The Penny Black

Part of the Iconic Stamp series. Click here to see the full list of Iconic Stamps.

The Penny Black is frequently referred to as an Iconic Stamp and we have put together an interesting range of information and items, including some free downloads:

  • A free PDF guide detailing more of the story behind the Penny Black plus some unusual facts that you may not be aware of
  • Our Penny Black initials finder for you to try out
  • Details of the Treasury Competition and the medal that inspired this iconic stamp
  • An introduction to the ways in which these stamps can be collected, including issued stamps, varieties, cancellations and trials
  • A collection of supporting publications and albums, including an excellent free PDF article from Gibbons Stamp Monthly
  • An exclusive offer to display your stamps to their very best advantage
  • A range of gifts.

*SPECIAL OFFER – Buy your Penny Black from the Stanley Gibbons online store and receive a free presentation album with our Certificate of Authenticity.

The 1d Black was produced between May 1840 and February 1841. It was not only the world’s first postage stamp, it also changed the world and the way we communicate. It caused global change and incentivised many to read and to write as it made sending letters affordable for any Victorian. This year we celebrate not only its 175th anniversary but also the men behind the world’s most famous postage stamp who, without knowing, started a revolution. Every collector would like to own a Great Britain 1840 1d Black, so, together with our Great Britain specialists, we take a look at the story behind the 20x24mm stamp that changed the world.

In 1837, British postal rates were high, complex and anomalous. To simplify matters, Sir Rowland Hill proposed an adhesive stamp to indicate pre-payment of postage. 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 1d postage stamps allowed letters of up to half an ounce (14g) to be delivered at a flat rate, regardless of distance.

In this short PDF guide, we uncover some of the stories behind the Penny Black from the day it was issued to its trials and cancellations and what made it a stamp collectors must have.

Penny Black - The stamp that changed the world


Buy a Penny Black with your initials on it! Each one was printed with two letters on it, one in each of the bottom corners. To find out if one is available with your chosen initials use the Stanley Gibbons Initials Finder.


The postal system had developed in a haphazard fashion during much of the eighteenth century. Improvements in organisation and in communications, notably the introduction of the mail coach by John Palmer in the 1780s, led to a better postal service.

The Parliamentary campaign to improve the service was led by Robert Wallace, M.P. for Greenock, and resulted in a Commission of Inquiry into the management of the Post Office in 1835. It was at this stage that Rowland Hill, a businessman not previously connected with postal affairs, published the first edition of his pamphlet “Post Office Reform” which advocated the introduction of lower postal charges which would be uniform within the inland system.

On 23 August 1839 a Treasury competition was announced and later published in “The Times” of 6 December, inviting artists, scientists and the general public to submit ideas and designs for stamped covers, adhesive labels and for their security against forgery. Over 2600 suggestions were submitted, but only a small number related to adhesive postage stamps and it fell to Rowland Hill to assess them and make his recommendations.

A controversial concept lies in the fact that James Chalmers is considered, by some, to be the real inventor and father of the Postal Reform. “Chalmers vs. Hill” relates the extraordinary and most celebrated philatelic debates ever conducted in the United Kingdom. Buy your copy below.

1839 1d Treasury Competition Essay

1839 1d treasury competition essay

1839 2d Chalmers Treasury Essay

PB Treasury competition essay.

Chalmers vs Hill

Chambers vs. Hill


Unknown to many, Sir Rowland Hill was inspired by the Wyon City Medal, created by William Wyon, one of the most admired and prolific of all engravers. The stamp shows the head of Queen Victoria as sketched by Henry Corbould, who based his rendition on Wyon’s engraving for the ‘City’ medal, which commemorated the Queen’s visit to the City of London in 1837. 

The coin behind the inspiration for the Penny Black .


If you are an advanced collector and are looking to purchase one, we have the best range of quality examples from £300 to £300,000, covering all varieties, errors, trials and cancellations. To help beginners learn more about how to collect them, we asked Hugh Jefferies to share his advice. Read Hugh’s tips in this short guide “How to Collect Penny Blacks” – click here.

Stanley Gibbons is offering a 1d Black presentation album with your purchase which includes a stamped Certificate of Authenticity. Additionally, any purchase from Stanley Gibbons is supported by our buyer guarantee.


With just over 68,000,000 printed, the 1d Black is not a rare stamp; however, with no collectors at the time it was current, the vast majority were simply thrown away. Victorian ladies were even known to decorate a variety of items with the new attractive labels including fans, lamp shades and even fire guards. Who then would have thought of collecting them? The finest examples are available in the Stanley Gibbons online store.

Unused Penny Black.


Some interesting errors and varieties can be found on the Penny Black. Featured here is a very fine used good to large four margin horizontal pair lettered GB-GC, cancelled neatly by two red Maltese Crosses. GB showing re-cut sidelines and GC a non-coincident re-entry. You can find a great selection of Penny Blacks including varieties and errors in the Stanley Gibbons online store.

Penny black varieties


The Maltese Cross was the first postal marking employed for the cancellation of postage stamps in 1840. Stanley Gibbons offers a great collection of Penny Blacks with Maltese Cross Cancellations. See below the Wotton-under-Edge distinctive Maltese Cross.

Penny Black cancellations


Despite its fame, the Penny Black was, as a stamp, a failure. The stability of the ink made it relatively easy to wash off the original red postmark and re-use the stamp. The change to a black postmark was trialled in August 1840 but the Post Office had already realised a black postmark on a black stamp was not ideal and had started experimenting with new stamp colours. These today are known as the “Rainbow trials”. The Penny Black was superseded by the Penny Red in 1841.

We are able to offer many items that were in the David Rowse collection and illustrated in his book ‘Rainbow Trials’.

Rainbow Trials Rowse


Every variety and cancellation has been extensively explored and narrated. Below are some of the stories uncovered by great historians and writers. Click on the book cover below to buy your copy.

Volume 1, Queen Victoria

The first edition of this specialised title to be published since 2008, this catalogue provides a detailed priced listing of all Great Britain Queen Victoria stamps, British Postal Fiscals and Post Office Telegraph Stamps. Each section includes comprehensive background information. The entire catalogue has been carefully revised and repriced in line with the current market.

For instant access to the Stanley Gibbons Specialised Catalogue – Volume 1, Queen Victoria, download our Stanley Gibbons publication app here or click on the button for the hard copy version.


Queen Victoria SG.

‘Rainbow Trials’ by David Rowse. From the inception of the ‘Rainbow Trials’ in May 1840 to the letter of 24th December from the Stamps & Taxes Office instructing Bacon to print the stamps in the new colours, the author looks in detail at the trials and tribulations entailed in these experiments and the people involved in them.

Rainbow Trials by David Rowse

As the world’s first, the Penny Black has probably been the subject of more prolonged and detailed study than any postage stamp issued since – and rightly so! Still considered by many to be the most attractive ever issued, it is certainly the one stamp which every collector would like to own. But in its short period of currency it was printed from 11 different plates, and with the two separate states of Plate 1 making 12, and 240 corner letter combinations from each, there are a total of 2880 different Penny Blacks to collect!

Reference to the catalogue will show that a poor example from a common plate may be only worth a few pounds, but a superlative stamp from a scarce one will cost thousands – but how do you tell the difference? There is no better guide than this book first published in 1922, with separate pictures of all 2880 stamps, and detailed notes on the facing page to assist identification.

First published by Stanley Gibbons in 1998 with some editorial amendments and a foreword by Charles W Goodwyn LLB, RDP, FRPSL, then keeper of the Royal Philatelic Collection, the book proved to be a godsend to collectors chasing an ever-declining number of the original publication. This new edition is designed to meet the needs of yet another generation of Penny Black collectors; a description of each individual stamp of the eleven different plates, affording a guide to collectors in the reconstruction of sheets.

The Plating of the Penny Red book.

Line Engraved Security Printing: the Methods of Perkins Bacon 1790 to 1935 Banknotes and Postage Stamps by Gary Granzow. The first major work on engraving postage stamps since James Baxter’s 1939 book; Printing Postage Stamps by Line Engraving, is on the nature of the engraving and not on specific stamps.

An original approach to the research and understanding of line engraving on steel and the security printing it made possible. While much of the focus is on the evolution of line engraving in the UK, the findings apply to line engraving in general. Previously students have studied thousands of stamps and dated envelopes to deduce how the stamps were made and why they appear as they do. Gary has traced the development of engraving on steel, the mechanics of design transfer, hardening, inks, perforation and plate repair from 1790 to 1935 by studying primary sources and patents.

Using this approach, he has made several basic discoveries and corrected a number of erroneous conclusions in the literature. 320 pages, 180 illustrations, many in colour.

Line Engraved Security Printing: The methods of Perkins Bacon.

The Encyclopedia of The Maltese Cross is a great read and reference guide and it includes details of the Maltese Crosses from over one hundred post towns. There are 3 books in the series.

Maltese Cross book

This important study offers an insight into the period leading to the issue of the Penny Black and the Mulready Covers in 1840. The work draws on extensive research in records held at The Royal Mail Archive, The National Archives and the Royal Archives at Windsor. Douglas N Muir – Curator of Philately at the BPMA – describes the long campaign for postal reform and illustrates his account with a wealth of contemporary designs, proofs and other philatelic material, a generous amount of it in colour. Even more than a decade on, this remains an essential text for understanding the history of postage stamps.

The Perkins Bacon Archive held by the Royal Philatelic Society is a wonderful primary source for philatelists but, although it is generally available for consultation by serious researchers by appointment, anyone living some distance away cannot readily access it. The information has now been made available in a series of books, of which these are the first two. Perkins Bacon Archive No. 1: The General Account of Postage Labels 1840. 189+xxiii pages. As well as facsimile copies of every page a summary is provided of the work of every individual named printer. Perkins Bacon Archive No. 2: Postage Stamp Warrants 1840-1845 122+x pages. The Royal Philatelic Society holds 120 original warrants ordering 1d, 2d and VR stamps. These show exactly what was ordered when, and provides a wonderful primary source for serious researchers. The front and back of each warrant is illustrated.

Perkins Bacon


Our monthly magazine “Gibbons Stamp Monthly” provides some great stories about the usage of the Penny Black. In the November 2015 Issue, Edward Klempka looks at early usage, as well as its replacement, the 1d. red-brown – the printing of which commenced in December 1840. The following articles explore great stories and are available on Gibbons Stamp Monthly:

  • A Talent for Hooking a Penny Black, Devlan Kruck – January 2013 – Download your free copy here.
  • Uniform Penny Postage, Douglas N Muir – February 2015
  • Creating the Penny Black, Douglas N Muir – May 2015
  • The Problem with Stamps, Don Davies FRPSL – October 2015
  • 175th Anniversary of the Penny Black, Edward Klempka – November 2015


Subscribe to Gibbons Stamp Monthly Online to access the latest issue of the UK’s bestselling stamp magazine on your computer as well as the previous 12 months’ worth of back issues at no extra charge. Please note: Your subscription should be active within an hour after you have placed your order, available by logging into the Stanley Gibbons website. The subscription does NOT involve the delivery of any physical items as the product is entirely web-based: GSM Online 12 Month  (£24.95)

Gibbons Stamp Monthly November issue


The quickest way to get immediate access to Gibbons Stamp Monthly is through our GSM app for Apple devices on the App Store:


The UK’s bestselling stamp magazine and the official publication of the world’s oldest and most famous name in philately – Stanley Gibbons. Consistently over 150 pages each month, with up to date news, auction results and everything else from worldwide postal authorities and the hobby of philately. Gibbons Stamp Monthly has in-depth articles for the specialists, thematic and new collectors by leading philatelic writers, a dedicated Great Britain section, extensive new issues pages and the monthly Stanley Gibbons catalogue supplement provided to keep your catalogue up-to-date. Subscribers also get exclusive reader offers on catalogues, albums and accessories and full access to the online version:


Stanley Gibbons provides a range of superior albums to store your collection. Made from the finest materials available, such as Morocco grain padded leather and silk linings, the award winning Frank Godden De Luxe handcrafted albums are some of the finest available and are designed to last a lifetime. Frank Godden albums are suitable for long term storage and are made to the standard recommended by all museums.

Stamp Album
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