The Penny Black

The world’s first postage stamp was a simple idea, but revolutionary.

“… A bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash”

Rowland Hill’s booklet Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability, 1837

This was the first mention by Rowland Hill of what became the world’s first adhesive postage stamp. He was answering the questions of a parliamentary enquiry into the Post Office in February 1837 shortly after the publication of his pamphlet Post Office reform; Its Importance and Practicality.

In this pamphlet Hill had challenged the high, extremely complex and anomalous postal rates then in force. He suggested a low uniform rate of postage based on weight and prepaid. At this time the high rates were based on distance and the number of sheets in a letter, and normally they were paid by the recipient. Many letters were also carried free.

The campaign for postal reform

Hill’s plan caught the public imagination and a great campaign began to force the government to act. It took more than two years, however, before his proposals were accepted.

A committee of merchants who were badly affected by high postage was formed and Hill was an influential member, as was Henry Cole who produced a propaganda newspaper The Post Circular.

A parliamentary Select Committee was formed under Robert Wallace MP, a long time campaigner for postal reform, and a low uniform postage rate was recommended. This eventually became law in August 1839.


Rowland Hill was appointed to the Treasury to put the Act into operation. A competition was organised to suggest the best plan to prepay postage and some 2,600 entries were sent in. Some had actual examples attached.

To avoid defrauding the Post Office of revenue it was agreed that security had to be a major consideration. James Chalmers of Dundee reiterated his idea of labels which could be cancelled to indicate payment, some suggested envelopes and others, wafers or labels.

From the first essay submitted by James Chalmers, February 1838 (POST 141/01)

  • The winners

    It was as a result of these reforms that envelopes first became popular in Britain. Winners of the competition included Henry Cole and Charles Whiting who, since 1830, had been involved in printing many previous suggestions and the propaganda newspaper of the Mercantile Committee.

  • What happened to free postage?

    On 5 December 1839 postage rates were reduced to 4d and charged by weight. This proved so popular that on 10 January 1840 rates were further reduced to 1d for half an ounce and all free privileges were abolished.

    Even the Queen could no longer send her post for free.

Design failure: public ridicule

After the Treasury competition it was agreed that there would be four methods of prepayment of postage: adhesive labels, stamped lettersheets and envelopes, and paper supplied by the public embossed with a stamp to order.

Only three methods were introduced. For the 1d and 2d lettersheets and envelopes William Mulready RA was asked for a design which was then engraved by John Thompson. It was printed by William Clowes on security, silk-thread paper made by John Dickinson.

The 2d Mulready envelope (POST 150/009)

Described as ‘poetic’ it showed images of empire with a central Britannia and lion at her feet. Yet when it was issued it was immediately ridiculed and gave rise to many caricatures, to such an extent that it had to be withdrawn.

Design success: the head of Queen Victoria

The design for the adhesive labels was based on the head of Queen Victoria sculpted by William Wyon for his so-called City Medal commemorating Queen Victoria’s visit to the City of London in November 1837.

Silver Wyon Medal

Evolution of the design for the first adhesive postage stamp. (POST 118/1952)

Wyon’s medal was sketched by Henry Corbould and this was used by Charles and Frederick Heath to engrave the head on to a die for printing by line engraving.

For security the background was of white-line machine engraving as used on banknotes and supplied by the printers Perkins Bacon & Petch.

After one false start when the die did not transfer well, a new die was engraved. For extra security Hill decided there should be variable lettering on each stamp, ‘A A’ to ‘A L’ horizontally in the sheet, and ‘A A’ to ‘T A’ vertically. There were 240 impressions as 240 pennies made £1.

Two values were to be printed, the 1d in black and the 2d in blue. When the die, engraved in reverse, was complete it was transferred by a roller to the plate 240 times and then the individual corner letters were punched in.

  • Did you know?

    The Penny Black image of Queen Victoria was based on a sketch when she was only 15, and was to remain on stamps for the entirety of her reign.

Printing the first Penny Black

The plate for the 1d label – The Penny Black – was ready on 1 April 1840 and a proof impression was taken from it that day.

Proof from the first plate of Penny Blacks, 1840 (2010-0411/14)

Printing of the 1d labels on watermarked paper began on 11 April and on 1 May both it and the Mulready stationery were put on sale in London, becoming valid for postage on 6 May. By then some 600,000 labels were being produced daily. The 2d label followed, printing only beginning on 1 May.

In contrast to the stationery the adhesive labels were extremely popular. To prevent their re-use a cancellation was devised – the Maltese Cross – which was to be used with red ink.

Unfortunately it proved possible to remove this without damaging the label, so within a year the colour of the printing ink had to be changed to red-brown and the cancellation to black.

Some 11 plates were used to print the Penny Black, producing over 68 million examples. Only two plates were made for the 2d value. There was a proposal for government versions with the letters ‘V R’ in the top corners but this was abandoned.

The postal reform that swept the world

Many problems occurred in the production and distribution of the labels and stationery but these were soon overcome. The classic design had taken only five months from concept to issue.

Postal traffic increased vastly as a result of the reduction in postage but, with a change in government, Hill was sacked from his position the following year though his reforms were to sweep the world.


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