Your in-depth guide to the stamps of King George V


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king_george_v_stamps-46221.png King George V stamps
GB stamps expert Mike Jackson presents an overview of KGV stamps issued in Britain during the collector King’s reign

Your guide to the stamps of George V, the 'Collector King'

It was in 1856, some nine years before King George V was born, that the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and brother Prince Alfred, later the Duke of Edinburgh, were given examples of new 6d stamps. Enthused by the gift Alfred soon became a dedicated collector and began working on his own collection.

But it would be King George V, Alfred’s nephew, who would turn the assorted albums into a world-renowned collection.

Born in 1865, some 25 years after the beginnings of the postage stamp, George quickly became an enthusiastic stamp collector, after inheriting the collection from his father, who had bought it from Alfred before his death in 1900.

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The Collector King

The Duke of York, as he was known before he came to the throne, soon became Honorary Life Vice-President of the Royal Philatelic Society, and later received an album of some 1,500 stamps as a wedding present from fellow members.

Following the sad loss of his father, Edward VII, who had succumbed to bronchitis in 1910, George took to the throne.

His royal obligations and duties would take up a great deal of his time, at a difficult period in Britain’s history, and so philately became a welcome distraction.

Throughout his time on the throne, King George V continued to improve his collection, while taking more than a passing interest in the many stamps issued in Britain and the Commonwealth bearing his portrait.

It is this well-known interest in stamps, coupled with the engrossing and attractive designs, that have made the stamps of King George V so popular with collectors over the past century.

1911 - The Downey Head

The first stamps of King George V’s reign were issued on Coronation Day, 22 June, 1911. To mark the event, the Junior Philatelic Society (now the National Philatelic Society) issued a printed commemorative envelope, believed to be the very first illustrated first day cover.

Although it was intended that the complete set of definitive stamps would be issued on that day, only the halfpenny and penny values were ready in time. These were the ill-fated Downey Head stamps, so-called because the portrait was derived from a photograph by W&D Downey.

The first stamps were poorly executed, presumably due to the inexperience of the various parties involved in their production: the engraver, JAC Harrison, had not engraved this type of image before; the plates were made by the Royal Mint who had never made postage stamp plates; and the printers, Harrison & Sons, had never before printed postage stamps.

After two attempts at improving the quality of the stamps, by which time they were quite acceptable (the Die 2 issues), the decision to change the head and produce entirely new plates had been taken, and thus the halfpenny and penny were the only Downey Head values ever issued.

However, most of the preliminary work had already been done, and even plates made, for the higher values. A bewildering array of material exists relating to the development of the stamps – artists’ drawings, essays, die proofs, plate proofs, trials for paper and ink – but most of it is at the more expensive end of the market.

1912 - The Profile Head

Stamps with the Profile Head design – the replacement for the Downey Head – were first issued in 1912, although some values were not issued until the following year.

The Profile Head stamps were issued first on paper with the Royal Cypher watermark, which lasted until the change of printers from Harrison & Sons to Waterlow in 1924, when Block Cypher paper began to be used.

There was a small printing in 1913 of the ½d and 1d value on Multiple Cypher paper which were issued in rolls designed for use in early affixing or vending machines, although a few complete sheets were issued.

For many collectors, the most interesting aspect of the Royal Cypher stamps is the range of colours.


As with watermark varieties, where an inverted watermark can be a normal issue in booklets or a rare error in sheet form, it is important to know the status of a particular shade – is it a colour intended to be different or an accidental variation in production?

The Downey Head 1d booklet stamps in scarlet, for example, are an intentionally different colour from the normal carmine shade, but generally, the various shades of the Downey Heads which are listed in the catalogues are accidental errors in production.

As far as we know, the printers were trying to print stamps that conformed to a colour standard. However, they appear not to have been that successful, much to the delight of collectors who now have a range of greens and reds to collect.

The Royal Cypher issue presents a different story, however, because the First World War affected the supply of inks. The great variation in colours found in stamps printed during the war years, while still not intentional, at least has a rational explanation.

Throughout the reign of George V, sheets of low value definitive stamps bore control numbers to indicate the period of printing and to aid accounting of paper stocks.

On the plates used for the letterpress-printed issues – such as the Downey and Profile Head issues – the control pieces were essentially miniature plates which were screwed to the flange of the main plate. This means that specialists can study the exact positions and other characteristics of the controls and relate them to individual plates.

However, because the letter and number indicates a period – such as three or six months – and year, stamps bearing controls can be dated. This is especially useful to the collector of shades, and a very interesting study of the Royal Cypher shades can be built up if they are collected as controls and arranged in chronological order.

Shades sorted in this manner are fairly constant during 1912 to 1914, and 1920 to 1924 (when the Block Cypher stamps appeared). But the shades produced during the war period of 1915 to 1919 show great variation.

1934 - Photogravure

Waterlow held the contract for printing the low value postage stamps from 1924 to 1934, during which period they used paper watermarked Block Cypher, and some of the same plates that Harrison used, although they were adapted to conform to a new official requirement by removing the central row of ‘ladders’.

Harrison regained the contract in 1934, but this time they printed stamps using photogravure instead of letterpress. The two methods of printing are radically different, and collectors now have a new set of characteristics to study. Instead of engraved dies and flat electrotyped letterpress printing plates, the photogravure process involves photography, etching, and printing cylinders. The system of control numbers was continued, but now a cylinder number was added, and the collecting of cylinder blocks began.

The first photogravure printings were of the 1d and 1½d values, but to improve the accuracy of perforation, the size of the stamp images was reduced slightly to make the perforation gutters wider. The ½d, 1d, 1½d and 2d were issued in this Intermediate format. Later, the size was reduced even more and the whole series, from a halfpenny to one shilling, was issued in the Small format.

The Seahorse high values

The first of the high value stamps of George V, known as the Seahorses, were issued in 1913.

The stamps were printed by intaglio, or recess printing, and thus represent a third printing process, with yet another set of features for the specialist to study.

Three printers were involved at various times:

  • De La Rue
  • Waterlow Bros & Layton
  • Bradbury Wilkinson

The stamps from each can be identified by various characteristics. The book Discovering Seahorses by Bryan Kearsley is recommended to anyone interested in studying these fascinating stamps.

Commemorative issues
1924/1925 British Empire Exhibition

These stamps, the first British commemoratives, were also printed by intaglio, in this case by Waterlow & Sons. After the issue in 1924 it was decided to re-issue the stamps in 1925 with new dates. To this end, the original dies were amended and new plates made.

The stamps were initially line perforated, where the perforating head consisted of a single line of pins. The sheets were fed into the perforating machine one way, then rotated ninety degrees and fed in again. This type of perforation results in ‘untidy’ corner holes where the lines of perforations intersect. Later, a comb machine was used which perforated three sides of each stamp in a row, and gave clean-appearing intersections. Some of these stamps were sold in rolls for use in machines.

1929 Postal Union Congress

The three low values of the set of four stamps issued to commemorate the PUC in London were printed by letterpress, and used the same system of controls as the definitive stamps. The fourth stamp, the £1 value, was printed by intaglio, and was much larger in size. Some of the low values were issued in roll and booklet form.

1935 Silver Jubilee

These stamps were printed by photogravure, and the three lower values each exist in three types. Type 1 was used for sheet stamps, while Types 2 and 3 were used for stamps issued in booklets. As with the definitive issue printed by photogravure, there is much scope for the collector in the various cylinder numbers and perforation types. There is a celebrated variety of the 2½d stamp which was printed in Prussian Blue instead of the normal blue.