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    

Gb 1929 Upu £1 Black Sg438 Fine & Fresh Mtd Mint Cv £750Gb - Qv Collection Of Line Engraved And Surface Printed IssuesBobby Moore Signed 1966 World Cup England Winners FdcGb Qv - Kgv Used Stamp Collection ~ 1d Penny Black, 2d Blue ~ Cv £8,000 ~ No ResStamp Collection Great Britain Victoria Edv11 Gv Gv1 Er11 Mint Used Covers(gb01)[2620] Great Britain 1840 Penny Black Stamp Very Fine UsedSir Douglas Bader Signed 1965 Battle Of Britain Biggin Hill Fdc Scarce!Penny Black Pair Plate 1b On Cover From Hull To Skelton Oct 1840[2864] Great Britain 1887-90 Good One Pound Stamp Used - ReadSir Alf Ramsay Signed 1966 World Cup England Winners FdcGreat Britain 1840 2d Blue Sg 5, 3 Margins Used Black Maltese Cross (m902)1840 1d Penny Black Sg1 (intense Black) Plate 6 Letters Ig Stunning Red McGb - Qv 1841 Penny Red Imperfs Lot#1One Penny Black On July 1840 Wrapper Very Fine 4 MarginsPenny Black Anniversary - Limited Edition Pres Pack, Europhilex 20159099aj Gb Mint & Used Stamps & Minisheets Collection Incl C0.5 Kg Kiloware - SeeGb - Qv 1841 Penny Red CoversOne Penny Black On November 1840 Wrapper Red Cross And St Line Fleet StGb 1897 Jubilee Set Of 14 Sg197-214 Fine Mtd Mint Cv £375Great Britain - Interesting Old Collection W/ Better Issues D665Nystamps Great Britain Stamp # 1 Used $350 VictoriaNoblespirit No Reserve 9999/359 Ancient Schaubek $18,500 Cv Intact AlbumGb 1902 Set Of 15 Sg215-257 Fine Mtd Mint Cv £720Gb Box - All Reigns But Strong Qe Ii, Machins, Phos, Postmarks, Etc. (142 Pics)Gb - Qv Penny Red StarsGb Victoria To 1970 Collection In Sg Windsor Album. 1d Black Etc[2863] Great Britain 1884 Good One Pound Stamp Used - Read[2819] Great Britain 1840 2p Blue Rare Stamp Very Fine No Gum - See PhotoEarly Great Britain Mint & Used Collection With Back Of Book#890 Gb Qv 18.. E7 Gv & Gvi Big Lot Of Value On 8x Cards Look! £1 Rsw 2d Blues SDecimal Regional Machin Mnh Collection 1971-1993 Scotland Wales N Ireland & IomQueen Victoria - Sg 150 - 1shilling Green - Plate 12 - Mounted MintLot:10440 Gb Qv Sg178, Sg181, Sg183a 10s UltramarineGreat Britain 1883 10s Ultramarine Sg 183 Guernsey Pmk, Fine-used (m1065)[2841] Great Britain 1867-82 Good Stamp Very Fine Used. Anchor WtmkGb 1840 One Penny Black Plate 1a On Piece2005 End Of The War Great Britain Royal Mail/mint Illus. Fdc +uk £2 Coin +medalGb - Qv Penny Reds - Mint Block Of 4Gb - Queen Victoria 1887 Jubilee - Mint Set75th Anniversary Of Penny Black Europhilex London 2015 Presentation Pack. Scarce[2818] Great Britain 1840 Penny Black Stamp Very Fine Lightly UsedGb 1919 5s Rose Red Sg416 Bradbury Fine Mtd Mint Cv £325Sg451 5/- Rose Red Superb Unmounted MintGb Victorian 1858-79 1d Penny Red Stamps Collection Various Plates Used Ref:qa53Great Britain 1939-48 10s Dark Blue Unmounted Mint (m1277)Parcel Post Label/piece With Mixed Values Inc. Victorian 1s Green (m1345)Gb Stamps Queen Victoria Penny Red Perf Error On Piece From Collection 1840 Sg2 Penny Black Almost 4 Good Margins Red Maltese Cross Strike (fa)Sg699 4d Missing Legs Error Unmounted Mint(1)Gb London 2015 Europhilex - 175th Anniversary Penny Black Minisheet Limited EdtnGb Qv - Qeii Mint Stamp Collection In Stockbook ~ High Cat Value ~ 99p Start NrGb 2015 Europhilex 175th Anniversary Of The Penny Black, Limited Edition Pack330g Of Gb Commemorative Kiloware.1d Black Penny Black 1840 Sg 2 Kk Full Red Maltese Cross On Piece Plate 1bHand Autographed 8.5x14.5 Paul Mccartney-beatles Royal Mail Mint Stamps-6 StampsGb 1855 2d Blue Pl 5 Sg23a Fine Used Cv £350 1978-2009great Britain M/sheets Royal Mail 48x Fdcs Sold In Album No Reserve1841 1d Red Mint Unused Marginal Inscription Rare ItemGb Stamps Queen Victoria Penny Red Star Strip Of 4 From Collection Gb, 1948 £1 Royal Silver Wedding Rsw, Vf Fresh Unmounted Mint Mnh, Sg#494