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]

Alphabetilately

Alphabetilately

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    

Sg 6 2d Pale Blue Plate 1 Lettered O.k. Very Fine Used With A Lightly Placed...Gb. Qv. Sg 212, £1 Green. Well Centred Reg Cancel.Gb. Kgv. Sg 438, £1 Black. Postal Union Congress.Sg 129 £1 Brown-lilac. Superb Used With A Crisp Glasgow Cds Oct 22nd 1881...Sg 15 2d Deep Full Blue Plate 4 Lettered Q.c. A Fine Very Fresh Mint Example...Sg 212 £1 Green. A Very Fine Used Example With A Crisp Full Nottingham Cds...Gb Very Modern High Value Commems, 82 Different Used On Paper Up To 2015 Issues!Sg 2 1d Black Plate 4 Lettered B.l. A Fresh Mint Example Good Margins...1787 E.l. Dockwra Handstamp Posted Wednesday At H To Grays Inn (jy199)1840 (sept) Penny Black Cover Gloucester To Cheltenham Plate 1b (jy281)Lot:11023 Gb Qv Sg212 £1 Green 'qa' Co-operative Army & Navy Store Perfin1840 Sg5 2d Blue Plate 1 Red Maltese Cross 4 Margins (he) Nystamps Great Britain Stamp # 142 Used $750Great Britain 1876 Telegraph £1 Brown. Faults Spacefiller 'specimen' (jy258)1840 (aug) Penny Black Cover Plate 4, Sherborne To Glasgow 4 Margins (jy282)Gb South Africa Army Telegraphs 10s Green & Red Used Pair On Piece 1900 At11Great Britain British England United Kingdom King Edward Victoria Collection A1Gb South Africa Army Telegraphs Provisional 1s On 5s Green Used Block Of 4 1900Nystamps Great Britain Stamp # 6 Used $1200 VictoriaGb South Africa Boer War Army Telegraphs 1d Lilac Block Of 9 Used 1899-1900 At31719 E.l. Pre-stamp Cover Bishop Mark (serif Type) Burton To London (jy195)Gb Stamps First Day Cover 1955 Castles 2/6d & 5/- Weymouth From Collection1880 Sg 121 2/- Brown Ph Beautiful Filler Cat. £4200.00Sg 87i 9d Straw. Inverted Watermark (unlisted In Gibbons). Fresh Mint Part Gum..Remarkable Error Shift Gb 1883-84 Qv Sg181 5s Crimson - Mint9299aj Gb Mainly 1970's-1990's Presentation Packs - Many Definitives - Good FaceGb 1840 July 19th, Penny Black Cover Kilkenny To To Dublin (393) Fine Used 4 Margin Qv Penny Black (sg2) P-h Plate 2 Gb Victorian Stamp Collection Inc 1d Penny Black 1d Reds 2d Blues Etc Ref:qa296Gb South Africa Boer War Army Telegraphs 6d Bisect On Piece 1900 Cat £250 At4aBelfast Late Fee Cancellation On 1937 Seahorse Cover To Argentina (jy377)9298aj Gb 2000+ Presentation Packs - Good Catalogue And Face Value - Worth A Lk1841 Penny Black Cover London To Norfolk Plate 6 With Four Margins (jy283)Sg 175 2/6 Lilac On Blued Paper. Fresh Mounted Mint, Small Dealers Mark In Red..Great Britain 1840 Mint Og Penny Black, 3 Good Marg. Cat $11,000. 1840 Penny Black Plate 4 (ia) Red Mc - S/g As23 1d Black.Nystamps Great Britain Stamp # 5a Used $900 Victoria(372) Very Good 1939 Gvi 10/- Dark Blue (sg478) Lightly Mounted MintGreat Britain Victoria 4d Rose Sg 66a Fine-used (jy161)Sg 87 9d Straw, Mounted Mint Small Part Gum. Good Colour Cat £4000Sg 8 1d Red Brown Lettered E.f. A Fine Unmounted Mint Example. 4 Large Margins..Gb South Africa Army Telegraphs Provisional 2d On 2/6 Green Used On Piece 19001757 E.l. Dockwra Cancel, Friday Mail 7 O'clock W Brompton To St James St(jy200)Gb South Africa Boer War Army Telegraphs Part Used Set £1 On Piece 1899-1900Nystamps Great Britain Stamp # 7 Used $875 Victoria Signed 1787 E.l. London To Bristol Re: Naval Prize Money, Fine Bishop Mark (jy247)Lot:10952 Gb Qv Sg43/44 1d Red Penny Plates Mounted Mint Stock1748 E.l. Dundalk To London Scarce D.dalk Single Line With Bishop Mark (jy175)1669 Pre Stamp E.l. To London. Charles Ii Period (jy198)Stamp Collection Great Britain Victoria Edv11 Gv Gv1 Er11 Mint Used Covers(gb02)(394) Fine Used 3+ Margin 1840 Qv 2d Blue (sg5) F-f Full Maltese Cross1897 Large Registered Postal Stationery Cover (22 X 1d Lilacs, 1 X 1/2d)(jy373)1867 Sg 112 10d Pale Red-brown Bg Mounted Mint Cat. £3500.00Gb South Africa Boer War Army Telegraphs ½d Vermilion 1899-1900 At1 Used PieceGb South Africa Boer War Army Telegraphs £1 Lilac Black 1899-1900 Used StripEurophilex 2015 Limited Edition 1d Penny Black Miniature Sheet Presentation Pack1944 Guernsey Occupation Registered Cover From Cobo (jy149)1840 Sg5 2d Blue Plate 2 Scarce Red Maltese Cross 31/2 Margins (te) 1840 Sg2 1d Black Plate 6 Brown Maltese Cross On Cover To Brighton (rf)C.1740 Pre-stamp Free Cover To Longford Via Dublin (jy178)