Pale orange, big and bold, the impressive Five-pound Orange is a philatelic treasure. A splendid addition all collectors aspire to possess, the large-than-life stamp is considered a mascot of great philatelic dedication and the ultimate reward for a life spent tenderly thumbing the pages of annual catalogues and visiting auctions with an air of optimism and expectancy.
Why? For one, the Five-pound Orange is incredibly rare. When the Post Office issued its first telegraph stamps in 1876 – a special series of labels designated to receipt payments of telegrams, which in the 19th century remained a popular form of communication – the now iconic Five-pound Orange was introduced a year later to cater for long distant telegrams.
Rates for overseas telegrams were extraordinarily high at this time. A telegram to Bermuda, for example, cost £1, 4 shillings and 4 pence per word (£1.4s.4d) meaning that a message of only four words would cost more than £5 – the equivalent to a farm hand’s monthly wage no less.
The Five-Pound Orange only lasted for five years when in October 1881 it was decreed that telegraph fees should be paid using postage stamps and all telegraph stamps were withdrawn. To save the cost of making a new design and plate, the post office retained the Five-Pound Orange, altering the word ‘Telegraph’ for ‘Postage’. It thus became the highest value Great British pre-decimal stamp ever issued.
The problem was that there was no real postal need for stamps of £5 or more and as such the Five-Pound Orange, as lovely as it is to look at, never really fell into favour, sporting incredibly limited use cases: used for the payment of tobacco tax or excise duty on whisky and the receipt of bulk mail payments, so customers could pay total postage due without having to apply individual stamps to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of the same item. If only a similar method could be deployed for the modern-day Christmas correspondence.
Overall, however, these superb specimens were rarely used as ‘Postage’ stamps. Coupled with the fact that it would be nearly a century later, in 1977, that the Post Office issued another £5 denomination stamp, it’s easy to see the scarcity of such an esoteric find.