Great Britain 1840 Penny Black



2015-06-26 11:01:07

The Great Britain 1840 Penny Black was the world's first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system.

It was issued by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 1 May 1840, for official use from 6 May of that year. Prior to the Penny Black's existence, post was paid for by the recipient, a process which was slow, expensive and inefficient.

Teacher and educational reformer, Rowland Hill had a new idea whereby postage was prepaid, which he claimed could reduce costs of the arduous handling involved in the old method. Hill's work inspired the Penny Black, a postage stamp which was paid for in advance and attached to the letter.

History and Design

The idea of a stamp to indicate pre-payment of postage (instead of the cost being paid on delivery) was that of the teacher and social reformer Sir Rowland Hill, as part of his plans to reform the British postal system. He described it as "a bit of paper… covered at the back with a glutinous wash which the user might, by applying a little moisture, attach to the back of a letter".

His proposals led him to be awarded a two-year contract to run the new system, and he launched the service in 1840 with a stamp bearing a representation of the easily recognisable profile of the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria. This design, taken from a Commemorative Coins when she was a 15-year-old princess, was submitted in a competition by an engineer named Mr Cheverton. It was endorsed by Rowland Hill, who thought the design would prove difficult to forge. The image, printed in black, was based on a sketch provided by Henry Corbould and engraved by the father and son team of Charles and Fredrick Heath.

The design showing Queen Victoria, without country name, laid the foundations for British stamps. From then on, British stamps, known as definitives, were issued with a portrait - often in profile or semi profile - of the reigning sovereign. Together with the image, the word ‘postage’ appeared at the top of the stamp with its value ‘one penny’ at the bottom.

The original printing press for the Penny Black, the D cylinder press, was invented by Jacob Perkins and patented in 1819. It was printed with the line engraved printing method using 11 numbered plates. However, the first plate suffered much deterioration and was repaired to such an extent that it is generally thought of as two separate plates, making a total of 12.

In an attempt to prevent forgery the stamps had small crown watermarks on the back and letters in the bottom corners, which were impressed by hand. The letters were marked 'A' through 'T' horizontally on the plate and 'A' through 'L' vertically so 'AA' was found at the top left of the sheet and the final stamp position at the bottom right was 'TL'. The stamps were printed in un-perforated sheets consisted of 240 stamps in 20 rows and 12 columns, to be cut with scissors for sale and use.

Social impact

The Penny Black had an enormous impact on British society, bringing an affordable postal service to the masses which in turn lead to the spread of information. In this way it can be easily compared to innovations such as the telegraph and the internet as a vital tool for mass communication. By 1860 85 countries around the world had issued their own postage stamps, leading Prime Minister Gladstone to describe the reform as having "run like wildfire throughout the civilised world".


Although May 6 was the official date that the Penny Black became available, many postmasters sold the stamps from the date they were issued, May 1.

It was in use for only a little over a year, and replaced by the Penny Red in 1841. This was an attempt to prevent re-use of the stamps, as it was found that a red cancellation mark was hard to see on a black background and the ink was easily removed. The Penny Red had a black cancellation mark which proved both much easier to see and harder to remove.


The supposed rarity of the Penny Black is a common misconception.

Its total print run was 286,700 sheets with 68,808,000 stamps, and a substantial number of these have survived, largely because envelopes were not normally used: letters in the form of letter sheets were folded and sealed, with the stamp and the address on the obverse. If the letter was kept, the stamp survived.

The 2010 Stanley Gibbons Great Britain Concise Stamp Catalogue lists the price of a mint penny black at £6,500 with a used example listed at £275. The prices quoted in the catalogue are the estimated selling prices of Stanley Gibbons Limited at the time of publication.

Notable examples

The only known complete sheets of the Penny Black are owned by the British Postal Museum and Archive.

The largest block of Penny Blacks in existence is a block of 43 from plate 3 in the R M Phillips Collection. The second largest block is a block of 36 from plate 7 also in the R M Phillips Collection.

The Kirkcudbright penny black first day cover is a first day cover with 10 penny blacks, mailed on 6 May 1840, the first day it was valid. Around 70 examples are known, but this is the only one with more than two stamps. The Kirkcudbright cover now forms part of The Royal Philatelic Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Notable sales

In June 2011 several important examples of the stamp were sold during a Spink auction as part of the Chartwell Collection of Great Britain and British Empire stamps. The most notable of these examples were:

  • The 'TA' stamp from the original Penny Black Sheet One, Plate One registration sheet, sold for £216,000. Other stamps from this sheet can be found in the Royal Philatelic Collection and the Postal Museum.

  • A cover described as "the finest and most attractive one Penny Black cover in existance", dated May 13 1840 and featuring a single stamp with a reddish-orange Maltese Cross cancellation stamp, sold for £348,000.

  • A rare mint condition plate block of four Penny Black stamps (the only plate block from Plate Seven known to exist), with the margin inscription "PRICE 1d. Per Label, 1/- Per Row", sold for £300,000.

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