By Hugh Jefferies, editor of the Stanley Gibbons Catalogue
All stamp collectors aspire to own a Penny Black, it is the world’s first and undoubtedly the most famous stamp of them all. It is also one of the most beautiful stamps, with its classic simplicity and fine engraving, and equally one of the most interesting, providing an opportunity to build up a substantial collection based on just this one stamp.
So, how do you collect Penny Blacks? Well, like most things in philately, the choice is yours, there is no right and wrong way, you can do as you please or as your pocket will allow, but this article aims to give you a few ideas.
It comes as a surprise to most new collectors that the Penny Black is not exactly a rare stamp. Some 68 million were printed in less than one year, so it is not surprising that more than one printing plate was necessary to keep up with the demand and that plates wore out and had to be repaired or replaced. In fact, a total of 11 different plates were produced and the first one had to be so extensively renovated that specialists recognise two versions of it, plate 1a and plate 1b, the other ten plates, plates 2 to 11 make a total of 12, so an early target might be to collect one stamp from each, with number 11 likely to be the most expensive – unless you are very lucky!
The plates can be identified because the corner letters were individually ‘punched’ into them and no two pairs of letters are in exactly the same positions in their corner squares. That, plus the possibility of identifying other marks on the stamp, allows more experienced collectors to ‘plate’ a Penny Black, possibly finding a scarce plate 11 which someone has identified as one of the more common ones.
On the subject of corner letters, as one of the many protections against forgery which the Penny Black incorporated, each stamp in the sheet had a different corner letter combination. There were 240 combinations (240 1d. stamps meant a complete sheet was £1), starting with AA at the top left and going down to TL at the bottom right. I would hesitate to suggest that you try to collect every corner letter combination for every plate from 1a to 11 (a total of 2880), but it’s an option. Perhaps slightly more attainable would be to find one corner letter combination from each plate. If your last name begins with a letter between ‘A’ and ‘L’ and your first name begins with a letter between ‘A’ and ‘T’, then it is possible to find Penny Blacks with your own initials in the corner, so if your initials as HJ, for example, you could try to find an ‘HJ’ stamp for each of the 12 plates.
It was quickly realised that, with a bit of attention, the original red postmark could be cleaned off the Penny Black, allowing it to be reused. Trials to find ways of preventing this began early on and in February 1841 the first Penny Red was issued, which cancelled with a black postmark was a lot less easy to clean off and reuse.
The early Penny Reds were printed from the same plates as had been previously used for the black stamp and collectors like to find ‘matched pairs’ showing the same corner letter and plate combination in both black and red – again, maybe matched pairs with your own initials could be something to look for?
Printing plates were expensive to produce, so it was important that they are checked from time to time and repaired and renovated, as necessary. The signs of these repairs in the form of re-entries and retouches as well as marks and flaws left on the plate during manufacture, such as guide lines and double corner letters, are given the general term of ‘varieties’, which provide another source of interest to the Penny Black collector, as for one corner letter and plate combination there may be more than one ‘state’ – before and after a repair was carried out.
So far, we have only discussed the stamps; the cancellations which can be found on them can be almost as interesting and provide yet another layer of study.
The standard ‘Maltese Cross’ postmark was supposed to be struck in red ink to clearly cancel the black stamp, and postmasters were expected to mix their own cancelling ink to a recipe prescribed by the post office. For one reason or another, however, not all postmasters managed to get the ink mix quite right and Maltese crosses are known struck in magenta, ruby, brown, orange and a number of other colours – even blue!
Also, the original crosses, as supplied, became lost or damaged and postmasters created their own copies of the original, known as ‘distinctive’ crosses. The most famous distinctive cross is that of Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire, whose postmaster seems to have deliberately defaced the canceller by cutting lines across it.
The town of origin of most Penny Blacks cannot be identified, however, unless it is still on its original cover and this also provides another interesting way to collect them.
The most desirable Penny Black cover, needless to say, would be one posted on 6 May 1840 – the ultimate first day cover – but all May 1840 dates are very collectable, and there are fewer 7 and 8 May covers out there than there are from the 6th, although they will cost a fraction of the price. Sunday dates (10, 17, 24 and 31 May 1840) are also desirable, especially the 10th.
If that seems a bit expensive, why not consider Penny Blacks used from or addressed to your home town, for a more personalised collection?
Another possibility might be to search for Penny Black covers sent by or addressed to famous people. Envelopes were rarely used in 1840, so most examples are ‘entires’, in other words, the stamp is actually stuck to the outside of a folded letter. So it’s always worth checking inside a Penny Black entire to see who sent it, maybe one day someone will find one used on the first day, sent by Sir Rowland Hill!
I have not touched on the potential for Penny Blacks used to overseas addresses, watermark and paper varieties, pairs and blocks, non-standard postal markings or any number of other approaches to collecting Penny Blacks.
All I can say is that once you have acquired your first one, it is most unlikely that you will be able to resist the temptation to buy more – and as long as you buy wisely, you will never regret your obsession.