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The Sticky Story of the Penny Black Stamp

The invention of the Penny Black prepaid adhesive stamp changed communication in Britain forever but why was it quickly replaced?

The Penny Black stamp was Rowland Hill's invention and was used from 6th May 1840.

The Penny Black stamp was Rowland Hill's invention and was used from 6th May 1840.

Who Was Rowland Hill?

Rowland Hill (1795-1879) was a Victorian reformer who left his teaching post at his father’s school to help improve others' lives.

He wrote a report in 1837 entitled The Post Office Reform. Hill was keen to see the price of postage reduced so that the population would be encouraged to write more often to their family, friends and acquaintances. A welcome expected by-product of this was improved literacy as people practiced reading and writing more regularly.

In 1839 he launched a competition to find a method to effectively provide prepaid post. There were over 2600 entries but none of them fully satisfied Rowland Hill so he invented his own solution. The prepaid stamp was born.

Flatteringly, Hill chose an image of Queen Victoria from the Wyon Medal cast when she was fifteen years old. This juvenile image was used throughout her long life on stamps. Maltese crosses and letters were used to ensure that there would be no forgeries.

Reformer Rowland Hill invented the Penny Black.

Reformer Rowland Hill invented the Penny Black.

Cheating the Postal System

Before reforms, the postage prices had been based on the weight of the letter, the quantity of paper and the distance that the missive had to travel to reach its recipient. There was a major flaw.

The fee for the delivery of the letter was to be paid for by the recipient who could, and frequently did, refuse to pay. The postal service users were sneaky or innovative, depending on your outlook. To avoid a high charge or the fee altogether people took to writing left to right and top to bottom to reduce the weight and agreed on symbols or coding with correspondents.

For example, the recipient might see an X drawn on the top left-hand corner of the exterior and this would tell them at a glance that the sender was in good health. Reassured, they didn't need to pay the fee and read the letter's contents.

Ministers in parliament were exempt from paying postage and it was widely known that this privilege was abused as they offered free mailing facilities to anyone they knew.

Rowland Hill was determined to curb these practices.

Jacob Perkins 1819 printing press is now housed at the British Library.

Jacob Perkins 1819 printing press is now housed at the British Library.

The Penny Black

On 6th May 1840, the Penny Black officially went on sale in the United Kingdom. There was a new charge of one penny per letter of less than half an ounce (14 grams) regardless of the distance it had to travel inland.

The printing firm Perkins Bacon was given the task of producing the stamps. The proof version was approved on the 11th April 1840 and the printing of the purchasable stamps began on the same day.

Perkins Bacon used a cylinder press that Jacob Perkins had invented in 1819. Eleven plates were used, although Plate 1 broke so it’s often referred to as Plates 1a and 1b. The lower left-hand corners of the stamps had letters AA to AL printed on them and these identified the column and sheet that the stamps came from. A watermark of a crown was placed on the reverse of the stamps.

There were 12 stamps per row and 20 rows on a sheet, this gave each sheet a total value of £1.00. The stamps were separated by hand with scissors which must have been a long and cramp-inducing task.

At the run's peak, over 6 million stamps were printed each day.

All appeared to be going well. There was presumably much self-congratulation.

The Penny Red

Congratulations were hushed when it was noticed that the red ink used to cancel or frank stamps with a Maltese cross symbol was removable with a little knowledge, water and chemicals. This meant the Penny Black stamps could be used more than once and allowed fraudulent activity.

The Rainbow Trials followed as a solution was sought. A little over one year after its arrival to great acclaim the Penny Black was abandoned and replaced by the Penny Red. The franking marks were made in a black ink that was much harder to wash or wipe away.

Other countries followed the example of Hill’s reforms and the adhesive prepaid stamp was widely adopted across Europe and in the United States during the 1840s.

The Penny Black had a flaw that allowed fraud.

The Penny Black had a flaw that allowed fraud.

Is the Penny Black Valuable?

Over 68 million Penny Black stamps were printed and because it was common practice to save all correspondence in its entirety in the Victorian era a great number of the stamps survived so they're not as rare as people might assume.

Only if the Penny Black was made using Plate 11 is the stamp deemed rare because this was used mainly for the print run of early Penny Reds but it also started an abandoned run of Penny Blacks.

Individual Penny Black’s are still desirable for collectors but the poor quality ones can be purchased for less than £20 ($24.50 USD). Good standard stamps cost approximately £40 ($49 USD).


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle