In 1661, only a year into his tenure as England’s Postmaster General, Henry Bishop declared the invention of a new stamp-mark to ensure prompt delivery of the mail. The seal would be affixed to each letter, “shewing the day of the moneth that every letter comes to this office, so that no letter Carryer may dare to detayne a letter from post to post.” This system was immediately adopted by the British Royal Mail, creating the world's first stamped-mail service. “Bishop marks,” as these early stamps are called, featured a circle shape divided in two parts, with the upper half indicating the day and the lower half the month. The marks were used in various forms up through 1787, when the British post began transitioning to stamps with more detailed information.

The postal system Bishop managed only delivered mail between the post offices of major towns; smaller localities and even specific neighborhoods in large cities were left out. In 1680, the demand for local delivery in London inspired William Dockwra to open an independent postal service. Dockra’s staff of rebel couriers, who referred to themselves as “the undertakers,” appointed hundred of houses as receivers, where letters could be left for collection every hour and then taken to larger distribution offices. The delivery fees were one penny for letters traveling within the city, and two pennies for those to the suburbs.

Like the official Bishop system, Dockwra also used a hand-stamp to verify paid postage. These stamps were triangular in shape and inscribed with the words “Penny Post Paid” and a single centered initial, which indicated the collection office. The British government’s postal monopoly shut down Dockwra’s service within two years, but continued operating a local “Penny Post” using a remarkably similar triangular stamp. Letters marked with Dockwra’s original stamps are extremely rare and highly valued today.

When Rowland Hill published his pamphlet advocating Post Office reform more than 100 years later in 1837, postage prices had gone up considerably, but the stamping system was basically unchanged. Hill's criticisms focused on these exorbitant fees, and his broadside was directed toward an official Commission of Inquiry that had been organized to investigate Royal Post Office mismanagement.

One of Hill’s proposals was prepaid postal stationery, including letter-sheets, wrappers, and envelopes, as well as smaller stamped labels, which he described as “bits of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash.” Hill also suggested that postage be uniformly charged by weight, rather than the existing system based on destination proximity and pages per letter.

In the summer of 1839, a Parliamentary “Penny Postage” bill was passed; by May of the following year, Britain’s first adhesive stamps were printed. These first two stamps, known as the Penny Black and Two Pence Blue, featured an engraved portrait of Queen Victoria with the word “Postage” along the top edge and the price written along the bottom. The lower two corners also included a letter code indicating the individual stamp’s placement on each printed sheet. Original stamp sheets were imperforate, and included directions for placing the postage above and to the right of the handwritten address. Adhesive stamps became compulsory for the British post in 1853.

The first canceller used for British stamps was shaped like a Maltese cross and required red ink. However, Royal Mail officers soon realized how easy these cancellation marks wer...

Notably, the words “Great Britain” weren’t included anywhere on these first adhesive stamps, essentially because England was the only country in the world issuing paper stamps at the time. The omission became standard, and has been maintained on all official British postage ever since.

Other countries were relatively slow to adopt adhesive stamps, though Great Britain encouraged each of the postal services in its colonies to release their own. One of the rarest stamps ever produced was an imitation of England’s original penny stamps issued by the island colony of Mauritius. After stamps ordered from the United Kingdom were indefinitely delayed, the Governor of Mauritius asked a local engraver to create a red one-cent and blue two-cent stamp designed after England’s Penny Black and Two Pence Blue. Five hundred of each kind were produced, and all sold out within a few days of their release in September of 1847.

Other British colonial rarities include the Lady McLeod shipping stamps from Trinidad in 1847, the plain stamps issued in Hamilton, Bermuda beginning in 1848, and Guyana’s famed one cent, black-on-magenta stamp of 1856.

Britain’s first commemorative stamps were technically produced in 1887, on the 50th anniversary, or “Golden Jubilee,” of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne. However, these designs were used throughout the remainder of Victoria’s reign, unlike more modern commemoratives which have a limited production run. The country’s first commemorative specially designed for a current event were created by Harold Nelson for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. In addition to the exhibition title and requisite bust of King George V, the image also showcased a symbolic roaring lion.

Early British commemoratives always featured portraits of royalty, though designers experimented with increasingly diverse and informal imagery during the 20th century. For example, in 1948 the Silver Anniversary of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth was celebrated with stamps based on Dorothy Wilding’s photographs of the royal couple.

The first commemorative stamps without a royal figure were those honoring William Shakespeare’s Quatercentenary in 1964. During the following years, the British Royal Mail increased its output of commemorative lines, releasing several series each year on subjects ranging from historic events and national monuments to artwork and wildlife.

Notable designers for early British stamps include Bertram Mackennal and G.W. Eve, who along with engraver J.A.C. Harrison created many classic portraits and pictorial designs. Their “Sea-Horses” series of 1913 is very desirable among collectors, and depicts Brittania’s chariot pulled by a team of equine creatures and flanked by a bust of King George V. As an avid philatelist, George V specifically asked that Mackennal and Eve use the older intaglio printing process for these stamps, which was out of fashion due to the popularity of letterpress technology.

The most prolifically reproduced design in British philatelic history is the Machin series of stamps, first issued in 1967. Featuring a portrait of Queen Elizabeth originally sculpted by Arnold Machin, thousands of different versions of these stamps have since been created, and its design is still issued by the British post today.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Collect GB Stamps

Collect GB Stamps

A large and well-organized database of British stamps from 1840 to the present, browsable by year, by specific issu… [read review or visit site]

British Postal Museum and Archive

British Postal Museum and Archive

This extensive website from Britain's Postal Heritage Trust is a deep resource on all things postal. Start with the… [read review or visit site]



First shown in 2008 to celebrate the Smithsonian National Postal Museum's 15th anniversary, Alphabetilately is esse… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Gb. Qv. 1840. 2d Blue. Mounted Mint.Great Britain, British Colonies, Rhodesia, Wonderful Stamp Collection In An ImpeGb. Qv. 1884. Sg 185, £1 Brown-lilac. Wmk Crowns.1840 1d Blk, 2d Blue, Embossed To 1970 Collection. 785 Stamps In Windsor Album.Sg 403 £1 Green. Fine Used Rubber Cds. Nice Deep Colour & Well CentredGb. Qv. Sg 183, 10/- Ultramarine. Mounted Mint.Massive Collection Of Stamps Presentation Packs, Booklets, Loose Face Value £850Lot:14730 Gb Qv Sg40 1d Red Penny Star Block Of 4 No Gum Un CancelledGb 1948 Silver Wedding £1 In A Complete Sheet Of 20 Stamps Mnh, Sg Cat £800+Gb 2009 Design Classics, Scarce Phil Stamp Official Fdc No 49/70 Artist SignedGb. Qv. Sg 120s, 2/- Pale Blue. Specimen. Mounted Mint.Gb 2009 Design Classics, Rare Phil Stamp Official Fdc No 16/17 Artist SignedGreat Britain Collection Of Queen Victoria 49 Stamps High Cat Value (m1238)Vintage Post Office Hand Datestamp #2Gb 1913 Gv Waterlow Seahorse £1 Green Sgn72(1) Mint Nh Cat Val £4800 ($7200)Vintage Post Office Hand Datestamp #3Great Britain , Victoria , 1840 , One Penny Black Fine Used ..Gb Qv 1847 Embossed 1 Shilling Used StampGreat Britain 1981-2000 Beautiful Mnh Top Collection In Kabe AlbumGreat Britain , Victoria , 1840 , One Penny Black Fine Used , Thin At Right Marg#388 Gb Qv 1883-84 High Values 2s6d & 5s Unused Good/poor (c£850) (2)Nice Penny Black And Penny Red Stamps10620aj Gb First Day Covers And Covers Collection Complete With Signatures - Lk?20 Kg Box Of Philatelic Treasure Kiloware StampsGb. Kgv. Sg 452, 10/- Indigo, 1934 Re-engraved. Mounted Mint.Lot:15465 Gb Qv 1d Mulready Envelope Lord Holland 'scarce Postal History' Lot:15463 Gb Qv Sg57 10d Red-brown Embossed Issue Great Britain 1897 £1 Green Used1861 Cover To Amsterdam With 3 X 2d Blue Plate 9Great Britain , Victoria , 1840 , Two Pence Blue Fineused , 1840 1d Black Pl 9 Qf 4m Superb Appearance Cat. £600.00Gb. Qv. 1841. Sg 14, 2d Blue. Mint.1906 China Postcard Dragon 4c Shanghai-england ‘liable To Letter Rate Is’ RareGreat Britain Very Nice Used + Mnh Collection In Kabe Album - Please Read:Great Britain , Victoria , 1840 , Two Pence Blue Fine Used.Great Britain 1847-54 Embossed 10d (sg 57) Cut Square Spacefiller (m1117)Gb. Qv. Sg 118, 2/- Dull Blue. Used Abroad Malta. Good Used.Great Britain Victoria 5s Rose Sg 127 Plate 2 Very Fine Used (m1340)Gb. Qv. 1887. Sg 211, 1/- Dull Green. Mounted Mint.Penny Black On Cover 4 Margin With Red MxSg 127 5/- Rose Plate 1 Overprinted Specimen. Mounted Mint, Well Centred...Superb Um (mnh) Guernsey Collection 1969-2012 - Face £500 @92pSg452 10/- Indigo Unmounted Mint(591)Sg 158 3d Rose Plate 21. A Fresh Mounted Mint Example Cat £500#589 Gb Qv 18.. Sp Plates On 12x Cards Good Cat Altogether Look! VictoriaGreat Britain & Commonwealth Mnh Stamps, Sets, Blocks & Souvenir Sheets G9992016 Only Very Modern Gb Commemorative Stamps On Paper Kiloware50 Unfranked 2nd Class Large Letter StampsLot:15345 Gb Qv Mounted Mint Collection 1/2d Red, 6d Lilac, 1d Venetian, 2 1/2Gb. Qv. Sg 160, 4d Grey Brown. Plate 18. Very Lightly Used.Gb 1840 Qv Penny Black Si Used StampGreat Britain 1902 2s 6d (sg 260) Gum Crease, Unmounted Mint (m1305)#590 Gb Qv 18.- Qe2 Cards X18 Bantam Plates £10 Britannia Gv Sea Horses Gvi HighGreat Britain , Victoria , 1840 , One Penny Black Fine Used 1854 Cover Leicester-hamburg Germany Pair 2d Blue & 6d Embossed Cat £2100+ Great Britain Victoria 1841 1d Red With Irish Blue Postmark (m1213)Gb 1934 Gv Re-engraved Seahorse 10/- Indigo Sgn75 Mint Nh Cat Val £525 ($788)Gb 1883-84 Qv 10/- Ultramarine Sg183 Mint H Cat Val £2250 ($3375)1840 2d Deep Blue, Red Maltese Cross, Sg 4, Cat 1150, Mb140g Of Gb Kiloware 2012-2016.