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    

Great Britain 1847-54 Embossed Set Of (3) Sg 55/57/59 Cut Square F.u. (m241)Sg 5 Gb Qv 2d Blue Used Four Margins (ref: A346)Gb. Qv. Sg 131, 10/- Grey Green. Blued Paper. Good Used.Sg 127 Gb Qv 5s Rose Plate 2 Overprint Specimen Unused / Mint No Gum (ref: A344)1840, Sg4, Collection Penny Blues, Mulready, Victoria, Britain, Gb, Uk, Qv.#403 Gb Qv 1840 2d Blue To Pale 3x Margins Black Mx Gu C£900-1000 IdGb. Qv. 1840. Sg 5, 2d Blue. Four Margins. Black Mx. Plate 1.Sg 121 2/- Brown Overprinted Specimen. A Very Fresh Mounted Mint Example With...Vintage Post Office Hand Date StampSg 016 £1 Green Ir Official. Very Fine Used With A Glasgow Accounts Oval, Oct...Great Britain 1887 Queen Victoria Jubilee Set Of (14) L.h.m. (m065)1841 Sg14 2d Blue Plate 4 Fine Used 4 Margins (db)Sg437wi 2 1/2d Blue Wmk Inv Unused Cat £2750++Sg 2 Gb Qv 1d Penny Black Very Fine Used Four Margins (ref: A347)Lot:15074 Gb Gv Mounted Mint Definitive Values 1/2d To 1s, 2s6d Seahorse And 5Gb. Qv. 1840. Sg 5, 2d Blue. Four Margins. Plate 1.1841 Sg14 2d Blue Plate 4 Fine Used 4 Margins (qg)Sg 128 Gb Qv 10s Greenish Grey Used (ref: A343)Lot:15030 Gb Qv Sg44 1d Red Plate Re-construction 71 To 224 Missing A Few InbeGb Queen Victoria Line Engraved 1840 Penny Black Filler Sg2. (cat. £375)Great Britain Edward Vii 1902 Set Of 15 Fine L.h.m. (m066)Lot:15046 Gb Qeii Wilding Sets Unmounted Mint On Album PagesGb 2012 Uk A-z Miniature Sheet Mnh Sg Ms3308 Sg Cat £80 Scarce! Look!Gb Stamps - Glory Box - Clearout - Accumulation - Packets- Qv - Qeii - Mint/used#401 Gb Qv 1840 1d Penny Black Unplated 4x Margins Red Mx Gu Sound Example De1840, Sg1, Collection Penny Reds & Black, Queen Victoria, Britain, Gb, Uk, Qv.Great Britain 1929 Puc Postal Union Congress 1 Pound Used George V Ol314Gb Postal History Pre-stamp Covers & Imperf 1d Reds, 2d Blue 36 Items Ref:gp1041841 Sg14 2d Blue Plate 4 Thin Paper 4 Margins (nc)Gb 1840 Penny Black Used With Thin SpotGb 1883 Mint Mounted 5d Dull Green Sg193 Cat £580Gb Postal History 29 1d Red Stars Plates Stamps On Covers Various Pmks Ref:gp1032009 Kew Gardens M/s Great Britain Royal Mint/mail Illus. Fdc +uk 50p Coin Vgc#408 Gb Qv 1883-84 Another Lilac & Greens Set M/u All Values C£2265 Nice Look!Gb Qv 1840 1d Penny Black.2 Margins.aa.unused.g15100#454 Gb Qv 1847-54 Imperf Embossed Issues On Card 6d & 1s C£3k Square (3)Lot:15068 Gb Qv Officials Used And Mounted Mint 1/d To 1s Values Army, Govt Sg398 1d Dull Scarlet Mulrtiple Cypher S/example Cat £225++Gb 1840 Penny Black 'nh' Very Fine Used 4 Margins Sg 2 Cat £37510549aj Gb Presentation Packs Collection - Good Face Value - Worth A Look/view ?Gb Selection. Victoria-early Qeii. Mint & Used. Mixed Condition. Pk.594Great Britain Scott 2 UsedLot:15062 Gb Qv Surface Printed Mint Selection 1/2d Green 1d Lilac 1d VenetGb. Qv. 1841, 2d Blue Selection. For Study.Victoria - 1840 Penny Black Sg.2. Very Nice 3 Margin Example.Four Margin Penny Black, Cancelled Red Maltese CrossMomen: Great Britain Stamps # Mulready Cover P000e #7056-49Gb Postal History 50 1d Reds Plate Stamps On Covers Various Postmarks Ref:gp102Gb 1883 Mint Mounted 3d Lilac Sg191 Cat £280Gb 1969 British Cathedrals, St Nicholas Alcestor Fdc, Alcestor Cds, Cat £175Great Britain 1840 Penny Black (i H) Three Margins Fine-used (m250)Sg182 10/- Colbalt Hd P/thimble Cds Cat £8250+premium++Great Britain Scott 1 Used[7924] Great Britian Penny Black Stamp Very Fine UsedLot:15097 Gb Qv Sg44 1d Red Plate CollectionGv 1924 B. Cypher Controls To 5d, Fine M/mint. Sg.418/25Gb Qv Very Nice 1840 1d Penny Intense-black Sg1 Plate 6, Mint/mounted Letters RdGv ~~~£1 Puc~~~ Fine V/l/m/mint. Sg.438Sg 5 1840 2d Blue Plate 2 Lettered Rg. Very Fine Used With A Red Maltese Cross..10550aj Gb (c2008-2014) First Day Covers Collection - Good Selection Worth View?