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 137 £5 Orange Very Fine Used Glasgow Cds April 4th 1895 & Blue Crayon...(700) Very Good Used 1878 Qv £1.00 Brown Lilac (sg129) German B.p.p. Certificate(707) Superb Used 4 Margin 1840 Qv 2d Blue (sg5) Plate 2. Black Maltese CrossSg 5 2d Blue Plate 1 Lettered D.h. Very Fine Used Red Maltese Cross...Well Filled Lincoln Album 2700 + Pre 1940 StampsGreat Britain 1929 Puc £1 Black Sg 438 Fine-used (d951)Sg 5 2d Blue Plate 1 Lettered O.h. Very Fine Used With A Lightly Applied Red...(703) Very Good Lightly Cancelled 1888 Qv £1.00 Brown Lilac (sg186)Great Britain Victoria 10s Greenish-grey (sg 135) 'birmingham' C.d.s. (d1197)(701) Very Good Used 1878 Qv 10/- Greenish Grey (sg128)Sg 1 1d Intense Black Plate 7 Lettered Q.i. Superb Used Red Maltese Cross..Gb 2002 Commonwealth Games Set Of 5 On Royal Mail/mint (4 X £2) Pnc Coin FdcSg 43 1d Rose Red Plate 225. A Lightly Mounted Mint Part Marginal...Sg 5 2d Blue Plate 2 Lettered I.i. Very Fine Used With A Crisp Black Maltese...Great Britain Queen Victoria £5 Orange Sg 137 Very Poor Quality (d995)(712) Very Good Lightly Cancelled 1929 Gv £1.00 Black U.p.u. (sg438)1840 1d Black Sg2 Lettered Nj On Cover With Taunton Penny Post CancelGb. Qv, Sg 128, 10/- Grey Green. Fine Used.Sg 404 £1 Dull Blue Green Sg Spec N72(3) Fresh Unmounted Mint Cat £4500Nystamps British Gb Large Old Stamp Collection Scott Album Cv £7500/us $12000(704) Good Used 1891 Qv £1.00 Green (sg212) Qv 1/- X 3, 6d Embossed & 2d Blue, Good Used On Cover To Canada.Gb 1887 Victoria Jubilee £1 Pound Green Sg 212 Cat £800 Qb W2229Gb- Penny Red Stars Specialised C2 And C3 From Dealer StockGb 1929 £1 Puc Mint Never Hinged Sg 438 Cat £7501854 Registered Cover Liverpool - London 10d Embossed Sg 57, 2d Blue (d868)5 Kilograms Kg 11 Lb Genuine Unpicked Charity KilowareLot:8140 Gb Qv Lilac & Green Collection 1883-84 Fine Used Complete Set Sg187Nystamps Great Britain Stamp # 93 Used $5000 Victoria 5 Pound OrangeSg 129 £1 Brown Lilac Superb Used With A Crisp Glasgow Cds May 25th 1887...Noblespirit No Reserve (tpv)/4 10,000+ Penny Red $30-40,000cv ExtravaganzaQueen Victoria 1891 £1 Green Sg 212 Good Used (d996)(708) Excellent Lightly Cancelled Square Cut Qv 10d Brown (sg57)Gb - 1878 Qv Sg128 10s Greenish Grey High Value Plate 1 Good Used Cat £3200(705) Very Good Lightly Cancelled 1902 Edvii £1.00 Dull Blue Green (sg266)Great Britain 1855 2d Blue (sg 27) L C, P 16 Fine Used (d933)Sg 403 £1 Green Pristine Unmounted Mint. Post Office Fresh Superb Deep Colour...Gb 1952-89 Nr.complete Mint Stamp Collection In Davo Album, Good Cat/face ValueSg 5 2d Blue Plate 1 Lettered R.b. Very Fine Used With A Red Maltese Cross...1840 2d Blue Plate 1 (sg 5) Lettered Rk Very Fine Used With A Black Maltese...Gb 1913 10 Shillings Indigo Waterlow Seahorse Sg 402 Cat £450 W2183Sg 132 £1 Brown-lilac On Blued Paper, Watermark Anchor, Very Fine Used...Gb Kevii 1902-13 Selection Of 31 Mnh & Mh Stamps + 2 Used Sg 215/314 Cat £589+Qv 10d Embossed + 2 X 2d On Cover. Sg.57. Cat. £3000(706) Very Fine Used 4 Margin Qv 1d Black (sg2) Plate 1a Red Maltese CrossSg 121 2/- Brown Fine Used London Cds & Numeral. Good Colour, Full Perfs...Gb- Gv And Gvi Mint Control BlocksGb - Qv Penny Red StarsGb- Gv Downey Heads Specialised From Dealer Stock#256 Gb Qv 18.. 1d Penny Reds Plate Collection Not Quite Complete 4x ScansGb. Qv. Sg 122, 6d Deep Chestnut. Superb Port, Glasgow Cds. Very Fine Used.Sg 6 2d Pale Blue Plate 1 Lettered R.k. Fine Used With A Deep Orange Red...Sg 212 £1 Green Very Fine Used With Lightly Placed Registered Ovals...Gb. Qv. Sg 112, 10d Red Brown. Fine Used.Qv 1840 Sg 2 Penny Black Plate 1b With Black Maltese Cross Pmk ( Q D )Gb. Qv, Sg 43, 1d Reds. Many Plates, 73 To 213. (2 Photo's)Gb 1858-79 Rare 1d Red Plate 225 Good Used Sg Cat £800Great Britain 1858 Beautiful 1d Red Plate 225 A Very Scarce Stamp Sg43 Cat1840 1d Black Sg2 Lettered Ci On Mourning CoverSg 478 10/- Dark Blue. A Fine Lightly Mounted Mint Example Cat £260