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Year of the Stamp: 50 years of Special Stamps


The stamps that changed the world

Royal Mail is celebrating the 175th anniversary of the world's first postage stamps – the Penny Black and the Twopenny Blue – by issuing a miniature sheet featuring reprints of the historic stamps.

The first Penny Black stamps went on sale on 1 May 1840 (becoming valid five days later – 6 May), and allowed senders to prepay postage for items up to half an ounce in weight to anywhere in the United Kingdom. A higher-denomination stamp, costing two pence, which became known as the Twopenny Blue, was used for items from half an ounce to one ounce.

Their introduction ultimately was part of radical changes to postage, resulting from major reforms that introduced charging by weight (rather than distance) for a letter to go to any destination in the UK.

In addition to the miniature sheet, which features images of the two stamps (each one appearing twice, with First Class values), Royal Mail has issued a stamp book containing six Penny Black anniversary stamps.

See the collection

Rowland Hill: reformer who sparked a revolution

The proposal for postal reform and the recommendation that postage should be reduced to a uniform, prepaid one penny, based on weight rather than the distance the item would travel, came from teacher and social reformer Rowland Hill in 1837.

His proposals were published in his pamphlet, ‘Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability’, and were initially met with opposition by the Post Office, as people were not convinced by Hill’s arguments that the lower revenues generated by a 1d postage rate would be offset by an increase in mail volumes.

Over the following two and a half years, Hill’s proposal for postal reform became a powerful cause. The cause was promoted across the country and supported by leading newspapers, which took up the campaign for cheap postage. The campaign was successful and an Act to introduce Hill’s reforms was passed by Parliament in 1839. He would eventually go on to be knighted for his services and is buried in Westminster Abbey in London.

In September 1839, the Treasury invited the public to submit ideas in a competition to implement Hill’s reforms, receiving some 2,600 entries. Hill thought that 'a specimen of fine art' should be used for the design and the head of the Queen would be best, as minute differences in forgeries – an important consideration – would be easily detected.

The final design was based on the ‘City’ medal by William Wyon. Surrounding the Queen’s head was a pattern made by the same engine-turning technique used for security backgrounds on banknotes. The bottom corners of the stamp had two blank spaces for the insertion of variable letters to create added anti-counterfeiting measures. The same image of Queen Victoria remained in use on postage stamps throughout her reign.

The introduction of uniform penny postage, represented by the Penny Black, created a communication revolution. It became cheaper to send letters to anywhere in the country and, regardless of where the recipient lived, the cost remained the same. Combined with the introduction of letter boxes in front doors from 1849 and the expansion of the postbox network from 1852, this led to a significant increase in the number of letters sent – from 76 million in the year before the launch of the Penny Black, to 347 million letters a year, one decade on.

Did you know?

  • The Penny Black stamp of 1840 would cost £3.07 in today’s terms*.
  • The introduction of the Penny Black was the first time postage was paid by the sender of a letter – previously the recipient usually paid for postage costs.
  • It was also the first time that a flat fee, based on weight, was charged regardless of the distance the item was being sent within the UK.
  • The Penny Black printing plates are currently on display at the British Library.

*Source: Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, ‘Purchasing Power of British Pounds from 1270 to Present,’ Measuring Worth, 2015.

Explore the presentation pack

Collectors' corner: First Day Cover

The First Day Cover features a photograph of the ‘Old Original’ die and the title of the issue.

The first postmark, made available as a handstamp at Tallents House, Edinburgh, features the Maltese Cross, used to cancel the Penny Black. To reflect the original colour of the cancellation, the handstamp will be printed using red ink.

The alternate location is Bath, where the handstamp design mirrors a surviving postmark which was used to cancel the Penny Black in Bath on 2 May 1840, prior to the stamp being valid. This handstamp will be printed using red ink.

Unlike the Tallents House and alternative postmarks, the non-pictorial postmark will be printed using black ink.

View the 2015 Special Stamp calendar

Our Special Stamp Heritage

Royal Mail Special Stamps celebrate the best of British, whether historic anniversaries, achievements in arts and sciences, sporting success or the nation’s passions. For 50 years we have been publishing the Special Stamps programme.

Before 1965, ‘Commemorative Stamps’ were issued occasionally and mostly for Royal and Postal events and anniversaries. New Postmaster General Tony Benn revised the criteria for stamps and in 1965 key decisions as to the future scope and design of regular ‘Special Issues’ were made.

Today, Royal Mail plans its annual programme up to three years in advance. We receive hundreds of requests for stamp subjects every year. These requests, along with the hundreds of others we research, then have to pass our selection criteria before commencing detailed public research. We conclude with around 13 subjects per year including significant anniversaries and events.


Once the subjects are defined, stamp briefs are composed and the design process begins. Expert Royal Mail design staff commission the cream of creative talent – designers, photographers, illustrators – and guide them through the unique development process. The design includes input from the independent Stamp Advisory Committee (SAC), which meets six times a year to review the creative approaches and provide advice on how best to solve design problems. The design of Royal Mail stamps are internationally recognised for their quality and have won many major design awards over the decades.


Following approval by the SAC, the artwork is sent to the printer for proofing. Specialist security printers are used, who can meet the exacting print standards for the consistent mass production of millions of stamps.

But before printing begins there is one final, essential approval required. High quality proofs, called essays, are sent to Buckingham Palace to receive approval from Her Majesty The Queen. Every new stamp must have Royal Approval before it can be issued. Once printed, Special Stamps are fabricated into collectible products, such as First Day Covers and Presentation Packs. Sheets of stamps then begin the process of distribution to 8000 Post Office branches throughout the UK in readiness for the ‘First Day of Issue’. Most Special Stamps are available for one year from publication.

Our stamps are received by people all around the world, each conveying a unique impression of the UK. So it’s no wonder they have been called the ‘paper ambassadors’.


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