Although the provision of adhesive postage stamps for use in India was considered as early as 1850, and local issues for distant Scind province were introduced by its Governor Sir Bartle Frere in 1852, no serious progress was made in the capital, Calcutta, until early 1854.
The key figure was the deputy Surveyor-general of the Survey of India, Capt. H.L. Thuillier, who undertook to print the large quantities of stamps that would be needed, using the relatively modern lithographic process. This employed specially prepared blocks of stone and depended on the principle that oil and water do not mix.
The master designs were engraved on copper but had to be transferred to the printing stones via paper cut-outs – a very delicate operation.
After a series of sometimes disastrous experiments, sufficient supplies of blue half anna and red one anna stamps were produced in sheets of 96, ready to go on sale on October the 1st. A higher value four anna stamp was also planned.
The 1854 four anna of India is a stamp like no other. With its red octagonal frame (the distinctive shape suggested by the current 6d, 10d and 1s embossed stamps of Great Britain) and blue central head of Queen Victoria, it was the first bicoloured stamp of the British Empire, and of course, it had to be printed as two operations.
The red frames were printed first, the sheets allowed to dry, and then the blue heads were added on the next day. This was a laborious business, especially when considering that the original small sheets contained only 12 stamps each, arranged in three rows of four on a grid of wavy lines and rosettes.
Yet such was Thuillier’s energy that when the go-ahead was finally received on 12 October, he managed to get enough printed for them to go on sale three days later. It was not until 1890 that it was discovered that this great haste had resulted in some errors slipping through unnoticed, namely stamps with INVERTED HEAD, of which 28 examples are now known to exist.
Not surprisingly, these have an almost legendary status today and are regarded as the greatest of Indian classic rarities, even though Thuillier himself would have been deeply embarrassed by their survival.
These locally printed were only ever intended as a temporary measure until De La Rue in London could start production of a permanent replacement, but they had a life of two or three years, with further Calcutta printings in 1855. They have fascinated collectors ever since, and many have devoted themselves to their study.
In total there were five separate printings of the famous four anna, for the last two of which the number of stamps in each sheet was increased from 12 to 24, with the wide spacing between impressions reduced and the original fancy grid abandoned. Details of both frame and head also underwent subtle changes through these printings, as the copper die had to be successively re-engraved.
Nevertheless, just that one die, was ultimately the source of over one and a half million of the bicoloured four anna.