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British Stamps

Line Engraved Issues


The line engraved British stamps, first issued in 1840 and 1841, were the first adhesive postage stamps to be issued by any nation of the World.

WMK 18
Small Crown

All of the line engraved stamps of 1840-1853 were all imperforate, and they were printed on either White or Bluish paper with WMK 18 -- the Small Crown watermark.

The 1 P. stamp was issued on May 6, 1840.  This British stamp is referred to by collectors around the World as "The Penny Black".

  • 1 P.  (1840 - Plates 1-11 - Scott #1) - Black, Intense Black, Gray Black.

Plate 1 of the Penny Black comes in two states, known as Plate 1a and Plate 1b.  Mint condition examples of the Penny Black are tremendously expensive.  Most collectors and specialists collect these in used condition, for which there are a great number of collecting possibilities.

Covers are known, used on May 6, 1840, the first day of issue, but they are tremendously expensive.

During the period of use of the Penny Black plates, British post offices used Maltese Cross "killers" to cancel the British stamps that were affixed to letters.  There are 32 different types of Maltese Cross cancels that were used in various post offices.  There are 12 different types of Maltese Cross cancels that have numbers in the middle of them.  And, the Maltese Cross killers were used by postal clerks with various color inks, them being red, black, blue, magenta, and yellow.  One could make an extensive philatelic study of just these cancellation varieties that were used on the Penny Blacks.

If one has the means to determine the different plates used to print the Penny Blacks, many philatelists make a collection of obtaining a nice example of the Penny Black from each of the plates.  With a good knowledge base and the right reference materials, the collector could obtain Penny Blacks from general dealers at a bourse for minimal prices that may be from the scarcer and often very expensive plates.

In May of 1840, a stamp, similar to the Penny Black but with the initials " V R " in the upper corners, was prepared.  These were intended to be used as Official Stamps

  • 1 P.  (1840 - Plate A - Scott #O1) - Black.

There were 3,233 sheets printed and delivered, however, the idea of having separate postage stamps for government offices was abandoned, and these Official Stamps were never officially issued.  Of these un-issued stamps, 3,302 sheets were destroyed in 1843.  Some examples were sent out with postal notices, and a few of the stamps were given to Sir Rowland Hill for testing purposes.  The number of surviving examples of these very rare British stamps is unknown.  A few examples DID pass through the mails undetected, and these used condition stamps are exceedingly rare.

The companion to the World's first postage stamp, the 2 P. denomination, shown above, was issued on May 8, 1840.

  • 2 P.  (1840 - Plates 1-2 - Scott #2) - Blue, Pale Blue, Deep Bright Blue.

Covers postmarked on the first day of issue are known, but they are exceedingly rare.

The Maltese Cross cancellation varieties for the 2 P. Blue are the same as those stated previously for the Penny Black.

And now, British philately starts getting a LOT MORE COMPLEX ....

There was difficulty in preventing the cleaning and fraudulent re-use of black stamps, so beginning in 1841, the color of the 1 P. stamps was changed to Red Brown.  The first printings of what are referred to as the imperforate "Penny Reds" utilized some of the same plates used to print the Penny Blacks.  New plates were later manufactured for the exclusive printing of the Penny Reds.

What makes this imperforate issue so complex is that these British stamps continued to be produced over a period of 12 years, using a large number of different types of platesIn the first group of plates, the check letters are what is called "Alphabet I"In the second group of plates, the check letters are what is called "Alphabet II".  They will not be explained here.  For the technical details on these plate and alphabet types, please consult the Stanley Gibbons Great Britain Specialised Catalogue - Volume I.

In the listing table below, I will present these issues in categories, and hopefully this will be of some help in clarifying the very different printings of what the Scott Catalog refers to, simply, as Great Britain #3 (1841).

  • 1 P.  (1841) (Black Plates 1b-2, 5, 8-11 - Scott #3) - Red Brown (shades) on Deeply Blued to Lightly Blued Paper.
  • 1 P.  (1841-1851) (Alphabet 1 - Plates 12-131 - Scott #3) - Red Brown (Shades) on Deeply Blued to Lightly Blued Paper.
  • 1 P.  (1852-1853) (Alphabet 2 - Plates 132-177 - Scott #3) - Red Brown (Shades) on Lavender Tinted to White Paper.

As indicated by the date arrangements, printings of these imperforate British stamps continued for some time after official government perforated stamps were introduced in early 1854.

Maltese Cross Cancel

1844 Type Cancel

Up until 1844, the cancellation types used on the Penny Reds were the same as those of the Penny Blacks.  This group includes Plate 1b through Plate 36.  This is a great aid in helping the specialist separate the earlier plates of the Penny Reds from the later plates of the Penny Reds.  Maltese cross cancels occur on a few plates after Plate 36, but they are infrequent and very scarce.  This is the group that will contain the Red Printings of the Penny Black plates, which are very scarce and prized by specialists.

Beginning in 1844, new types of obliterator cancels were implemented for British stamps.  Most of these are numeral-in-grid cancels or duplex cancels.

There are many plate re-entries, faults, and errors throughout all the plates used for the Penny Reds.  For details on them, refer to the Stanley Gibbons Great Britain Specialised Catalogue.

"Matched Pair"
Plate 10 Position R-K

Here is a fun idea for a great philatelic display.  Put together examples of both a Penny Black and a Penny Red from Plates 1b, 2, 5, and 8-11.  This will really impress your fellow stamp collectors!  These plated Penny Blacks can be a bit expensive, but finding (and affording) the Penny Reds from these Black Plates should be easy.  If you really want to get obsessive about this little project, try finding "matched pairs" ... Penny Black and Penny Red printings from these plates that are both from the SAME CHECK LETTER POSITIONS!

One of the more noteworthy Penny Red plate errors is shown above.  This stamp is from Position B-A of Plate 77, and it is called the "B-Blank Error".  The plate error was discovered and corrected.  Most of the available stamps from Plate 77 have the corrected B-A check letters.  The error stamps are very rare.

I have known specialists that have gone through literally tens of thousands of used Penny Reds with 1844 type cancellations, looking for an example of this error from Plate 77.  None of them have found any of these.  Maybe that's why the used condition catalog value is so high!

The example shown above sold in a Grosvenor Auction for £4,200 (US $8,000), and that was quite a few years ago.

In March 1841 and in December 1849, two new plates for the 2 P. denomination British stamps were put into use.  These two plates feature white separator lines between the vignette and the upper and lower tablets.  The stamps were printed on Blued Paper.

  • 2 P.  (1841) (Plate 3 - Scott #4) - Blue, Pale Blue, Bright Blue, Violet Blue.
  • 2 P.  (1849) (Plate 4 - Scott #4) Blue, Pale Blue, Bright Blue, Violet Blue.

Stamps from Plate 3 almost always have Maltese Cross cancels.  Stamps from Plate 4 always have 1844 Type cancels.

I have been able to locate a couple websites that address the plating of the very complex British stamps presented on this page:

  1. An informational site on the Plating of the Black and Red Printings of the Penny Black plates ...
  2. A UK dealer that specializes in the Penny Reds.  He has many important books on plating for sale ... Bill Barrell Ltd.

eBay Auction and Store Links

Great Britain Postage Stamps

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British Stamps - Line Engraved Issues of 1840-1853