The first GB regionals of 1958

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17 March 2017
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Two Channel Islands stamps, issued for just a few months in 1948, would eventually pave the way for Britain’s first regional definitives, as Ed Fletcher explains.

Two Channel Islands stamps, issued for just a few months in 1948, would eventually pave the way for Britain’s first regional definitives, as Ed Fletcher explains.

For more than a century after the birth of the Penny Black, the definitive issues of Great Britain – the only stamp issuing authority with the privilege of not including a country name on its stamps – provided unifying symbols that served the entire nation’s needs. Commercial necessity fractured that unity when, in the late 1940s, the Channel Islands successfully petitioned for its own distinctive postage stamps as part of a project to revive local tourism after World War Two. 

Of course, the GPO initially objected, not only on the grounds that official policy favoured a single range of definitives for the entire country; and that use of the words Channel Islands on the stamps might prove contentious with regard to the no-name status; but also for the obvious reason that if one region of Great Britain issued special stamps other regions were bound to seek the same privilege. 

The difficulty of the name was overcome by simply omitting any regional name; the stamps relied instead for their distinctiveness on local users recognising the activity depicted on the stamps (gathering seaweed on local beaches) to identify the Channel Islands. As for the GPO’s preference for national definitives, well, the two Channel Island stamps (1d and 2½d) were issued for only a few months in 1948, after which the islanders reverted to using GB definitives.

Nevertheless, seeds of discontent over not having their own stamps had fallen on fertile soils in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Local pride in such institutions as Scottish army regiments, Northern Irish shipbuilding and Welsh mountain scenery transferred smoothly to calls for postage stamps with images that celebrated those and other non-English attributes. 

In those days no bureaucrat had yet coined the term political correctness; and there was no Scottish Parliament, or Welsh Assembly, or Northern Irish Executive to raise loud objections when, in early 1956, GPO officials talked with some enthusiasm about the possibility of regional rather than country definitives. Critics claimed that the GPO’s ulterior motive lay in suppressing proposals for GB pictorials; a claim that gained credence as further details later emerged of what the regional stamps would look like. They would retain the Wilding portrait of the Queen as then in use on national definitives; only the frames would differ to incorporate regional symbols.

In Scotland officials proposed using a crowned thistle; a saltire diagonal cross; various lions; a unicorn; the royal cipher E.R.; as well as Pictish or Celtic symbols and designs. Welsh preferences were for dragons and the common leek. In Northern Ireland suggestions included the Red Hand of Ulster (It had been the emblem of the O’Neills, Ulster’s royal house), the flax plant and a field gate with typical Ulster pillars; the shamrock was ruled out because it was felt to embody too much contentious political symbolism throughout the whole of Ireland.

On the Isle of Man the tre cassyn (three legs) symbol with spurs, together with a border pattern inspired by a common design seen on ancient Manx runic stone crosses, were front runners. On Guernsey a lily and a crown depicted on one of William of Normandy’s coins (he had local connections) were chosen; while Jersey favoured leopards from the Arms of Jersey, with foliage and sun rays to represent the island’s agriculture. 

THE DESIGNS

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Local artists from all six regions were commissioned to produce artwork using the proposed symbols. Within Scotland local bias was tackled by making appointments from both Glasgow and Edinburgh art schools. And because the existing watermark on GB definitives included the English royal cypher E2R, it was replaced by a new stylized crown watermark with no cypher. Additionally it was agreed that colours used when printing would be consistent across all regions. 

In August, 1958, after prolonged debates, and with the final artwork and designs chosen and approved by the Queen, the GPO called a press conference at its headquarters to showcase the new stamps. A spokesman declared that the aim throughout the long selection process had been to please people who liked stamps generally, and to satisfy the wishes of those in the regions who would use them. He thought the new stamps were a valuable and attractive addition to the present range; and that it was a good thing for national characteristics to be known and recognised.

Questions the spokesman fielded included one which asked why England as a region had not been given its own stamps, to which he somewhat enigmatically replied that England was at the heart of all of it. His response to a similar question about Yorkshire elicited only the jocular reply that he was from Lancashire. More informatively he explained that the values chosen – 3d, 6d, and 1/3d – represented the bulk of stamp sales, and other values were not contemplated at that time. He also pointed out that all of the new stamps were valid for postage in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Comments in the national and regional press over the next few weeks suggested that users in each region had taken without too much criticism to their own designs; but beyond each region some of the stamps baffled people as much as the seaweed gatherers of the Channel Islands had baffled mainlanders ten years earlier. However, across the nation it was agreed that the 3d Isle of Man stamp, with its three-legged symbol balanced by the 3d value in the opposite corner, and its neat Manx chain border around, but not oppressing, a small Queen’s head, was a very attractive regional stamp.

On the other hand, the Northern Ireland five-barred gate with its Ulster pillars baffled almost all who gazed upon it. Nor was the flax plant, symbolic of the linen industry, well chosen, given that Northern Ireland’s flax industry was moribund. 

The philatelic press, disgruntled because GB pictorials remained no more than an unfulfilled hope, generally dismissed the new stamps as a hotchpotch that broke some design laws; that insisting on a monarch’s head that occupied more than one-third of the space resulted in clutter and encroachment by the other elements; that the Welsh dragon justifiably exposed its rear end to the sprouting leek on the Welsh 1/3d; and that the Scottish thistles (3d) looked more like shuttlecocks.

It was also claimed that the argument for pictorials depicting some of the United Kingdom’s famous landscapes (Scottish lochs, Welsh mountains, Irish coastlines, Channel Islands farmlands) alongside a portrait of the sovereign would be more attractive and easier to understand than obscure heraldic devices. 

These first regionals evolved to become country definitives. The Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Isle of Man regionals changed to the Machin design at decimalisation, with the relevant emblems shown in the top left hand corner. They were in turn replaced between 1999 and 2000 with new designs for the four home nations. The Guernsey and Jersey stamps were withdrawn in 1969 when these islands became postally independent.

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