Our Curator of Philately Stuart offers a rare glimpse at some stamps within our collections that never quite made it for the public release.

In my role as Curator of Philately I recently helped a colleague find some examples of stamps that were printed, but not issued. It inspired me to look deeper into our unparalleled collection of British stamps.

This blog delves into the world of withdrawn stamps – from our collections, which for various reasons did not make it onto Post Office counters and therefore through our letter boxes.

The reasons vary. Some stamps were cancelled due to design errors being detected after printing, some were withdrawn following untimely tariff changes, and some a consequence of The Queen voicing her objections against the subject or design of the printed stamps. In most cases, errors and amendments to stamps are made prior to them being printed – but some slip through the net.

King Edward VII, 2d Tyrian Plum, 1910 (Not Issued)

One hundred thousand sheets of these now famous stamps were printed. Following the death of Edward VII on 6 May 1910 it was decided to scrap the stamp altogether. Almost all the stock was destroyed. Two sheets of the stamps exist, both are held within The Postal Museum (TPM) collections.

purple stamp

2d Tyrian Plum, 1910

King George V ‘Downey Head’ Definitive Stamps, 1911 – 1912

These stamps were not well received, particularly by the King himself. The main problem owing to the three-quarter profile of the monarch by W & D Downey, which had replaced the traditional side-on view.

The green halfpenny and red penny stamps as a result were the only ‘Downey Head’ values issued and were replaced after less than 2 years. Further issues favoured the full profile head, known as the Mackennal ‘profile head’ design, after the designer – Bertram Mackennal. In that time however, various other values had been designed and printed as colour trials, but later abandoned.

1/2d & 1d Issued ‘Downey Head’ Stamps, 22/6/2011

Abandonned 2d & 2½d ‘Downey Head’ Colour Trials, 2011

Abandonned 2d & 2½d ‘Downey Head’ Colour Trials, 2011

The Mackennal ‘Profile Head’ design which replaced the Downey Head, 1912

Stamp Issue: European Communities, 3rd January 1973

On 6th September 1972 four stamps were essayed (proofs printed) and shown to the Stamp Advisory Committee (SAC). Following the next SAC meeting on 19th October, changes were proposed to the text and design. The essays were submitted to the Queen on 28th November when supposedly Prince Phillip objected to the red in the 3p design, due to its apparent Communist appearance. The colour was changed to yellow ochre, although most of the 3p stamps had already been printed in red.

Rejected Essay in the original red

Issued stamp with change in colour and design

Stamp Issue: Death Centenary of Edward Lear, 6th September 1988

The printing of commemorative stamps must be planned well in advance. Sometimes an early tariff change can result in the necessity of a reprint. These Edward Lear stamps were issued the day after the rate changes but all values had been printed with the previous rates. The stamps were redesigned and reprinted, which ultimately cost Royal Mail.

Initial withdrawn 26p design & reprinted 27p issued stamp

Stamp Issue: Anniversaries, 11th April 1989

Errors do occur with stamp design but they are usually detected at the design stage. Here we have an example of stamps that were given the thumbs up, printed, with the errors being detected after printing.

The stamp caption claims to celebrate the ‘One Hundredth Conference’ of the Interparliamentary Union, but in fact it was the ‘Centenary Conference’. The stamps were subsequently re-captioned and re-printed. The error should have been detected prior to production which no doubt proved to be costly.

stamp with globe

Initial Design with error

Reprinted 35p Issued stamp with amendment

Stamp Issue: 150th Birth Anniversary of Thomas Hardy, 10th July 1990

All British stamps must be approved by The Queen. The Thomas Hardy stamp designs, pictured (by Ian Pollock), provide an example of when stamps were printed, but then cancelled following The Queen’s comments on the submitted designs, particularly the 37p stamp. Feel free to speculate for yourselves as to the reason why. This coupled with the fact that Pollock took too long producing the final designs, meant it was not possible to print them in time for the issue date. Time ran out as a result.

Subsequently, a separate design by John Gibbs was adopted instead, just in time for the issue date. Because of this debacle, only one stamp was issued, as opposed to the four previously planned!

Birth Anniversary of Thomas Hardy stamp

Two of the four stamps which were printed for release and then cancelled at the last minute.

The Issued 20p Stamp by John Gibbs

The Issued 20p Stamp by John Gibbs

Stamp Issue: Medical Breakthroughs, 16th November 2010

The stamps in this issue celebrate some of the country’s most eminent scientists, although in the case of the 60p stamp, the ‘Total Hip Replacement’ stamp design mistakenly shows a completely failed surgery. If you look closely you can see for yourself.
Following the preview of the stamps in the Philatelic Bulletin prior to their issue date, it was one eagle eyed and well-informed reader, who spotted the error. As a result, Royal Mail were forced to destroy the stamps, re-design and re-print them just in time for the issue date. We have complete registration sheets of both designs in our collections.

Initial Design showing a ‘failed surgery’

Issued 60p stamp with amendment

So, there you have it, a rare glimpse at some stamps within the museum collections that never quite made it into the public sphere, but exist as oddities and curiosities within our vast philatelic collection.

Next time, I will show you other rare, unusual and even controversial pieces.

– Stuart Aitken, Curator (Philately)