Postage stamps and postal history of Great Britain

Postage stamps and postal history of Great Britain

This is a survey of the "'postage stamps and postal history of Great Britain.

The postal history of Great Britain is notable in at least two respects; first, for the introduction of postage stamps in 1840, and secondly for the establishment of an efficient postal system throughout the British Empire, laying the foundation of many national systems in existence today.

Early history

The story begins in the 12th century with King Henry I of England, who appointed messengers to carry letters for the government. At this time, private individuals had to make their own arrangements. Henry III provided uniforms for the messengers, and Edward I instituted posting houses where the messengers could change horses. The reign of Edward II saw the first postal marking; handwritten notations saying "Haste, post haste".

Henry VIII created the Royal Mail in 1516, appointing Brian Tuke as "Master of the Postes", while Elizabeth I appointed Thomas Randolph as "Chief Postmaster". Under Thomas Witherings, chief postmaster under Charles I of England, the Royal Mail was made available to the public (1635), with a regular system of post roads, houses, and staff. From this time through to the postal reforms of 1839 - 1840 it was most common for the recipient to pay the postage, although it was possible to prepay the charge at the time of sending.

In 1661, Charles II made Henry Bishop the first Postmaster General (PMG). In answer to customer complaints about delayed letters, Bishop introduced the Bishop mark, a small circle with month and day inside, applied at London, in the General Post office and the Foreign section, and soon after adopted in Scotland, (Edinburgh), and Ireland, (Dublin). In subsequent years, the postal system expanded from six roads to a network covering the country, and post offices were set up in both large and small towns, each of which had its own postmark.

Note on British currency

The unit of currency is the pound sterling. Its symbol is £ which represents the Latin word for pound, "libra". Until February 1971, it was divided into twenty shillings (20s. or 20/-) the / derives from the old long s. both symbols stand for its Latin name "solidus". Each shilling was divided into twelve pence 12d. The d represents "denarius", the Latin word for a ten "as" piece. Since 1971, the pound remains but it is divided into a hundred of what were for a few years, called "new pence". Now they are "pence" for which the symbol is p. Thus, ignoring inflation, 2.4d. = 1p and 1/- = 5p.

Postage stamps

The Great Post Office Reform of 1839 and 1840 was championed by Rowland Hill as a way to reverse the steady financial losses of the Post Office. Hill convinced Parliament to adopt a flat 4d per 1/2 oz (£1.18/kg) rate regardless of distance, which went into effect 5 December 1839. This was immediately successful, and on 10 January 1840 the Uniform Penny Post started, charging only 1d for prepaid letters and 2d if the fee was collected from the recipient. Fixed rates meant that it was practical to avoid handling money to send a letter by using an "adhesive label", and accordingly, on May 6, the Penny Black became the world's first postage stamp in use.

The stamp was originally for use only within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and as such was in effect initially a local stamp. For this reason the name of the country was not included within the design, a situation which continued by agreement with foreign post offices, provided the sovereign’s effigy appeared on the stamp. Envelopes sold with postage paid did not include this so were marked with the country's name. In 1951, the special commemorative issue for the Festival of Britain included the name 'Britain' incidentally. It could therefore be said by a rather forced argument that for the first time, the name of the country then appeared on a stamp of the UK.

It soon became obvious that black was a not a good choice for stamp colour, since any cancellation marks were hard to see, and from 1841 onward, the stamps were printed in a brick-red colour. The Penny Reds continued in use for decades.

Victorian era

The Victorian age saw an explosion of experimentation. The inefficiency of using scissors to cut stamps from the sheet inspired trials with rouletting (the Archer Roulette), and then with perforation, which became standard practice in 1854. In 1847, the 1 shilling (£0.05) became the first of the British embossed postage stamps, (of an octagonal shape), to be issued, followed by tenpenny stamps the following year, and sixpence (£0.025) values in 1854.

Surface-printed stamps first appeared in the form of a fourpenny stamp in 1855, printed by De La Rue, and subsequently became the standard type. 1/2d (halfpenny) and 1 1/2d (penny halfpenny - pronounced pennyhaypny or threehapence) engraved stamps issued in 1870 were the last engraved types of Victoria; the next would not appear until 1913. Surface-printed stamps of the 1860s and 1870s all used the same profile of Victoria, but used a variety of frames, watermarks, and corner lettering.

A 5 shilling (abbreviated as 5/- or as 5s.) (£0.25) stamp first appeared in 1867, followed by 10 shilling (£0.50) and 1 pound values in 1878, and culminating in a 5-pound stamp in 1882.

Meanwhile, the age of the Penny Reds had come to an end along with the Perkins Bacon printing contract. The new low values were also surface-printed; first was a penny stamp coloured Venetian red in a square frame, issued in 1880. However, the passage of the Customs and Inland Revenue Act of 1881 necessitated new stamps valid also as revenue stamps, and so the Penny Lilac was issued in that year, inscribed "POSTAGE AND INLAND REVENUE". This stamp remained the standard letter stamp for the remainder of Victoria's reign, and vast quantities were printed. Later issues were inscribed POSTAGE & REVENUE which became the more familiar POSTAGE REVENUE.

1883 and 1884 saw experimentation with stamps using fugitive inks. These were rather plain designs, low values in lilac and high values in green, because those were the only colours available. They succeeded in their purpose - relatively few of the stamps survived usage, their colours fading away when soaked from the envelope - but they were not liked by the public.

The last major issue of Victoria was the "Jubilee issue" of 1887, a set of twelve designs ranging from ½d. to 1s., most printed in two colours or on coloured paper. (Although issued during the Jubilee year, they were not issued specifically for the occasion, and are thus not commemoratives.)

Early 20th century

When Edward VII succeeded to the throne, new stamps became necessary. The approach was very conservative however; most of the Jubilee frames were reused, and the image of the King was still a single profile. Edward's reign being short, there were no major changes of design, but the use of chalk-surfaced paper was introduced. (This type of paper can be detected by rubbing the surface with silver, which leaves a black mark.)

By contrast, the stamps of King George V were innovative from the very first. The first issue made was of the halfpenny and penny values, which were in the same colours as used for the previous reign. Although the main design feature remained the same, (a central ellipse for the portrait, an ornamental frame, value tablet at the base and a crown at the top), a three quarter portrait was used for the first time. Subsequent designs reverted to the standard profile however.

Britain's first commemorative stamps were issued for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. The pair of large-format stamps featured a lion in an imposing stance; they were issued twice, in 1924, and then in 1925, the stamps of each year being inscribed with the year of issue. A second set of commemoratives in 1929 marked the 9th Congress of the Universal Postal Union (UPU), held in London that year.

Abdication and war

A set of four stamps was issued in 1936 for Edward VIII before he abdicated. George VI's coronation was marked with a commemorative; part of an omnibus issue included every colony in the Empire. New definitives featured a profile of the king on a solid colour background, precursors of the Machins three decades later. (See below)

The century of the postage was celebrated in 1940 with a set of six depicting Victoria and George VI side-by-side. By the following year, wartime exigencies affected stamp printing, with the 1937 stamps being printed with less ink, resulting in significantly lighter shades. Post-war issues included commemoratives for the return of peace, the Silver Jubilee and the 1948 Summer Olympics in 1948, and the 75th anniversary of the UPU, in 1949.

In 1950 the colours of all the low values were changed. 1951 saw a new series of high values (2s 6d, 5s, 10s, £1), and two commemoratives for the Festival of Britain.

Modern era

When Elizabeth II succeeded her father in 1952, new stamps were needed. The result was a collection of variations on a theme that came to be known as the Wilding issues, based on a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by photographer Dorothy Wilding.

Wildings were used until 1967, when the Machin issues were introduced. The Machin design is very simple, a profile of the Queen on a solid colour background, and very popular, still being the standard British stamp as of 2008. They have been printed in scores of different colours; in addition, decimalisation required new denominations, and there have technical improvements in the printing process, resulting in literally hundreds of varieties known to specialists.

Regional Issues

Beginning in 1958, regional issues were introduced in the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales. While these issues are only sold at post offices in the respective countries, they are valid throughout the UK.

"See": Great Britain (Regional Issues)

New articles will be created re postage in the Isle of Man, Channel Islands, Alderney, Guernsey and Jersey.

British Postal Services Abroad

Great Britain has introduced postal services throughout the world and has often made use of British definitives bearing local overprints. The following is a full list of British postal services abroad and many of these will become the subject of independent articles in due course:

* British post offices abroad
* British post offices in Africa various issues
* Baghdad (British Occupation) 1917 only
* Bangkok (British Post Office) 1882 - 1885
* Batum (British Occupation) 1919 - 1920
* Beirut (British Post Office) 1906 only
* British post offices in the Turkish Empire 1885 - 1923
* British postal agencies in Eastern Arabia 1948 - 1966
* Bushire (British Occupation) 1915 only
* Cameroons (British Occupation) 1915 only
* China (British Post Offices) 1917 - 1930
* China (British Railway Administration) 1901 only
* Crete (British Post Offices) 1898 - 1899
* East Africa Forces 1943 - 1948
* Egypt (British Forces) 1932 - 1943
* Eritrea (British Administration) 1950 - 1952
* Eritrea (British Military Administration) 1948 - 1950
* German East Africa (British Occupation) 1917 only
* Iraq (British Occupation) 1918 – 1923
* Japan (British Commonwealth Occupation) 1946 - 1949
* Japan (British Post Offices) 1859 - 1879
* Long Island (British Occupation) 1916 only
* Madagascar (British Consular Mail) 1884 - 1895
* Mafia Island (British Occupation) 1915 - 1916
* Malaya (British Military Administration) 1945 - 1948
* Middle East Forces (MEF) 1942 - 1947
* Morocco Agencies 1898 - 1957
* North Borneo (BMA) 1945 only
* Salonika (British Field Office) 1916 only
* Sarawak (BMA) 1945 only
* Somalia (British Administration) 1950 only
* Somalia (British Military Administration) 1948 - 1950
* Tangier 1927 - 1957
* Tripolitania (British Administration) 1950 - 1952
* Tripolitania (British Military Administration) 1948 - 1950

See also

* List of people on stamps of Great Britain
* List of British postage stamps
* Post Office (United Kingdom)

External References

* British Stamp Catalogues by Stanley Gibbons Ltd
* [http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A1082558 History of the Postal Service] BBC article
* "The Stamp Atlas" by Stuart Rossiter & John Flower
* "Collect British Postmarks" by J T Whitney (British Postmark Society, 1979)
* [http://www.imagesoftheworld.org/stamps/stamps.htm Great Britain, mostly Victorian stamps but up to Machins]


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