Rowland Hill, who was later knighted for his achievements, was the man behind the birth of stamps as we know them today thanks to his “penny post” of 1840. British stamps, with their long history and varied designs, are some of the most interesting in the world. Here are some of the highlights from the fascinating story of British postage stamps.
Birth of the postage stamp: the Penny Black
Until 1840, British letters were usually sealed with wax, and paid for by the person who received them. Rowland Hill’s invention changed everything, by introducing a simple square of paper bearing Queen Victoria’s head. In those early days, stamps had no perforations – those didn’t arrive until 1854. The back of the stamp was not covered with gum, either, meaning that it had to be stuck to the envelope with glue. Early collectors often ripped stamps from envelopes, badly damaging them in the process.
So, although six million Penny Black Stamp were issued, it can be hard to track down a stamp in really superb condition. You can buy an average-looking Penny Black fairly easily – but if you want a truly exceptional example, you must be prepared to pay a great deal of money. However, just one year later, in 1841, the first Penny Red stamp was issued. You can pick up examples of these for just a few pence, making them a much more affordable slice of British postal history.
For King and Empire: the first commemorative stamps
Although special stamps were issued in 1890, for the 50th anniversary of the penny post, the only change from the ordinary issues was in their color. Commemorative stamps in the way that we know them today were not issued in Great Britain until the reign of King George V. This historic first issue occurred in 1924, to mark the opening of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium, which was itself then only one year old.
The King himself was a highly enthusiastic stamp collector – in fact, the Royal Collection now owned by Queen Elizabeth II is still one of the most impressive and valuable to be found anywhere in the world. There were two stamps in the 1924, one of which was worth a penny and the other valued at a penny and a half. At first they could only be purchased from the Exhibition itself, though this was later changed. A very similar design was used for the 1925 Exhibition, and gradually commemoratives became more common.
The Queen’s stamp designer: Arnold Machin
Although Arnold Machin’s name may not be familiar to everyone, even in Britain, his most famous design is instantly recognisable. That is the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II which has been used on British definitive stamps for nearly half a century. In 1966, Machin was selected as the winner of the competition to decide whose design would be used on the new stamps, and the first Machin definitives were produced the following year.
Machin was an accomplished artist and designer, but his other work is relatively unknown. By the time of the design’s 40th anniversary, an astonishing 170 billion of his British postage stamps had been produced. Machin’s design was also used for quite a few years on British coins, many of which are still in circulation. You really can’t spend any time at all in Britain without seeing that world-famous portrait of Her Majesty everywhere you look.
In living color: people on today’s stamps
For many years, the Royal Mail refused to show any living person on a British stamp. There were occasional suggestions that a tiny figure in the background of a scene could be a particular person, but it was never actually confirmed. The only exceptions to this rule were the monarch and other members of the Royal Family. The first clearly identifiable people were not included on stamps until 2005, with the release of a series to celebrate the England cricket team’s victory over Australia in one of the most famous cricketing contests of all time.
Since that landmark set, the earlier policy has been dropped entirely, and there are now frequent issues of stamps which show celebrities or sportspeople in all their glory. One of the most memorable British postage stamp releases in recent years came in 2012, when a stamp was released for every one of Great Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic gold medal winners. It proved to be a hugely popular set, with British success at the Games inspiring many people to try to form a complete collection.
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