The History & Evolution of the Postage Stamp in Great Britain


The history of the postal system in Great Britain is noteworthy in two respects, first because in 1840 it introduced postage stamps, and secondly because the postal system it established handled the mail so efficiently that it soon was adopted throughout the rest of the British Empire. This system became the foundation for many national postal systems that are still in operation today all over the world.

It all began with Henry I in the 12th Century, who hired messengers to deliver letters on behalf of the government. During this time anyone wanting to have a letter delivered had to make whatever arrangements they could. When Henry III came along he gave the messengers uniforms and then Edward I built posting houses around the country so the messengers had a place to change horses.

In 1516 Henry VIII established the Royal Mail but the entire postal system didn’t become available to the British people until 1635, more than a century later. When this happened postal roads were built, along with houses that were staffed by postal workers. At this time in history the system was set up for the recipient of the letter to pay for the postage, however there was a way that the sender could prepay the postage when they sent the letter.

William Dockwra instituted the London Penny Post in 1680. This allowed the carrying of letters and parcels of no more than one pound to be delivered throughout London and the immediate surroundings, all for the cost of one penny.

At these prices the Post Office was steadily losing money. To rectify this the Great Post Office Reform was introduced in 1839 and 1840. Parliament acted and the Uniform Fourpenny Post was enacted, which meant that for a flat 4d per 0.5 oz. you could send letters and parcels regardless of the distance.

Penny Black

On 5 December 1839 the Uniform Fourpenny Post went into effect and letters could be delivered to any UK address at the new rate. This was very successful, so much so that after 36 days the Uniform Penny Post was enacted. On 10 January 1840 the rates became just 1d for prepaid letters, but if the money was going to be collected upon delivery from the recipient, the fee went up to 2d. Now that the rates were fixed it only made sense to stop exchanging money just to send a letter so on 6 May 1840 the Penny Black started being used. This was the first postage stamp ever created and used in the world.

During the Victorian age there was a lot of experimentation going on in an effort to simplify things. It was a hassle having to use scissors to cut the stamps from a sheet so rouletting was tried, then perforation. This was the answer so stamps began to be sold on perforated sheets in 1854. Prior to that the British began issuing embossed stamps. This began in 1847 with the 1-shilling stamp, which was followed by the 10d stamp in 1848, and 6d stamps in 1854.

Today many countries that were once colonies of Great Britain use postage stamps. At one point all of them had the Penny Black stamp in use featuring a portrait of Queen Victoria in countries like Barbados, British Guiana, Fiji, India, Nevis and Trinidad. Many countries that were previously colonized still have Queen Victoria on their stamps, although some have expanded to having pictures of birds, animals and scenery.


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