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 Britannia’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    

Great Britain , Victoria , 6d Straw/bistre Plate 11 Lightly Mounted MintGb 1935 Silver Jubilee Set On Original Westminster Illustrated Fdc Cat £600Sg 4 1840 2d Deep Full Blue Plate 1 Lettered L.d. Very Fine Used, Full Margins..Great Britain , Victoria , 1840 , 1d Black Fine Used ,#317 Gb Qv 18.. Misc Sp To 5s On 6x Cards Victoria Good Cat Altogether Look!Gb Qv Mint & Unused / Mint No Gum Stamp Collection Inc Sg 51 & Sg 195 (ref: D9)Sg404 £1 Dull Blue-green Very Fine Used Cat £1600++#309 Gb Qv 1883-84 High Values Set Of 3 Sg178 180 183a C£960 (3)Gb Victoria Line-engrave Surface-print Stamp Collection Inc 5s Sg126/7 Re:qd562Great Britain 1840 Penny Black (m B) 3 Margins Fine-used (d403)Great Britain Victoria 5s Rose (sg 127) Plate 2, Very Fine-used (d394)1966 World Cup Football England Winners First Day Cover, Signed Bobby MooreGreat Britain 1840 Penny Black (m B) Fine-used Black Maltese Cross (d404)1840 1d Intense Black Plt5 Jb Bright Red Mx Cat £525++Great Britain 1867-80 6d Mauve (sg 109) Plate 9 Cat £700 L.h.m. (d399)Great Britain Victoria 2s Blue (sg 118) Very Fine-used (d395)Gb Used In The Crimea War C.1854 'oxo' Postmark Fine-used (d375)Nystamps Gb Great Britain Victoria Stamp # 93 Used $5000Nystamps Gb Great Britain Victoria Stamp # 109 Mint Og H $2250Lot:17876 Gb Qv Mint Jubilee Issue Sg197-sg214 All Fine Mounted MintGb Sg Davo Qe Luxury Padded Hingeless Album 1952-88 +range Of Mintpre-dec Stamps#296 Gb Qv 1867 5s Pale Rose Plate 1 Sg127 Gu C£675 GgGb 1948 Olympic Games Photo Postcard Fdc With Games Slogan Cat £60+Great Britain 1847-54 Embossed 10d Brown (sg 57) Fine-used (d504)Gb Stamp Collection - Qv - Qeii - All On Album Pages - Accumulation - HoardQv 1840 2d Deep Full Blue On Piece, Fine Used, 4m. Sg.4. 'dg'.#326 Gb Qv 1840 1d Penny Black Filler Black Damaged Second Of No Cat Value KdGreat Britain Collection From Strong Scott Vol I 1840-1940 Album W Penny Black1840 1d Intense Black Plt4 Se S/red Mx Cat £525++Gb 1953 Coronation Illustrated Fdc To India With Arundel Cds Cat £200#297 Gb Qv 1847 1s & 10d Embossed Cts On Piece Sg55 & 57 Gu C£2500 (2)#343 Gb Collection Gvi - Qe2 In Windsor Vol 1 Album Phosphors High Values SetsGreat Britain , Victoria , 4d Vermillion Plate 12 Lightly Mounted MintGb 1929 (10th May) Puc Low Values On Plain Fdc Sutton Coldfield Cds Cat £550#295 Gb Qv Victoria 18.. Le & Sp Misc On 4x CardsGb 1840 Sg3 1d Penny Black Grey Black Worn Plate Black Mx1840 Gb Victoria Penny Black Stamp (lj) - Unused - Huge Bottom Margin - See!Gb 1840 1d Black Four Margins. UsedSg120a 2/- Cobalt Plt1 Lj Good Stamp Cat £3000++Great Britain , Victoria , 3d Rose Plate 8 Lightly Mounted MintGv 1911/12 Downey Head Issues X 110 For Study, Mostly Fine M/mintGreat Britain , Victoria , 1840 , 1d Black Used , CreaseGb 1840 Sg2 1d Penny Black Lettered Gj 3-4 Margin Black MxGb 1948 Channel Islands Lib Rare Illust Fdc, British Industries Slogan Cat £125+Gb 1940 Stamp Centenary 'james Chalmers' Illust Fdc Arbroath Cds Cat £190+[a9] Royal Mail Stamps First 1st Class Xmas Booklets 48 Stamps Save On PostageGb Davo Stamp Album Fine Collection Qv To 1989 Qeii Decimal Section Well Filled#304 Gb Qv 18.. Sp 1s Green Plates Gu On Card C£1060 As Least (8) VictoriaGb 1840 Sg5 2d Twopenny 2d Blue Red Mx Spacefiller{j289} Stock Book Gb Queen Victoria Onwards Mnh Mint & Used As PicsGreat Britain 1867-80 3d Rose (sg 103) Plate 5, Hinged Mint (d400)1966 World Cup Football 6d Black Colour Shift Error - VarietyGreat Britain Victoria 2d Blue (sg 19) 5 Stamps Fine-used (d366)1882:queen Victoria 5 Pounds,used Sg137,michel 66x, Examined, No Hidden Faults.Nystamps Gb Great Britain Victoria Stamp # 7 Mint With Gum H $12500Great Britain 1847-54 Embossed 1s Green (sg 55) Fine-used (d502)Sg1/3- 1d Black, 4 Margins, Black Mx - Cv £375+1840 2d Deep Blue Plt2 Rl Black Mx Cat £1250++#320 Gb Gv E8 & Gvi 1913-1941 More Control Marginal Singles Mm/umm On 2x Cards1799 Lottery Ticket, Richardson. Rare Item With Letter ... (d540)