National Stamp Collecting Month: The Postage Act of 1839 and Uniform Penny Postage

Great Britain - Scott #1626 (1995)
Great Britain – Scott #1626 (1995)

Before we can get to stamps, we should have a brief look at the final steps that brought about the world’s first postage stamp, the famed Penny Black. I have but one in my collection — a three-margined copy with a cut angle on the lower left corner but with my initials (“MJ“) as the control numbers. That stamp was featured on A Stamp A Day in December 2016 as an example of a stamp that I DIDN’T have to explain on a rare day that I was too lazy to write much! However, the development of the Penny Black was covered in some detail in an article on the anniversary of its May 6, 1840, issuance earlier this year. That article also detailed the life of Sir Rowland Hill. Thus, today’s article will concern the Postage Act that led to Uniform Penny Postage and, ultimately, to the Penny Black and the birth of the hobby of stamp collecting.

Richard Cobden and John Ramsey McCulloch, both advocates of free trade, attacked the Conservative government’s policies of privilege and protection, including their archaic postal system. McCulloch, in 1833, advanced the view that “nothing contributes more to facilitate commerce than the safe, speedy and cheap conveyance of letters.” The campaign for cheap postage was actually initiated by Robert Wallace, who in 1835 argued, before a governmental commission set up to investigate the problems, that greater use of the mailing system would lead to increased revenue for the government.

Rowland Hill's privately-printed pamphlet on Post Office Reform, 1837.
Rowland Hill’s privately-printed pamphlet on Post Office Reform, 1837.

Sir Rowland Hill expounded his concept for the reformed service at a meeting of the commission on February 13, 1837, and published a famous pamphlet Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability late that year. In 1838, Hill made a proposal to parliament in which he suggested that “the postage on all letters received in a post-town, and delivered in the same, or any other post-town in the British Isles, shall be at the uniform rate of one penny per half ounce”. However, Hill did not include a specific timetable for the introduction of a “penny post” in his proposal, nor did he suggest a plan for its implementation.

In his proposal, Hill also called for official pre-printed envelopes and adhesive postage stamps as alternative ways of getting the sender to pay for postage, at a time when prepayment was optional. Previously, postage had depended on distance and the number of sheets of paper; now, one penny would assure delivery of an envelope and the letter it enclosed anywhere in the country provided together they satisfied the weight condition. This was a lower rate than before, when the cost of postage was usually more than four pence. The reform did not settle the issue of who paid for the postage, as it still remained optional for a number of years in spite of Hill’s efforts as Secretary to the Post Office to alter the situation.

Hill’s efforts led to the Postage Act 1839 (2 & 3 Vict c.52) that came into effect on August 17, 1839, to regulate the postage rates of Great Britain until October 5, 1840, and led to several postal reforms, including the introduction of the Uniform Penny Post and the world’s first postage stamps. The full name of the Act was An Act for the further Regulation of the Duties on Postage until the Fifth Day of October One thousand eight hundred and forty.

This was the first act in the reforms of the General Post Office that took place under the auspices of Rowland Hill. Its main objective was that within a year the cost of postage should be reduced to one penny per weight instead of heretofore being charged by the number of sheets and the distance travelled. It initiated the Fourpenny Post and within 36 days led to the drop in the cost of postage from four pence to the one penny under the Uniform Penny Post. Less than six months later the world’s first postage stamps, the Penny Black and Two penny blue, were issued.

Letter posted on the last day use of Uniform Fourpenny Post -- January 9, 1840 -- used from Murston to Charing, Kent, with manuscript 4 mark.
Letter posted on the last day use of Uniform Fourpenny Post — January 9, 1840 — used from Murston to Charing, Kent, with manuscript 4 mark.

The main changes to be instigated by the Act were to:

  • Reduce the postage rate to a uniform one penny for a determined weight
  • Create proportionate rates for increased weight
  • Abolish the franking privilege
  • Regulate official franking
  • Suspend the law in respect to the London and Dublin twopenny posts and any other penny post
  • The use of the word Letter or Letters in the Act shall include newspapers, any other packet, paper, article or thing transmitted by the post but not to deprive newspapers of any current privilege
  • Enact the changes until October 5, 1840

While the Act received the Royal assent on August 17, 1839, the Treasury warrant to initiate the Fourpenny Post from December 5 was made on November 22, 1839, and set forth the postage rate of four-pence as the postage rate applied as follows:

  • 1 postage rate up to a half-ounce letter
  • 2 postage rates over half-ounce but not exceeding 1 oz.
  • 4 postage rates over 1 oz. but not exceeding 2 oz.
  • 6 postage rates over 2 oz. but not exceeding 4 oz.
  • 8 postage rates over 4 oz. but not exceeding 8 oz.
  • 2 postage rates for each additional 1 oz. over 8 oz.
  • Every fraction of an ounce over 4 oz. to be charged as an additional 1 oz.
  • Generally no letter weighing over 16 oz. to be forwarded by the General Post Office

The Uniform Fourpenny Post was very short-lived, lasting for only 36 days from December 5, 1839, until January 9, 1840. Public reaction to the interim rate of 4 pence was unfavorable and they felt cheated that the agreed reduction to the uniform rate of 1 penny had not taken place. The uniform charge of 4 pence was levied for pre-paid letters up to half an ounce in weight instead of postage being calculated by distance and number of sheets of paper. One ounce letters were charged 8 pence and each additional ounce, up to 16 ounces, cost 8 pence. Unpaid was charged double the pre-paid rates. For mail whose rates were already less than 4 pence, the existing lower rates applied to those letters.

Mail posted during the fourpenny post period was marked with a figure 4 applied either in manuscript, or with a handstamp that was issued to a limited number of cities in Great Britain and Ireland. No handstamp has been recorded for London, even though Dublin, Glasgow and Edinburgh were issued with handstamps. Some towns appear to have obtained their handstamps from unofficial sources.

Post Office Regulations handbill giving details of the Uniform Penny Post, dated January 7, 1840.
Post Office Regulations handbill giving details of the Uniform Penny Post, dated January 7, 1840.

The public dissatisfaction resulted in the abolition of the Fourpenny Post. On December 27, 1839, a new warrant was issued that further reduced the rate to one-penny per postage rate with the weight steps as previously listed. Several other alterations were made including the abolition of all the additional Irish Sea crossing related fess and the half-penny tax on letter conveyed by mail carriages with more than 2 wheels in Scotland. The debut of the Uniform Penny Post occurred on January 10, 1840, when 1d was charged for pre-paid one ounce letters. This was followed by the issuance of labels to prepay postage in May 1840: the Penny Black and Two Penny Blue stamps.

Under the reforms, the postal service became a government monopoly, but it also became more accessible to the British population at large through setting a charge of one penny for carriage and delivery between any two places in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland irrespective of distance.

As of 2013, the value of one penny in 1840 ranged from 32 pence to £4.89; the latter based on mean income. It would appear that the cost to an established semi-skilled man of sending a letter in 1840 can be represented by approximately 1 British pound in 2013 values. This, however, was a lower cost than previously and made postal communication more affordable to the increasing numbers of people capable of reading and writing as a consequence of public education. Financially, the penny post scheme was a disaster. More than thirty years elapsed before revenues were back to the pre-1840 level. The real benefits were the encouragement and support that the availability of cheap letterpost communication gave to the development of transport links, education, commerce and social cohesion.

The full text of the Postage Act of 1839 can be read online here; Rowland Hill’s pamphlet on Postal Reform is viewable here.

Royal Mail poster advertising the 1995 Communications stamp set, Scott #1625-1628
Royal Mail poster advertising the 1995 Communications stamp set, Scott #1625-1628
Great Britain - Scott #1625-1626 (1995) first day cover
Great Britain – Scott #1625-1626 (1995) first day cover [NIMC2018] sourced from Collect GB Stamps website.

Many stamps have been issued portraying Sir Rowland Hill and the Penny Black. I chose the 25-pence denomination from a set of four stamps issued on September 5, 1995, under the title of “Communications” (Scott #1626) solely because of the engraving work done by the master, Czesław Słania. The 19-pence value also portrays a young Hill, along with a circular advertising Universal Penny Postage but I find today’s featured stamp to be more striking with the elder Hill portrait accompanied by part of a Penny Black. The other two stamps in the set — denominated at 41 pence and 60 pence pictured Guglielmo Marconi and the wireless telegraph. All four stamps were printed by Harrison & Sons Ltd. using intaglio with one hundred stamps per sheet, perforated 14 x 14½.

Engraved portrait of Czeslaw Slania.
Engraved portrait of Czeslaw Slania.

Czesław Słania was a Polish postage stamp and banknote engraver. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Słania was the most prolific of all stamp engravers, with over 1000 stamps to his credit. His 1000th engraved stamp, based on the 17th-century painting “Great Deeds by Swedish Kings” by David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl (2000), is in the Guinness Book as the largest engraved stamp ever issued.

Słania was born in Czeladź near Katowice, Poland, on October 22, 1921, the son of a miner. During the Second World War he forged documents for the Polish resistance. He entered the Kraków School of Fine Arts, a renowned graphics arts center, in 1945. While still a student, Słania was employed by the Polish Stamp Printing Works, where he learned to engrave in steel. His first stamp was issued in Poland on March 24, 1951.

In 1956, Słania moved to Sweden, where he began employment with the Swedish postal authorities in 1959. He produced stamps for Sweden and 28 other countries. His work was of such recognized quality and detail that he is one of the very few “household names” among philatelists, and some specialize in collecting his work. He was the Royal Court Engraver of Sweden from 1972 until his death on March 17, 2005 in  Krakow. His last work was a stamp in 2005 to commemorate the 60th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland


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