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 Gv Waterlow Seahorse Spec # N72(1) (sg 403) 1913 £1 Mint Nh Cat £4800Sg 128 10/- Grey Green, Fine Used. A Short Stamp From The Top A Row, Good...Gb Qv Pl 1 Sg # 133s 1867-83 £5 Mint H Cat £35008462aj Gb Qv To Early Qeii Mint & Used Stamp Collection - Useful Lot - View ????Lot:8810 Gb George Vi 1939-48 Sg476-sg478b Set To £1 Brown Unmounted Mint In TGb Qv Sg # 183 1883-84 10/- Mint Nh Cat £3375Lot:8746 Gb Qv Sg128 10s Grey Green Plate 1 'ed' 1867-83 Wmk Maltese Cross Great Britain 1883 9d Green (sg 195) Fine-used (j1337)Gb Qv Pl 1 Sg # 135 1882-83 10/- Used Cat £7875Gb Qv Pl 1 Sg # 131 1867-83 10/- Used Cat £9100Gb Edvii Som House Spec # M56(1) (sg 320) 1911-13 £1 Mint Nh Cat £3000Lot:8794 Gb George V 1913 Sg403 £1 Green Together With Sg413a, Sg416, Sg417 10Great Britain Victoria £1 Brown Lilac (sg 129) Fine-used Cat £4,500 (f175)G.britain - Fine Hingeless Lighthouse Album 1971/2011 - All Defin Pages CompleteGb, 1891 £1 Green, Fine Used, Sg#212, CvLot:8757 Gb Qv 1858-79 Sg43 1d Rose Red Block Of 12 Plate 196 Mounted Mint Gb - Qv Penny Red Stars#238 Gb Qv 18.. 1d Penny Reds Plate Collection Gu Not Quite Complete 3x ScansGb Gv Waterlow Seahorse Spec # N72(3) (sg 404) 1913 £1 Mint Nh Cat £48001840 2d Deep Blue, Red Maltese Cross, 4 Margin, Sg 4, Cat £1100, HhGb 1840 Penny Black Plate 5 'kk' 4 Margins, Fine Used Sg 2 Cat £3758477aj Gb Qv To C1970s Collection Including Regional Definitives And 'to Pay' ??Gb Gv Waterlow Seahorse Spec # N69(1) (sg 402) 1913 10/- Mint Nh Cat £2000Lot:8833 Gb Qv 1840 Sg4 2d Deep Full Blue 'hd' 4 Margin With Black Maltese CrQv 1883 Sg 196 1/- Dull Green With Super Dublin Cds Pmk ( P A )(994) Lightly Cancelled 4 Margin Qv Penny Black Plate 10 (sg2dg) Full Red Mx8476aj Gb Qv To C1990 Collection Contains Some Reproductions Not All Identified?Gb, 1902 10/- Ultra, Fine 'leadenhall St B.o.' Postmark/cancel, Sg#265, CvLot:8793 Gb Qv Large Lilac & Green Collection With Duplicates Including Sg195 8474aj Gb Qv To Early Qeii Mint & Used Stamp Collection - Useful Worth A Look ??Gb Edvii Som House Spec # M52(1) (sg 318var) 1912 5/- Mint Nh Cat £925Lot:8728 Gb George Vi Sg512 £1 Brown 1951 Unmounted Mint Block Of 10 Cat £4508478aj Gb Used Stamps & Covers Collection - Mainly Qv (lots Of Penny Reds) -viewGb 1840 Penny Black Plate 8 'qi' 4 Margins, Fine Used Sg 2 Cat £500Great Britain , Victoria , 1840 , 1d Black Fine Used,5 Kilograms Kg 11 Lb Genuine, Unpicked & Untouched Charity Kiloware.1850 London - Usa Cover With 1s Green Embossed Sg 54 Cut Square (j1323)1902 Edward Vii 10s Ultramarine Sg 265 Fine-used (j1351)Gb Gv Waterlow Seahorses Sg # N66(1) ( 401) 1913 5/- Mint Nh Cat £1200Sg478 10/- Dark Blue Unmounted Mint(504)Smilers 2015 Sheet. Issued On 22nd January 2015, Mnh. Post Office Fresh Great Britain - Fine Hingeless Lighthouse Album 1971/1989 - Al Pages Complete§ Gb Used Abroad Malta Collection 2d Blue 1d Rose Red, A25 On Piece 28504aj Gb Benham Silk First Day Covers Collection - Nice Selection - Worth View?8503aj Benham Silk First Day Covers Collection Predominantly Gb - Nice Selection13 X Fine Very Lightly Used 16/32 Page Stockbooks - Lighthouse EtcGb Edvii Dlr Spec # M51(2) (sg 264) 1902 5/- Mint Nh Cat £900Gb M/u Collection From 1840 1d Black/2d Blue To 1971, Seahorses, Wedding EtcG.b. 1841 1d Red Pair On Cover With Numeral In Mx (8) Cancels To BallindallochSk Great Britain: Small Collection Incl. 1d Black Etc. On Stock PagesSg536a-539a 1st De La Rue Set Unmounted Mint(504)Gb Qv Pl 1 Sg # 113 1867-80 10d Mint H Cat £3500Great Britain Packets In Box, 99p StartGb Kiloware 2004-2014 50 X High Value Used Commemoratives Space FillersGb Qv Wmk Inverted Sg # 66awi 1857 4d Mint Lh Cat £4750Gb Qv Sg # 181 1883-84 5/- Mint Lh Cat £975Great Britain 1883 9d Green (sg 195) Fine-used (f073)Qv Stamps 10s GreenLot:8807 Gb Qv Ebossed Issue On Cover Sg54 1s Green's X4 On Cover London To MaGb Gv Dlr Seahorse Spec # N70(1) (sg 412) 1915 10/- Mint Nh Cat £3500