British Empire Exhibition
Great Britain’s first commemorative stamps were issued on 23 April 1924 – this marked the first day of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.
This hugely ambitious exhibition was held as a celebration of the Empire, to raise the country’s spirits after the First World War, and to promote trade and strengthen bonds with the colonies.
No commemorative stamps had been issued by the British Post Office since the postal stationery to mark the Jubilee of the Penny Post in 1890. The idea of producing a commemorative stamped envelope and postcard to mark the exhibition was proposed by the Post Office Assistant Secretary in April 1923.
Sir Evelyn Murray, Secretary, suggested also producing an adhesive stamp, and this was taken up by the Director of Postal Services in a memo of 8 May 1923.
The Post Office decided to form a committee to advise on the design process and to act as a selection committee at a later stage. The committee would include representatives from the realms of art and, at King George V’s recommendation, philately.
A similar committee was already in place to advise the Deputy Master of the Mint on coins, medals and decorations, and the Treasury requested their involvement. The King also asked if the stamps could be sold at a premium to benefit the King Edward’s Hospital Fund, but the Post Office refused.
Eight artists were invited to submit one or more finished drawings by 9 February 1924. The design was to be symbolic of the British Empire, would have either a circular or an oval space for the King’s portrait and the inscription ‘British Empire Exhibition 1924’. The two stamps, 1d and 1½d would be produced in the same colours as the existing issued stamps.
Designs were received from five artists; J Batten, Noel Rooke ARE, Eric Gill, E W Tristam and Harold Nelson.
The committee consulted with Waterlow and Sons Ltd, the printers. Together they decided on the British Lion design by Harold Nelson for the 1d. For the 1½d they chose a design featuring mechanical implements, a sheaf of corn and telegraph by Eric Gill. The King chose the Nelson design for both values, to be printed in different colours.
The stamps were also made up into rolls from sheets, so that they could be sold from ticket machines at the exhibition. The method of perforation had to be changed from ‘line’ to ‘comb’ to enable them to be dispensed from the machines.
Harold Nelson’s British Lion (later known as the Wembley Lion) with rising sun was issued in 1d scarlet and 1½d brown. Both stamps were issued again on 9 May 1925, when the exhibition reopened, with the date altered on the inscription. Stationery was also produced for both years, impressed with stamps of the same design:
- 1½d ‘A’ postage envelopes
- 1½d letter cards
- 1d stout postcards, single
- 1½d stout postcards, single
The stamps were initially available only from the exhibition. After 1 July 1924, however, they were available by post from the London Chief Office. They were valid throughout Great Britain or Northern Ireland.