What is the ‘Penny Black’?

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the ‘Penny Black’, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp. Issued in Britain from 1 May 1840 by the famous reformer, Rowland Hill, the Penny Black made history. It introduced the concept of fixing a small label to an envelope to confirm payment to the Post Office for postal services. This first postage stamp became popularly known the world over as the ‘Penny Black’ due to the colour of ink used in its printing and its denomination of one penny.

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In Rowland Hill’s own words this new way of paying for postage in advance was to be via “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash.” Hill’s reform of the postal service included the standardisation of postal charges, of which the one penny charge was the foundation.

The stamps bore the image of a young Queen Victoria in profile, which remained unchanged throughout her reign. Henry Corbould’s beautiful but simple sketch was based on the head of Queen Victoria as sculpted by Royal Mint Chief Engraver William Wyon for his Guildhall or ‘City’ Medal. When the final die was completed and a proof of the stamp was shown to the Queen, she wrote to express her ‘high appreciation’ of the stamp.

To this day, British postage stamps are unique worldwide in having never borne the name of their country, leaving only the reigning monarch’s image to denote that.

The 175th anniversary of the Penny Black is celebrated in 2015 by a limited edition PMC featuring an encapsulated medal struck by The Royal Mint. A particularly interesting fact about this superb medal is that both the obverse and reverse showcase the artistic skills of Royal Mint Chief Engravers past and present. William Wyon’s 1837 Royal portrait on the obverse is perfectly complemented by the reverse design, the work of today’s Royal Mint Chief Engraver, Gordon Summers.

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Gordon aimed for an authentic reproduction of the original Penny Black stamp, demonstrating skills rarely used in medal production these days. By hand-engraving the die with the lines around the edges of the stamps directly onto the die, he sought to capture the subtleties of original images of the stamps. He wanted his design to reflect that the dies used to print the stamps in 1840 would also have been hand-engraved, by a fellow craftsman.

Original image for engraving - Gordon Summers
A rendering of an early version of the reverse of the Penny Black medal – by Gordon Summers

A further special feature of the medal is that Gordon’s obverse design has no edge in its final production – a striking procedure that is extremely difficult technically. By the design extending beyond the edge of the medal he wished to indicate how the stamps appeared when printed in sheets. 

This highly collectable Medal Cover tells in detail the story of the creation of the Penny Black and a summary of the 1840 postal reform. It includes images such as the sketch of the Queen’s head by Henry Corbould, information about William Wyon, watercolour sketches prepared for Rowland Hill, a sample of an engine-turning pattern and a section of a sheet printed from the very first plate.

Limited to 9,000 this very special PMC features a Miniature Sheet cancelled with a London handstamp and The Royal Mint medal in cupro-nickel, struck to Brilliant Uncirculated standard. It is available now, on this, the Penny Black‘s anniversary.

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Click here to purchase the Penny Black Medal Cover

If you enjoyed this article, you may wish to read our previous blog about PNC and PMC products, which explains more about these appealing items.

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  • Brian Luney

    Just one small point. I think Gordon Summers has made a mistake in lettering his depiction of the Penny Black “A A” as there would have been no stamps to the left or above a stamp thus lettered as it would have been the first stamp on the sheet, at the top left corner.

  • These are likely to gain in value as stamps and the Royal Mail in general is phased out.