Penny Black
The Penny Black was the world's first adhesive postage stamp
Postage stamp
A postage stamp is a small piece of paper that is purchased and displayed on an item of mail as evidence of payment of postage. Typically, stamps are made from special paper, with a national designation and denomination on the face, and a gum adhesive on the reverse side...

 used in a public postal system. It was issued in Britain on 1 May 1840, for official use from 6 May of that year.

All London post offices received official issues of the new stamps but other offices throughout the United Kingdom did not, continuing to accept postage payments in cash only for a period. Post offices such as those in Bath, began offering the stamp unofficially after 2 May.

The idea of an adhesive stamp to indicate pre-payment of postage was part of Sir Rowland Hill
Rowland Hill (postal reformer)
Sir Rowland Hill KCB, FRS was an English teacher, inventor and social reformer. He campaigned for a comprehensive reform of the postal system, based on the concept of penny postage and his solution of prepayment, facilitating the safe, speedy and cheap transfer of letters...

's 1837 proposals to reform the British postal system; it was normal then for the recipient to pay postage on delivery. A companion idea, which Hill disclosed on 13 February 1837 at a government enquiry, was that of a separate sheet that folded to form an enclosure or envelope
An envelope is a common packaging item, usually made of thin flat material. It is designed to contain a flat object, such as a letter or card....

 for carrying letters. At that time postage was charged by the sheet and on the distance travelled.

Postal delivery systems using what may have been adhesive stamps existed before the Penny Black. Apparently the idea had at least been suggested earlier in Austria, Sweden, and possibly Greece.

Treasury competition

Hill was given a two-year contract to run the new system, and together with Henry Cole
Henry Cole
Sir Henry Cole was an English civil servant and inventor who facilitated many innovations in commerce and education in 19th century Britain...

 he ran a competition to identify the best way to pre-pay letters. None of the 2,600 entries were good enough, so Hill launched the service in 1840 with an envelope bearing a reproduction of a design created by the artist William Mulready
William Mulready
William Mulready was an Irish genre painter living in London. He is best known for his romanticizing depictions of rural scenes, and for creating Mulready stationery letter sheets, issued at the same time as the Penny Black postage stamp.-Life and family:William Mulready was born in Ennis, County...

 and a stamp bearing a representation of the profile of the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria
Victoria of the United Kingdom
Victoria was the monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 20 June 1837 until her death. From 1 May 1876, she used the additional title of Empress of India....

. There are also references on the record to cover
Cover (philately)
In philately, the term cover pertains to the outside of an envelope or package with an address, typically with postage stamps that have been cancelled and is a term generally used among stamp and postal history collectors. The term does not include the contents of the letter or package, although...

s bearing the Mulready design. All British stamps still bear a picture or silhouette
A silhouette is the image of a person, an object or scene consisting of the outline and a basically featureless interior, with the silhouetted object usually being black. Although the art form has been popular since the mid-18th century, the term “silhouette” was seldom used until the early decades...

 of the monarch somewhere on the design, and are the only postage stamps in the world that do not name their country of origin, leaving the monarch's image to symbol
A symbol is something which represents an idea, a physical entity or a process but is distinct from it. The purpose of a symbol is to communicate meaning. For example, a red octagon may be a symbol for "STOP". On a map, a picture of a tent might represent a campsite. Numerals are symbols for...

ise the United Kingdom.

In 1839, the British Treasury announced a competition to design the new stamps, but none of the submissions was considered suitable. The Treasury chose a rough design endorsed by Rowland Hill, featuring an easily recognisable profile of 15-year-old former Princess Victoria. Hill believed this would be difficult to forge. The head was engraved by Charles and Fredrick Heath based on a sketch provided by Henry Corbould
Henry Corbould
Henry Corbould was an English artist.-Life:The third son of Richard Corbould, he was born in London. He studied painting with his father, and was at an early age admitted as a student of the Royal Academy, under Fuseli, where he gained the silver medal for a study from the life...

. Corbould's sketch was based on the cameo-like head by William Wyon
William Wyon
William Wyon, RA , was official chief engraver at the Royal Mint from 1828 until his death. He was influenced by the master of relief sculpture, John Flaxman. Wyon was a highly visible proponent of the Neoclassicist vogue, and was elected to the Royal Academy in 1838.Wyon was born in Birmingham,...

, which had been designed for a medal used to commemorate the visit of Queen Victoria to the City of London in 1837. The word "POSTAGE" appeared at the top of the stamp (revenue stamp
Revenue stamp
A revenue stamp, tax stamp or fiscal stamp is a adhesive label used to collect taxes or fees on documents, tobacco, alcoholic drinks, drugs and medicines, playing cards, hunting licenses, firearm registration, and many other things...

s had long been used in the UK) and "ONE PENNY." at the bottom, indicating the amount that had been pre-paid for the transmission of the letter to which it was affixed. The background consisted of finely engraved engine turnings
Engine turnings
Engine turning refers to a fine geometric pattern that can be inscribed onto metal as a finish. Aluminium is often the metal chosen but any metal can be finely machined to produce intricate repetitive patterns that offer reflective interest and fine detail....

. The two upper corners contained star-like designs and the lower corners contained letters designating the position of the stamp in the printed sheet; "A A" for the stamp at the top left, and "T L" for the bottom right. The sheets, printed by Perkins Bacon
Perkins Bacon
Messrs. Perkins, Bacon & Co was a printer of books, bank notes and postage stamps, most notable for printing the Penny Black, the world's first adhesive postage stamps, in 1840.- Origins :...

, consisted of 240 stamps in 20 rows and 12 columns. As the name suggests, the stamp was printed in black ink.

Although 6 May was the official date that the labels became available, there are covers postmarked 2 May, due to postmasters selling the stamps from 1 May. A single example is known on cover dated 1 May 1840.

The Penny Black was in use for only a little over a year. It was found that a red cancellation was hard to see on a black background and the red ink was easy to remove, making it possible to re-use stamps after they had been cancelled. In 1841, the Treasury switched to the Penny Red
Penny Red
The Penny Red was a British postage stamp, issued in 1841. It succeeded the Penny Black and continued as the main type of postage stamp in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland until 1879, with only minor changes to the design during that time...

 and issued cancellation devices with black ink, much more effective as a cancellation and harder to remove. However, the re-use of stamps with the un-cancelled portions of two stamps to form an unused whole impression continued, and in 1864 the stars in the top corners were replaced by the check letters as they appeared in the lower corners, but in reverse order.

Imprimatur sheets

When sheets of the Penny Black were first printed various postal and other officials took the liberty of removing various numbers of stamps from their sheets to present as gifts to dignitaries and other important people. These sheet portions are commonly referred to by collectors as "imprimaturs" or "imprimatur sheets". There are approximately 850 of these sheet portions in the British Postal Museum which also include overprints for British Bechuanaland, Oil Rivers, Levant and Zululand and also departmental overprints such as Army and Inland Revenue.


The Penny Black was printed from 11 plates, but as plate 1 was completely overhauled due to excessive wear, it is generally considered to be two separate plates, 1a and 1b. Plate 11 was originally intended solely for the printing of new red stamps, but a small number were printed in black. These are scarce.

The stamps were printed in unperforated
Postage stamp separation
For postage stamps, separation is the means by which individual stamps are made easily detachable from each other.Methods of separation include:# perforation: cutting rows and columns of small holes...

 sheets, to be cut with scissors for sale and use.

An original printing press for the Penny Black, the D cylinder press invented by Jacob Perkins
Jacob Perkins
Jacob Perkins was an Anglo-American inventor, mechanical engineer and physicist. Born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Perkins was apprenticed to a goldsmith...

 and patented in 1819, is on display at the British Library
British Library
The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom, and is the world's largest library in terms of total number of items. The library is a major research library, holding over 150 million items from every country in the world, in virtually all known languages and in many formats,...

 in London.


The Penny Black is not a rare stamp. The total print run was 286,700 sheets with 68,808,000 stamps and a substantial number of these have survived, largely because envelopes were not normally used: letters in the form of letter sheet
Letter sheet
In philatelic terminology a Letter sheet, often written lettersheet, is nowadays an item of postal stationery issued by a postal authority. It is a sheet of paper that can be folded, usually sealed , and mailed without the use of an envelope...

s were folded and sealed, with the stamp and the address on the obverse. If the letter was kept, the stamp survived. However, the only known complete sheets of the Penny Black are owned by the British Postal Museum.

The VR official

In addition to the general issue of the Penny Black, a similar stamp was produced with the letters V and R in the top corners replacing the stars, intended for official mail. Following the general public's acceptance of the postage stamps and the ridicule of the Mulready stationery
Mulready stationery
Mulready stationery describes the postal stationery lettersheets and pre-gummed envelopes that were introduced as part of the British Post Office postal reforms of 1840. They went on sale on 1 May, 1840, and were valid for use from 6 May...

 produced at the same time, vast supplies of the letter sheets were given to government departments, such as the tax office, for official use and the idea of introducing an official stamp was abandoned. Only a few postally used examples exist, which probably originated from the Post Office circulars
Post Office circulars
From the introduction of the Penny Black by the British postal system, Post Office Circulars have been sent out from the main office, , to give information and examples of the new postage stamps which were coming into general use....

 sent out as advance notice that the new stamps would be brought into use. Four are known on covers; all were cut from their envelopes and then replaced. Most of the cancelled examples are from trials which were made of cancellation types, inks, and experiments with their removal. These trials led to the change from black to red stamps, and vice versa for the cancellations.

The VR official
VR official
The VR official was one of three postage stamps introduced by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in May 1840 for the pre-payment of postage. While the Penny Black and the Two Pence Blue were for use by the general public, as were the Mulready envelopes and letter sheets, the VR...

 is stated to have been made from the original master die. However, this cannot be the case as this die still exists with the original stars intact, in The British Postal Museum & Archive
The British Postal Museum & Archive
The British Postal Museum & Archive is the leading resource for all aspects of the history of the British postal system. It operates three sites: The Royal Mail Archive at Mount Pleasant sorting office in Clerkenwell, London, a Museum Store in Loughton, Essex and The Museum of the Post Office in...

 in London. It is believed that the master for this stamp was produced from the transfer roller used for the production of plate 1 with the stars removed from the top corners, as some impressions show traces of these original stars.

See also

  • List of British postage stamps
  • List of notable postage stamps
  • Mauritius "Post Office"
  • Penny Red
    Penny Red
    The Penny Red was a British postage stamp, issued in 1841. It succeeded the Penny Black and continued as the main type of postage stamp in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland until 1879, with only minor changes to the design during that time...

  • Postage stamps and postal history of Great Britain
    Postage stamps and postal history of Great Britain
    Postage stamps and postal history of Great Britain surveys postal history from the United Kingdom and the postage stamps issued by that country and its various historical territories until the present day....

  • Two penny blue

External links

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