The Victorian stamp without Victoria: the Prince Consort Essay


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30 April 2018
prince_consort_essay-36648.png The Prince Consort Essay in red-brown, showing a remarkable level of intricacy for a letterpress stamp. Image courtesy of
David Bailey discovers how an angry inventor tried to put an end to line engraved stamps

The story of Henry Archer and the Prince Consort Essay

Henry Archer was an ideas man and a businessman. He was not an engineer and his concepts for perforating machines had to be designed and manufactured by other people. So as well as his own time, he had invested money in design and development by others; lots of it.

Fellow Irishman Thomas Keogh, of the Board of Stamps and Taxes, had approved the purchase of Archer's machines and patents. But when it came to paying for them, the matter was handled by the Treasury and Inland Revenue. They were not in a generous mood.

In October 1850, they offered £300 for the machines themselves and another £300 for the design and development work. This was reduced to £200 on the grounds that if the machines had been any good, they wouldn't have needed so much work.

After further discussions, the total was increased to £600. However, Archer had spent over £900 of his own money developing the perforating machine alone. He was disgusted - and declined to accept.

Around the turn of the year, it is evident that Henry Archer became convinced that problems with misperforation were caused by the line-engraved method of production and not by his machine. The sheets were printed wet and dried unevenly. And then they were gummed - and dried again. So no matter how well the machine was set up, some sheets would always be poorly perforated.

Henry Archer may well have discussed this with his brother Charles and others in the print business because in March 1851, he wrote to Keogh advising him that he was working on a proposal to print, gum and perforate the 1d and 2d stamps, undercutting Perkins Bacon's prices by £1.15 per thousand. This would save the Post Office £2,000 a year.

Keogh replied that his proposals would be considered but was not overtly encouraging.

The experimental Prince Albert stamps

However, the Archers went ahead and, in co-operation with an engraver called Branston, produced the Prince Consort Essays; they chose Prince Albert to head off any accusation that they were forging stamps.

The stamps were to be printed letterpress (surface printing) and were laid out in three sheet sizes comprising 36 stamps, 240 stamps and 252 stamps.

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The essays were proofed up in black, blue and red. Most are imperforate but some are perforated 16 on the Archer machine.

It is likely that by now, the main driver of this process was Charles, not Henry Archer - and a rumour persists that the actual die was engraved by Ferdinand Joubert - a master craftsman who also worked for De La Rue.

Detailed proposals were submitted on 30 April 1851 - but the Board simply used Archer's quote to negotiate a new contract with Perkins Bacon. The incumbents dropped their prices immediately and the Board replied to Archer that they saw no reason to change the status quo.

Henry Archer was understandably angry at having saved the Board over £1,000 a year, while he himself was out of pocket. He therefore had no alternative but to petition Parliament for redress - although the petition was actually filed in the name of his brother Charles.

The Treasury tried to buy Archer off with £2,000, which he rejected. And the Parliamentary Select Committee on Postage Stamp Labels duly reported on 21 May 1852. Its proceedings covered every aspect of stamp production and finishing and the whole fascinating story is well told in James McKay's book Under the Gum.

Warren De La Rue gave evidence in favour of the letterpress process but otherwise took a back seat. It would be three years before he was printing British stamps by letterpress - and it took another 25 years to kill off line-engraving.

Meanwhile the Report recommended the purchase of Archer's machine and patent rights 'for a reasonable compensation'.

Negotiations rumbled on till 1853, when he eventually settled for £4,000.

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