Your guide to Penny Red stamps

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The Penny Red stamp was Britain's second stamp design and replaced the famous Penny Black. Discover much more about the Penny Red stamp in our expert stamp guide.

The introduction of the Penny Red stamp

The Penny Red was issued in 1841 to replace the world's first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black.

Here are some quick facts on the stamp:

  • Great Britain's longest running stamp
  • Introduced on 10 February 1841
  • Printed by Perkins, Bacon & Co
  • Initially the stamps were identical to the Penny Black, aside from the colour
  • Perforated versions of the stamps were introduced in 1854
  • The last Penny Red stamps were printed in October 1879
  • The Penny Red was replaced by the Penny Venetian Red printed by De La Rue

With an identical design to its predecessor the new red-coloured stamp was introduced to allow the new Maltese Cross cancellation (as seen on the example below) to be seen more clearly and to prevent fraud – many users found it easy to clean the red postmark off the Penny Black and re-use the stamp.

Penny Red with Maltese Cross cancellation

This fraud prompted Rowland Hill to experiment with new colours, and these so-called 'Rainbow Trials' resulted in the switch to the red-brown colour.


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Just like the Penny Black, the Penny Red was imperforate (no perforations) meaning postal workers separated the stamps with scissors.

The same printing plates that has been used for the Penny Black were initially used for its replacement, so you could say the stamps were just Penny Blacks with different colour ink. The challenge of collecting 'matching pairs' – Penny Blacks and Penny Red from the same plate and with the same corner letters – is popular with collectors of line engraved stamps.  

The Penny Red went on sale from 10 February 1841, just nine months after the arrival of the Penny Black, and stamp printers Perkins, Bacon and Co. printed an incredible 21 billion stamps.  

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Different types of Penny Red

  1. The first imperforate stamps were in use until 1854, and since the 1d rate covered the standard letter rate in the United Kingdom, billions were printed and used. During that initial period, more printing plates were made as required and there are also variations in paper with a bluish paper also being used.

    1857 Penny Red
     
  2. In 1854 perforated Penny Red stamps were introduced, making it easier for them to be separated. During this period the security watermark used for the stamps was changed from a small crown to a large crown – giving us another variety to collect – and the perforations were changed four times, due to the use of a new perforating machine.
     
  3. In 1858 further changes were made: the upper corners showed letters instead of stars. The letters were the same as those shown in the bottom corners, but the order reversed, and indicated the position on the plate.


     
  4. Later, in 1864 the plate number was added to the design, though you'll need to look very closely, as the number is shown in very small text on each side of the design (see illustration above, you can see the feint numbers 1, 4 and 8 on the left image, indicating plate 148).

    These small numbers can be found on stamps produced using plates 71 to 225.

Value of Penny Red stamps

Thanks to its long period of use and the huge number that were printed, compared to the Penny Black, the Penny Red is more common and so generally cheaper to buy for today's collector.

Forming a Penny Red collection is therefore seen to be much easier than focussing on the Penny Black.

  • Examples of the first, imperforate Penny Reds can be bought for around £1 each
  • Look out for examples with clear margins around each side, these usually cost more
  • Penny Reds with a clear Maltese Cross cancellation are also more desirable
     
  • The price of perforated Penny Reds varies depending on factors such as the watermark and the perforations used (in January 1855, the perforation size was changed from 16 to 14).
  • Again, examples can be found for as little as £1, and margins and cancels can add value

Rare examples of the Penny Red stamp

Of course, rare examples of any Penny Red command much higher prices, and the variety that grabbed all the headlines is the Plate 77 Penny Red. Here's the chain of events that led to the rarity:

  • During production plates 75 and 77 were rejected due to ‘irregularity of the placing of the heads.’
  • Plate 77 was not put to press and it was partially defaced on 4 February, 1862
  • A handful of examples of plate 77, perhaps samples or trial sheets, were found on the stamp market

In 2016, an example of a Plate 77 Penny Red sold for a reported £495,000! Naturally, with such a valuable stamp, may forgeries exist and any examples require in-depth analysis and certification to prove they are real, as collector Abed Najjar has discovered.

The Penny Red was finally replaced by the Penny Venetian Red, as printing firm Perkins, Bacon and Co. lost the contract. Printed by De La Rue the new stamp was in use for only a year before being replaced with the more popular Penny Lilac.