British Guiana’s First Postage Stamps 

i. The Cottonreels



1850 4-, 8-, and 12-cent cottonreels. From the John E. du Pont Collection. Courtesy of David Feldman, S. A., Geneva, Switzerland

(Stanley Gibbons nos. 2–8, Scott nos. 2–5)

In the decade immediately following the introduction of postage stamps by Great Britain on 1 May 1840, fewer than twenty countries, territories, and cities had stamp issues of their own. In the Americas only Brazil and the United States preceded British Guiana into production, and a complete collection of world stamps would have numbered less than one hundred examples. During the next decade that number would grow into the thousands, as virtually every country in the world issued its own stamps—and a few people started to collect them.

The stamps that Dalton commissioned in 1850 were of a rudimentary design created using the limited resources of the offices of Joseph Baum and William Dallas, printers and publishers of the Royal Gazette of British Guiana, a small-format newspaper issued every Wednesday and Saturday in Georgetown. The Postmaster turned to local printers because the inland service was to begin before stamps could possibly be supplied from Great Britain.

The little that is known about the printers comes from a memoir by the American humorist Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber, who relates how he came to be indentured as a compositor to the Royal Gazette for twenty months in 1835. In the first part of Experience during Many Years, serialized in The New England Magazine in 1893, Shillaber relates that “Mr. Baum … was a Pennsylvanian, and Mr. Dallas a light mulatto; and a more perfect gentleman and a better printer I had never met with. He was educated in Scotland and acquired the art of printing there, in all branches of which he was a perfect master. He was affable in the highest degree and always treated me with a kindness which rendered our relations very pleasant.”

The stamps produced in Baum and Dallas’s shop in 1850 were printed by an employee named Henry Mackay, according to Edward Chauncy Luard, the first prominent philatelist in British Guiana. They were circular, and in size and design so reminiscent of the labels found on the ends of spools of thread that they subsequently became known among collectors as “cottonreels.” According to The Postage Stamps and Postal History of British Guiana by W. A. Townsend and F. G. Howe, the cottonreels were printed on a Columbian handpress from individual settings of type. The simple frames were formed by pieces of printer’s brass rule, beveled at one edge and blunt at the other edge, bent into a circular shape and so soldered. Type from the regular case of the Gazette was then set within the circular frame: BRITISH around the top, GUIANA around the bottom, and 4 (8 or 12) Cents in the middle. The type pieces were secured in place with quads and other furniture (or perhaps with chewed paper), imposed and locked in a chase, inked, and printed. 

It is not known how many stamps were printed on a single sheet, but as Townsend has identified four distinct frames (based on thickness, shape, and flaws in the circular rules and by distinctive positions of the letter sorts), it is thought the stamps were printed in a horizontal row of four. The same basic setting of type was used to print stamps of different denominations: to change from one duty to another, the chase would be unlocked, the numeral sort carefully extracted, the new value sort inserted, the chase relocked, and the forme re-inked and printed. To easily differentiate between the values, the stamps were printed in black ink on different colored papers: the four-cent on orange (with a later printing on lemon-yellow); the eight-cent on green; and the twelve-cent on blue shades ranging from pale to indigo.

All examples of the 1850 cottonreels are initialed by Dalton or by one of his subordinates: James Belton Smith, a clerk in the Imperial Branch; H. A. Killikelly, a letter carrier; W. H. Lorimer, likely a railway clerk; and Edmond Dalzell Wight, a clerk in the Colonial Post Office, whose E.D.W. appears on the 1856 One-Cent. The initialing is thought to have been done to thwart counterfeiters, since anyone with a job press and a handful of type could have produced a reasonable facsimile of the Royal Gazette stamps.

While there is no record of how many cottonreels were eventually printed, it is known, based on a Royal Gazette invoice attached to a report Dalton submitted to the colonial legislature on 11 March 1851, how many were printed during the final six months of 1850: 656 12-cent blues, 1,200 8-cent greens, and 1,752 4-cent yellows. The charge for printing the stamps was 50 cents per one hundred regardless of denomination. Curiously, the three stamps survive in almost equal numbers, despite the disparity in the numbers printed, at least through the first half year of production.

ii. The Two-Cent Cottonreel


1851 2-cent cottonreel. From the John E. du Pont Collection. Courtesy of David Feldman, S. A., Geneva, Switzerland 

(Stanley Gibbons no. 1, Scott no. 1) 

Early in 1851, a fourth value was added to the issue of cottonreel stamps. A 2-cent denomination was printed to cover postal delivery within Georgetown. Postmaster Dalton again used a notice in the Royal Gazette, 22 February 1851, to introduce the new service:

By Order of His Excellency the Governor and upon the request of several of the merchants of Georgetown, it is proposed to establish a Delivery of Letters twice a day through the principal streets of this city, viz., Water-Street, Main-Street, their intermediate streets, and the Brick Dam, as far as the Roman Catholic Chapel. … Each letter must bear a stamp, for which Two Cents will be charged or it will not be delivered, and when called for will be subject to the usual postage of Eight Cents.

Deliveries began on 1 March and were set for 10:00 in the morning and 2:00 in the afternoon. The new stamps were available at the Georgetown Post Office as well as at five stores that were designated as receiving stations.

The 2-cent stamps were printed by Baum and Dallas on rose-colored paper using the same typographic frames as the three earlier values. All ten surviving examples are initialed—two by Dalton, two by Wight, and six by Smith.

Despite the encouragement of “several of the merchants of Georgetown,” this service was discontinued after a short period due to lack of support and the remaining stamps were retained, with some being used as multiples to pay the regular postage of four cents or higher. The 2-cent cottonreel was alluded to in articles over the years but it wasn’t until 1877 that a single specimen appeared in England from a collector in British Guiana. Two more copies appeared in quick succession from the same source and within a year an entire collection of British Guiana stamps arrived in Britain for sale. This collection, which contained the fourth and last single copy of this rarity found to date, was sent to E. L. Pemberton, who was very familiar with the colony’s stamps. Pemberton examined the 2-cent stamp and satisfied himself that it was a genuine copy. But that same collection also included a stamp that Pemberton had never before seen: a small octagonal 1-cent magenta stamp.

iii. The 1852 Second Issue


1852 1-cent black on magenta and 4-cent black on deep blue. From the  John E. du Pont Collection. Courtesy of David Feldman, S. A., Geneva, Switzerland

(Stanley Gibbons nos. 9 and 10, Scott nos. 6 and 7) 

The new inland mail service of British Guiana was greeted with enthusiasm, but it ultimately proved to be unpopular because of the system of charging by distance. In particular, the 12-cent fee for delivery to New Amsterdam, Spring Garden, Zorg, Williamstown, and Henrietta was considered disproportionate. On 27 December 1851, Postmaster Dalton announced that in the New Year the colony’s Post Office was converting to a weight-based fee structure. Regardless of the distance of their delivery, letters weighing less than half an ounce would require four cents postage; those weighing half an ounce or more but less than an ounce would need eight cents; one ounce or more but less than two ounces, twelve cents; two ounces or more but less than three, sixteen cents; with every additional ounce requiring an additional four cents in postage. Perhaps the only people in the colony displeased with the new scheme were newspaper subscribers. Papers had previously been delivered at no charge, but they now required one cent in postage. (In April, the postage charge was briefly rescinded for newspapers mailed within a week of their publication.)

New stamps were also issued for 1852—the first to be supplied to the colony from the English mainland. They were produced by a firm of legal document printers, Waterlow and Sons Limited. The firm had been in business since 1810 and would go on to become one of the premier printers of stamps and banknotes in the British Empire. But the 1852 British Guiana issue comprised some of the very first stamps they manufactured.

The large upright rectangular stamps came in two values and were printed by lithography: two copper dies were engraved for each value and impressions of these were made on paper and then transferred to a lithographic stone. The stamps were probably printed in sheets of one hundred. The 1-cent was printed in black on magenta surface-colored paper, the 4-cent in black on deep blue. The design featured a vignette of a ship in a shield framed at the left by BRITISH reading upward and at the right by GUIANA reading downward, with the value at top and the curiously misspelled two-line Latin motto damus patimus |que vicissim in small capitals at the bottom. The whole design was bordered by a single-rule frame. The typographical error patimus for petimus in the colony’s motto (“we give and seek in return”) was the fault of the engraver in England.

The stamps, although somewhat crudely printed, were far superior to the issues they replaced. They would stay in circulation for less than two years, however, when they were superseded by the finely engraved Waterlow colored issue of 1853. Concerns over forgery and fragility (the surface of the stamps rubbed very easily) must have resulted in this change as a large stock of these stamps was withdrawn when the new stamps arrived. Edward Chauncy Luard reported that a later Government Secretary, A. G. Young, became so agitated by the constant application of collectors for examples of the 1852 issue that he had the remaining stockpile destroyed.


iv. The 1853 Third Issue



1853 1-cent vermilion and 4-cent deep blue.  From the John E. du Pont Collection. Courtesy of David Feldman, S. A., Geneva, Switzerland

(Stanley Gibbons nos. 12–20, Scott nos. 8–11)

There was no official announcement for the new 1-cent and 4-cent stamps of 1853. As there was no change in the postage rate it seems likely that the new stamps—again printed by Waterlow—just replaced the old as they arrived in the colony. For the first time both values were printed in color on white paper: the 1-cent in shades between vermilion and brown red, the 4-cent in light to deep blue. The upright rectangle now conformed to standard postage-stamp size. The design again featured a ship motif with the correct damus petimus que vicissim inscribed in an oval border around it. The whole was contained within a rectangular frame with BRITISH and GUIANA at left and right, POSTAGE above, and the value fully spelled out below. The four corners showed the issue date: 1 and 8 at the top, 5 and 3 at the bottom. This would remain the standard type for the years 1853 to 1859—except for an extended period of 1856 when the Colony would be forced to produce its own stamps once again.


The 1856 Provisional Issue and the One-Cent Magenta

1856 4-cent black on magenta All from the John E. du Pont Collection. Courtesy of David Feldman, S. A., Geneva, Switzerland 

1856 4-cent black on rose-carmine All from the John E. du Pont Collection. Courtesy of David Feldman, S. A., Geneva, Switzerland 

1856 4-cent black on blue All from the John E. du Pont Collection. Courtesy of David Feldman, S. A., Geneva, Switzerland  

1856 4-cent black on blue, paper colored through All from the John E. du Pont Collection. Courtesy of David Feldman, S. A., Geneva, Switzerland 

(Stanley Gibbons nos. 23–27, Scott nos. 13–16)

In early 1856 the Post Office in British Guiana was about to run out of stamps due to a delay in supply. On 25 November 1854, 100,000 stamps—50,000 1-cent and 50,000 4-cent—were ordered from Waterlow and Sons. In September 1855 the order arrived, but it contained only 5,000 stamps of each value. An immediate request was dispatched for the full order to make up for what can only have been a significant clerical error. A full year would be needed to reset the presses in England and print and ship the shortfall to British Guiana. As a result, by January 1856 supplies were running low.

Postmaster Edward Dalton had to look to a local supplier in order to avoid calamity, and, as in 1850, he approached the firm of Baum and Dallas. The publishers had in the interim changed the name of their newspaper to the Official Gazette, which more accurately reflected the periodical’s position as the authorized organ of the colonial government.

For this contingency supply of stamps, the Gazette office abandoned the simple circular cottonreel design and attempted to mimic the appearance of the first, 1852, Waterlow stamps. The printer, most likely Archibald Devonshire in this instance, took a stock wood- or metal-cut vignette of a ship and set it with the colony motto Damus Petimus, above, Que Vicissum, below, all within a frame of four thin rules. At the upper and lower borders, outside the rules, he set the words BRITISH and GUIANA; at the left border, the word POSTAGE, and at the right, one of two duties: ONE CENT or FOUR CENTS.

The stamps were set and printed in pairs, one above the other. The top setting is known as Type one and the bottom as Type two. The small size of the form was almost certainly due to the small number of ship cuts available. (It has often been asserted that the ship illustration used on the 1856 stamps was the one used by the paper to illustrate its regular shipping reports—but the Gazette, Royal or Official, did not print shipping news. The ships must have just been among the odd assortment of cuts that would accumulate in any nineteenth-century printing office.)

The 4-cent stamps were printed in black on four basic papers: first surface-colored magenta; next surface-colored rose-carmine; then surface-colored blue; and finally full blue. Throughout the year the printing was repeated as the papers changed, and several states are known. The single surviving One-Cent known is a Type two, the lower of the pair, and falls between State I and II of the earliest printed 4-cent values on magenta surface paper. Judging by the earliest known cancellations, the One-Cent is almost certainly from late January 1856.



1856 One-Cent Black on Magenta photographed with an infrared filter that supresses all visible light (400-800nm), allowing the letterpress printing of the stamp to be clearly seen. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Lera, the Winston S. Blount Research Chair at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum

The reason the two 1856 denominations were initially printed on the same color paper remains a puzzle. Because of the celebrity of the One-Cent, the question has usually been phrased as to why the One-Cent was printed on the same color as the 4-cent. But the more pertinent question is why the 1856 4-cent was printed on red, since the 4-cent was consistently on blue for all other issues from 1852 through 1860. The answer probably lies in the supplies available to the printers. It does appear that when a blue ink or a blue paper became available later in the year it was adopted for use. British Guiana always had several indigenous red dyes such as annatto or chica on hand.

The stamps were prepared at the Gazette offices in the Cumingsburg District, No. 23 High Street and Church Street. They were reputedly printed on a Columbian “Eagle” press manufactured by Thomas Long & Co., Engineers, Edinburgh, now housed at the National Museum of Guyana, not far from the site of the printing office. The stamps were then delivered to the Post Office located in the Public Buildings, several blocks south on Brickdam Street.

“View from the Georgetown Lighthouse—looking east,” from George W. Bennett’s Illustrated History of British Guiana. Georgetown, Demerara: Richardson and Co., 1866. Courtesy of David Druett,

As with the previous locally produced issues of 1850, Postmaster Dalton had each stamp initialed by either himself or one of his clerks for extra security. The unique One-Cent was initialed by E(dmund) D(alzell) W(ight). Like Government Secretary A. G. Young, Wight had little tolerance for the philatelic celebrity achieved by British Guiana’s early stamps. In 1889, Edward Denny Bacon, one of the first philatelists to write about the stamps of the colony, reported that E. C. Luard had told him that “Mr. Wight is still alive and living in the colony but he is in his dotage and either cannot or will not remember anything about these old stamps except that he initialed them. He has been so pestered on the subject that the mention of old stamps to him is like a red rag to a bull.”

The whereabouts of the One-Cent Magenta for the last 141 years can be known positively. But the first seventeen years of its existence are shrouded in impenetrable obscurity. The stamp was purchased on or before 4 April 1856, the date it was postmarked, and affixed to an envelope or newspaper wrapper, most likely addressed to a Mr. Andrew Hunter. And sometime in 1873, the stamp was discovered—or recovered—by a nephew of Hunter, a budding stamp collector. For the years between those events, the stamp resided unrecognized and unappreciated on its cover in the tropical heat and humidity of British Guiana.