The history of the British postal system dates back to the 12th century when King Henry I (1068-1135) appointed messengers to deliver letters to and from members of the government. Since then, the country has developed an efficient national service, which inspired countries around the world to do the same. Britain also takes credit for the first postage stamp, the Penny Black, which revolutionised the method of sending letters both in Britain and across the planet.
Monarchs followed in Henry I’s footsteps, utilising messengers to carry letters. Henry III (1207-72) gave his men uniforms to show they were on official business for the King. The general public could hire messengers, but these men had no distinguishing clothing. Many households sent kitchen boys or other servants to deliver notes across the city or to neighbouring towns.
Messengers often travelled for several days to deliver the monarch’s messages to recipients in other counties or countries. Although some went on foot, most had horses to speed up the journey. During the reign of Edward I (1239-1307), stations, later known as post houses, were set up in or between various towns where mounted couriers could change horses or rest for the evening. Centuries later, these establishments developed into post offices.
Although postage stamps did not emerge until the 19th century, post markings developed as early as the 14th century. Urgent letters often featured handwritten notes, such as “Haste. Post haste”, which let the courier know to make the delivery a priority. During the 16th century, the Privy Council of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) developed a “gallows” symbol to indicate the degree of urgency. The contents did not necessarily concern the gallows or execution, but it let the messenger know it was a letter of extreme importance.
In 1516, Henry VIII (1491-1547) appointed Brian Tuke (d.1545) as the “Master of the Postes”, thus creating the Royal Mail. At this time, only the royal family and members of the court could use the postal service. Tuke oversaw all the post to and from the royal court and arranged for couriers to make several deliveries during one journey. For this, Tuke received £100 a year and received a knighthood. Tuke also served as High Sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire and owned manors in South Weald, Layer Marney, Thorpe, and East Lee.
During the reign of Charles I (1600-49), the Royal Mail became available to the public. The King instructed chief postmaster Thomas Witherings (d.1651) to arrange “a running post or two to run day and night between Edinburgh and Scotland and the City of London, to go thither and come back in six days”. Thus, the Post Office came into being. Witherings also oversaw the construction of six “Great Roads” and employed a postmaster to take charge of each one. The postmaster’s duties included providing new horses at every two and a half miles for the couriers.
In 1661, Charles II (1630-85) replaced the “Master of the Postes” with the Postmaster General. The King appointed Henry Bishop (1605-91) as the first man with this title and gave him the responsibility to oversee the handling and delivery of the Royal Mail. Since the service was made available to the public, the number of people sending letters rapidly increased. As a result, it took longer for letters to arrive. After a series of complaints, Bishop devised the first postmark “that is putt upon every letter shewing the day of the moneth that every letter comes to the office, so that no Letter Carryer may dare detayne a letter from post to post; which before was usual.” This postmark, which was first used on 19th April 1661, quickly became known as the “Bishop Mark” after its creator. It consisted of a small circle of 13 mm diameter with the month abbreviated to two letters in the lower half and the day in the upper. Bishop also increased the delivery routes across the country, with post offices in each town. Eventually, unique postmarks developed for each area to show from whence the post came.
Letters and parcels were usually paid for by the recipient on receipt. Some people complained about the expense, particularly about letters sent over short distances. To improve the system, an English merchant, William Dockwra (1635-1716), with the help of his assistant Robert Murray (1635-1725), devised the London Penny Post in 1680, which allowed inhabitants of London to send mail across the city for one penny. To use this service, the senders took their letters to a local post office and paid the penny fee rather than relying on the recipient to pay the charge.
Whilst the London Penny Post was successful, the rest of the country were charged per distance, weight or amount of paper used in their letters. People came up with ways to avoid paying the steep charges, such as writing extra small or, if the letter was not prepaid, reading the message and handing it back to the postman. After many discussions, the Great Post Office Reform of 1839 and 1840 set about reversing the financial losses of the service as a result of this misuse. The Reform aimed to nationalise the penny post, a concept championed by Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879). After much debate, Royal Mail adopted Hill’s suggestion of charging one penny to send an envelope of up to half an ounce in weight anywhere in the country or two pence if the fee was collected from the recipient.
The Post Office felt sceptical about lowering the price of postage to a fixed rate of one penny, but Hill rightly pointed out that it would encourage more people to send letters. This sparked the worry that post offices would soon become the busiest establishments in British towns and cities, which inspired Rowland Hill to devise a new means of sending mail. Rather than paying for each letter at a post office, Hill suggested selling prepaid adhesive labels to stick on envelopes. This meant people could buy several labels in one go and reduce the number of trips to the post office. Instead, they could place their letters in the provided post boxes. Thus, the world’s first stamp was born.
The world’s first stamp, the Penny Black, came into use on 6th May 1840 and allowed letters of up to half an ounce to be sent anywhere in the country. Rowland Hill first proposed the idea in 1837, although it took some time for the Post Office to agree to it. Eventually, Hill received permission to begin the project and announced a design competition for the new stamps. Over 2,600 people submitted entries, but they were all impractical. Finally, Hill chose a simple design featuring the profile of Queen Victoria (1819-1901).
Hill commissioned the engraver Charles Heath (1785-1848) to engrave the image of the Queen based on a sketch by Henry Corbould (1787-1844). The size of the stamp was 3/4 inch wide by 7/8 inch tall (19 x 22 mm), which allowed room for the portrait as well as the words “Postage” and “One Penny”. The two upper corners on the design featured the Maltese Cross, and the bottom corners denoted the position of the stamp in the printed sheet. A printed sheet held 240 stamps in 20 rows of 12 columns. The stamps on the top row contained the letters AA, AB, AC and so forth, and on the bottom row, TA, TB, TC etc. The stamps were printed in shades of black, hence its name.
Two days after the Penny Black came into use, the Post Office issued a Two Penny Blue for the postage of letters weighing up to an ounce. The stamps were an immediate success, but the Penny Black soon began to cause problems. After receiving letters, post offices marked the stamp in red ink to show it had been used. Due to the darkness of the Penny Black, the red ink did not show up well and was easily washed off. Learning of this, many people were able to reuse the stamps. By February 1841, the Penny Black had been replaced with the Penny Red, and post offices used black ink to mark used stamps.
Whilst purchasing several stamps on one sheet was useful, the only way to separate them was to cut them out with scissors. This inefficient method inspired printers to develop more practical ways, such as perforation, which became standard practice in 1854. Lines of small holes along the edges of each stamp allowed the user to tear them apart without causing any damage.
The Penny Red and Two Penny Blue were a great success, but people also wanted to send letters and parcels that weighed more than one ounce. Some letters arrived at their destination with more than one stamp affixed to the envelope. This encouraged the Post Office to issue stamps for higher values. Between 1847 and 1854, they produced three new stamps: 1 shilling (12 pence), 10 pence and 6 pence. They were green, brown and purple respectively, and featured a watermark with the letters V R. Unlike the red and blue stamps, these embossed postage stamps were octagonal and could only be printed one at a time.
In 1855, a new method of printing allowed for the production of cheaper stamps. Surface printing, which is still used today to print wallpaper, is an automated printing method that quickly transfers an image to the paper using very little ink. A large reel of paper is threaded through the machine, which in the 19th century resembled a Ferris wheel. Whilst the first stamp printed in this method was a 4 pence stamp, printers were soon churning out halfpenny and penny halfpenny stamps.
The first halfpenny postage stamp was the Halfpenny Rose Red, first issued on 1st October 1870. Nicknamed “Bantams” due to their small size, the stamps were only 17.5 mm × 14 mm (0.69 in × 0.55 in), half the size of a Penny Red. These were intended for the sending of newspapers and postcards, which usually weighed less than letters. The stamps featured the engraved portrait of Queen Victoria with “1⁄2d” printed on either side. They were printed 480 to a page and watermarked with the word “halfpenny”. After ten years, the Halfpenny Green replaced the Rose Red.
On the same day as the Halfpenny Rose Red, the Post Office issued the Three Halfpence Red, also known as penny halfpennies. Printed in a similar colour as the halfpenny, the Three Halfpence was suitable for sending letters that weighed more than half an ounce but less than one ounce. The stamps featured the profile of Queen Victoria surrounded by the words “Three Halfpenny Postage”.
Larger stamps, including 5 shillings (25p), 10 shillings (50p), £1 and £5 also appeared in the 1870s and 1880s. Around the same time, the contract with Messrs. Perkins, Bacon & Co, who printed the Penny Red, came to an end. The stamps were temporarily replaced by surface printed Penny Venetian Reds but new laws resulting from the Customs and Inland Revenue Act of 1881 necessitated the words “Postage and Inland Revenue” on the stamp, so the Post Office commissioned a new design resulting in the Penny Lilac.
The Penny Lilac broke with the traditional design of stamps, which had rectangular designs. The new stamp, whilst printed on perforated rectangles, featured the profile of Queen Victoria inside an oval containing the words “Postage and Inland Revenue” and “One Penny”. Early versions of the Penny Lilac had 14 dots in each corner, but later versions had 16. Unlike the previous stamps, the engraved design was printed in purple while the background remains blank. This meant the stamps could be printed with less ink, allowing Royal Mail to save on expense.
All the other stamps needed new designs due to the Customs and Inland Revenue Act. Printers decided to use the same colour purple for the lower valued stamps (1 1⁄2d, 2d, 2 1⁄2d, 3d) and green for the higher (4d, 5d, 6d, 9d and 1s). The choice of colours was chosen to prevent forgers from reusing the stamps. People frequently washed red and blue stamps to remove postmarks, but the new purple and green inks would fade in contact with water.
Many complained about the new designs because they were simple in comparison to the original stamps. This was due to the rush to create them after the 1881 Act. The 2d, 2 1⁄2d, 6d, and 9d stamps were a horizontal format, which also received complaints. Due to this, the Post Office considered revamping the designs.
The Post Office commissioned their designers to produce unique designs for each existing stamp from a halfpenny to one shilling. With Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee approaching in 1887, they aimed to print them that year in her honour. Collectively, these stamps are known as the “Jubilee Issue” and have a more elaborate design than the lilac and green stamps. Despite celebrating the Queen’s 50th year on the throne, they decided to continue using the original profile picture of the 18-year-old Victoria. Some of the stamp designs contained two different colours to make them easier to tell apart.
Happy with the new designs, the Jubilee stamps remained for the rest of Victoria’s reign. When her son, Edward VII (1841-1910), succeeded the throne in 1901, new stamps became necessary. By reusing the frames for the Jubilee stamps, the Post Office quickly issued new versions featuring the profile of the new king. To prevent people from reusing the stamps, they were printed on chalk-surfaced paper, which was designed to smear if anyone attempted to remove the postage mark.
When George V (1865-1936) became king in 1910, the stamp design remained relatively the same, but in 1924, the United Kingdom released its first commemorative stamp. Featuring the King’s profile on one half and a lion on the other, the stamps commemorated the British Empire Exhibition held in Wembley Park from 23rd April 1924 until 31st October 1925. Of the 58 territories in the British Empire, only Ghana and Gibraltar did not participate. Each country brought items to exhibit and sell based on their cultures, which they displayed in unique pavilions. Malta’s pavilion, for example, was modelled on a Maltese fort and the Australian pavilion displayed a 16-foot diameter ball of Australian wool.
The next major change in stamp design occurred after the death of George V. In 1936, Edward VIII came to the throne, prompting the Post Office to issue a set of four stamps ready for his coronation. Unfortunately, Edward VIII abdicated, and the stamps were only used for a few months. In comparison to previous designs, the Edward VIII stamp was rather simple, only featuring the profile of the king, a crown, the denomination and the word “Postage”. The design was suggested by 18-year-old H.J. Brown and the portrait of Edward was photographed by Hugh Cecil (1889-1974). To prevent forgeries, the stamp was watermarked with the symbol of a crown and “E8R”. The 1⁄2d green, the 1 1⁄2d brown and the 2 1⁄2d blue were issued on 1st September 1936, followed by the Penny Red on 14th September.
George VI’s (1895-1952) stamps were relatively simple in comparison to its predecessors, yet they were more ornate than Edward VIII. The new stamp featured an image of the King based on a plaster cast by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953). They were printed on a solid colour background with the words “Postage” and “Revenue” written on either side of the King’s profile. In the corners, a flower represented each of the countries that made up the United Kingdom: a rose for England, a thistle for Scotland, a daffodil for Wales and shamrocks for Northern Ireland. In 1937, the stamps became lighter in colour because the printers wished to save money on ink in anticipation of the Second World War.
In 1940, the Post Office released commemorative stamps to celebrate the centenary of the postage stamp. At double the size of the usual stamps, the centenary stamps featured the portrait of Queen Victoria and George VI side by side. A total of six different designs were produced, one for each of the denominations from 1⁄2d to 3d. Other commemorative stamps printed during George VI’s reign celebrated the king’s silver wedding, the liberation of the Channel Islands, the 1948 London Olympic Games, the Universal Postal Union’s 75th anniversary and the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851.
New stamps were once again needed when Elizabeth II (b.1926) succeeded her father in 1952. The image of the Queen was taken from a photograph by Dorothy Wilding (1893-1976), who had worked as a royal photographer since 1937. In the photograph, the Queen wears the State Diadem, which Queen Victoria wore in her portrait for the Penny Black. Over 75 designs were considered for the stamp before deciding upon five that resembled the much-loved stamps of the past. Eighteen different values of stamps were printed featuring the new Queen whose face was half turned to the viewer rather than in profile.
During Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, there have been hundreds of commemorative stamps, for example, the Coronation in 1953 and the World Scout Jubilee Jamboree in 1957. Yet, until 1964, the only people to feature on stamps were members of the royal family. In celebration of his 400th birthday, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) became the first “commoner” to have his face on a British stamp. A series of five stamps were designed for the occasion, one of which displayed the playwright’s face alongside the Queen. The other designs contained the Queen and an illustration portraying a scene from a Shakespeare play.
Whereas the profiles of previous monarchs were easy to reproduce as a silhouette to print on other items and commemorative paraphernalia, the Queen’s half-turned face caused problems. This prompted a redesign of British stamps in 1967 using a profile image made by English sculptor Arnold Machin (1911-99). Rather than an ornate design, the stamps were reduced to a coloured background, profile image of the Queen and the denomination in the bottom left-hand corner.
In 1970, the stamps needed editing again after Great Britain adopted decimal currency. New denominations appeared in the corners of the stamps, such as, 10p, 20p and 50p. In 1972, the Post Office issued £1, £2, and £5 stamps and later the odd values of £1.30, £1.33, £1.41, £1.50 and £1.60.
The new prices of stamps were confusing for many people, so the Post Office restricted the higher denominations to £1, £1.50, £2 and £5. In 1988, they issued four new designs featuring illustrations of castles from each country in the United Kingdom, based on photographs taken by Prince Andrew (b.1960). A small version of the Queen’s profile sat in the corner of each stamp alongside the image of Carrickfergus on the £1 green stamp, Caernarfon on the £1.50 brown, Edinburgh on the £2 blue and Windsor on the £5 brown.
Due to inflation, prices of stamps increased, which caused many difficulties for designers and printers. To work around the problem of fast-changing rates, the Post Office released non-denominated postage stamps, known as 1st class and 2nd class. These stamps remain in use today, and the prices can change without affecting the design. In 1993, self-adhesive stamps were printed, meaning people no longer needed to lick the back of a stamp to stick it to the envelope. In 2009, two ellipsoidal panels were added to each stamp to make them harder to remove and reuse.
Every Christmas, the Post Office releases festive-themed stamps, which always feature a small profile of the Queen in one corner. Hundreds of commemorative stamps are also printed each year, some of which cost more than the standard rate. People who have been commemorated include Princess Diana (1961-97), the Queen Mother (1900-2002), Winston Churchill (1874-1965), Inigo Jones (1573-1652), William Morris (1834-96), Roald Dahl (1916-90), Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and the gold medal winners of the 2012 Olympics. Significant events, such as the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the millennium, received special stamps, as have the anniversaries of buildings and organisations, including Westminster Abbey, the NHS and Great Ormond Street. Even fictional characters have featured on British stamps, for instance, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and Winnie the Pooh.