Today, when we can send and receive a text message or email in seconds, it's hard to imagine the impact on social communication that was brought about by the manufacture of one little black penny stamp, which, when affixed to an envelope ensured a postal delivery to any part of British Isles.

Before 1840 any mail services were costly – except for subscriptions to newspapers which were then delivered free of charge. But as far as letters went, postal charges were calculated by the number of sheets that were written on, and then the distance travelled to reach their destinations - at which point the recipient would pay.

This is why many historical letters were written with vertical and horizontal lines which crossed each other on the page.

As early as 1822, James Chalmers, a bookseller and printer from Dundee, suggested the introduction of pre-paid postage stamps, along with a standard letter size. But not until 1837 did Robert Wallace (MP for Greenock) propose the use of an envelope onto which a stamp could be attached - before which the papers would simply be folded and sealed with ribbons, strings, or wax.

Parliament passed the Penny Postage Bill in the August of 1839, advocating the basic postal rate to be priced at one penny, with the Twopence Blue produced for the delivery of larger items. 

Roland Hill of the Treasury announced a competition for envelope and stamp designs, but when no submissions were considered as being suitable to use he chose an envelope designed by William Mulready (which proved to be not at all popular) and a stamp illustration of the Queen's profile based on an engraving by the artist Henry Corbould. 

Mulready's envelope design

Printed by Perkins, Bacon and Petch (the original press is shown above), the stamps featured the word POSTAGE at the top, and ONE PENNY at the bottom. At the top right and left were star like designs. At the base were two letters that indicated the position of the stamp when printed in a sheet of 240 others. And, until 1854, when sheets were perforated, the postmaster or mistress would have to cut each individual stamp they sold by using a pair of scissors.

Penny Black printing die

The first Penny Blacks were available on May 1, 1840, but they were only valid to use from the official launch date of May 6. The design is now iconic, but it was only produced for one year because the red cancellation ink was hard to see and too easily removed, meaning that the stamps could be reused. This led to the Treasury’s decision to reverse the colours, printing new postage stamps in red with the cancellation frank in black.

With 68,808,000 Penny Blacks having been produced in that one year alone and many still surviving, they are not that rare a commodity. But, for the VV their true value lies in the fact that so many stamps were bought, and so many Victorians took up what has now become a dwindling art – that of letter writing.

1 comment:

  1. Loved reading the history of the Penny Black. Great info. Thanks