Queen Victoria and the Penny Black

City Information Centre

   Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) – it seems you come across her everywhere. Victoria Station might spring to mind first, in the City an important street was named in her honour (and it’s QUEEN Victoria Street, to be sure). There is a whole Australian state named after her. Or think of the Victoria Falls on the Zambesi River in southern Africa (“The Smoke that Thunders” in Lozi, the native language. Is this a coincidence?).

 Another connection that’s not so evident is the Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp used in a public postal system. Let’s go back to 1837 when postal rates in Britain were high and complex. It worked “the other way round”, i.e. the recipient had to pay postage on delivery according to how many sheets they received and how far the letter had to travel. In February of that year Sir Rowland Hill, a “teacher, inventor and social reformer” proposed an adhesive stamp which had to be paid for prior to postage. You can see a statue of him in King Edward Street.

A large metal statue of a man wearing a long coat, waist coat and bowtie stands on top of a marble mount engraved with the name Roland Hill in gold.
Statue of Rowland Hill Statue of Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879), postal reformer, outside the former General Post Office (King Edward Building), City of London. By Julian Osley, CC BY-SA 2.0

Hill made the case that if letters were cheaper to send, people, including the poorer classes, would send more of them and thus eventually profits would go up. A competition was announced to find the design for the new stamp. Over 2,600 entries were received but none was considered suitable. So a rough design endorsed by Hill was chosen, featuring an easily recognisable profile of the former Princess Victoria at the age of 15!

The Penny Black VR Official

The final choice was a cameo-like head based on a commemorative medal of the Queen’s visit to the City of London in November 1837. The same portrait of Victoria remained on British stamps until her death in 1901. All British stamps still bear a portrait of the monarch somewhere on the design. The UK remains the only country in the world to omit its name on postage stamps - the monarch's image signifies the UK as the country of origin.

 Thus the first Penny Black, officially sold for the first time on May 6 1840, saw the light of day. As a consequence the number of letters sent in the UK more than doubled - you paid one penny for letters up to 14 grams, regardless of distance. And still the Penny Black lasted less than a year. One reason was that a red cancellation showing the Maltese Cross was hard to see on the black design and the red ink was easy to remove making it possible to re-use cancelled stamps.

In February 1841, the Treasury switched to the Penny Red and began using black ink for cancellations instead, which was more effective and harder to remove. However, people still reused stamps by combining the uncancelled parts of two stamps to form an unused whole! The stamps were printed in unperforated sheets, to be carefully cut with scissors for sale and use. As a result, stamps with badly cut margins, or no margins, are common and worth very little today, you can find used ones on e-bay. However examples with four clear margins are rare and sought after by collectors. They fetch very high prices, especially if in mint condition. Unused Penny Blacks can sell for prices ranging from £1,250 to hundreds of thousands of pounds. The only known complete sheets are owned by the British Postal Museum.

 Today the Penny Black is considered a British cultural icon. In 2015, Google marked the 175th anniversary of the postage stamp with a Google doodle.


Postal Museum