Stamp collecting guide: Victorian 4d surface-printed stamp 1855-1876

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01 November 2017
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4d_victorian_stamp-10742.png This 4d vermilion SG 94, plate 13, with wing margin and large white corner letters was sold recently on eBayUK by mcarter3460 for £29
Discover more about the Victorian 4d stamp of 1855, the country's first surface-printed stamp, in our guide to the stamps of Queen Victoria ...

The surface-printed 4d stamp made its appearance on 31 July 1855 and was in use until 1876.

The stamp was Great Britain’s introduction to surface-printed (typographed) postage stamps after more than a decade of line-engraved (recess printed) production methods that had given letter writers the 1d black, 2d blue and the 1d red in its several shades.

The new value, required especially for use on letters to the Continent, formed part of Post Office efforts to reduce stamp printing costs in general and to speed up printing processes in the face of ever-rising public demand for postage stamps of all denominations.

The contract to print the 4d value had been awarded to Thomas De La Rue & Co, who already surface-printed fiscal stamps for the Government, and who would go on to produce all of Great Britain’s surface-printed issues for the remainder of Victoria’s reign.

Why was the 4d stamp issued in 1855, then re-issued in 1862, and again in 1865, and yet again in 1876?

Joubert’s first 4d stamp benefitted greatly from having only the words POSTAGE and FOUR PENCE to accompany Victoria’s portrait and the delicate frame. Post Office officialdom insisted, however, that corner lettering must be used for security reasons on surface printed stamps, as they had been on the line engraved issues.

De La Rue duly but unenthusiastically complied by engraving on the new issue of 1862 corner uncoloured letters so small and inconspicuous that many people took them to be decorative embellishments rather than security controls. From that year plate numbers had also to be included in the design, though their position to left and right of the word POSTAGE in the frame did not greatly detract from the overall design.

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In 1865 officialdom gave instructions that corner letters must increased in size, though they still had no colouring to emphasize their presence.

1876 witnessed a further enlargement, now with coloured corner letters that drew the eye away from the Queen’s portrait in its central circular frame. Today’s advanced collectors use evidence gained from plate numbers and corner letters to reconstruct full sheets.

How many varieties are there?

In addition to corner letters, and lack of them, and their differing sizes and colours on the issues of 1855, 1862, 1865 and 1876; an average collector with some experience of Victoria’s surface-printed issues would also take into consideration paper shades, paper thickness, and watermarks (small, medium or large garter).

Advanced collectors will be looking in addition for plate numbers and wing margins (a consequence of the printing process) on certain stamps. Beginners might take comfort from the fact that almost all QV surface-printed issues are perf 14.

The most important variation you see will be in the condition of the stamps on offer. Look at as many as possible long before you spend money. Decide on a price band into which your budget comfortably fits; then start serious comparisons. Within your spending band you will find plenty of price differences to tempt or deter as you seek a bargain.  

Starter Prices:   

Strong demand for stamps in the higher price bands leaves plenty of scope for picking up less than perfect examples, perhaps with some short perforations, or heavy-ish cancellations or minor damage such as light creasing, in the under £100 category, which you may be able to drive down with patient bidding or best offers on eBay.

Read more about British stamps in our dedicated sections… 
Queen Victoria stampsKing Edward VII stampsKing George V stampsKing Edward VIII stampsKing George V StampsElizabeth II stampsRoyal Mail stamps