May 2020

How to collect Penny Reds

Great Britain

how to penny red

The status of the Penny Black as ‘the stamp which changed the world’ is beyond doubt – but it did have one serious failing.

Prior to its issue, Rowland Hill and his colleagues at the Post Office and at the printers, Perkins Bacon, had built a substantial number of features into the stamp, specifically to prevent forgery.

However, one potential difficulty seems to have been ignored until a late stage in the run-up to the issue of the first stamps; the possibility that the red cancellation might be cleaned off the black stamp, allowing it to be reused – on the face of it a much easier way of defrauding the Post Office than going to the trouble of printing our own stamps!

Accordingly, in the same month that the Penny Black was issued, trials began to determine how easy it might be to clean stamps which had already been used and whether there was a better combination of stamp and cancellation colours than black stamps cancelled by a red postmark. The end result of these trials was the decision to swap the colours around and introduce a red stamp which would be cancelled in black. So, in February 1841, just nine months after the issue of the Penny Black, it was replaced by the Penny Red.

The imperforate Penny Red then covered the standard letter rate in the United Kingdom until the arrival of the first officially perforated stamps in 1854 and is the subject of this article.

The poor man's Penny Black?

There is a widely held view that the Penny Red is the poor man’s Penny Black and on the face of it there is some logic to this, after all, a fine single Penny Red will cost you a fraction of the price of an equivalent Penny Black. This is not surprising as the black stamp was on sale for only nine months, while its red equivalent lasted for 13 years, and in a period when literacy and therefore letter-writing was growing fast.

This, of course, is the main appeal of the Penny Red over the Penny Black; to build up a substantial collection of Blacks, you cannot avoid spending a lot of money, while a similar-sized collection of Reds is within reach of most of us – although that is not to say that there are not some quite expensive items which you could include in your Penny Red collection, should you choose to.

The Rainbow Trials

This is the name given to the series of trials to determine the best combination of stamp and cancellation colour. Special plates of three and 12 stamps were produced for the process, the individual stamps being characterized by a ‘void’ upper right corner.

Stamps were printed in black and shades of red, blue and green and may be found cancelled in a variety of ways and subjected to experiments carried out to remove those cancellations, sometimes virtually destroying the stamp in the process – perhaps one of the few occasions when it is acceptable to have a stamp in poor condition in your collection!

Complete sheets of ‘Rainbow trial’ stamps are particularity desirable and even single stamps from them are not cheap, but they constitute an important part of the Penny Red story.

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When the first Penny Reds were put on sale on 10 February 1841, they were printed from plates which had been previously used to print Penny Blacks and these ‘black plate’ stamps have particular appeal to collectors especially ‘matched pairs’ of black and red stamps from the same plate with the same corner letters.

In all, there were 173 different plates used to print the imperforate Penny Red, many of them existing in more than one ‘state’, i.e. after repairs and renovations had been carried out; so ‘plating’, Penny Reds can be a considerable challenge, but ‘reconstructing’ plates from single used stamps can be done and would provide considerable satisfaction when achieved.

When a new plate was introduced, an ‘imprimatur’ sheet was provided to Somerset House for approval. Some stamps from these imprimatur sheets are now in private hands and offer another desirable aspect of Penny Red collecting – especially examples from the corner of the sheet showing the plate number in the margin.

Varieties and Errors

Printing plates were expensive to produce, so it was important that their life should be prolonged as much as possible and repairs were undertaken from time to time. Such repairs can be identified and are highly collectable, as, of course, are flaws in the original plate, which manifest themselves as scratches, guide lines, ‘double letters’ and other listed varieties.

The most famous of these is the BA stamp from plate 77, which originally omitted the letter ‘ A’ from the bottom right corner, to produce the ‘B-blank error’. This was eventually noticed and the ‘A’ inserted – producing another collectable variety, albeit much less desirable than the ‘B-blank’.

Another star item is the ‘Union Jack re-entry’ on stamp LK from plate 75, where the upper corner squares, particularly the one on the right, show a cross over the usual ‘star’, resembling the national flag. This and the ‘B-blank’ are the two most famous Penny Red varieties, but there are many, many more, possibly including some which remain to be documented.


Postmarks can be a considerable aid to the plating enthusiast as they can be divided into three main groups, which coincide to some extent with the plates in use at the time. Initially, the Maltese cross remained in use, but this began to be replaced in 1844 by a numeral obliterator, known as the ‘1844 type’. Then, from 1853 the plain numerals were replaced by a single handstamp combining the numeral with the office name and date of posting – the ‘Duplex’. Stamps cancelled by a Maltese cross are most likely to come from plates 1 to 36, although plates up to 45 can be found with them. The 1844-type cancel is then the most commonly found, with the duplex arriving in the last year of the imperforate Penny Red, the earliest date I am aware of being 24 February 1853.

Just as in the Penny Black period, locally produced or ‘doctored’ Maltese crosses can be found – the ‘distinctive’ types – and, while most crosses are black; blue, green, violet and red examples exist. From March 1843 a series of crosses with numbers 1 to 12 were brought into use at London Head Office and these numbered crosses are also desirable, especially No. 4.

Other possibilities include stamps cancelled by postal markings which should have been applied elsewhere on the cover, such as ‘Penny Post’ markings or dated ‘Town’ cancels. The 1844 types can also be found in a variety of colours, including blue, green, red, violet and yellow-brown. All of these can be found on-cover, although these will be at the expensive end of a Penny Red collection, along with large multiples, especially unused ones incorporating marginal markings, major errors and the ‘Rainbow’ trials.

However, the joy of collecting Penny Reds is that it does not have to be expensive. You can set the parameters of your collection to suit your own budget and still have all the pleasures enjoyed by the collector of Penny Blacks – and as your knowledge and experience grow, you will be able to identify scarce items which may have been overlooked previously – surely one of the great delights of philately.

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