The British Central Africa 'Cheque' Stamp Issue


19 April 2021
When a case of stamps went missing on its long journey to British Central Africa, only arriving a year later, the Postmaster was forced to improvise, creating an unusual issue which has kept philatelists busy for more than 100 years, as our stamp guide reveals.

The story of the provisional one penny stamp produced in British Central Africa in 1898, known as the 'cheque' issue, begins in Malawi.

Once referred to as the Nyasaland Districts, due to the proximity of the huge lake known as Lake Nyasa – now Lake Malawi – the country became known as British Central Africa, and it was this name that was used in the notice announcing the introduction of postage stamps in July 1891.

Initially, surcharged stamps of Rhodesia were made available, but by 1895 the protectorate had its own stamps, designed by Henry ‘Harry’ Hamilton Johnston, the British explorer and commissioner of the country. Various printings in different shades continued until January 1898 when 1d values became scarce.

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Stamps go missing

According to renowned philatelist Edward Denny Bacon, writing in the Royal Philatelic Society London’s journal London Philatelist in August 1914, the shortage of one penny values was caused by a case of the stamps going astray ‘while on a barge at Chinde on the Zambezi river.’

The case would not arrive at its destination until ‘early in the next year’ and so John T Gosling, the Acting Postmaster-General, was forced to make alternative arrangements.

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Provisional designs produced

Initially three shilling stamps were surcharged ‘ONE PENNY’ – at least three variations of this overprint exist – but stocks were soon exhausted.

Provisional one penny stamps were therefore produced and a notice from the General Post Office in Zomba was issued on 11 March, 1898, providing details of the provisional stamp.

The notice reads: ‘All unstamped correspondence, liable to a charge of one penny, should be brought to the Post Office counter, and payment made in cash. Postmasters will affix a Token to all letters so presented, as an indication that the postal charges thereon have been paid.’

Stamp referred to as a 'token'

As Bacon points out in his article, it is interesting to note that Gosling refers to the new postal item as a ‘token’ rather than a stamp.

This distinction is justified since the provisionals were for administration purposes only and not sold to the public, unlike the other value stamps which were still being made available to those wishing to pre-pay for postage. At that time postal users had the option of paying for their postage in cash or by affixing postage stamps to their mail.

The provisional stamps were simple in design:

  • ‘INTERAL’ and ‘POSTAGE’ at the top and bottom of each stamp
  • In the centre of the thin vertical frame the stamp used for bankers’ cheques was embossed
  • This showed a tree design with the text ‘BRITISH CENTRAL AFRICA PROTECTORATE’ and ‘ONE PENNY’

This ‘die and force’ design was originally suggested by Johnston for ‘embossing cheques and the like’ and would have originally been used to emboss revenue or fiscal stamps onto documents. This gives rise to the stamps being referred to as ‘cheque stamps’ by collectors.

With just a small hand press available, the centre design would have been applied one stamp at a time, and so each centre varied, making every stamp subtly unique.

The stamps were initially imperforate – though examples were later issued with perf 12 in June 1898 – produced in two rows of fifteen in sheets of thirty, and printed in blue ink before the centre design was added in vermilion.

Such was the improvised nature of production, many varieties were produced, which have kept philatelists intrigued ever since.

An inverted African rarity

While the first printing, which according to an official notice published in November 1898 consisted of ‘£20 worth’ or ‘4,800 stamps’, featured John Gosling’s initials on the reverse of each stamp, the second printing – of ‘24,000 stamps’ – showed a control number between one and thirty, and an arbitrary letter on the reverse. 

In his study, Bacon refers to stamps of the first setting as ‘decidedly rare’ and goes on to mention the stamps with inverted centres. 

However skilled the hand press operator may have been and whatever the reason for the error, be it deliberate or not, the very few examples of the stamp provide us with another intriguing philatelic tale.

Although Edward Bacon prepared his in-depth article almost 100 years ago, into a compelling display, such is the complexity of the issue, philatelists are still exploring and uncovering new aspects of this fascinating philatelic oddity.