Penny Black issued (worlds 1st stamp)
The 6th of May 1840 AD
Before Rowland Hill came up with the idea of a self-adhesive prepaid postal stamp, the Post Office struggled with getting money from the recipient of a letter, the standard method of payment. Thus, incredible as it may seem, what had cost say 1s 1˝d, a not inconsiderable sum (the price of a letter from London to Edinburgh ) suddenly cost a mere 1d, a drop of more than 92 per cent!
The number of letters posted doubled between 1839 (when around 75 million were sent) to almost 169 million the following year.
Rowland Hill , a one-time schoolteacher with an obsession about postal reform (believing it would increase literacy and support trade) may in fact not have been the first to suggest or even use such a system – Greece, Sweden and Austria have possible claims to that honour, but what is certain is that Hill managed to bring the system into universal use in Britain.
At the same time as the penny black Hill launched prepaid/pre-stamped sheets ready for the user to write and fold, but the public preferred the gummed stamp for use with their own stationery.
The penny black was printed by Perkins Bacon in sheets of 240, 12 across the top x 20 deep. It featured a cameo portrait of Queen Victoria , taken from a picture painted when she was just 15. This was chosen not for patriotic reasons, but because it was thought to be easily recognizable, thus less open to fraudulent copies being made. The top of the stamp has small stars in each corner, and the bottom the letters indicating the position of the stamp on the sheet – A-A indicating the top left one, TL the bottom right etc.
Because Hill’s innovation was a world first, two precedents still holding today were set: first, that British stamps do not feature the name of the country, unlike all other stamps issued by other states; and second, the monarch’s face appears on all our stamps facing to the left, as per the penny black.
May 6 was the official launch date of the stamp, but copies were delivered to Post Offices on May 1, and some jumped the gun, thus one cover exists with a cancellation date of May 1, and quite a few have been found with May 2, when they were not yet legal.
The penny black was only short-lived, as the red ink used to cancel the thing showed up poorly, and was easy to remove to allow the stamp to be reused, so the following year a penny red was issued, and more permanent black ink used to cancel it. In spite of only lasting a year, the penny black is not rare – more than 68 million were printed, and as they were generally affixed to the sheet written on, if the letter was kept for sentimental reasons, or as part of a legal or business file, then the stamp survived, and it is thought that well over a million penny blacks exist today in philately collections around the world, poor examples selling for just a few pounds, but rarer ones far more – mint examples from the rarest plate used, plate 11, would cost several thousand pounds.
The penny black also introduced the idea, still operating today, that all postage within Britain should be priced on one common tariff. How long this noble and unifying idea survives if and when the Post Office is sold off is very much open to question.
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