British Commonwealth Collectors' Stamps
The United Kingdom was the first country in the world to introduce nationwide postal service. As such, it should be no surprise that the country has a rich philatelic history filled with many notable, rare and collectible stamps. The UK is also remarkable for establishing functioning postal systems in its colonial territories — many of which laid the basis for a national system following independence from the Empire.
Britain’s Early Postal History
The roots of postal service in Britain date back to the 12th century when Henry I became the first reigning monarch to use a team of dedicated messengers to courier letters between locations. Subsequent kings further refined the system, with Edward II introducing the first postal marking — a handwritten note for urgent letters reading "Haste, post haste," originating a phrase that is still in use today.
The next milestone in Britain's postal history — and the first step toward the invention of the adhesive stamp — was the founding of the Royal Mail. In 1516, Henry VIII created the position of "Master of the Posts," which oversaw the creation of post roads, postal houses and their associated staff throughout the United Kingdom.
In 1635, the Royal Mail system was made available to the public. In 1661, Postmaster General Henry Bishop invented the "Bishop Mark," a primitive hand-struck stamp noting when a letter was posted. Following this, the use of postmarks spread throughout the Royal Mail system, with different offices employing distinct symbols.
Postal Reforms and First Stamps
By the early 19th century, the Royal Mail system was suffering from rampant corruption and abuse within. A series of reforms in 1839 and 1840 were intended to modernize the system, putting it further under government control, standardizing rates and improving service and reach. Sir Rowland Hill, who today is considered by many to be the founder of the modern postal system and the inventor of the adhesive stamp, spearheaded these reforms.
Hill called for a fixed fee of one penny for mail delivery between any two locations in the United Kingdom. This rate was considerably lower than postage at the time, which made the system more accessible, though it led to short-term financial losses.
The Penny Black
The Penny Black is notable for being the first stamp in the world to use an adhesive backing. A direct result of Hill's postal reforms, the Penny Black was first printed in 1840, following an exhaustive competition which saw more than 2600 design submissions. The Penny Black was printed by the firm Perkins, Bacon & Petch, and famously featured an image of Queen Victoria in profile based on an engraving by William Wyon.
As the first postal stamp, the Penny Black predates the creation of the Universal Postal Union and as a result, exhibits a number of anachronistic characteristics. Most notably, it does not include the name of the issuing country on it — an understandable omission given that no other postal services were using a similar system. Another interesting feature of the stamp — one with important implications for collectors — is that each pane was cut by hand, resulting in noticeable variances in consistency.
Today, Penny Blacks with uniform margins are highly prized by collectors. Because of its wide circulation, however, many Penny Blacks still exist today, making them an excellent first purchase for anyone interested in beginning a collection of rare British stamps.
Other Early British Stamps
The stamps that followed the Penny Black incorporated many innovations still in use today. The more-efficient method of perforation superseded hand cutting in 1854. Surface printing was introduced in 1855, leading to greater consistency, while the first embossed stamps were produced in 1847, 1848 and 1855.
Some notable British collectors’ stamps from this period include the Penny Red — a successor to the Penny Black — and the Penny Lilac, which served double duty as both a postage and revenue stamp. The Jubilee issue, so named because it was produced during the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne, was the last major issue to use the monarch's image in profile.
While many of these early issues are today considered valuable British collectors’ stamps, others are more common and are frequently found at auction for reasonable prices. Anyone interested in adding to their collection should speak with the team at Apfelbaum, Inc. directly for information about upcoming sales.
British Colonial Era Stamps
Given the overlap between the Britain's imperial century and the modernization of its postal systems, it's no surprise that British Commonwealth stamps remain highly sought after collectors' objects. Today, collecting rare British Commonwealth stamps is a popular hobby that combines history with philately in fascinating ways.
At its peak, the British Empire spanned over 33 million square kilometers and included territories in North and South America, Africa and the Middle East. British postal authorities set up regional outposts in many of these regions, issuing unique overprints and other stamps for use both within the territory, and for communicating with home. The first of these was issued in Mauritius in 1847. Today, only a small handful remain and, when they do come up for auction, they frequently rank among the most expensive British collectors' stamps.
Stamps from former colonies are known as "dead country stamps.” Dead country stamps constitute an area of specialization in their own right, and include some extremely rare and expensive issues. In fact, as of 2014, the most valuable stamp ever sold was the British Guyana 1-cent magenta — the only existing copy was sold at auction for an estimated $9.4 million.
Regional British Stamps
Untangling the complex legacy of British colonialism is well beyond the scope of this article. Even today, many of the country's overseas territories continue to produce their own stamps. As well, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands and Isle of Man all print regional issues. Some of these are valid for use throughout the Kingdom, while others are purely for local use.
Whatever your specific interests, there are plenty of ways to approach starting a collection of rare British stamps. Apfelbaum, Inc. frequently has rare British Commonwealth stamps for sale in our Stamp Store from all corners of the globe. Browse our inventory online to see what’s available.