The Penny Black

Great Britain 1840

penny black IS


The Penny Black was issued on the 6th May 1840, It was not only the world’s first postage stamp, but it also heralded a social revolution in the way we communicate. Prior to 1840 postal rates were high and complex, calculated by the sheet and distance travelled.

The cost often equating to more than an average weekly wage, but with prepayment not compulsory it was generally the recipient that was saddled with these exorbitant costs!

To simplify matters, Rowland Hill proposed a uniform 1d rate prepaid with an adhesive stamp to indicate payment of postage allowing letters of up to half an ounce (14g) to be delivered within the United Kingdom (Inc. Ireland) at a flat uniform rate, regardless of distance. Although prepayment was still not compulsory it almost immediately became the norm with non-payment being charged double.

Sending letters instantly became affordable for all, reading and writing which for many up until then had been an unnecessary luxury were incentivised to learn.

Despite all of the problems associated with being first in a completely new and revolutionary field, the Penny Black was conceived, designed, engraved, printed and put on sale, all in the space of five months.

The design was deceptively simple, and although other security devices and its value were added, the country name was not and without any rivals, there was no need.

Did you know

  • The Penny Black is not a rare stamp, there were over 68 million printed and it is estimated that approximately 5% still survive. Nevertheless, they can be very valuable with the rarest pieces changing hands well in excess of £100,000.
  • The introduction of the Uniform Penny Post increased postal traffic from 75 million to 410 million in under ten years
  • The scarcest Penny Blacks are from printing plate 11, originally produced for the Penny Red, plate 11 was drafted in for an emergency printing in black of only 700 sheets.
  • The Penny Black, although considered an icon of classic philately was actually a failure. Fraud was a major concern for the Post Office, the original red postmark was removable so the stamp could be reused, and the replacement black postmark couldn’t be readily seen on a black stamp. The Penny Red was developed to overcome these problems and was issued in various guises for the next 40 years.
  • The Penny Black was the world’s first postage stamp but it is only half the story, a 2d stamp in blue was issued at the same time and is actually ten times rarer!
  • As Great Britain was the first country to issue a postage stamp, it is not required to include the country name in the design to this day.