by Marsha Brandsdorfer
It was Rowland Hill who initiated post office reform. Instead of the recipient paying to receive mail, Hill reasoned that postage should be paid by a single rate by the sender. A competition was thus held for the design for the new penny postage. The winner for the stamp entry was from William Wyon which portrayed a profile of Queen Victoria. Other artists and engravers improved upon the design and when it was approved by the Queen, the Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp was issued on May 1, 1840. The Penny Red was issued the following year as canceling the Penny Black effectively turned out to be a challenge.
The Penny Lilac was later introduced to replace the Penny Red. Thirty-three billion of these stamps were issued. The demand for stamps was strong, as during the Victorian period, the British wrote letters as readily as emails or texts are sent today.
Edward VII became King in 1901, after his mother passed away, this became the Edwardian era. During this era, there were many radical movements. For instance, Postmaster General Henry Fawcett’s wife, Millicent Fawcett, argued for women’s suffrage. A British stamp honored Ms. Fawcett in 2008.
During WWI and WWII, many postal employees were women while men were off to war. Mail was highly censored, particularly during WWII. About ten thousand people were employed at the twenty censor offices in the United Kingdom, wherein employees opened mail from servicemen checking that their letters did not give out information which could be received by enemy spies.
Britain still suffered economically after WWII. A big help to the economy was the sponsoring of the 1948 Olympic Games by England, also known as the Austerity Games, because of post-war rationing and frugal spending. The Olympic Games helped in uplifting spirits, and gave pride to the people.
In 1964, new Postmaster General Tony Benn wanted to have more attractive stamps issued to the public. He notified leading stamp designers for new ideas. Benn also requested that a smaller cameo of Queen Elizabeth be designed to be put on stamps, instead of the large portrait of her, which was presently on postage stamps. He even tried to get her head removed altogether, but of course, the Queen disapproved of this suggestion.
By 2000, the post office’s letter business was declining. The internet affected postal mail. However, there would always be a need for postal mail. Birthday cards, Christmas cards, invitations to weddings and Bar Mitzvahs would be sent by mail. Personally, I write letters to my pen pals, and I still pay most of my bills by mail. Stamps continue to be collectibles, and the post office encourages this with the production of attractive stamps such as the British mini sheet issued in 2011, celebrating the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.
Information in my article is taken from A History of Britain In Thirty-Six Postage Stamps by Chris West.