Where the mail began – Sir Rowland Hill & the Penny Black

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IOC were at University of London for a historic day of delivery to door, the days opening lecture focused on 1840 as Sir Rowland Hill launched the first postal stamp, the Penny Black, to bring simplicity of mail cost, one price for any distance, and pre-paid.



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

High and extremely complex charges unified and pre-paid.

Post Office boss, Sir Rowland Hill made the first mention of the Penny Black in 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 his pamphlet Sir Rowland 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.

Penny Black stamp first issued today May 1st 1840

One half once, any distance, on a flat rate of one penny.

The Penny Black was the world's first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system. It was first issued in the United Kingdom on 1 May 1840 but was not valid for use until 6 May. The stamp features a profile of Queen Victoria.

In 1837, British postal rates were high, complex and anomalous. To simplify matters, Sir Rowland Hill proposed an adhesive stamp to indicate pre-payment of postage.[2] At the time it was normal for the recipient to pay postage on delivery, charged by the sheet and on distance travelled. By contrast, the Penny Black allowed letters of up to 1⁄2 ounce (14 grams) to be delivered at a flat rate of one penny, regardless of distance.

On 13 February 1837, Sir Rowland Hill proposed to a government enquiry both the idea of a pre-paid stamp and a pre-paid envelope, a separate sheet folded to form an enclosure for carrying letters. Sir Roland was given a two-year contract to run the new system, and together with Henry Cole he announced a competition to design the stamps. Out of some 2,600 entries, none was considered suitable, however, so a rough design endorsed by Hill was chosen instead, featuring an easily recognisable profile of Queen Victoria. Sir Roland believed this would be difficult to forge.

The UK remains the only country in the world to omit its name on postage stamps; the monarch's image signifies the UK as the country of origin. The portrait of Victoria was engraved by Charles Heath and his son Frederick, based on a sketch provided by Henry Corbould. Corbould's sketch was in turn based on the 1834 cameo-like head by William Wyon, which was used on a medal to commemorate the Queen's visit to the City of London in 1837. This portrait of Victoria remained on British stamps until her death in 1901. All British stamps still bear a portrait or silhouette of the monarch somewhere on the design. The first stamps did not need to show the issuing country, so no country name was included on them.

Not to be confused with a revenue stamp. Initially, Hill specified that the stamps should be 3/4 inch but altered the dimensions to 3/4 inch wide by 7/8 inch tall to accommodate the writing at the bottom. The word "POSTAGE" at the top of the design distinguishes it from a revenue stamp which had long been used in the UK; "ONE PENNY." at the bottom shows the amount pre-paid for postage of the stamped letter. The background to the portrait consists of finely engraved engine turnings. The two upper corners hold Maltese crosses with radiant solar discs at their centres; the lower corner letters show the position of the stamp in the printed sheet, from "A A" at top left to "T L" at bottom right. The sheets, printed by Perkins Bacon, consisted of 240 stamps in 20 rows of 12 columns. One full sheet cost 240 pence or one pound; one row of 12 stamps cost a shilling. As the name suggests, the stamp was printed in black ink. A two penny stamp printed in blue and covering the double-letter rate (up to 1) was issued on 8 May 1840.

Although the stamps were not officially issued for sale until 6 May 1840, some offices such as those in Bath sold the stamps unofficially before that date. There are covers postmarked 2 May, and a single example is known on cover dated 1 May 1840.[11] All London post offices received official supplies of the new stamps but other offices throughout the United Kingdom did not, continuing to accept payments for postage in cash for a period.

Re use forgery oved Penny Black to a penny red.

The Penny Black lasted less than a year. A red cancellation was difficult to see on the black design, and the red ink was easy to remove; both made it possible to re-use cancelled stamps. In February 1841, the treasury switched to the Penny Red and began using black ink for cancellations instead, which was more effective and difficult to remove. However, people still re-used stamps by combining the uncancelled parts of two stamps to form an unused whole, so in 1864 as a further safeguard the top corner stars on the Penny Red were replaced by the lower corner check letters in reverse order.

Stamps were cut by hand using scissors. The stamps were printed in imperforate sheets, to be carefully cut with scissors for sale and use. As a result, stamps with badly cut margins or no margins are common and worth very little, while examples with four clear margins are rare and valuable and fetch very high prices, especially if in mint condition.

Press that printed the stamp - An original printing press for the Penny Black, the "D" cylinder press invented by Jacob Perkins and patented in 1819, is on display at the British Library in London. The total print run was 286,700 sheets, containing a total of 68,808,000 stamps. Many were saved, and in used condition they remain readily available to stamp collectors. The only known complete sheets of the Penny Black are owned by the British Postal Museum in London WC1