Great Britain issued the world’s first postage stamp on May 1, 1840. The famous stamp is known as the ‘Penny Black’. Reforms proposed by Postmaster General Rowland Hill and accepted by Parliament in 1839 culminated in this issue, which revolutionized postal services worldwide. Prior to its issue, there existed no systematic method of prepaying postage based on weight or destination. The reforms of 1839 included the following:
1. Mail could be sent anywhere in the U.K. for one penny per half-ounce.
2. Postage would be prepaid by the sender.
3. Proof of prepayment would be evidenced by a small piece of gummed, colored paper affixed to the letter—in other words, a postage stamp!
The British public accepted the reforms with tremendous enthusiasm, and use of the mails soared. An additional two-penny blue stamp went on sale May 8, 1840, for letters over an ounce. Both stamps featured the likeness of the young Queen Victoria (1819-1901).
To prevent reuse of stamps, postal clerks obliterated or cancelled them. Since over 80 percent of London’s male population was right-handed, stamps were to be placed in the letter’s upper right hand corner to facilitate the cancellation process.
The Penny Black’s design deemed so perfect, it remained in use for forty years, though it underwent color changes (1841), adopted perforations (1848), and acquired check letters in all four corners (1858). A bi-colored jubilee series was issued in 1887, and most of those designs were retained for Victoria’s successor, Edward VII, (1901) with his profile being substituted. In 1874 the Universal Postal Union pronounced Great Britain exempt from its rule which required county names to appear on stamps, and so a profile of the reigning monarch is all that is required for identification of Britain’s stamps.
Great Britain issued its first commemorative stamps in 1924 on the occasion of the British Empire Exhibition. Very few commemoratives were produced until the 1950s, and those that were issued were primarily for events of national, international, or royal significance.
The first definitive stamps of the reign of Elizabeth II were issued in 1952 and featured a facing portrait of the queen based on a photograph. These were replaced in 1967 with a profile of Elizabeth II based on a sculpture by Arnold Machin. This series, known as the ‘Machins’, is the most prolific series of stamps in the world. Over two hundred denominations and colors have been issued to date.