180 years old today
In the beginning there was the Penny Black
Today is a special birthday in the world of stamps.
180 years ago, the penny black made its first appearance.
Bearing the image of the new young monarch, Queen Victoria, it is still today instantly recognisable across the world.
Back in 1840, Britain was the world’s fastest growing economy. The industrial revolution was in full swing.
All was not rosy though...
Most people know about the poor working and living conditions in Victorian Britain, and the use of child labour. Charles Dickens made sure we never forget.
One aspect of early Victorian Britain often overlooked is the fact 40% of men and 60% of women were illiterate.
The introduction of the penny black and an affordable prepaid postage system gave millions the incentive to learn to read and write.
The story of how the Penny Black came to be
Before the penny black, the cost of sending letters was prohibitive and notoriously unreliable.
Letters were paid for by the recipient not the sender based on a complex list of tariffs and surcharges.
The average cost of sending a single written page across Britain was about 81⁄2d (31⁄2p in new money).
That might not sound like much but, back then, the average weekly wage was about seven shillings (35p). It would be the equivalent to paying around £40 to send a one-page letter today!
Often the recipient would refuse to pay or simply couldn’t afford to.
Things had to change and thanks to this man they did...
Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879)
Sir Rowland Hill was a teacher, inventor and social reformer.
Apparently, his interest in postal reform went back to a boyhood experience...
When the postman brought a letter to his family home, the family couldn’t afford to pay. So, 8-year old Rowland Hill was sent to town with some old clothes to sell to raise the money to pay for the letter.
Between 1837 and 1838 he then campaigned for a comprehensive reform of the postal system.
His concept was based on a Uniform Penny Post and his solution of pre-payment, facilitating the safe, fast and cheap transfer of letters.
His arguments were logical
- He argued the marginal cost of sending letters based on distance travelled was small
- He demonstrated that, whilst the Post Office would initially lose money on such cheap postage, it would encourage much more people to send letters becoming more profitable
- It would encourage literacy and enable families split apart by the drift to the cities to keep in touch
Initially, his ideas were met with disdain. The Postmaster General at the time, Lord Lichfield famously said:
“Of all the wild and visionary schemes I have ever heard of, this is most extraordinary”.
Some other comments were even less complementary.
Nevertheless, merchants, traders and bankers viewed the existing postal system as corrupt and found it restraining to their respective trades.
The groups formed a so-called “Mercantile Committee”, and pushed for Hill’s plans to be given a chance. In this case, “people power” worked.
By 1839, Hill got his way and Parliament ordered the new postal system to be set up in accordance with Hill’s guidelines.
Hill was appointed in charge of the project.
A competition to come up with the design and materials used for the new prepaid penny post was announced.
Over 2,600 entries were received.
Most entries were envelopes and letter sheets. There were only 50 entries for stamps and they weren’t the favoured choice.
An Irish artist, William Mulready produced the winning envelope...
1840 1d Mulready envelope sent on the first day of issue (May 6, 1840)
Unfortunately, the public hated it. They thought it was impractical and looked ridiculous.
Within two months it was scrapped and almost all examples were destroyed.
Meanwhile, the dark horse was coming up on the wing...
The design used for the penny black was based on the head of Queen Victoria sculpted by William Wyon for his medal commemorating Queen Victoria’s visit to the City of London in November 1837.
This design was improved by an artist, Henry Corbould, providing an enriched drawing and an intricate background.
Hill also examined the technological options for the printing of the stamps.
He eventually decided on line engraving, where sheets of 240 stamps are printed from an engraved plate. A small company called Perkins Bacon were the recognised experts in this process and they were awarded the printing contract.
Such was the considered importance of the new penny postage that Queen Victoria even referred to it in her speech at the opening of Parliament in January 1840.
On 20th February, 1840 Queen Victoria approved the finished design for the penny black.
The stamps went on sale on the 1st May 1840 but were not authorised for postal usage until 6th May 1840.
First day covers of the world’s first postage stamp are, today, highly sought after.
They have also proved a strong investment, persistently rising in value over the years thanks to their unwavering desirability and high demand from wealthy collectors all over the world.
Owning a copy of a letter sent on the very first day is a real privilege...
1840 1d black, plate 1a. A superb example lettered 'BH' used on a neat entire lettersheet from London to Birmingham on May 6, 1840****, the first day of use, tied by red Maltese Cross cancellation.
It changed the world
The Penny Black was a revolution in communication, the Victorian equivalent to the internet. It changed the world.
It was an instant success with the public. Within 7 months, over 160 million letters had been sent, double the amount sent in the previous year.
Families divided by distance were reunited.
Love letters nurtured and relationships blossomed.
Literacy levels soared and an entire generation became much more educated than the last.
Other countries soon copied the idea.
Letters were now being sent to all the corners of the globe with increased frequency.
By the turn of the century more than 2.3 billion letters had been posted.
As they say, great things come in small packages. In this case a small piece of paper, 3/4 inch wide and 7/8 of an inch tall.
Happy Birthday Penny Black and thanks for everything!
Claim your little piece of history today
If you are interested in owning an example of the most famous and iconic stamp in the world, please get in touch with us.
It has proved a sound investment throughout history.
Based on the SG catalogue, a mint penny black shows growth of 367% (22% pa) since the turn of the century.
Also, because the penny black is the most collected stamp in the world, it is the most liquid stamp investment you can own.
That can be important in the future, in that there is likely to be plenty of willing buyers when you or your descendants choose to sell.
The penny black will always be the holy grail of stamp collecting.
Call us on +44(0)1534 639998.
Or respond to this blog today. We will help you secure your own penny black within your budget constraints.
If you only want to buy one stamp, the penny black is the one!
CEO Just Collecting
PS. Did you know, the Penny Black image of Queen Victoria was based on a sketch from when she was 15 and was used for the entirety of her reign on British stamps.
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