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UK Stamps

May 2, 2022

Happy Bank Holiday Monday, those of you who are lucky to enjoy it as a day off. I thought I would delve today into the colourful history of Stamps in the UK.

As one of the oldest organisations in the world, the Royal Mail Group can trace its origins back over 500 years to 1516. The ‘Penny Black‘ (above) was the world’s first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system. It was initially issued in the United Kingdom (referred to in philatelic circles as Great Britain), on 1 May 1840, but was not valid for use until 6 May. The stamp features a profile of Queen Victoria, and last year, one was offered at auction for 4 to 6 million pounds !! But failed to sell.

In 1837, British postal rates were high and complex. To simplify matters, Sir Rowland Hill proposed an adhesive stamp to indicate pre-payment of postage. At the time it was normal for the recipient to pay postage on delivery, charged by the sheet and on distance travelled. By contrast, the Penny Black allowed letters of up to 1⁄2 ounce (14 grams) to be delivered at a flat rate of one penny, regardless of distance.

The total print run was 286,700 sheets, containing a total of 68,808,000 stamps. Many were saved, and in used condition they remain readily available to stamp collectors. The only known complete sheets of the Penny Black are owned by the British Postal Museum.

As no other country at the time was issuing adhesive postage stamps, the country name was not used. For their distinction of being the first stamp issuing country, to this day, Great Britain is the only country in the World that is NOT required to print their country name on their postage stamps.

In 1966, Queen Elizabeth II approves Arnold Machin’s design of her to be used on postage stamps. Her image has since appeared on more than 180 billion copies of the stamps. Some early ones below alongside those of Queen Victoria.

I love the intricate decoration of these above. Below, a few notable designs celebrating different Jubilee’s throughout the years, up to the present day 2022 Platinum Jubilee stamps of the Queeen celebrating 70 years in service, (bottom left).

Books of stamps used to be stitched down one side with a decorated front cover.

More painterly stamps from the sixties to the eighties.

Stamps depicting nature are always a popular choice.

In the nineties, stamps were sold as part of a presentation pack, often with a header and a theme that linked them together, like Messages, Magic and Smiles.

In 2004, Royal Mail launches the UK’s first digital stamp with an online postage system called SmartStamp®. It is aimed mainly at small businesses. Today’s stamps feature Migratory Birds, DC Heroes and Harry Potter. How styles and tastes change over the years.

A new set of stamps has been launched to pay tribute to David Gentleman, the designer credited with changing the face of the British stamp. David has been hailed as the most prolific and influential British stamp designer, designed more than 100 stamps for Royal Mail between 1962 and 2000, and provided many more designs that were not used. Royal Mail collaborated with him to choose a selection of some of his most famous and influential images, seen here.

The tribute to Gentleman is notable as it is the first time Royal Mail has dedicated an entire issue to a designer of its commemorative stamps. David Gold, a spokesperson for Royal Mail, said Gentleman was “one of the foremost artists involved in British stamp design”.

“For over half a century, he has made an enduring contribution to British stamp design. His work continues to influence and inspire designers today.”

The first designs of Gentleman’s that were successful were for National Productivity Year in 1962, and used symbolic arrows.

Three years later he wrote to the new postmaster general, Tony Benn, in response to a general invitation for ideas about stamps, recommending more interesting subjects than had been featured previously. He also proposed a new size of stamp and introduced a small cameo of the Queen, based on her profile as depicted by Mary Gillick on coins from 1953.

Gentleman said: “Stamps were fun to design, though squeezing a lot into a small space wasn’t easy. At first it was difficult to fit in the Queen’s head until I turned it into the simple profile which is still used today”. A recent exhibition showed some of his original artwork.

Over the years UK Stamps have seen quite a few colour variations.

If you enjoyed this post, you may find it interesting to visit The Postal Museum. If you should wish to start collecting stamps for yourself there are some tips from the world famous Stanley Gibbons and if you are looking to know where to start buying your stamps and their value, then have a look at Albany Stamps for some guidance. Finally a wonderful site called Collect GB Stamps, has a dated collection of stamps from past to present. Do you have any favourite stamp designs you can share ?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2022 8:52 am

    I have always liked Gentleman’s work. He is modern, but his work has a dignity. Some of the recent stamps, Harry Potter etc, somehow seem to be too pop culture for a stamp. Not that I have anything against pop culture, except it is ephemeral, and somehow stamps aren’t. I always like the idea that one of my favourite authors, Anthony Trollope was responsible for the introduction of the iconic free- standing post box during his time with the Royal Mail. He started work there at 19 years old.

    • May 2, 2022 9:26 am

      Another fab fact re the post box, thanks Clare

      • May 2, 2022 11:53 am

        Gentleman is an amazing illustrator. But I still think it’s fun to see Dennis the Menace or Harry Potter popping through my letterbox on a piece of mail too. There’s room for both I feel and if it encourages Kids to write letters more, then that’s just got to be a good thing.

  2. May 2, 2022 9:25 am

    Very interesting morning read with many colourful stamp images covering different periods of history. Thanks

  3. simonetta baracchi permalink
    May 2, 2022 10:22 am

    A great gift. Thanks. Stamps are little precious works of art and history.

  4. May 2, 2022 10:43 am

    That was a great posting and lots of wonderful designs to look at. But….platinum celebratory year is 70 (not 75) I am an Accession baby so have an annual celebration on 6th February! I have lots of stamps passed down by my grandmother who grew up in India- most are just soaked off letters and stored in envelopes – a few well over 100 years old as well as from slightly more recent decades! All franked and clear and colourful. Great collection to have and they don’t take up much space. Happy Monday!

    • May 2, 2022 11:49 am

      Good Spot Ainslie, corrected now. Funnily I was a very lame stamp collector for about 3 years. It was a time when you could go to your sweet shop and buy a pack of foreign stamps alogside your magazines and your sweets. Different days.

  5. susan Glaysher permalink
    May 2, 2022 11:48 am

    Thank you so much for this very interesting article. A good design on a stamp is a daily pleasure for us all.

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