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 5 2d Blue Plate 1 Lettered Ga Superb Used With A Red Maltese Cross 4 Fine...Gb Kg V 1913 £1 Deep Green Seahorses Waterlow Sg 403 (spec.n72[2]) VfuGb, Kgv-kgvi Collection Of Mint & Used Stamps On Old Album PagesGreat Britain Victoria £5 Orange Sg 137 Cat Value £4,750 Fine-used (s1008)Sg 5 2d Blue Plate 1 Lettered K.h. Very Fine Used Red Maltese Cross...(255) Very Fine Lightly Cancelled Qv Penny Black (sg2) T-f Plate 7Sg 438 £1 Puc Very Fine Used, Part Cds, Well Centred, Full PerfsG.b. 1840 Used 2d Blue With Red Maltese CrossGb 1882 Used 5/- Rose Plate 4 Sg134 Cat £4200Great Britain 1902 Edward Vii £1 Deep Green Sg 266 Fine L.h.m. (s989)Gb. Qv, Sg 214, 1/- Green & Red. Unmounted Mint.Great Britain 1913 Waterlow 10s Indigo Seahorse Sg 402 Fine L.h.m. (s988)Gb 1865 Used 9d Straw W/margin Sg98 Cat £550 Superb Cancel1840 (aug) 1d Black (sg 3) On Cover To London, Fine Black Mx (s1000)Great Britain 1840 2d Blue (sg 6) Red Maltese Cross, Fine-used (s987)Gb Kg V 1913 10 Shillings Blue Seahorses Waterlow Print Sg 402 (spec.n69) VfuGreat Britain 1883 10s Ultramarine Sg 183 Very Fine Used (s990)Great Britain 1883 9d Green Sg 195 Very Fine Used (s967)Gb Qv 1867 9d. Pale Straw Plate 4 Oh Watermark Spray Sg 110 (spec J96[2]) Mnh1855 Crimea War Cover, Plymouth Sideways Duplex To British Army Crimea (s1005)Gb. Kgvi, Sg 478, 10/- Dark Blue Arms Series. Lightly Hinged.Gb Qv Penny Black 1840 Plate 10 Hj "o" Flaw Black Maltese Cross Sg 2 As66 FlawGb 1870 1/2d Rose Sg 48 Plate 9 Aberdeen C.d.s. On Piece (s968)Gb Presentation Pack Botanical Congress 1964 21a7848aj Gb From Qv To Early Qeii Mainly Used Collection Incl 1d Reds & Seahorses?Lot:6530 Gb George Vi 1939-48 Sg476 To Sg478b 2s6d To £1 Brown Lightly MountedCape Of Good Hope & Other British Collection Lot 6 Scans 99c No ReserveGb Qv Two Pence Deep Blue 1840 Plate 1 Hg Black Maltese Cross Sg 4 Ds5 Vfu Signed First Day Cover - Ian Paisley - Northern Ireland Christian Heritage Pane.Gb Stamps Presentation Pack 1969 Year Set Orig Clean Examples From CollectionGb Qv 1840 Blue 2d (f-g) With Almost 4 Margins Fine Used Beautiful Centre Mx! 1840 1d Black "gc" Plate 5. Nice 4 Margin, Black Maltese CrossPenny 1d Reds & Two Pence 2d Blues Dif Plates Stamp Collection High Cat ValueVery Rare - Sir Richard Attenborough Signed Gandhi First Day CoverPk.685. Gb First Day Cover Collection In Very Fine Albums. Fine Covers.Great Job Lot Of Unused Stamps, Stamp Books, Sheets & Millennium Stamps - Jc R241913 £1 Waterlow Seahorse. Dull Blue-green. Sg404 N72(3). Fine UsedSg2, 1d Black, Used. Cat £375. Red Mx. IdGb Qv 1876 8d. Orange Plate 1 Pl Sg 156 (spec J91a) MintLot:6621 Gb Qv 1841 1d Red Brown Collection Mounted On Album Page With Town CGb. Qv, 10d Jubilee. Unmounted Mint.1959 Phosphor-graphite Set 8v Sg 599-609 Unmounted Mint (s946)Gb Stamps Presentation Pack 1968 Year Set Orig Clean Examples From CollectionA Vast Gb Pre-decimal Collection In Large Stockbook Good Castles And WildingsLot:6632 Gb Qv 1841 1d Red Brown Imperf Strip Of 8 Stamps Ma - Mb - Mc - Md 1841 Sg15aa 2d Violet Blue 4 Margin Thick Lavender Tinted Paper (mb) Cat £1800Gb Folded Booklet Priced Dealer's Stock Collection Face Value £50+ In Album PostLot:6534 Gb Edvii Jubilee Style Issue 1/2d Through To 5s Red Many Dulicates So1885 Cover Perth Scotland To New Zealand (6d Green Sg 194) (s909)Gb Presentation Pack Battle Of Britain 1965 24aGb 1984 Arms 16p Stamp On Nspcc Cover, Signed By Margaret Thatcher, Limited EditAn Extensive Mint Gb Pre-decimal Collection Good Wildings Lots Mnh In Stockbook(254) Good Lightly Cancelled Qv Penny Black (sg2) O-fGb, 1959 Phosphor Graphite Wilding Set Of 8, Fresh Lm Mint, Sg#599-609, CvLot:6612 Gb Qv Sg44 1d Reds Mounted Mint, Plates 124, 159, 213 Sg166 1d VeneGb:120 Different Mainly More Recent Commems. 1st-class & A Few 2nd All UsedQv Sg 2 1d Black Rare Plate 11 Four Margins Fine Used Cat £5,7501d Black Plate 4 Lettered I.i Superb Used With A Crisp Deep Red Maltese Cross...Sg121, Scarce 2s Brown, Good Used. Cat £3800. SbGb Qv Penny Black 1840 Plate 7 Fa Stage 2 "o" Flaw Black Mx Sg 2 (spec. As44