By any standard, postage rates in the early 19th century were extremely high. Although London had had a Penny Post since 1680, and other towns and cities began to organise their own after legislation in 1765, there was no national system. In 1812 the cost of sending a letter from London to Edinburgh was 1s 1d, 13 times higher than the cost of a letter sent within either city; two sheets were double that and four sheets, or one, ounce cost 4s 4d. This was at a time when the annually average wage was perhaps £25. Letters were frequently double written with two separate sets of writing, one written over the other at right angles to save on postage charges and paper. There were a remarkable number of anomalies and evasion was widespread. In addition there were a number of extra charges and the total was normally paid by the recipient. All in all, there was little to encourage people to use the post for communications outside their own town.
In 1835, Rowland Hill began a campaign to reform the postal system. The railways were rapidly connecting the country – London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester were linked as early as 1838 – a development which would solve the previous problem of regular and rapid distribution. His proposal for a standardised and pre-paid system that would be affordable for all received huge public support. After some objections in parliament, his idea was approved. He was appointed by the government in 1839 to put the system into action. This became known as the Uniform Penny Post and was to remain until 1918.
Rowland Hill introduced a universal postal rate of one penny (1d) per half ounce (14 grams) in weight. The 1d ‘adhesive label’ was then designed. On 6th May 1840, 180 years ago, Queen Victoria’s portrait appeared on an adhesive label issued by the Post Office to indicate that the penny charge needed to progress the letter through the post had been paid. That receipt label is now known as the Penny Black. It is almost certainly the most famous stamp in the world. It took only five months to design, engrave, print and start selling it. The stamp was based on an image of Queen Victoria when she was only 15 years old and was based upon the City Medal by William Wyon which was struck to commemorate her visit to the Guildhall in 1837, the year of her accession.
The following day the Twopenny Blue was issued. The Twopenny Blue was issued for packages weighing between 1/2 oz -1oz which meant they were significantly less in demand and only 6.5 million were issued making them 10 times rarer than the Penny Black.
Rowland Hill’s reform had a significant side-effect: by enabling letters to be sent quickly and cheaply this helped increase literacy rates. In 1840, about 70% of males and 50% of women were literate enough to sign their names in a marriage register: by the end of the century this had increased to about 90% for both sexes. Over the same period, the number of letters the average person received a year had increased from four to 60.
Penny Blacks were printed from engraved steel plates in sheets of 240 stamps (240 pence making up £1 in pre-decimal currency). The stamps were imperforate and each stamp was cut from the sheet by hand. Each sheet contained 240 letter combinations in the lower corners starting with ‘AA’ at the top left and going down to ‘TL’ at the bottom right: many collectors seek a Penny Black with their initials on it. These letter combinations were intended as a precaution against forgery and the subtle differences in the letters along with other identifiable characterisitcs have aided philatelists in the elaborate science of plating stamps.
Postal traffic increased vastly with the introduction of Rowland Hill’s new, affordable system. It coincided with the revolution in rail transport – a new network of steam-powered railways which was rapidly extending out across the country, making travel quicker and cheaper than ever before – which contributed to the system’s success. It also coincided with the development of the industrial printing press. Steam power and new designs meant printing could be undertaken quickly on a mass scale. Commercial and political business could now be cheaply communicated around the country in the form of mass-produced pamphlets and fliers, making information about products, investments, and political and moral campaigns much easier to access.
In all, more than 68 million Penny Blacks were produced. Despite this, today, an original example on a first day of issue cover would command in excess of £100,000. A specimen in ‘Fine Used’ condition is available from us at £90. Fears that cancels could be cleaned off the stamps, allowing them to be reused, cut short the life of the Penny Black. On 10 February 1841, a little over nine months after it first appeared, the Penny Black was replaced with the Penny Red which served the postal needs of the British public until 1879.
The Penny Black is such an icon of philately that the design was used on numerous British stamps well into the 21st century. The Penny Black design was additionally used on the Two Pence Blues and the Penny Reds which were all printed by Perkins, Bacon and Petch, but it was the Penny Black that secured the future of the printing company which held the contract for some 40 years.
Today Penny Blacks in reasonable condition are quite affordable. I have illustrated a couple of examples from our extensive stock, together with a Two Penny Blue and a Penny Red for comparison. You can see a huge selection of these stamps on our website.
Images (all from www.philatelicheritage.co.uk and of stamps in stock subject to them remaining unsold) from left to right: Penny Black Mint £1,550; Penny Red Mint plate 79 £18; Twopenny Blue Mint £1,850; Penny Black Fine Used £90.