01 June 2017
In May 1840, Great Britain issued the world's first adhesive postage stamps, revolutionising communication in Britain
1d Black (6 May, 1840)
2d Blue (8 May, 1840)
Before Rowland Hill’s ambitious postal reforms, which came into effect in May 1840, recipients paid for postage upon delivery. The new system required a method of prepayment, and after a public competition failed to come up with any worthwhile ideas, the authorities offered both pre-paid envelopes and adhesive postage stamps.
Hill expected the stationery to be popular, but its elaborate design by Irish artist William Mulready, showing Britannia surveying a rather muddled Empire, was widely ridiculed, and within weeks the ‘Mulreadys’ were withdrawn.
Instead, it was the comparatively simple stamp design, featuring a portrait of a fifteen-year-old Princess Victoria (by then Queen), which won over letter writers.
The ‘Penny Black’ was followed a day later by the almost identical ‘Tuppeny Blue’; both line-engraved stamps featured the word ‘POSTAGE’, the value, and corner letters to denote the exact position on the stamp sheet.
Without perforations, postal workers used scissors to cut the sheets into single stamps, making perfectly centred examples difficult to find years later.
Although the Penny Black is not as rare as some imagine – over 68 million were printed – it is rightly revered today, and since no other country was using postage stamps at that time, the inclusion of the country name was unnecessary. British stamps have enjoyed this privilege ever since.