Uniform penny postage

By the mid 1830s the Post Office was ripe for reform. Postage rates were extremely high and based on the distance carried times the number of sheets.

From 1812 the cost of a letter of one sheet from London to Edinburgh was 1s 1d; two sheets were double that and four sheets or one ounce cost 4s 4d. 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. This was a considerable discouragement to people to use the post.

A number of people advocated postal reform but it was Rowland Hill, born in 1795 in Kidderminster, who brought it to fruition. The main thrust of Hill’s reforms was to move away from postage charged according to distance carried, to a simple uniform rate of postage based on the weight of a letter. He argued successfully that if the charge was low enough – like 1d per half-ounce for anywhere in the United Kingdom – the volume of mail would increase enormously and thus cover the cost.

The main reason Hill is remembered today is his proposal for “stamps” to prepay postage, which resulted in the creation of the Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp. However, before that could be introduced other aspects of his reforms had to be implemented.

The most important of these was a uniform charge based upon weight. Although the goal was uniform penny postage, the first change was on 5 December 1839 to a uniform fourpenny post. This was so popular that the change to penny postage came shortly thereafter on 10 January 1840. During the period from 5 December, a 4d letter up to half an ounce could be either pre-paid by the sender or post-paid by the recipient without penalty. If pre-paid, the letter received a manuscript ‘4’ in red ink. Only when left unpaid, would the letter be applied with a handstruck ‘4 – usually in black ink in accordance with convention.

The 4d. stamps

For the interim fourpenny post manuscript markings or handstruck stamps were used to show that payment had been made or was required. Handstruck 4s are relatively rare simply because Uniform 1d. Postage had superseded them before most Post Towns obtained a ‘4’ handstamp, and those that did in England, had them made locally. Hence, the appearance of each English stamp is distinctive.

In Scotland the situation was somewhat different. Alexander Kirkwood & Son was the official manufacturer of the majority of handstamps for the Scottish Post Office, and as such, supplied the stamps to the Chief Office in Edinburgh for distribution. It appears that all the larger offices were supplied with a “Kirkwood” stamp these being of a cursive but similar appearance and for most of these larger offices the handstamp has been recorded in use on the first day of use – 5 December 1839. Smaller Scottish offices however, appear not to have received a handstamp, and a few of them, like the English offices, resorted to getting them made locally. They are very individual in their design.

In Ireland, just over a dozen towns are recorded as having used a handstruck ‘4’ at this time. Most of them used a cursive type of stamp not very different to those used in Scotland made by Kirkwood, suggesting they may have been supplied by a single manufacturer. The stamps of Roscrea and Galway are very different and were clearly made to instructions given by the local Post Office.

Throughout Great Britain, just over sixty towns are recorded with a fourpenny handstamp, the great majority of which are struck as intended using black ink. Just a few are known in blue, including Haddington, Leith, Dublin, Armagh, Drogheda, and Halifax (blue-green). The post towns of Chester, Huddersfield and Scarborough have been recorded with a handstruck ‘4’ stamp in red.

The 1d. and 2d. handstamps

Handstruck stamps were again used for the Uniform Penny Post from 10 January 1840 before stamped stationery and adhesive stamps became available for use on 6 May that year. Even after adhesive stamps became available, it was not compulsory to pre-pay the postage, and handstruck paid stamps are commonly recorded in use until 1859 when the Post Office made it compulsory that on inland mail postage had to be paid using adhesive stamps. The 1d. stamp was generally struck in red denoting that postage had been paid. If a letter of less than half an ounce had not been pre-paid, then a handstruck ‘2’ in black ink would be applied to the front of the letter denoting that 2d. must be collected by the letter-carrier on delivery. Handstruck 2s were also used on the front of letters struck in red when a paid letter weighing over half an ounce but not more than one ounce was sent. Black and red ink is the standard convention for the penny and twopenny handstamps, but they are occasionally found in other colours. There is a large variety of designs and these can be found both framed and unframed.

Types of handstamp used with the UPP

The majority of English handstamps are “unique” to the post towns for which they were made and have their own County number in the BCC catalogues and in our listing shown in the PDF link below.

The Scottish handstamps are very straight-forward, the great majority being simply handstruck 1s and 2s. Bruce Auckland’sPostal Markings of Scotland to 1840 has been used in the listing to describe these marks which are predominantly S44 and S45. Edinburgh is one of the few exceptions and has the distinction of having the only dated UPP handstamp. It is a dated ‘2’ recorded in black from the 25th of January 1840 to the 18th May 1840.

In the absence of a suitable publication of Irish handstamps, these are described in the listing simply as Pd.1d., P1, 1Pd., Hs.2 etc.


The PDF links below are tables listing relevant items in The Postal Museum’s Postal History Collection. They have been arranged in alphabetical order of post town.

Four Penny England

Four Penny Scotland

Four Penny Ireland

Uniform Penny Post

Table Glossary

Sources used:

BCC type C (ref.SK101), BCC type D (ref.DU143) etc. R.M. Willcocks & B.Jay. British County Catalogues of Postal History. Volumes 1, 2 & 3 (2nd Edition), 4 and 5.

Auck.S43, S44, S45 etc. Bruce Auckland. Markings of Scotland to 1840. Second edition. Edited by Ron Stables.

In the absence of a suitable publication of Irish handstamps, these are simply described in the listing as :- P1, d/1, Pd/1, 1Pd, PAID/AT/DERRY/1d and Hs.2 etc.


cds = circular date stamp

circ. = circular

ds = datestamp

Hs. or hs. = handstamp

ms. = manuscript

Pd. = Paid

P.P = Penny Post

rec. = receiver or receiving

RH = Receiving House

ref. = Reference

rect. h.s. = Rectangular handstamp

s/l or sl. = straight line

udc = undated circle

UPP = Uniform Penny Post