The country every stamp collector wanted to begin was Great Britain, since it was the world’s first country to issue adhesive stamps. There are collectors all over the world who want at least one copy of the Penny Black simply because it is the world’s first stamp.
The Penny Black and Penny Post were the brain child of Sir Rowland Hill often called the father of modern post office. The introduction of Penny posts revolutionized the letter service making it possible to send a letter anywhere in Britain for a pre-paid postage. In 1837 Sir Rowland Hill, a school master, published a pamphlet entitled “Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability”. In this he claimed that the true cost of delivering a letter from London to Edinburgh was only about 1/36 of a Penny. If the post office charged one penny postage on every letter, more people would write letters and the post office would make more profit. Helped by wide spread public support Hill eventually persuaded the post office to adopt his plan.
Until Rowland Hill introduced his reform the postage on a letter was usually paid by the person who received it, not by the person who posted it .The postman had the task of collecting the postage when he delivered the mail. Hill proposed that letters be prepaid either in cash at the post office or by prepaid letter sheets and envelopes and almost as an afterthought “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamps showing that tax had been paid and covered at the back with a glutinous wash which the bringer of the letter might by applying a little moisture attach to the back”.
There was initially much reluctance for such a proposal as postage rates were rather high. During the early part of the 19th century postal charges rose rapidly and by the year 1814 a letter cost four pence for a distance of seven miles. Over seven miles and under fifteen miles the charges were six pence. At that time a labourer’s wage was four pence a day. Further, members of parliament were entitled to free postage, which was much misused.
However as the public support for Rowland Hill’s suggestions grew, he was appointed to the Treasury on 16th September 1839 to begin work on postal changes. First reform was the introduction of uniform Penny Postage on 5th December 1839, which was reduced to one Penny on 9th January 1840.
The Treasury invited the public to submit suggestions for the design of the gummed labels which Hill proposed that the Post Office should issue at one Penny each.
More than 2600 suggestions were submitted but only 49 related to adhesive stamps. One suggestion from Benjamin Cheverton of Casinden Town answered the fears of Treasury officials that unscrupulous printer might may be able to forge the labels and so defraud the Post Office. Cheverton suggested that the labels should bear “a female head of great beauty” because a portrait would be more difficult for forgers to copy than any other design. Awards for innovative suggestions were made to Benjamin Cheverton, Henry Cole, Charles Whiting, James Bogardus and Francis Coffin.
It was Rowland Hill’s own suggestion which was developed into the finished design. It was the profile of Queen Victoria, based on a portrait made when she was an eighteen old princess. It was also used on a medal designed by William Wyon, which was struck for the occasion of Queen’s first official entrance into the city of London in 1837.
Perkins Bacon & Petch Co, London who had been given the contract to print the adhesive stamp, commissioned the artist Henry Corbould to make a number of profiles drawing of the young Queen based on the Wyon medal. Charles and Frederick Health, father and son, engraved the Queen’s portrait for the production of the plate which contained 240 impressions.
The Penny Black, the first ever adhesive postage stamp was issued on 1st May 1840 though it became valid for postage on 6th may 1840. A usage before this date is known. It was issued in sheets of 240 (rows of 12). It had a water mark of a small crown, and was black in colour. These stamps were not perforated and had to be cut and sold. The ink used for the printing consisted of lamp black in linseed oil. The gum was applied hot with brushes. Whose colour varied and in some sheets were almost colourless. Total plates used were eleven (Nos 1 to 11). About 72 Million stamps were issued and remained valid for usage till 1841.
Of the 72 million copies of Penny Black which were sold, only 16800 were from plate II, which comes to just 700 sheets. These are the rarest of the Penny Black. Over ten million copies were printed from plate la / 1b. Yet even a medium poor copy of a plate 1 stamp is expensive. Strips of Penny Black are scarce and blocks very scarce.
Hill’s stamp system was eventually adopted in some form by every country starting with Brazil in 1843. It revolutionized the postal system in the world. As a bonus it also kicked off the world’s most popular hobby philately.