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The stamp that changed the world

The launch of the Penny Black in 1840 changed the world forever – transforming how we send and receive post, and revolutionising communication across the globe.

Before this stamp (the world’s first), postal services were costly. Charges were based on how many sheets of paper you used. So people ‘cross-wrote’, writing in all directions to fill every space on a sheet.

The post was also unreliable. As recipients generally paid the postage, they could refuse to accept a letter. Some senders even wrote a coded message on the envelope so the recipient could read the ‘letter’ without paying.

It was complex too. Different postage rates applied in different parts of Britain. Extra charges were made for mail transported by coach and even for letters carried across major bridges.

Postal reformer Rowland Hill’s solution was simple yet revolutionary. Postage would be prepaid by the sender (at a uniform penny rate) and everyone would pay the same rate. Envelopes would be stamped as proof of payment. The stamp would be, as Hill put it, ‘a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash’.

Hill’s ideas were accepted, and the world’s first stamp, the Penny Black, was released on 6 May 1840. More than 68 million of them were produced in the first year.

The year before the Penny Black came out, 76 million paid-for letters were sent. By 1850 this had more than quadrupled to 350 million. Adhesive postal stamps were then adopted by countries around the world. A simple piece of paper had sparked a global communications revolution.

Pillar boxes

With millions of letters and parcels now on the move, Britain needed a better way for sending them. Before pillar boxes, people had to walk their letters to a post office or await a roving ‘bellman’ to call out for their letters when he passed by.

A bestselling Victorian novelist would change all that. Anthony Trollope was a postal worker as well as a great writer. He introduced the pillar box into Britain in 1853 and today our red postboxes are as famous round the world as London buses.

But the early ones were green so they would blend into their surroundings. They did it too well. The public said they couldn’t find them so an alternative bright red livery was chosen.

A philatelic revolution

The Penny Black may have been a world-changer but once it was introduced the approach to British stamp design changed little for over 100 years. Stamps invariably featured the reigning monarch. Only rarely were other subjects covered, and they were limited to great national occasions.

The first ‘modern’ Special Stamp not to feature a royal personage was issued in July 1965 – in tribute to Winston Churchill, who had died earlier that year.

Other issues rapidly followed in the first few years of this new era. Indeed, the Churchill stamp’s modern design style and visual clarity set the pace for the next 50 years – an era of artistic innovation and design brilliance that continues to tell Britain’s story to this day.

Stamps are our story

They’re the ultimate picture story of our nation. In minute artistic detail 50 years of British stamps have mapped over 2,000 years of British history – from Roman occupation to the internet age.

Spanish ships are repelled by Drake’s men in the Spanish Armada issue of 1988. The 1994 D-Day stamps show Allied forces storming the shores of Normandy in gritty monochrome. The 2015 Magna Carta set celebrates the 800th anniversary of the charter that gave rule of law to the world.

Quintessential Britishness is a constant theme: issues paying tribute to our way of life include Village Churches (1972); County Cricket (1973); Folklore (1981); Castles (1988); Gilbert and Sullivan Operas (1992); Enid Blyton (1997).

Cultural Britain is as evident as British culture. There’s popular: the Fab Four famously saunter across Abbey Road in The Beatles Album Covers (2007) and Dennis The Menace is up to no good in Comics (2012). And there’s classical: Shakespeare’s tragedies unfold in the RSC 50th Anniversary issue of 2011; Charles Dickens’ characters crackle with life in his Birth Bicentenary set of 2012; the misty brilliance of JMW Turner’s seascapes seeps from his 1975 Birth Bicentenary issue.

These are but chapters from the nation’s life in stamps. Other themes explored include British design classics, fashion gurus, scientific achievement, sporting glory, literary greats, soaring architecture, inspiring landscapes. And of course the Royal Family remains a regular source of inspiration.

Browse our gallery of 50 years of Special Stamps for the full story.

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