Postal history marking the death of Queen Victoria

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17 March 2017
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victorian_mourning_stamp-26677.png Queen Victoria mourning stationery
Back in 1901, the country was in a state of mourning following the death of Queen Victoria. Postal history expert John Scott details the postal items issued to mark the hugely influential monarch’s passing.

Back in 1901, the country was in a state of mourning following the death of Queen Victoria. Postal history expert John Scott details the postal items issued to mark the hugely influential monarch’s passing.

Any collector of postal history will be familiar with the black-edged stationery used in the nineteenth century when the size of extended families and the relatively short life expectancy meant that families could spend more time dressed in widow’s weeds than in conventional dress. Queen Victoria was renowned for her habit of wearing black following the death of her beloved Prince Albert for the remainder of her reign.

The loss of a member of the Royal Family was the occasion for much public grief and publishers were not slow to capitalise on the demand for special envelopes by which the letter writer could display their commiserations at the sad event. The most notable loss was that of Queen Victoria herself who died on 22 January, 1901 after dominating the political and social life of the Empire for over half a century.

Mourning postal stationery

One of the quickest and cheapest ways for the local stationer to adapt his merchandise was simply to print a large black square in the top right hand corner of the envelope, in the centre of which the writer affixed the postage stamp bearing Queen Victoria’s portrait. At their simplest these are uncommon but not rare, but examples can be found also with a purple square, being the colour of royal mourning, and with dates and other ornamentation.

Technically all such devices contravened postal regulations and, as a newspaper of the times reminded its readers ‘it cannot be too widely known that all forms of mourning borders or frames which have been given to postage stamps contravene the postal regulations. They have been found of great inconvenience to the sorters, and they come under the same prohibition which applies to advertisements or other matter which tends to make the dating and obliterating marks difficult to discern.’

Strangely, in view of this ruling and the ability of postal officials to adhere to such requirements to the letter, the rarest of all the black squares are those which have been surcharged as a result and the vast majority have passed through the post in the normal way. Provided that a datestamp was clearly struck by hand on the stamp, all the relevant details are perfectly clear and it is perhaps ironic that officialdom should care so much about clarity when any collector knows that illegible marks are at least as common, if not more so, than clear impressions. 

Mourning stationery after Queen Victoria

The deaths of King Edward VII in 1910 and of King George V in 1936 did not provoke as much of an outpouring of public grief and consequently black boxes around stamps are found less often for those two monarchs than for Queen Victoria. 

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Possibly in order to circumvent this problem with officialdom, some publishers printed a black triangle in the top left corner of the envelope and this practice was much more widespread in countries around the globe although it had no particular connection with a royal death and appears to have been used simply as an alternative to printing a black border around the whole edge. The question of the dimensions of the triangle probably owed as much to personal preference as to etiquette although the typical stationer of the time would have kept in stock a variety of widths of border to suit every taste.

The History of American Funeral Directing advises that the black border should be a quarter inch wide in the first year of mourning, an eighth of an inch for the next six months and a sixteenth of an inch for the last six months while others opined that the border should be narrower according to the distance of your familial relationship to the deceased.

An interesting variant on this theme is the envelope printed with the black border inside the outer limit of the envelope to create a cross-hatched effect, most examples of which have the trade name of the ‘Oxford Bordered (or Mourning) Envelope’ embossed on the rear flap. The design appears to have been relatively short-lived between 1872 and 1877 but from the numbers surviving appears to have enjoyed some popularity for the purposes of mourning although the examples printed in red for more general correspondence are much more seldom found.

In general, the more elaborate the design of the mourning envelope, the rarer and the more expensive it will be, but this is one of those areas where the stamp and the postmark are likely to be of lesser importance and consequently they can turn up unloved in boxes discarded for their lack of philatelic interest.

Regrettably the practice of public mourning, either for a relative or for a monarch, is diminishing steadily and many of the younger generation do not recognise even the symbolism of the black border. Indeed, when the late Queen Mother died in 2002 the Prince of Wales’s household was the only one to use the traditional black bordered stationery in responding to letters of commiseration. One of the joys of postal history is the diversity of social history that falls within its orbit and mourning envelopes are but one small element of a very collectable field where a little knowledge is of more value than a huge chequebook.

Read more about British stamps in every issue of Stamp & Coin Mart magazine.

Images from top: mourning envelope; an unusually ornate mourning envelope posted from West Hartlepool to Redhill in 1876; one of the few surviving examples of an envelope surcharged by virtue of the black square around the stamp, posted from Dublin on 1st March 1901 and surcharged on arrival in Edinburgh; a postcard sent from Lenzie on 6th February 1901 with the date of the Queen’s death below the square and a photographic portrait of the Queen on the reverse.