 1995; which is what the sticker underneath says – 4 x 25p ‘1st Class’ Stamps, but that’s been crudely covered up with a new offer, a booklet of 3 x 26p ‘1st Class’ stamps, one 20p ‘2nd Class’ stamp and 2 x 1p stamps for your offspring to ponder over when it’s house clearance time. Confusingly 2nd Class was 20p until 1999 when it went down to 19p, so for a short time you got a 1p and 2p stamp in ‘change’ – these latter booklets are relatively rare typically selling for five times the original face value.

So going by the final label, this machine might have been used until around 1999 perhaps? The odd bits? Firstly, the ‘prototype’ stamping on the battery pack:

‘1191’ – this surely does mean November 1991?

Secondly, the sticker on the side that suggests that wherever it was, it once formed some part of a treasure trail!

Was it in a museum? A postal museum? Or just part of something going on in a village or high street? We’ll never know.

So how does it all work? Central to these types of machines is a magazine that looks somewhat similar to a normal vending machine, but obviously the relatively high value and possibility of double dispensing means that a crude drawer and sweeper system is out. Instead we have…

So, put it all together with new locks and an AA battery based power pack, and how does it look when it’s working?

We’ve since also made a few cosmetic changes to the above machine, making the main door all red, giving it a really good clean and some slightly more late 80s Royal Mail era decals to the front. I think it looks pretty good.

The battery pack has been replaced with a box that contains AA batteries, easily changed by the user, the locks were quite unusual in that they ‘stay’ at 45 degrees with keys removed, so we had to change the barrels only and they will need a shim before we send the machine out. That’s right – you can buy the machine for yourself! (Sorry, sold!)

Just one last thing to show you – the mechanism from the inside as it vends;

How many machines are there like this left? Stamp booklet machines I think have been history for some time, but I’m no expert. To my surprise, given fraud concerns, I have just checked the Tesco website and back in early 2023, their FAQs section stated they still had traditional, electro-mechanical machines like the one above, in their stores, for savings stamps – I checked our local branch and this was correct, at the time. Here’s a picture from a 2013 new store opening, though note the much higher security electronic MARS / CRANE coin handling!

Update: On the very day I sold this machine (13th August 2023) I also went to my local large Tesco store. They still have that working stamp machine – but not for long. The whole thing is being scrapped in October and you will have until the 31st December 2023 to spend your stamps. The replacement is app based and involves your money being held in a trust, with new laws (seemingly ten years too late?) in place to avoid a repeat of the Farepak collapse.