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Pre 1840

In the year 1840, the United Kingdom introduced the Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp. It was followed one day later by the 2d blue and at the beginning of 1841 the 1d red appeared.

But before 1840, the post service was prohibitively expensive for most people to use. In fact the cost of sending a single letter could cost of much as a working man’s daily wage. Postage was charged by the sheet and the distance travelled. (This led to the habit of writing a letter, then turning the page upside down and writing the second page of the letter between the lines of the original – thus saving sheets as four pages of letter could be written on one piece of paper.)

But cost was not the only issue. There were many oddities. Certain items of post went free of charge, newspapers could be sent very cheaply and most mail was paid for by the person receiving the mail, not the sender.

Postal reform ideas – James Chalmers

It’s not surprising then that for many years prior to 1940, there were calls for reform of the postal system. As early as 1822, James Chalmers, a bookseller and printer from Dundee, was interested in postal reform. Some say that he was the actual inventor of  the adhesive postage stamp. He also advocated the introduction of standard prepaid letter folders, letter sheets or envelopes which were eventually introduced in 1840 using a design by William Mulready. He printed samples of his idea for printed gummed labels in August 1834.

James Chalmers Inventor of the Adhesive Postage Stamp edited by W.J. Smith, and published in Dundee in 1970 gives an account of James Chalmers’ activities in the area of postal reform.

Later reformers  - Rowland Hill and Robert Wallace

Rowland Hill and Robert Wallace (Member of Parliament for Greenock) were notable campaigners. In 1837, Rowland Hill proposed the radical reform of wapping a letter in an additional piece of paper (now known as the envelope) and attaching a ‘label’ (now known as a stamp) to indicate prepayment of the postage charge.

Soical reformer Rowland Hill

Social reformer Rowland Hill

1839 Penny Postage Bill

Eventually, on 17 August 1839, Penny Postage Bill was passed by Parliament. The act required that the basic postal rate for simple letters should be set at one penny. It also required that prepayment should become the standard for sending letters and that prepayment should be indicated by ‘labels’. There labels were the Penny Black and the Twopence Blue. Like today, the stamps were cancelled by a cancellation stamp, although this mark was red rather than the black used today.

Competition for design of new stamps

In 1839, the British Treasury announced a competition to design the new stamps, but none of the submissions was considered suitable. Instead, Rowland Hill launched the service in 1840 with an envelope bearing a reproduction of a design created by the artist William Mulready and a  predominetly black stamp bearing a reproduction of the profile of the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria facing to the left. Hill believed this would be difficult to forge. The head of the reigning monanarch has featured on postage stamps eversince. Because Penny Blacks and Twopenny Blues were the world's first postage stamps, they did not show a country of origin. Brisitsh stamps today are still the only stamps in the world that do not name their country of origin.

Mulready letter sheet
Example of a Mulready lettersheet

Design of Penny Blacks

Queen Victoira’s head was engraved and based on a sketch done by Henry Corbould. who was influenced by the work of William Wyon. Wyon orignially drew a caneo-like head of Queen Victoira for a medal that commemorated her visit to London in 1837, the year that she was crowed queen at the age of 15. Penny Black stamps were printed by Perkins, Bacon & Petch..

The top of the stamp featured  word "POSTAGE" intended to distinguish it from ‘revenue’ stamps that had long been used in the United Kindgom. The words "ONE PENNY" appeared at the bottom of the stamp, indicating the amount that had been pre-paid for the delivery of the letter to which it had been fixed. The background of the stamp featured finely engraved engine turnings.
Positioned in the two upper corners were star-like designs. Positioned in the lower corners were letters indicating the position of the stamp in a sheet of 240 stamps. For example, "A A" indicates the stamp located on the top left position, and "T L" indicates the stamp on the bottom right position.. Penny Blacks were printed by Perkins Bacon.

Penny Black Stamp

Design of the Penny Black Stamp

Date of release

The new Penny Black stamps first went on sale 1st May 1840 although they were only valid for postage from 6th May 1840 (some were used between the date of introduction and the official launch day on the 6th). All London post offices received ample supplies of the new Penny Black stamp, but provincial post offices throughout the United Kingdom did not. As result, post offices outside London continued to accept postage payments in cash only for some time.

The Mulreadies (letter sheets) were issued at the same time as Penny Blacks. Public reaction to these new items not what Rowland Hill's expected. The Penny Black stamps were well-received and admired whereas the the Mulready letter sheet design was intensely disliked.

Printing and perforations

Eleven different plates were used during the short lived, one year long, production period of the Penny Black stamps.
Unlike stamps of today, Penny Blacks were not perforated and the postmaster or mistress of the time had to use scissors to cut out the stamps. Between 1848 and 1854 trials were carried out in order to find a better and more acceptable way of separating stamps than the scissors and in early 1854 the first ‘perforated’ penny red was issued.

Demise of the Penny Black stamp

Penny Black postage stamps were only in circulation for one year because the red cancellation mark was hard to see on the black background colour of the stamp and easily removed, making it possible to re-use stamps, even after they had been cancelled.

In response, the Treasury decided to reprint the stamp as a red stamp. The cancellation mark was changed to black as they were easier to see and harder to remove.




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