The first postmark

Statue of Rowland Hill near St Paul's

IN Prince’s Street EC2 – behind the Bank of England – you’ll find a blue plaque which notes: ‘Near this spot the General Letter Office stood in Post Office Yard, 1653-1666. Here were struck in 1661 the first postmarks in the world’.

Postmarks predate stamps, being used to indicate the date of posting of a letter (so senders couldn’t claim for alleged postal delays), though they later came to be used to cancel stamps.

The postmark was devised in 1661 by Henry Bishop, postmaster general, who was in charge of the mail between London and the six main post roads towards Bristol, Chester, Kent, North, Western and Yarmouth. A letter mailed in London was stamped when it left, one from elsewhere when it arrived in London. The mark was a circle with a two letter abbreviation for the month in the top half, the day in the bottom half. No year was thought necessary (which might say something unflattering about modern mail).

The Penny Black, the first ever adhesive postage stamp, was issued on May 1, 1840. Before then, postage was paid by the person who received the letter, who the postman had to track down. A stamp cost four pence 1814 – a day’s wages for a labourer. Over 15 miles, the stamp cost six pence.

A postmark was issued at the same time to cancel the stamp, in the shape of a Maltese cross. At first it was also black but because it was hard to see a black postmark on a black stamp the colour was changed to red in 1841.  The first forged stamps appeared in 1841 and the colour of the stamps was then changed to red, the postmark returning to black.

Strangely, Benjamin Cheverton idea of having a young girl’s head on the stamp to prevent forgery was almost an afterthought. Rowland Hill (above), the man behind the universal penny post, himself developed this suggestion, adapting a portrait of Queen Victoria as a princess at the age of 18.

Here’s a fascinating history of the post:


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