June 2024

Sample the GSM Archive: The History of Bishop Postmarks


Learn about the fascinating history of the world’s first postal marks and their imitators in this preview extract from Gibbons Stamp Monthly.


Bishop Postmarks – An introductory guide to the world’s first postal marks and their imitators 

By Peter Chadwick


The postal markings introduced in 1661 by postmaster-general Henry Bishop would have a dramatic impact on the efficiency of the post in Britain, so much so that their use would continue for in various evolved forms for centuries to come. Peter Chadwick presents an introductory study of the different types of Bishop marks adopted in Britain and further afield.

In June 1660, weeks after the restoration, Henry Bishop (1605– 1691) was appointed postmaster-general, to receive all incomes from the posts, for which he paid £21,500 a year: about £3 million in today’s money. He was a brave entrepreneur and a good and vigorous manager – much of Britain’s industrial leadership in the 18th and 19th century was facilitated by a good postal system, and the foundations of this were laid down by Henry Bishop.

When Bishop took over the Post Office, there were six part-functioning posts: the roads to Dover and Yarmouth, the Plymouth road, the Bristol road to Pembroke docks, the Chester road to Holyhead and the great north road to Edinburgh: we call them A2, A11, A3, A4, A5/ A41, and A1. Within 18 months, all these routes were operating, reasonably regularly, reasonably frequently and reasonably reliably. To establish places where replacement horses would be reliably available every ten to 15 miles along these six roads was an enormous achievement. In addition, he oversaw the start of the bye posts to serve towns off the post routes. Nevertheless, he was criticised (probably unfairly) for alleged delays to the post, and in response he invented the datestamp, applied on every letter handed in to the General Post in London, immediately it reached the Chief Office.

The earliest known example of this datestamp was 19 April 1661; this was the first datestamp used on mail, anywhere in the world. Figure 1 shows a Bishop mark used in 1661: a rare first-year cover. Within weeks, a similar handstamp had also been issued to the Foreign Letter Office, for use on mail arriving from overseas. In 1661, the service to Edinburgh had become reasonably regular (three times per week) and reasonably reliable.




Figure 1, The first type of Bishop Mark used 2 September 1661, one of five recorded first-year covers


If problems occurred, they were due either to highwaymen, or to the unreliability of the stables between Newcastle and Edinburgh: particularly north of Berwick. The post-stable keeper was required always to have a good fresh horse available, but often the post-boy would arrive to find no horse, or a broken-down nag: whilst the should-be post horse was out on a private hire or pulling a plough. The service was extended to Glasgow (by footpost) in early 1662, and extended to Portpatrick (for Ireland), also by footpost, in September 1662. This was a phenomenal feat of logistics! It was also extended to Aberdeen (130 miles from Edinburgh by footpost) by 1667, to Inverness (another 123 miles of footpost) by 1669. Apart from the road from Berwick to Edinburgh, there were no horse-posts in Scotland before 1715. Bishop marks were a success, and were used with modifications for well over 100 years; successor datestamps were used until very recently.


Wider use

Edinburgh (with its own postmaster, answerable to London) introduced Bishop marks in 1693; Dublin (similarly) in 1670; and America (similar) about 1758. Apart from a brief initial period, Edinburgh marks are distinguished by being struck in red; Dublin marks by having the month above the date whilst, after a brief initial period, London marks have month below date. Figure 2 shows a typical Dublin mark. American marks are distinct in having no ‘diametral’ crossline between date and month. Figure 3 is a typical American mark. The postmaster-general for the American colonies was Benjamin Franklin, answerable to London, and it was he who introduced the datestamp (the Bishop mark without the crossline) to America. When the Continental Congress first proposed independence, they appointed Benjamin Franklin (who was recognised as a revolutionary) to be their postmaster-general, and Bishop marks continued in use for more than another 20 years. There are 11 American towns with Bishop marks – but these are now called ‘Franklin marks’. Two other colonies also used Bishop marks – the ones for Calcutta and Quebec are both rarities. A summary of ‘most’ of the Bishop marks is shown in Table 1. The first Edinburgh Bishops were tiny and black; Figure 4 shows one of these. They were rapidly changed to red, to distinguish them from London marks, and then made larger. The first London Bishop, the first Foreign Office Bishop, and the tiny Edinburgh Bishops are all rare.



Figure 4 A letter sent from Edinburgh to London in 1723 with a small red Bishop mark of Edinburgh dated 16 March (month over day)


The Bishop superseded

The Bishop was gradually superseded, between 1780 and 1800, by datestamps incorporating either the place of posting, or the year, or both. When adhesive stamps appeared, then a canceller was used to cancel the adhesive, and town name (or code) and datestamps were applied separately. Over the next 160 years, various arrangements were used, normally with either a canceller or a town name handstamp, or a datestamp used to cancel the adhesive, but with the other information shown with one handstamp or another. Gradually from about 2000, the Post Office stopped using datestamps, and often no indication of place of origin – now it is very difficult to establish when an item was posted, or in many cases, where. In recent years, as deliveries have become rarer and less reliable, even the canceller handstamps have been superseded: the two cancellers in most common use now are the ball-point and the felt-tip.




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Purchase an example

Examples of "Bishop Marks" are highly sought after which is often reflected by competitive bidding at auction by collectors. In the Stanley Gibbons online store, we have one example of a GB 1668 Pre-Stamp - Type 1 Bishop mark. Sent by Nicholas Stones to John Moore and, as usual with this correspondence, deals with the price and mining of lead. This example is of wonderful exhibition quality, folding perfectly to show internal dated heading alongside address-panel, very scarce so fine.


View online:  https://www.stanleygibbons.com/products/gb-1668-pre-stamp-type-1-bishop-mark

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