On this day in history : 1st May 1840 – The Penny Black, the World’s first adhesive postage stamp is first issued in Great Britain – but is not officially valid for use until the 6th of May…


At the time Britain’s postal system was slow, mis-managed and expensive…. The postage was usually paid for by the recipient – who could quite simply refuse a letter they did not wish to receive…. Alternatively it may have been correspondence they were desperate to receive but were too poor to pay for…. Letters were charged per sheet and the distance travelled…. Teacher, inventor and social reformer Sir Rowland Hill campaigned for a reform on the complicated system; he proposed a pre-paid adhesive stamp…. One penny would allow a letter weighing up to half an ounce (14g) to travel any distance across the land….

Sir Rowland Hill, KCB – Public domain

Teaming up with Sir Henry Cole, civil servant and inventor – who incidentally introduced the first commercial Christmas card – a competition was launched for the design of the stamps…. Some 2,600 entries were received but none were considered to be suitable….

Hill settled on a rough design with a profile of a young Queen Victoria in her days as a princess – believing this to be an image that would be hard to forge…. From this idea a portrait was engraved by Charles Heath and his son Frederick…. They based the final design on the cameo-style head that had been featured on a medal issued to commemorate Queen Victoria’s visit to the City of London in 1837…. This portrait remained on all British stamps until her death in 1901….

The Jacob Perkins’ press, which printed the Penny Black and the 2d Blue, in the British Library Philatelic Collections – Image credit: takomabibelot CC BY 2.0

Since then all British postage stamps have included a portrait or silhouette of the reigning monarch…. Britain is the only country in the World that doesn’t use anything other than the monarch’s image to show country of origin….

Although officially not sold until the 6th of May 1840 there were places, such as Bath, that sold them before…. There are some stamps around with the date mark of May the 2nd and even one example dated May the 1st 1840….img_3072

The Penny Black lasted less than a year as it was hard to see the red cancellation mark to show the stamp had been used…. Added to that the red ink was too easy to remove…. In February 1841 the Penny Red was introduced….

In total 286,700 sheets of Penny Blacks were printed, giving 68,808,000 stamps…. The only complete intact sheets still in existence are owned by the British Postal Museum….img_3070

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