The Penny Black postage stamp – the most famous stamp in the world – marked the beginning of a brand new postal system that would transform communication across the country, and go on to sweep the globe.

Before the introduction of the Penny Post, postal costs in Britain were high. Letters were sent around the country by mail coaches or horse riders and when the person to whom the letter had been sent received it, he or she had to pay for the cost of postage. The cost depended on the number of sheets and the distance the letter had travelled, and was too expensive for most ordinary people.

In 1835, Rowland Hill (1795-1879) began a campaign to reform the postal system, proposing in 1837 a standardised, pre-paid system that would be affordable for all. His campaign received huge public support and, after some objections in parliament, his idea was approved. He was appointed by the government in 1839 to put the system into action.

He introduced a universal postal rate of one penny (1d) per half ounce (14 grams) in weight. The 1d ‘adhesive label’ was then designed. It was based on an image of Queen Victoria when she was only 15 years old. The top two corners of the stamp had a Maltese cross on each. For security, Rowland Hill ensured there was variable lettering on the bottom two corners (denoting the position on the printing sheet). The ‘labels’ were printed in sheets of 240 onto watermarked paper (for extra security) using black ink. They were launched for official use in May 1840 – the first adhesive postage stamp, the penny black, was born.

Postal traffic increased vastly with the introduction of Rowland Hill’s new, affordable system. It coincided with the revolution in rail transport – a new network of steam-powered railways which was rapidly extending out across the country, making travel quicker and cheaper than ever before – which contributed to the system’s success. It also coincided with the development of the ‘industrial’ printing press. Steam power and new designs meant printing could be undertaken quickly on a mass scale.  Commercial and political business could now be cheaply communicated around the country in the form of mass-produced pamphlets and fliers, making information about products, investments, and political and moral campaigns much easier to access.


Did you know..?

To prevent them being re-used, a ‘cancellation’ was stamped in red ink across the penny black in the shape of a Maltese cross. Unfortunately, this could be removed without damaging the ‘label’ underneath. Within a year the colour of the label was changed to red-brown (the Penny Red) and the cancellation to black. Today, a first day cover of a Penny Black on its envelope is worth around £150,000.

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.