May 6, 1840, is a date well known to most philatelists and stamp collectors. It was on this day that the world’s first pre-paid adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system was officially released. This was a one-penny stamp printed in black ink with an elegant engraving of the young Queen Victoria (whose 21st birthday was celebrated that month). Released by Great Britain, the stamp dubbed the Penny Black became an instant success. Refinements, such as perforations to ease the separating of the stamps, were instituted with later issues. English teacher, inventor and social reformer Rowland Hill had first proposed an adhesive stamp to indicate pre-payment of postage in 1837 in order to simplify the complex, anomalous and high British postal rates. 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 ½ ounce (14 grams) to be delivered at a flat rate of one penny, regardless of distance.
Rowland Hill was born on December 3, 1795, in Blackwell Street, Kidderminster, Worcestershire, England. Rowland’s father, Thomas Wright Hill, was an innovator in education and politics, including among his friends Joseph Priestley, Tom Paine and Richard Price. At the age of 12, Rowland became a student-teacher in his father’s school. He taught astronomy and earned extra money fixing scientific instruments. He also worked at the Assay Office in Birmingham and painted landscapes in his spare time.
In 1819, Hill moved his father’s school “Hill Top” from central Birmingham, establishing the Hazelwood School at Edgbaston, an affluent neighborhood of Birmingham, as an “educational refraction of Priestley’s ideas”. Hazelwood was to provide a model for public education for the emerging middle classes, aiming for useful, pupil-centered education which would give sufficient knowledge, skills and understanding to allow a student to continue self-education through a life “most useful to society and most happy to himself”.
The school, which Hill designed, included innovations such as a science laboratory, a swimming pool, and forced air heating. In his Plans for the Government and Liberal Instruction of Boys in Large Numbers Drawn from Experience (1822, often cited as Public Education) he argued that kindness, instead of caning, and moral influence, rather than fear, should be the predominant forces in school discipline. Science was to be a compulsory subject, and students were to be self-governing. Hazelwood gained international attention when French education leader and editor Marc Antoine Jullien, former secretary to Maximilien de Robespierre, visited and wrote about the school in the June 1823 issue of his journal Revue encyclopédique. Jullien even transferred his son there. Hazelwood so impressed Jeremy Bentham that in 1827 a branch of the school was created at Bruce Castle in Tottenham, London. In 1833, the original Hazelwood School closed and its educational system was continued at the new Bruce Castle School of which Hill was head master from 1827 until 1839.
The colonization of South Australia was a project of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who believed that many of the social problems in Britain were caused by overcrowding and overpopulation. In 1832, Rowland Hill published a tract called Home colonies : sketch of a plan for the gradual extinction of pauperism, and for the diminution of crime, based on a Dutch model. Hill then served from 1833 until 1839 as secretary of the South Australian Colonization Commission, which worked successfully to establish a settlement without convicts at what is today Adelaide. The political economist, Robert Torrens was chairman of the Commission. Under the South Australia Act 1834, the colony was to embody the ideals and best qualities of British society, shaped by religious freedom and a commitment to social progress and civil liberties. Rowland Hill’s sister Caroline Clark, husband Francis and their large family were to migrate to South Australia in 1850.
Rowland Hill first started to take a serious interest in postal reforms in 1835. In 1836, Robert Wallace, MP, provided Hill with numerous books and documents, which Hill described as a “half hundred weight of material”. Hill commenced a detailed study of these documents and this led him to the publication, in early 1837, of a pamphlet called Post Office Reform its Importance and Practicability. He submitted a copy of this to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Thomas Spring Rice, on January 4, 1837. This first edition was marked “private and confidential” and was not released to the general public. The Chancellor summoned Hill to a meeting in which the Chancellor suggested improvements, asked for reconsiderations and requested a supplement which Hill duly produced and supplied on January 28, 1837.
In the 1830s, at least 12½% of all British mail was conveyed under the personal frank of peers, dignitaries and members of parliament, while censorship and political espionage were conducted by postal officials. Fundamentally, the postal system was mismanaged, wasteful, expensive and slow. It had become inadequate for the needs of an expanding commercial and industrial nation. There is a well-known story, probably apocryphal, about how Hill gained an interest in reforming the postal system; he apparently noticed a young woman too poor to redeem a letter sent to her by her fiancé. At that time, letters were normally paid for by the recipient, not the sender. The recipient could simply refuse delivery. Frauds were commonplace; for example, coded information could appear on the cover of the letter; the recipient would examine the cover to gain the information, and then refuse delivery to avoid payment. Each individual letter had to be logged. In addition, postal rates were complex, depending on the distance and the number of sheets in the letter.
Richard Cobden and John Ramsey McCulloch, both advocates of free trade, attacked the policies of privilege and protection of the Tory government. McCulloch, in 1833, advanced the view that “nothing contributes more to facilitate commerce than the safe, speedy and cheap conveyance of letters.”
Hill’s pamphlet, Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability, referred to above, was privately circulated in 1837. The report called for “low and uniform rates” according to weight, rather than distance. Hill’s study reported his findings and those of Charles Babbage that most of the costs in the postal system were not for transport, but rather for laborious handling procedures at the origins and the destinations. Costs could be reduced dramatically if postage were prepaid by the sender, the prepayment to be proven by the use of prepaid letter sheets or adhesive stamps (adhesive stamps had long been used to show payment of taxes, on documents for example). Letter sheets were to be used because envelopes were not yet common; they were not yet mass-produced, and in an era when postage was calculated partly on the basis of the number of sheets of paper used, the same sheet of paper would be folded and serve for both the message and the address. In addition, Hill proposed to lower the postage rate to a penny per half ounce, without regard to distance. He first presented his proposal to the Government in 1837.
On February 13, 1837, Sir Rowland Hill proposed to a government enquiry both the idea of a pre-paid stamp and a pre-paid envelope, a separate sheet folded to form an enclosure for carrying letters. In the House of Lords the Postmaster, Lord Lichfield, a Whig, denounced Hill’s “wild and visionary schemes.” William Leader Maberly, Secretary to the Post Office, also a Whig, denounced Hill’s study: “This plan appears to be a preposterous one, utterly unsupported by facts and resting entirely on assumption”. But merchants, traders and bankers viewed the existing system as corrupt and a restraint of trade. They formed a “Mercantile Committee” to advocate for Hill’s plan and pushed for its adoption. In 1839, Hill was given a two-year contract to run the new system.
The Uniform Fourpenny Post rate was introduced that lowered the cost to fourpence from December 5, 1839, then to the penny rate on January 10, 1840, even before stamps or letter sheets could be printed. The volume of paid internal correspondence increased dramatically, by 120%, between November 1839 and February 1840. This initial increase resulted from the elimination of “free franking” privileges and fraud.
Prepaid letter sheets, with a design by William Mulready, were distributed in early 1840. These Mulready envelopes were not popular and were widely satirized. According to a brochure distributed by the National Postal Museum (now the British Postal Museum & Archive), the Mulready envelopes threatened the livelihoods of stationery manufacturers, who encouraged the satires. They became so unpopular that the government used them on official mail and destroyed many others.
However, as a niche commercial publishing industry for machine-printed illustrated envelopes subsequently developed in Britain and elsewhere, it is likely that it was the sentiment of the illustration that provoked the ridicule and led to their withdrawal. Indeed, in the absence of examples of machine-printed illustrated envelopes prior to this it may be appropriate to recognize the Mulready envelope as a significant innovation in its own right. Machine-printed illustrated envelopes are a mainstay of the direct mail industry.
Together with Henry Cole, Rowland Hill announced a competition to design the new stamps. There were some 2,600 entries, but none was considered suitable; instead a rough design endorsed by Hill was chosen, featuring an easily recognizable profile of the former Princess Victoria. Hill believed this would be difficult to forge.
The portrait of Victoria was engraved by Charles Heath and his son Frederick, based on a sketch provided by Henry Corbould. Corbould’s sketch was in turn based on the 1834 cameo-like head by William Wyon, which was used on a medal to commemorate the Queen’s visit to the City of London in 1837. This portrait of Victoria remained on British stamps until her death in 1901, although by then she was 81 years old. All British stamps still bear a portrait or silhouette of the monarch somewhere on the design. They are the only postage stamps in the world that do not indicate a country of origin; the monarch’s image symbolizes the United Kingdom.
Initially, Hill specified that the stamps should be ¾ inch square, but altered the dimensions to ¾ inch wide by 7/8 inch tall (approximately 19 x 22 mm) to accommodate the writing at the bottom. The word POSTAGE at the top of the design distinguishes it from a revenue stamp, which had long been used in the UK; ONE PENNY. at the bottom shows the amount pre-paid for postage of the stamped letter. The background to the portrait consists of finely engraved engine turnings.
The sheets, printed by Perkins Bacon, consisted of 240 stamps in 20 rows of 12 columns. The two upper corners hold Maltese crosses with radiant solar discs at their centers; the lower corner letters show the position of the stamp in the printed sheet, from “A A” at top left to “T L” at bottom right. One full sheet cost 240 pence or one pound; one row of 12 stamps cost a shilling. As the name suggests, the stamp was printed in black ink.
The Penny Black was printed from 11 plates, but as Plate 1 was completely overhauled due to excessive wear, it is generally considered to be two separate plates, 1a and 1b. Plate 11 was originally intended solely for the printing of new red stamps, but a small number were printed in black. These are scarce.
The stamps were printed in unperforated sheets, to be carefully cut with scissors for sale and use. As a result, stamps with badly cut margins, or no margins, are common and worth very little, while examples with four clear margins are rare and valuable, and fetch very high prices, especially if in mint condition.
An original printing press for the Penny Black, the “D” cylinder press invented by Jacob Perkins and patented in 1819, is on display at the British Library in London.
Imprimatur sheets are from among the first sheets of stamps printed from a finished printing plate. The word imprimatur (Let it be printed) refers to the written permission of the Inland Revenue officials entered on the back of the sheet of stamps. In the 19th century, it was common for officials to remove some stamps from each sheet to present as gifts to dignitaries and other important people. Individual stamps from an Imprimatur sheet can thus be found for sale on the open market.
A complete sheet of the Penny Black without check letters is held by the British Postal Museum. This unique item is in fact a plate proof, and by definition not an imprimatur sheet.
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.
Although the stamps were not officially issued for sale until May 6, 1840, some offices such as those in Bath sold the stamps unofficially before that date. There are covers postmarked May 2, and a single example is known on cover dated May 1, 1840. All London post offices received official supplies of the new stamps but other offices throughout the United Kingdom did not, continuing to accept payments for postage in cash for a period. A two penny stamp printed in blue and covering the double-letter rate (up to 1 oz or 28 g) was issued on May 8, 1840.
In addition to the general issue of the Penny Black, a similar stamp intended for official mail was produced, with the letters “V” and “R” replacing the crosses in the top corners. Because the general public quickly accepted the postage stamps and ridiculed the Mulready stationery produced at the same time, vast supplies of Mulready letter sheets were given for official use to government departments such as the tax office and the idea of introducing an official stamp was abandoned. Only a few postally used examples exist, which probably originate from the Post Office circulars sent out as advance notice of the new stamps. Four are known on covers; all were cut from their envelopes and then replaced. Most of the cancelled examples are from trials of cancellation types, inks, and experiments with their removal. Those trials led to the change from black to red stamps, and vice versa for the cancellations.
The Penny Black lasted less than a year. A red cancellation was hard to see on the black design and the red ink was easy to remove; both made it possible to re-use cancelled stamps. In February 1841, the Treasury switched to the Penny Red and began using black ink for cancellations instead, which was more effective and harder to remove. However, people still reused stamps by combining the uncancelled parts of two stamps to form an unused whole, so in 1864 as a further safeguard the top corner stars on the Penny Red were replaced by the lower corner check letters in reverse order.
In the mid-19th century there were four branch post offices in London: one in the City at Lombard Street; two in the West End at Charing Cross and Old Cavendish Street near Oxford Street; and one south of the Thames in Borough High Street. The headquarters building had been constructed between 1825 and 1829 after the General Post Office purchased slums on the east side of St. Martin’s Le Grand and cleared them. Britain’s first purpose-built mail facility. The General Post Office, designed with Grecian ionic porticoes by Sir Robert Smirke, was built between 1825 and 1829, ran 400 feet (120 m) long and 80 feet (24 m) deep, and was lit with a thousand gas burners at night.
Rowland Hill continued at the Post Office until the Conservative Party won the 1841 General Election. Sir Robert Peel returned to office on August 30, 1841, and served until June 29, 1846. Amid rancorous controversy, Hill was dismissed in July 1842. However, the London and Brighton Railway named him a director and later chairman of the board, from 1843 to 1846. He lowered the fares from London to Brighton, expanded the routes, offered special excursion trains, and made the commute comfortable for passengers.
In 1844, Edwin Chadwick, Rowland Hill, John Stuart Mill, Lyon Playfair, Dr. Neill Arnott, and other friends formed a society called Friends in Council, which met at each other’s houses to discuss questions of political economy. Hill also became a member of the influential Political Economy Club, founded by David Ricardo and other classical economists, but now including many powerful businessmen and political figures.
In 1846, the Conservative party split over the repeal of the Corn Laws and was replaced by a Whig government led by Lord Russell. Hill was made Secretary to the Postmaster General, and then Secretary to the Post Office from 1854 until 1864. For his services Hill was knighted as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1860. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and awarded an honorary degree from University of Oxford.
Hill died in Hampstead, London on August 27, 1879. He is buried in Westminster Abbey; there is a memorial to him on his family grave in Highgate Cemetery. There are streets named after him in Hampstead (off Haverstock Hill, down the side of the Royal Free Hospital) and Tottenham (off White Hart Lane). A Royal Society of Arts blue plaque, unveiled in 1893, commemorates Hill at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead.
Hill has two legacies. The first was his model for education of the emerging middle classes. The second was his model for an efficient postal system to serve business and the public, including the postage stamp and the system of low and uniform postal rates, which is often taken for granted in the modern World. In this, he not only changed postal services around the world, but also made commerce more efficient and profitable, notwithstanding the fact that it took 30 years before the British Post Office’s revenue recovered to the level it had been at in 1839. Uniform Penny Post continued in the UK into the 20th century, and at one point, one penny paid for up to four ounces.
In 1882 the Post Office instituted the Rowland Hill Fund for postal workers, pensioners and dependants in need.
There are three public statues of Hill. The earliest is in Birmingham: a Carrara marble sculpture by Peter Hollins unveiled in 1870. Its location was moved in 1874, 1891 when it was placed in the City’s General Post Office and 1934. In 1940, it was removed for safe keeping for the duration of the Second World War. A marble statue in Kidderminster, Hill’s birthplace, was sculpted by Sir Thomas Brock and unveiled in June 1881. It is at the junction of Vicar and Exchange Streets. Hill is prominent in Kidderminster’s community history. There is a J D Wetherspoon pub called The Penny Black in the town center and a large shopping mall linking Vicar Street and Worcester Street is named The Rowland Hill Shopping Centre. In London a bronze statue by Edward Onslow Ford, also made in 1881, stands in King Edward Street.
There are at least two marble busts of Hill, also unveiled in 1881. One, by W. D. Keyworth, Jr. is in St Paul’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey. Another, by William Theed, is in Albert Square, Manchester.
In recognition of his contributions to the development of the modern postal system, Rowland Hill is memorialized at the Universal Postal Union, the UN agency charged with regulating the international postal system. His name appears on one of the two large meeting halls at the UPU headquarters in Berne, Switzerland.
At Tottenham, north London, there is now a local History Museum at Bruce Castle (where Hill lived during the 1840s) including some relevant exhibits.
The Rowland Hill Awards, started by the Royal Mail and the British Philatelic Trust in 1997, are annual awards for philatelic “innovation, initiative and enterprise.”
Considered a British cultural icon, the Penny Black design features in the innovations section of the new British passport in 2015. Also in 2015, the search engine Google marked the 175th anniversary of the postage stamp with a Google doodle of the Penny Black. There was even a 1-crown gold coin issued by Great Britain in 1990 portraying the Penny Black, a rare example of “stamps on coins”.
I have but a sole Penny Black remaining in my collection here in Thailand (I’d sold one used copy and two on-cover copies as long ago as late May 1997). However, it is quite special to me as the control letters match my own initials. I used the stamp here on ASAD in December 2016 with an article for which I didn’t feel like writing anything at all! I’m glad I waited to tell the Penny Black story as my articles weren’t well illustrated back then as I wanted the only images to be those stamps or postcards that I actually have in my collection. However, seeking high-quality images to accompany the articles is now a major focus of A Stamp A Day.
I don’t have very many stamps on stamps of the Penny Black other than the anniversary issues released by Great Britain in 1940 and 1990 bearing the young Queen Victoria portrait alongside the portraits of the ruling monarchs at the time. I do have several covers with commemorative postmarks noting either Rowland Hill or the Penny Black, starting with one created in 1890 for the stamp’s 50th anniversary. Thus, today’s stamp may seem like an unlikely choice on the surface but the fact of the matter is that I simply didn’t have a lot to choose from. I came close to reusing my “MJ” Penny Black or cropping an individual stamp from the Ajman souvenir sheet. It is really the margins of the sheet that commemorate Rowland Hill and the Penny Black. Additionally, it was released in my birth year.
On May 6, 1965, in order to mark the Stanley Gibbons Centenary Exhibition held in London from February 17-20 earlier that year, the Persian Gulf sheikdom of Ajman released a set of eight stamps (Scott #37-44) plus two souvenir sheets that also commemorated the 125th anniversary of the Penny Black (Scott #43a and #44a). These are the last general releases for Ajman listed in the Scott catalogue.
The stamps each pictured a classic rare stamp along with either the front cover of the first edition of the Stanley Gibbons catalogue or an angled image of the 1965 Elizabethan Catalogue. They were printed on unwatermarked paper and perforated 13; the souvenir sheets were also distributed in imperforate form.
The stamps pictured are:
- Scott #37: 5 naye paise – United States Postmaster’s Provisional of Alexandria, VA
- Scott #38: 10 naye paise – Austria Scarlet Mercury (1856)
- Scott #39: 15 naye paise – British Guinea 1-cent Magenta (1856)
- Scott #40: 25 naye paise – Canada 12-pence (1851)
- Scott #41: 50 naye paise – Hawaii 2-cent Missionary (1851)
- Scott #42: 1 rupee – Mauritius 2-pence Blue (1847)
- Scott #43: 3 rupees – Switzerland (Geneva) 10 centimes (1843)
- Scott #44: 5 rupees – Tuscany Scott #31 (1860)
- Scott #43a contains Scott #38-39 and #42-43
- Scott #44a contains Scott #37, #40-41 and #44)
The top margins of the two souvenir sheets include a portrait of Sir Rowland Hill in the upper left and a Penny Black in the upper right.
Stamps on stamps is a very popular theme to collect and the Penny Black, or portions thereof, has appeared on more of these than any other individual stamp. Altogether, 147 countries have issued stamps commemorating Rowland Hill.