The World of Stamps & Stamp Collecting
By David Lidman and John D. Apfelbaum

Chapter Six
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6. The Stamps of Great Britain.

Great Britain was the innovator in postal and philatelic matters. It produced the first postage stamps (see Chapter 2), but the color of the one-penny stamp, the Penny Black, was soon considered unsuitable. The black made it difficult to cancel effectively and the post office in Britain, like its counterparts throughout the world, feared that its stamps were being cleaned and reused.  

In late 1840, the decision was made by Rowland Hill and other post office officials to change the colors of the British stamps. A light red brown shade was chosen for the none-penny stamp, and after experimenting with different colors for the two-enny blue, it was resolved to continue printing in blue. A line was added to the design above the value tablet "TWO PENCE," so that this printing could be distinguished from the previous one. The one-penny red stamp was the first-class-rate stamp for Great Britain for thirteen years. About 2 billion were printed and sold, a quantity that has assured their being quite common even today. But the Penny Red, as it is called, is a popular stamp, and many collectors own numerous copies as they attempt to plate the stamp, or to collect it by position using the corner check letters. A collector attempting a positioning needs 240 different Penny Reds. The Two Penny Blue 1841 is far scarcer than the Penny Red, indicating the scarcity of double-rate letters, but even of this stamp, 90 million were printed. Two major types of cancellations are known on the 1841 issue: Maltese Cross cancellations and, beginning in 1844, a cancellation called the "1844" type cancel. The "1844" cancels are far more common and are oval-shaped, with numerals inside them. The numerals correspond to an assigned numbering system representing the post office where they were cancelled.

In August of 1841 the first realistic suggestion for the separation of postage stamps, besides the individual use of scissors, was proposed. A correspondent wrote to Rowland Hill suggesting that a deep line might be cut between the stamps when they were engraved, so that in the process of printing, the paper would be pressing into the cuts and each stamp could then easily be parted from the others. But Hill was too preoccupied in advancing his postage stamp innovation and defending his scheme from ruffled bureaucrats to pay the idea much heed. And Hill never thought much of perforations anyway.

In 1847, Henry Archer took up the plea for separations on the sheet, and demonstrated his new invention-- a separating machine-- to the post office officials later in the year. His early method was to use rouletting (see page 34). Archer's idea was an innovative one, though it soon became apparent to him that rouletting was not practical for large-scale stamp issuing. The cutting knives wore quickly, and they so cut the bed beneath the stamp sheet that replacements became inordinately costly. In late 1848, Archer abandoned the rouletting idea altogether and developed a perforating machine that produces perforations which both appear and function exactly as on our stamps today. Several trial perforations were made in the ensuing years and some were released to the public. Finally, in 1852, the government paid Archer 4,000 pounds for his machine and his patent rights, a sum Rowland Hill considered wildly extravagant. However, if one were to pro-rate the cost of the patent over the number of times Archer's machine has been used since, the post office purchase must surely rate as one of the great bargains of all times.

While the post office was experimenting with these perforations, some other stamps had been issued, caused primarily by increased public usage of the mails and Britain's growing commerce overseas. Three stamps, all embossed Queen's heads against colored backgrounds, include a one shilling issued in September of 1847 (#5), a ten pence (#6) issued in November 1848, and a six pence (#7) issued in March 1854. These stamps are among the most difficult in all of philately to get in perfect condition. In some places on the sheet, the designs actually overlapped, so that finding examples with any margins at all is well-nigh impossible. And they are often found cut to their octagonal shape, a condition much denigrated by philatelists. Unused examples are rarities.

The first two, #5 and #6, were issued on a paper that had double silk thread running through it, so that each stamp was printing on paper having the double thread line. This was done as an anticounterfeiting measure, the theory being that duplicating the silk thread would discourage would-be counterfeiters and make it easier to apprehend those who did try it. But the silk thread serves a valuable purpose for modern philatelists. The embossed issue was also used on envelopes that were issued by the government, called postal stationery, which, in this case, are not nearly as scarce as the stamps. Philatelic swindlers would be tempted to clip the embossed stamp off the envelope and sell it as a postage stamp, were it not for the fact that the lack of silk threads would make this deception obvious. The six pence (#7) does not have a silk thread but was issued on paper watermarked continuously with the letters "V.R." -- Victoria Regina.

The first perforated issue of stamps in the world came out in 1854. Each improved perforating machine based on Henry Archer's design was able to perforate 400,000 stamps per day. They were run by steam, and at first five machines were employed, giving the printing office the capacity to perforate 2 million stamps per day. The early experiments with perforations and small die types account for the next fourteen Great Britain catalogue-listed stamps issued over the ensuing four years. It should be noted that until recently the British Post Office's stamp-issuing policy was probably the most conservative in the world. Indeed, the One Penny 1841 remained in use until a perforated version appeared. Some die variations in the mid- and late 1850s make for collectable varieties, but the 1864 One Penny stamp was the general postage stamp for the nation for sixteen more years. Comparable length of duty for the design type does not exist for either United States or Canadian stamps.

The first perforated stamps were perf gauge 16, and it was soon discovered that perf 16 gauge perforation separated far too well. The closeness of the holes meant that postal clerks had to be extremely careful lest the stamps should tear apart in their drawers. Even with care, the stamps were difficult to work with and to transport in quantity. A little later a gauge perf 14 was tried, which spread out the holes a bit; apparently both perf 14 and perf 16 were used coincidentally. Many perforation varieties exist of these early perforated stamps, including double rows of perforations, partly perforated stamps, and even completely imperforated stamps. Furthermore, the centering of the perforations on the stamps-- or, as philatelists usually misrefer to it, the centering of stamp within the perforations-- was wretched. It is almost impossible to find one of these early perforated stamps in which the perforation holes do not touch the design of the stamps. Still, the innovation was well received. The public cared little about how its stamps were centered. And there were not enough collectors yet to make the complaints that render the quality control job at the post office so unpleasant.

Finally, in 1855, Perkins, Bacon & Petch, the printers of Great Britain's postage stamps, wrote to the Inland Revenue, which administered stamp printing, and said it was time that a new die was made for the One Penny stamp. The new die would have more deeply cut lines, which would show the Queen's head off to finer contrast. As an added bonus, the deeply cut die would last longer, and so require that less plates be made. Apparently, the government was also ready for a change. In less than a week it responded that Perkins, Bacon & Petch should begin preparing the new die, which was issued shortly thereafter.

Four Check Letters

The British Post Office had evidence that some postal users were clipping uncancelled parts of stamps and reassembling them on letters to pay postage. Finally, in 1857, the post office got around to ordering stamps with four check letters, the letters in an order reversed from the top to the bottom. The check letters make it much more difficult to use uncancelled portions of stamps convincingly.

The One Penny 1864 with fourcorner check letters is one of the most popular specialty stamps in the world. Many collectors who do not even collect general issues of Great Britain maintain a holding of this stamp. It is about the easiest stamp in the world to plate, for not only do the check letters tell a collector the position of the stamp, but in the tablets at the right and the left of Queen Victoria's head are engraved the plate number of the plate that the stamp came from. One hundred fifty plates of this stamp were used over its long life, and with the exception of the last plate, plate, plate 225 (which was only in use for four weeks), none of them is particularly scarce, except for plate 77. Plate 77 was rejected as defective, but a few examples have surfaced. Edward Bacon, one of the printers, believed that these very rare plate 77s were trial printings from the plate, made before it was destroyed.  A few of these trials somehow managed to get out to post offices and be sold to postal patrons. Examples of plate 77 are among the major rarities of worldwide philately. Many hearts have stopped beating when a collector confused a plate 177-- a very common plate-- in which the "1" was obliterated by the cancellation, with a plate 77.

With some 150 plates and 240 stamps in each plate, a collector would need 36,000 different examples of the same stamp in order to complete a plating and positioning of this stamp (though only 240 are need for a positioning alone). Until recently, in quantities the stamp sold for less than 1 penny a piece. Now they probably sell for about 15 cents. There were over 30 billion printed during the life of the stamp. Although statistics of this kind are difficult to correlate, this is probably the largest printing of a nineteenth-century postage stamp, and may well be the largest printing of any stamp ever.


The very quality of the line engraving by Perkins, Bacon & Petch, which proved to be such an effective anticounterfeiting device, also greatly concerned the Post Office Department. It was felt that the line-engraved stamps could withstand a veritable bath of ink eradicators and the design would still be as clear as ever. The department was very concerned over this potential (mostly imagined) cleaning and reuse. It therefore instructed another printing company, the De La Rue Company, to begin printing a four-pence stamp typographed, that is surface-printed, with a somewhat fugitive ink. Anyone attempting to take a cancellation off one of these surface printed stamps would soon find himself with the design leaving the stamp before the cancellation did. The first surface-printed British stamp was issued in 1855; it continued in use, with some watermark changes, until 1862, when a new issue was called for.

The 1862 issue was also a surface-printed one and incorporated a 3-pence, 6-pence, 9-pence, and 1-shilling value, as well as a revised 4-pence of the previous issue. The reason for the revision on the surface-printed stamps was the same as it was on the engraved, that is, to place corner check letters in the four corners so as to prevent a patron from clipping two uncancelled halves from used stamps and pasting them together on an envelope, thus defrauding the government out of revenue. The surface-printed issue with small corner letter are extremely attractive and well-designed stamps. Their colors were well chosen and they have retained much of their freshness even until our day. The nine pence is an especially scarce and undervalued stamp. It was used to pay the postage on prepaid letters to India, Australia, and South America. Undamaged covers bearing well-centered stamps are very scarce, and because of the remote destinations and lack of stamp collectors in the non-European continents, few of the nine pence were saved. It is an excellent stamp. Like all the nineteenth-century Great Britains, the nine pence is exceptionally difficult to find well centered; and well-centered, mint, original gum examples are a combination that is seldom seen.

In 1865, the same set was reprinted on the same watermarked paper (small emblems in each of the four corners of the stamp), but this time around the corner check letters were greatly enlarged because it was felt that the tiny letters on the previous issue did not especially discourage cutting and ruse. Again a 3-pence, 4-pence, 6-pence, and 1-shilling value were issued. However, a great rarity, a ten pence on emblem-watermarked paper, was also inadvertently issued, when the next set, the 1867 set, was printed, and is actually an error. It is a later stamp accidentally printed on an old batch of paper.  

The 1867 set was basically the same group of stamps printed on a paper with a new watermark-- a pattern that looks like a rose. A number of values were issued over the next thirteen years and these are among the most interesting tamps of the British Commonwealth.

For decades, throughout the nineteenth and well into the early twentieth centuries, the British operated post offices in all corners of the world. These were different from the post offices that their colonial governments ran, which issued their own stamps and provided internal postal service for the countries involved. Rather, the British Post Offices Abroad, as they were called, were far-flung extensions of the British Postal System. They used Great Britain stamps, and operated as a British Post Office in such places as Chile, Peru, and Thailand. British postal officials cancelled British stamps used there with distinctive cancellations, usually bearing a letter followed by two digits. Thus, A26 is Gibraltar and C51 is St. Thomas. The internal post offices mostly used three-digit cancels with no letter. In all, there were hundreds of British Post Offices Abroad cancellations. Often letters are seen bearing both the postage of the country where the British Post Office abroad was, so as to pay carriage to the British Post Office, and the British postage, to pay the British carriage. Used Abroads are a fascinating specialty, and indeed the use of British stamps abroad was so widespread that most stamps thus used sell for only a modest premium over a regular usage. Covers are a different story and can command substantial premiums.

In 1867, Britain began issuing a series of high values that would give it by 1882 the highest face value stamps in the world. In that year a five-shilling stamp was issued which had a face value of 5 shillings (at that time approximately $1.30). The United States had issued several ninety-cent stamps, so this British high value was not unprecedented. Indeed, one Liverpool firm complained that it frequently sent postal packets requiring postage of 70 shillings and the firm complained that the package was so full of stamps there was no room for the address. The five shilling came out in 1867; a ten-shilling and one-pound stamp both in 1878. In 1882, a five-shilling, ten-shilling, and one-pound stamp, all with a different watermark, came out, as did one of the highest value stamps ever issued, a five-pound stamp with an astonishing $26 face value. In 1882, that was a great sum of money. The Five Pound stamp remained in use until 1903, and during its life about a quarter of a million were printed and sold. An odd fact of life about very high value stamps is that a much large proportion of them are saved than of the used lower-value stamps. They were a curiosity rarely seen by people when they were used, and so were rucked away by even noncollectors.

The stamps of Great Britain are a complex field, assembled by collectors in Great Britain to a degree of specialization that this chapter can only begin to suggest. In particular, English collectors love to classify minor varieties of shade. Indeed, rarely do Americans or Canadians seek out anything but the most striking of shade varieties, whereas the British find eminently collectable the minor variations of shade that occur even between different printings of the same stamps.

British stamps are a wonderful specialty, worthy of an inquisitive, inquiring collector at any stage.