How to collect Penny Black stamps

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30 January 2012
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penny_black_stamp-37756.png Penny Black stamp
The Penny Black is the most famous stamps in the world. Discover how to collect the many varieties of the 1d stamp, a classic British stamp, in our technical guide ...

For obvious reasons, the Penny Black is one of the most collected and studied stamps in the world. Along with the Twopenny Blue it was the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, and so it is understandably a popular issue.

Penny Blacks were printed from eleven different plates, and it is within most collectors’ ability to identify the plate of any given stamp, given that they possess one or more suitable reference books.

The identification of the plates is largely a matter of matching the positions of the corner letters, coupled with a knowledge of what other characteristics or varieties occur on the stamps. The corner letters are different for each stamp on the plate, and were intended to deter forgery; they run from AA at top-left to TL at bottom right of the sheet. Thus, the top row is called the A-row, and comprises stamps lettered AA to AL.

Plate manufacture

To understand the many kinds of varieties found on these early line-engraved stamps requires a basic knowledge of how the intaglio printing plates were manufactured and maintained.

• The original die (with blank lower corners) was engraved on a flat piece of softened steel.
• When complete, the steel was hardened and impressions taken on softened steel transfer rollers.
• The rollers were hardened, and the impression ‘rocked’ into flat softened steel printing plates, 240 times for each plate.
• The lower corner letters were hand-punched into the plate, which is why their precise positions vary.
• The plates were (usually) subsequently hardened.

Plate letters

Many collectors of the Penny Black are consumed by the many different plate letters seen on the stamps.
Corner letters can be:
- Doubled, so that the printing is very subtly duplicated
- Weak, so the letter is difficult to see
- Have parts filled in, such as on the letters A and P;
- Tilted
- Inverted such as with the letter S; or in other ways abnormal, all due to the way the letters were hand punched.

Retouching

Differences caused by retouching the stamp design also provide collectors with scope for specialising.
After the plate has been laid down, it usually required at least some hand retouching, usually to strengthen corners and frame-lines.
Skilful work by the engraver would be undetectable, but careless work resulted in skewed corners and extended frame lines.

Roller rocking-in varieties

The most significant of this type of variety is the re-entry. These arose when the transfer roller was rocked in a second time to strengthen a weak impression. If the re-entry co-incided exactly with the original impression, it is almost undetectable. Otherwise, a slight doubling of parts of the design are apparent.

Specialists call this process of re-entering a ‘fresh entry’ if it occurred before the plate had been put to press. A ‘shifted transfer’ was caused during the rocking-in of the impression, if too much pressure was used on the transfer roller, or if the process was done too quickly. The visible effect is one of slight doubling of the top or bottom of the stamp’s design.

Burr rub varieties

A burr is a rough ridge of metal which has been pushed up alongside an roller-impressed or hand-engraved line. These burrs had to be removed by hand using a scraper or burnisher. If done carelessly, it could leave marks on the plate which appear on stamps as blurred areas of colour, often in the vertical margins.

Guide lines and dots

Guide lines and dots were scribed on the steel plates to aid the positioning of the transfer roller when the plate was being laid down. Unless the impression was rocked in precisely to coincide with the guide lines, they will be left on the plate. In some cases these must have been burnished off before printing took place, but in most cases, the lines or dots were so close to the stamp designs that they could not be removed without risking damage to the design.

Transfer roller flaws

These flaws are very useful to the collector because a flaw on a roller would be imparted to many impressions on a plate or plates.
The best-known of this type of flaw are the ‘O’ flaw and the various ray flaws.
The ‘O’ flaw appears on most of the stamps from Plates 7, 8, 9, and 10.
Its most extreme state can be found on most of the stamps in the upper four rows of Plate 10.


Ray flaws are so-called because the variety consists of a missing ray in one of the upper corner stars. They do not necessarily appear on every stamp on a plate; for example on Plate 1a, the 10 o’clock ray flaw does not appear on stamps CL, RL, SK, SL, TK, and TL.

Provisional black printing

The colour of the 1d stamps was changed from black to red in February 1841 because of a concern that the red cancellations could be removed from the black stamps.
With the introduction of the 1d red stamp came a corresponding change to black cancelling ink.
There was a delay in the distribution of this new black ink due to a lack of ‘tin bottles’ in which to supply it, and so, even though printing in red had begun, a further order of black stamps was made.
It is believed that the plates then at press printing in red (plates 5, 8, 9, 10 and 11) were used for this provisional black printing.

Plate 11

This plate was essentially a Penny Red plate that was also used for the provisional printing in black. The official registration sheet for Plate 11 was printed in red (not black) on 27 January, 1841. The plate was at press printing red stamps on 29 and 30 January, but on 1 and 2 February, 700 sheets were printed in black; printings reverted to red from 3 February onwards.

Plates 1a and 1b

Plate 1 was put to press on 15 April 1840 in its un-hardened state, and consequently wore very rapidly. This early state of the plate is known as Plate 1a. It was soon withdrawn from the printing press and extensively repaired by both re-entry and hand engraving. The corner letter positions of at least forty impressions changed. The repair profoundly modified the character of the plate to the extent that many philatelists regard it as a separate plate. In this state it is known as Plate 1b.

Matched pairs

Penny stamps from plates 1b, 2, 5, 8, 9, 10 and 11 were printed in both black and red, and many collectors of the Penny Black also collect the Penny Reds printed from the black plates.

Cancellations

Some collectors of Penny Blacks concentrate on the plates, others on their usage, while many are ‘all-rounders’.
The cancellations are a study in themselves, involving both the type and colour of the cancellation.
The normal obliterator which was designed to be used on the Penny Black was the Maltese Cross.
A few distinctive types are known to have been used, including the Manchester ‘Fishtail’ cross , and various coloured crosses are known.
Other types of cancellation are known, including the numeral which replaced the Maltese Cross in 1844.

Thanks to Mike Holt for providing the illustrations of the set of plates of the Penny Black. More of Mike’s stock can be found on his website here. The illustrations of the various roller flaws are taken from The Plating of the Penny 1840-1864 compiled by Harold Fisher and published by the Great Britain Philatelic Society

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