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    

Sg403 £1 Green Fu(560)Sg438 £1 Puc Fu(560)Sg121 2/- Brown Gu(591)Great Britain 1841 2d Blue With Unusual Maltese Cross (s193)Gb. Qv. Sg 129, £1 Brown Lilac. Very Fine Used.Gb Collection Of Mint And Used Gv With Seahorses To £1 U/m Cat £11,000Douglas Bader Signed 1965 Battle Of Britain Biggin Hill Fdc (part Set Of Stamps)Sg128 10/- Greenish Grey Gu(560)Great Britain One Penny Black Stamp C1840 Unused No GumGb Stamp Collection/accumulation In 3 Albums & Leaves,1d Black, 2d Blue High CatGb. Qv. Sg 206, 4 1/2d Green & Carmine. Superb Block.Great Britain 1 Penny Black Stamp C1840 Mounted Mint (light Crease)Great Britain 2 Penny Blue Stamp C1840 Mounted MintGreat Britain 1 Penny Black Stamp C1840 Unused No GumO35 Gb Qv 1880 2sh Brown (sg121) 'ob' Spacefiller Cat£4250Sir Douglas Bader Signed 1965 Battle Of Britain Biggin Hill Fdc (part Set)Lot:11738 Gb Qv Sg214 1s Green & Carmine Block Of 6 Bottom Right Of Sheet UnmLot:11787 Gb Qv Jubilee Style Issue Complete Sets Used And Mint Sg197-214 A VSg434-sg438, Including £1 Puc, King George V, Kgv, Gb, Uk, Cat £550+++ Machin Specialised Collection Of 135 Mnh Stamps 1971 To 1992 +++Great Britain 2 Penny Blue Stamp C1841 Unused No Gum#495 Gb Qv 18.. Le & Sp + E7 Accumulations & Collection On 14x Cards 1d ½d 2d 1sGb. Qv. Sg 87, 9d Straw. Mounted Mint.Momen: Great Britain Gb Stamps # Classics Collection $ C2695a #8082Great Britain , 1840 , One Penny Black Fine Used,,Gb. Kevii. Sg 263, 5/- Bright Carmine. 1902 Dlr. Fresh Mounted Mint.Lot:11794 Gb Qv Lilac & Green Collection Mixed Fine Used And Mint Including Sg5000 Bulk Royal Mail 1st First Class Stamps All Brand New! Free Special Delivery9511aj Gb First Day Covers & Covers Collection- Definitives Mainly Booklet PanesLot:11748 Gb Edvii Sg266 £1 Green 1902-13 Cat £800Qv 1878 Sg129 £1 Brown-lilac (cf) Filler Copy Cat £4500Lot:11598 Gb Edvii Fine Mint Jubilee Style Issue Set 1/2d To 1s With DuplicatGreat Britain , Victoria , 10sh., Fine Used-Gb 1840 Sg5 2d Twopenny 2d Blue Lettered Qr Good To Fine 3.5 Margin Cat £900Lot:11744 Gb Qv Penny Black 1840 1d Black 'af' Well Centered Red Maltese Cros1840 Mulready Cover Used With Red Mx1840 2d Blue With 4 Margins & Black Mx(560)Qv 1847 10d Brown Mint Embossed . Please Note Creased Vertical And HorizontalyGreat Britain 1840 1d Black Used (2)Gb. Qv. Sg 196, 1/- Green. Superb Colour. Mint.Noblespirit No Reserve Excellent Great Britain No.1 4mgns Used Lt. Cancel =$320 Qv 1d Red ~~~plate 225~~~, Good Used. Sg.43 'le'. Cat £800Great Britain , 1840 , One Penny Black Fine Used, .Gb 1867 Used 5/- Rose Plate 1 Sg126 Cat £675Great Britain , 1840 , Two Pence Blue Fine Used,,Gb 1867/76 Used 1/- Green Plates 4 To 13 Cat £1140Gb Edvii Dlr Sg Spec # M48(1) (sg 260) 1902 2/6d Mint Nh Cat £52580 X 1st Class Large Letter Unfranked Stamps "on Paper"Great Britain , 1840 , One Penny Black Fine Used .1840 Penny Black Plate 2 With Red Cross (tl)1912 1d Scarlet Sg 336 **unm Booklet Pane Of 6 Selvedge/ Decent PerfsGreat Britain , Edward Vii , 10sh., Fine Used-Gb Stamp 1924 Glasgow Philatelic Congress Stamp Exhibition Cover From CollectionGb 1939 Kgvi 2/6 Brown Sg476 Unmounted Mint Mnh Corner Block Of 4. Gb & Cape Of Good Hope Mint Qv Collection Ex Postmaster Cat £74,500Lot:11725 Gb Qv Mulready Envelope 2d Blue Unused A2021843 2d. Blue Sg 14 Plate 3 (bk) - Number 12 In Maltese Cross. Cat. £550.Gb 1934 Sea Horse 10/- Indigo Mint Mounted Sg452 Cat £3501840 Penny Black Plate 1b With Red Cross (je)Gb 100 X Royal Mail First Class Stamps New, Self Adhesive, Royal Mail