Penny Black

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Penny Black
Penny black.jpg
Country of production United Kingdom
Location of productionLondon
Date of production1 May 1840 (1840-05-01)
February 1841 (1841-02)
NotabilityWorld's first adhesive postage stamp
Face value1 penny
Estimated value£500 or more (mint)
A Penny Black, with a red cancellation that was hard to see and easily removed Pennyblack-pd.jpg
A Penny Black, with a red cancellation that was hard to see and easily removed
A large mint block of the Penny Black Vol III pg 023 (cropped).jpg
A large mint block of the Penny Black
The Jacob Perkins' press, which printed the Penny Black and the 2d Blue, in the British Library Philatelic Collections Perkins D cylinder printing press in the British Library.jpg
The Jacob Perkins' press, which printed the Penny Black and the 2d Blue, in the British Library Philatelic Collections

The Penny Black was the world's first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system. It was first issued in the United Kingdom (referred to in philatelic circles as Great Britain), on 1 May 1840, but was not valid for use until 6 May. The stamp features a profile of Queen Victoria.

Postage stamp small piece of paper that is purchased and displayed on an item of mail as evidence of payment of postage

A postage stamp is a small piece of paper issued by a post office, postal administration, or other authorized vendors to customers who pay postage, who then affix the stamp to the face or address-side of any item of mail—an envelope or other postal cover —that they wish to send. The item is then processed by the postal system, where a postmark or cancellation mark—in modern usage indicating date and point of origin of mailing—is applied to the stamp and its left and right sides to prevent its reuse. The item is then delivered to its addressee.

United Kingdom Country in Europe

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as the United Kingdom (UK) or Britain, is a sovereign country located off the north-western coast of the European mainland. The United Kingdom includes the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland, and many smaller islands. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with another sovereign state, the Republic of Ireland. Apart from this land border, the United Kingdom is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, with the North Sea to the east, the English Channel to the south and the Celtic Sea to the south-west, giving it the 12th-longest coastline in the world. The Irish Sea lies between Great Britain and Ireland. The United Kingdom's 242,500 square kilometres (93,600 sq mi) were home to an estimated 66.0 million inhabitants in 2017.

Great Britain island in the North Atlantic off the north-west coast of continental Europe

Great Britain is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean off the northwest coast of continental Europe. With an area of 209,331 km2 (80,823 sq mi), it is the largest of the British Isles, the largest European island, and the ninth-largest island in the world. In 2011, Great Britain had a population of about 61 million people, making it the world's third-most populous island after Java in Indonesia and Honshu in Japan. The island of Ireland is situated to the west of Great Britain, and together these islands, along with over 1,000 smaller surrounding islands, form the British Isles archipelago.


In 1837, British postal rates were high, complex and anomalous. To simplify matters, Sir Rowland Hill proposed an adhesive stamp to indicate pre-payment of postage. At the time it was normal for the recipient to pay postage on delivery, charged by the sheet and on distance travelled. By contrast, the Penny Black allowed letters of up to 12 ounce (14 grams) to be delivered at a flat rate of one penny, regardless of distance.

Postal delivery systems using what may have been adhesive stamps existed before the Penny Black. The idea had at least been suggested earlier in the Austrian Empire, Sweden, and possibly Greece. [1]

Austrian Empire monarchy in Central Europe between 1804 and 1867

The Austrian Empire was a Central European multinational great power from 1804 to 1867, created by proclamation out of the realms of the Habsburgs. During its existence, it was the third most populous empire after the Russian Empire and the United Kingdom in Europe. Along with Prussia, it was one of the two major powers of the German Confederation. Geographically, it was the third largest empire in Europe after the Russian Empire and the First French Empire. Proclaimed in response to the First French Empire, it partially overlapped with the Holy Roman Empire until the latter's dissolution in 1806.

Sweden constitutional monarchy in Northern Europe

Sweden, formal name: the Kingdom of Sweden, is a Scandinavian Nordic country in Northern Europe. It borders Norway to the west and north and Finland to the east, and is connected to Denmark in the southwest by a bridge-tunnel across the Öresund, a strait at the Swedish-Danish border. At 450,295 square kilometres (173,860 sq mi), Sweden is the largest country in Northern Europe, the third-largest country in the European Union and the fifth largest country in Europe by area. Sweden has a total population of 10.2 million of which 2.5 million have a foreign background. It has a low population density of 22 inhabitants per square kilometre (57/sq mi). The highest concentration is in the southern half of the country.

Greece republic in Southeast Europe

Greece, officially the Hellenic Republic, also known as Hellas, is a country located in Southern and Southeast Europe, with a population of approximately 11 million as of 2016. Athens is the nation's capital and largest city, followed by Thessaloniki.

Treasury competition

On 13 February 1837, Sir Rowland Hill proposed to a government enquiry both the idea of a pre-paid stamp and a pre-paid envelope, a separate sheet folded to form an enclosure for carrying letters. Hill was given a two-year contract to run the new system, and together with Henry Cole he announced a competition to design the new stamps. There were some 2,600 entries, but none was considered suitable; instead a rough design endorsed by Hill was chosen, featuring an easily recognisable profile of the former Princess Victoria. Hill believed this would be difficult to forge. An envelope bearing a reproduction of a design created by the artist William Mulready was also issued.

Envelope packaging item, usually made of thin flat material

An envelope is a common packaging item, usually made of thin, flat material. It is designed to contain a flat object, such as a letter or card.

Henry Cole English civil servant and inventor

Sir Henry Cole was a British civil servant and inventor who facilitated many innovations in commerce and education in 19th century in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Cole is credited with devising the concept of sending greetings cards at Christmas time, introducing the world's first commercial Christmas card in 1843.

William Mulready Irish genre painter

William Mulready was an Irish genre painter living in London. He is best known for his romanticizing depictions of rural scenes, and for creating Mulready stationery letter sheets, issued at the same time as the Penny Black postage stamp.


The portrait of Victoria was engraved by Charles Heath and his son Frederick, based on a sketch provided by Henry Corbould. Corbould's sketch was in turn based on the 1834 cameo-like head by William Wyon, which was used on a medal to commemorate the Queen's visit to the City of London in 1837. [2] [3] This portrait of Victoria remained on British stamps until her death in 1901, although by then she was 81 years old. All British stamps still bear a portrait or silhouette of the monarch somewhere on the design. They are the only postage stamps in the world that do not indicate a country of origin; the monarch's image symbolises the United Kingdom.

Charles Heath English engraver, printer, publisher and illustrator

Charles Theodosius Heath was an English engraver, currency and stamp printer, book publisher and illustrator.

Henry Corbould British artist

Henry Corbould (1787–1844) was an English artist.

Cameo (carving) carving method

Cameo is a method of carving an object such as an engraved gem, item of jewellery or vessel. It nearly always features a raised (positive) relief image; contrast with intaglio, which has a negative image. Originally, and still in discussing historical work, cameo only referred to works where the relief image was of a contrasting colour to the background; this was achieved by carefully carving a piece of material with a flat plane where two contrasting colours met, removing all the first colour except for the image to leave a contrasting background.

Initially, Hill specified that the stamps should be 3/4 inch square, [4] [5] but altered the dimensions to 3/4 inch wide by 7/8 inch tall [6] (approx 19 x 22 mm) to accommodate the writing at the bottom. The word "POSTAGE" at the top of the design distinguishes it from a revenue stamp, which had long been used in the UK; "ONE PENNY." at the bottom shows the amount pre-paid for postage of the stamped letter. The background to the portrait consists of finely engraved engine turnings.

Revenue stamp adhesive label used to collect taxes or fees

A revenue stamp, tax stamp, duty stamp or fiscal stamp is a (usually) adhesive label used to collect taxes or fees on documents, tobacco, alcoholic drinks, drugs and medicines, playing cards, hunting licenses, firearm registration, and many other things. Typically businesses purchase the stamps from the government, and attach them to taxed items as part of putting the items on sale, or in the case of documents, as part of filling out the form.

The two upper corners hold Maltese crosses with radiant solar discs at their centres; the lower corner letters show the position of the stamp in the printed sheet, from "A A" at top left to "T L" at bottom right. The sheets, printed by Perkins Bacon, consisted of 240 stamps in 20 rows of 12 columns. One full sheet cost 240 pence or one pound; one row of 12 stamps cost a shilling. As the name suggests, the stamp was printed in black ink. A two penny stamp printed in blue and covering the double-letter rate (up to 1 oz or 28 g) was issued on 8 May 1840.


Although the stamps were not officially issued for sale until 6 May 1840, some offices such as those in Bath sold the stamps unofficially before that date. There are covers postmarked 2 May, and a single example is known on cover dated 1 May 1840. [7] All London post offices received official supplies of the new stamps but other offices throughout the United Kingdom did not, continuing to accept payments for postage in cash for a period.

The Penny Black lasted less than a year. A red cancellation was hard to see on the black design and the red ink was easy to remove; both made it possible to re-use cancelled stamps. In February 1841, the Treasury switched to the Penny Red and began using black ink for cancellations instead, which was more effective and harder to remove. However, people still reused stamps by combining the uncancelled parts of two stamps to form an unused whole, so in 1864 as a further safeguard the top corner stars on the Penny Red were replaced by the lower corner check letters in reverse order.

Imprimatur sheet

Imprimatur sheets are from among the first sheets of stamps printed from a finished printing plate. The actual imprimatur (Let it be printed) refers to the written permission of the Inland Revenue officials entered on the back of the sheet of stamps. In the 19th century, it was common for officials to remove some stamps from each sheet to present as gifts to dignitaries and other important people. Individual stamps from an Imprimatur sheet can thus be found for sale on the open market.

A complete sheet of the Penny Black without check letters is held by the British Postal Museum. [8] This unique item is in fact a plate proof, and by definition not an imprimatur sheet.


A mint block of six, plate 11 Penny Black Block of six.jpeg
A mint block of six, plate 11

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 carefully cut with scissors for sale and use. As a result, stamps with badly cut margins, or no margins, are common and worth very little, while examples with four clear margins are rare and valuable, and fetch very high prices, especially if in mint condition.

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. [9]


The total print run was 286,700 sheets, containing a total of 68,808,000 stamps. [10] Many were saved, and in used condition they remain readily available to stamp collectors. [11] The only known complete sheets of the Penny Black are owned by the British Postal Museum. [8]

The VR official

In addition to the general issue of the Penny Black, a similar stamp intended for official mail was produced, with the letters "V" and "R" replacing the crosses in the top corners. Because the general public quickly accepted the postage stamps and ridiculed the Mulready stationery produced at the same time, vast supplies of Mulready letter sheets were given for official use to government departments such as the tax office and the idea of introducing an official stamp was abandoned. Only a few postally used examples exist, which probably originate from the Post Office circulars sent out as advance notice of the new stamps. Four are known on covers; all were cut from their envelopes and then replaced. Most of the cancelled examples are from trials 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 pub sign of the Penny Black pub in Oxfordshire The Penny Black pub sign, 58 Sheep Street - - 861101.jpg
The pub sign of the Penny Black pub in Oxfordshire

Considered a British cultural icon, the Penny Black design features in the innovations section of the new British passport in 2015. [12] Also in 2015, the search engine Google marked the 175th anniversary of the postage stamp with a Google doodle of the Penny Black. [13] and the artist Allan Banford feature 20 limited editions sheets of 10 units signed and numbered portraiting individual artworks by the artist next to the iconic Penny Black stamp, printed by the Royal Mail.

See also

References and sources

  1. Lawrence, Ken (1 January 1996). "Before the Penny Black (First Series)". Toke Nørby. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
  2. Hill, H. W. (1940). The Fight for the Penny Post. London: Warne. pp. 75–79.
  3. Taylor, R. A. "Wyon City Medal – 1837". Images of the World. Archived from the original on 19 April 2012. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
  4. Edward Denny Bacon, "The line-engraved postage stamps of Great Britain printed by Perkins, Bacon & Co.", 1920
  5. Letter from Rowland Hill, 16 December 1839, to Perkins, Baker and Petch. "The whole stamp is to occupy ¾ths of an inch square, including the lettering and engine-turned work.", in Bacon, Vol. II p. 22.
  6. Memo from Rowland Hill, 31 December 1839. "Or if practicable increase the length One eighth and insert in white letters at the bottom / ½ oz One Penny." in Bacon, Vol. II p. 22.
  7. Feldman, David (17 February 1999). The First Cover: May 1, 1840 (PDF). Geneva: David Feldman. pp. 1–17. Retrieved 7 December 2017.
  8. 1 2 "Queen Victoria Stamps". The British Postal Museum & Archive . Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  9. British Library collections – Philatelic Accessed 30 April 2013.
  10. "Great Britain: Wednesday, May 6, 1840". First Issues Collectors Club. 3 November 2003. Retrieved 30 April 2013.
  11. "Penny Black stamps price guide".
  12. "Introducing the new UK passport design" (PDF). 7 November 2016.
  13. "What is a Penny Black stamp? Google Doodle celebrates landmark British design". The Independent. 7 November 2016.

Further reading

Related Research Articles

A first day of issue cover or first day cover (FDC) is a postage stamp on a cover, postal card or stamped envelope franked on the first day the issue is authorized for use within the country or territory of the stamp-issuing authority. Sometimes the issue is made from a temporary or permanent foreign or overseas office. Covers that are postmarked at sea or their next port of call will carry a Paquebot postmark. There will usually be a first day of issue postmark, frequently a pictorial cancellation, indicating the city and date where the item was first issued, and "first day of issue" is often used to refer to this postmark. Depending on the policy of the nation issuing the stamp, official first day postmarks may sometimes be applied to covers weeks or months after the date indicated.

Uniform Penny Post

The Uniform Penny Post was a component of the comprehensive reform of the Royal Mail, the UK's official postal service, that took place in the 19th century. The reforms were a government initiative to eradicate the abuse and corruption of the existing service. Under the reforms, the postal service became a government monopoly, but it also became more accessible to the British population at large through setting a charge of one penny for carriage and delivery between any two places in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland irrespective of distance.

Penny Red

The Penny Red was a British postage stamp, issued in 1841. It succeeded the Penny Black and continued as the main type of postage stamp in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland until 1879, with only minor changes to the design during that time. The colour was changed from black to red because of difficulty in seeing a cancellation mark on the Penny Black; a black cancel was readily visible on a Penny Red.

Mulready stationery

Mulready stationery describes the postal stationery letter sheets and envelopes that were introduced as part of the British Post Office postal reforms of 1840. They went on sale on 1 May 1840, and were valid for use from 6 May. The Mulready name arises from the fact that William Mulready, a well-known artist of the time, was commissioned to illustrate the part of the letter sheets and envelopes which corresponded with the face area.

Postage stamps and postal history of Great Britain

Postage stamps and postal history of Great Britain surveys postal history from the United Kingdom and the postage stamps issued by that country and its various historical territories until the present day.

Penny Black VR official

The VR official was one of three postage stamps introduced by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in May 1840 for the pre-payment of postage. While the Penny Black and the Two Pence Blue were for use by the general public, as were the Mulready envelopes and letter sheets, the VR official was for use on official mail. In appearance the VR Official was the same as the issued Penny Black except that the Maltese crosses in the top corners were removed and replaced by the letters V and R, hence its common name.

Penny Black printing plates

The printing plates for the Penny Black, two pence blue and the VR official were all constructed by Perkins Bacon, the printers of the first postage stamps issued in Great Britain.

Penny Blue

The Penny Blue is frequently mistaken for a postage stamp of Britain. It is from a series of proof impressions which were made at the time Rowland Hill was looking at the new colours which were to be used for the stamps which were to replace the Penny Black and the original 1840 issue of the Two pence Blue.

Prince Consort Essay

The Prince Consort Essay was a surface printed printer's sample stamp created in 1851 as an example of the surface printed stamps that Henry Archer proposed to print and perforate under contract with the British government at a lower price than the current printing firm of Perkins Bacon. The Prince Consort stamps were provided by the artist Robert Edward Branston, from an engraving executed by Samuel William Reynolds.

Two penny blue

The Two Penny Blue or The Two Pence Blue was the world's second official postage stamp, produced in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and issued after the Penny Black.

Rowland Hill English educational, social and postal reformer

Sir Rowland Hill, KCB, FRS was an English teacher, inventor and social reformer. He campaigned for a comprehensive reform of the postal system, based on the concept of Uniform Penny Post and his solution of prepayment, facilitating the safe, speedy and cheap transfer of letters. Hill later served as a government postal official, and he is usually credited with originating the basic concepts of the modern postal service, including the invention of the postage stamp.

Letter sheet

In philatelic terminology a letter sheet, often written lettersheet, is a sheet of paper that can be folded, usually sealed, and mailed without the use of an envelope, or it can also be a similar item of postal stationery issued by a postal authority. Letter sheets derive from the form in which written correspondence was made up before the mid-19th century — letters were written on one or more sheets of paper that were folded and sealed in such a way that the address could be written on the outside.

Chalon head

The Chalon Head is the name of a number of postage stamp series whose illustration was inspired by a portrait of Queen Victoria by Alfred Edward Chalon (1780–1860).

Uniform Fourpenny Post

The Uniform Fourpenny Post was a short-lived uniform pre-paid letter rate in United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland that lasted for only 36 days from 5 December 1839 until 9 January 1840. The Uniform Fourpenny Post was the first component of the comprehensive reform to the Royal Mail postal service that took place in the 19th century.

Plating (philately)

Plating refers to the reconstruction of a pane or "sheet" of postage stamps printed from a single plate by using individual stamps and overlapping strips and blocks of stamps. Likewise, if a sheet 10 or 20 postal cards is typeset, the variations of the letters or design elements may allow reconstruction or plating of the sheets based on these differences.

Postage stamps and postal history of Saint Lucia

St. Lucia a former British dependency in the Windward Islands began using stamps in 1860. It achieved Associated Statehood on 1 March 1967.

Fletcher Collection

The Fletcher Collection is Hugh Greenwell Fletcher's lifetime philatelic collection of British postage stamps and British stamps used abroad including overprints and non-stamp items such as postal stationery. On his death in 1968, the collection was bequeathed to the Bruce Castle Museum in Tottenham, once the home of Sir Rowland Hill. The collection was donated to the British Library in 1989.

Postage stamps and postal history of South Australia

This is a survey of the postage stamps and postal history of South Australia, a former British colony that is now part of Australia.