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    

Great Britain 1847-54 10d Embossed Sg 57 Cut Square Fine-used (a1198)Complete Run Of 430 G.b First Day Covers 23/04/64-08/11/07 In Royal Mail AlbumsGb. Qv, Sg 121, 2/- Brown. London Cds. Fine Used.(1) Very Good 1929 Gv £1.00 Black U.p.u. (sg438) Unmounted Mint. Toned Gum Gb 1964 Rare! Forth Road Bridge Presentation Pack Superb Sg Cat £450Gb Qv - Qeii Mint & Used Stamp Collection In Delux Hingeless Album ~ High Cv Nr#581 Gb Qv 1891 £1 Green Sg212 G-fu C£800 HdGreat Britain 1847-54 1s Embossed (sg 55) Cut Square Very Fine Used (a1199)8952aj Gb C1970-2009 Incl Regionals Collection Coin Covers - Good Cat/face ValuSg212, £1 Green, Good Used, Cds. Cat £800. DcGb Queen Victoria 1887-1900 Jubilee Set Sg 197 - 214 (spec K27-k41) Mnh/mintSg2, 1d Black, Good Used. Cat £375. Red Mx. 4 Margins. TlKing Edward Vii - 10 Shillings Ultramarine - Sg 265 - Mounted MintGreat Britain, Wonderful Stamp Collection In A Lighthouse Stockbook. Mostly MintSg 2 1d Black Lettered H.l. A Very Fine Used Sheet Marginal Inscription...1852 1s Embossed (+1d) Cover To France (a1161)Great Britain, Victoria, #1 Penny Black Stamp In A Folder By FleetwoodGb 1883 Rare 9d Dull Green Sg 195 Cat £475 Fine Strong Colour Fd W3962Gb. Qv, Sg 137, £5 Orange. Superb Glasgow Cds.Great Britain, Victoria, #1 Penny Black Stamp In Folder Signed First Day Cover - Terry Pratchett - Lewis Carroll - C.s. Lewis StampsVictorian Accumulation In Old Time Stockbook, Penny Black, Reds, Blues, Bantams,#442 Gb Qv 1840 1d Penny Black Unplated 3 Margins Red Mx IkSg 185 £1 Brown-lilac. Good To Fine Used Cds & Box Cancel. Nice Deep Colour...1840 Penny Black On Cover/entire Sg1 Plate 6 Light Red Maltese Cross Al W4069Gb Qv 1840 2d Blue 4 Margins Fine Used (sg 5) Cat £700Sg195, 9d Dull Green, Fine Used, Cds. Cat £475. KjGreat Britain 1847-54 6d Lilac Embossed (sg 59) Very Fine Used (a1200)1913 Waterlow Sg403/4 £1 Green Seahorses Mint Hinged Cat £3500.00 99p StartSg 3 1d Grey Black Pair Plate 1a Lettered A.g-a.h. Fine Used With Red Maltese...Gb 1964 Presentation Pack - Forth Road Bridge - Uncurled In Pack8956aj Gb 1996 Collection First Day Covers British Gold Medalists Some Signed ??Uk Classics 1884 Issue Used S&g#185 Repaired As Presented On The 2 ScansGreat Britain , Victoria , 1840 , One Penny Black Fine Used1924 Wembley Exhibition First Day Cover (special Postmark) Very Clean (a1106)Sg 114 10d Deep Red Brown. A Fine Fresh Mounted Mint Example, Well Centred...Sg 123 6d Pale Buff Plate 12. A Fresh Mounted Mint Example Of This Scarce...Gb 1939-48 Sg478 Kgvi 10s Dark Blue Coat Of Arms High Value Fine Mint Cat £260Drbobstamps Great Britain Scott #1 Sound Used Stamp1840 Sg5 2d Blue Plate 1 Red Maltese 4 Margins (cj) 99p Start8954aj Gb C 1995-1997 Collection First Day Covers - A Useful Selection - View ??Sg 113 10d Pale Red Brown. Mounted Mint, Hinge Remains Cat £3500(869) Very Good Lightly Used Qv £1 Green (sg212) "lombard St" Cds Oc 25 991948 Silver Wedding Registered First Day Cover With Strip Of 3 X £1Noblespirit No Reserve 9999/6 Fantastic International Scott Stamp Album!Sg 2 1d Black Plate 8 Lettered O.j. Mounted Mint, Original Gum. 4 Margins Just..1840 Sg2 1d Black Plate 9 Full Maltese Cross On Piece (kk) 99p StartGb 1960 Wilding Phosphor Graphite Set Of 8 Mnh (2d Mlh) Sg 599/609 Cat £85Gb Sorter Box 3. Messy Box. Kiloware, Fdc, Albums, Mint And Used, Qv-qeii8993aj Gb (2004-2007) First Day Cover Collection - Unusal Selection - View ????8957aj Gb 1996-1997 Collection Benham Fdcs Coin/medalion Cvrs - Good Selection ?Q.v. 1840 1d Plate 5 'ob' State 1 A Superb Used ExampleSg 89 1/- Deep Green. Fresh Mounted Mint, Nice Deep Colour Cat £4500Lot:10224 Gb Qv Unmounted Mint Blocks Sg197 Sg172 Sg206 Sg2131840 Sg5 2d Blue Full Black Maltese Cross Repaired 4 Margins (nl) 99p Start8953aj Mainly Gb Collection "1d Black/rowland Hill" Theme Fdcs Cards & Booklets?Sg 2 1d Black Plate 2 Lettered D.f. Fine Used With A Red Maltese Cross. 4 Good..1840 Sg2 1d Blacks 4 Spacefiller Examples For Reconstruction 3 99p Start1840 Sg5 2d Blue Plate 1 Very Bright Red Maltese Cross (ej) 99p StartVictorian 1d Penny Red Stars Block Of Six Mint Unmounted Mar5 (defective K ?)