The Penny Black was the world’s first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system. It was issued in Britain on 1 May 1840. Unfortunately, not all post offices in the UK received official issues of the new stamps. Only those in London received the first round of stamps. Those outside London continued to accept postage payments in cash only until the stamp came into widespread usage.
In 1837, Sir Rowland Hill proposed several reforms to the British postal system, among them the idea of an adhesive stamp to indicate prepayment of postage. Prior to this time, the recipient of the letter paid the postage on delivery. Hill also suggested a “folded” enclosure, or envelope for letters. At that time, postage was charged by the sheet and on the distance travelled.
Austria, Sweden, and possibly Greece used adhesive stamps prior to the use of the Penny Black.
Country of production United Kingdom
Location of production London
Date of production 1 May 1840–February 1841
Notability World’s first adhesive postage stamp
Face value 1 penny
Estimated value £3–4,000 (mint)
Hill was given a two-year contract to run the new system, and together with Henry Cole he ran a competition to identify the best way to pre-pay letters. None of the 2,600 entries were good enough, so Hill launched the service in 1840 with an envelope bearing a reproduction of a design created by the artist William Mulready and a stamp bearing a representation of the profile of the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria. There are also references on the record to covers bearing the Mulready design. All British stamps still bear a picture or silhouette of the monarch somewhere on the design, and are the only postage stamps in the world that do not name their country of origin, leaving the monarch’s image to symbolise the United Kingdom.
In 1839, the British Treasury announced a competition to design the new stamps, but none of the submissions was considered suitable. The Treasury chose a rough design endorsed by Rowland Hill, featuring an easily recognisable profile of 15-year-old former Princess Victoria. Hill believed this would be difficult to forge. The head was engraved by Charles Heath and his son Frederick based on a sketch provided by Henry Corbould. Corbould’s sketch was based on the cameo-like head by William Wyon, which had been designed for a medal used to commemorate the visit of Queen Victoria to the City of London in 1837.
Initially, Hill specified that the stamps should be 3/4 inch square, but altered the dimensions to 3/4 inch wide by 7/8 inch tall (approx 19 x 22 mm) to accommodate the writing at the bottom. The word “POSTAGE” appeared at the top of the stamp (revenue stamps had long been used in the UK) and “ONE PENNY.” at the bottom, indicating the amount that had been pre-paid for the transmission of the letter to which it was affixed. The background consisted of finely engraved engine turnings The two upper corners held Maltese crosses, at the centers of which were radiant solar discs, and the lower corners contained letters designating the position of the stamp in the printed sheet; “A A” for the stamp at the top left, and “T L” for the bottom right. The sheets, printed by Perkins Bacon, consisted of 240 stamps in 20 rows and 12 columns. In this way, one full sheet cost 240 pennies or one pound sterling. One row of 12 stamps cost a shilling. As the name suggests, the stamp was printed in black ink.
Although 6 May was the official date that the labels became available, there are covers postmarked 2 May, due to postmasters selling the stamps from 1 May. A single example is known on cover dated 1 May 1840.
The Penny Black was in use for only a little over a year. It was found that a red cancellation was hard to see on a black background and the red ink was easy to remove, making it possible to re-use stamps after they had been cancelled. In 1841, the Treasury switched to the Penny Red and issued cancellation devices with black ink, much more effective as a cancellation and harder to remove. However, the re-use of stamps with the un-cancelled portions of two stamps to form an unused whole impression continued, and in 1864 the stars in the top corners were replaced by the check letters as they appeared in the lower corners, but in reverse order.
When sheets of the Penny Black were first printed various postal and other officials took the liberty of removing various numbers of stamps from their sheets to present as gifts to dignitaries and other important people. These sheet portions are commonly referred to by collectors as “imprimaturs” or “imprimatur sheets”. There are approximately 850 of these sheet portions in the British Postal Museum which also include overprints for British Bechuanaland, Oil Rivers, Levant and Zululand and also departmental overprints such as Army and Inland Revenue.
Printing The Penny Black was printed from 11 plates, but as plate 1 was completely overhauled due to excessive wear, it is generally considered to be two separate plates, 1a and 1b. Plate 11 was originally intended solely for the printing of new red stamps, but a small number were printed in black. These are scarce.
The stamps were printed in unperforated sheets, to be cut with scissors for sale and use.
An original printing press for the Penny Black, the D cylinder press invented by Jacob Perkins and patented in 1819, is on display at the British Library in London.
The Penny Black is not a rare stamp. The total print run was 286,700 sheets with 68,808,000 stamps and a substantial number of these have survived, largely because envelopes were not normally used: letters in the form of letter sheets were folded and sealed, with the stamp and the address on the obverse. If the letter was kept, the stamp survived. However, the only known complete sheets of the Penny Black are owned by the British Postal Museum.
The VR Official
In addition to the general issue of the Penny Black, a similar stamp was produced with the letters V and R in the top corners replacing the crosses, intended for official mail. Following the general public’s acceptance of the postage stamps and the ridicule of the Mulready stationery produced at the same time, vast supplies of the letter sheets were given to government departments, such as the tax office, for official use and the idea of introducing an official stamp was abandoned. Only a few postally used examples exist, which probably originated from the Post Office circulars sent out as advance notice that the new stamps would be brought into use. Four are known on covers; all were cut from their envelopes and then replaced. Most of the cancelled examples are from trials which were performed of cancellation types, inks, and experiments with their removal. Those trials led to the change from black to red stamps, and vice versa for the cancellations.
The VR official is stated to have been made from the original master die. However, that cannot be the case, as the die still exists with the original crosses intact, in The British Postal Museum & Archive in London. It is believed that the master for that stamp was produced from the transfer roller used for the production of plate 1, with the crosses removed from the top corners, as some impressions show traces of the original crosses.