The Wallace Document is the subject of a British Philatelic Association certificate (dated 16th December 2015 and numbered 74,217) and a Royal Philatelic Society London certificate (dated 13th January 2016 and numbered 222356).

Robert Wallace (1773-1855)


Rediscovered nearly three decades ago but not fully recognized until much more recently, the lot offered here includes the earliest dated example of the very first postage stamp, one of the most significant inventions in human history, the precursor of mass and global communication as well as the keystone and lynchpin of the world’s most popular collecting discipline.

With a provenance of great distinction and accompanied by a second postal artefact of similar importance, this small and simple-looking Penny Black - a pristine impression, unused, and from plate 1a and lettered A-I - represents the apotheosis of the Victorian Age and the birth of a device that would be central to the “birth” of mass communications across the globe for more than a century and a half and one which has still has not been completely supplanted by newer technologies.

Like all great objects, the World’s First Postage Stamp has a great origin story, one that began long before Robert Wallace, Member of Parliament and a leading postal reformer, was presented with the stamp and stuck it onto a sheet of card stock in his personal scrap-album together with a proof of an 1840 Mulready postal stationery form similarly given to him. The resulting dated and self-authenticating display of the two complementary inventions became known as “The Wallace Document,” which today (following its exhibition at the Smithsonian) is regarded as the one of the most important documents in philately.


Prior to the establishment of the mails, the only systems for delivering letters resided with messengers in the employ of either the King, the Church, or the Universities. All other correspondence was carried by travelers who carried messages between towns. The first Master of the Posts was created by Henry VIII around 1512: Brian Tuke oversaw the King’s messengers and was responsible for the transportation of all official mail in and out of the country. Although it was expressly forbidden, these messengers began to carry private letters and, by the end of the century, the growing merchant class had created their own private service. To counter this Queen Elizabeth I proclaimed all mail had to pass through official channels - in essence this meant that all letters could be opened and read.

In 1635 the first internal service was set up by Charles I to deliver mail between the major cities of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Later named the General Post Office by Oliver Cromwell in 1657, the government still retained the right to open any letters in defence of “plots against the government”. This continued until 1711 when only an order from the Secretary of State could allow tampering with the mail.

The word mail actually derives from several old European words all meaning a bag of some sort. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the mail was carried by relay up and down the country by teams of carriers on foot and horse from one point, or post, to another. These ten-to-twenty mile stretches became the post roads and, eventually, these two words became synonymous with the letters they carried.

At first, letters were only transported between post offices. Upon arrival they were collected and paid for by the recipient, the cost depending on the Treasury who regulated the postage rates and changed them regularly. The first British dated postmarks appeared on a local post set up in London by Postmaster General Henry Bishop in 1661/62. Three years later the Duke of York, the King’s brother, was awarded the profits from the General Post Office. This had the effect of preventing any further improvement in the service and was an enormous drain on a once profitable business. William Dockwra introduced his London pre-paid Penny Post service in 1680 and it proved a fast, efficient and profitable service, only to be closed down in 1682 by the Government following complaints by the Duke of an infringement on his monopoly. Within weeks of its closure, it was opened again as the Government Penny Post. In 1696 William Dockwra became its Comptroller.

Until the dawn of the Victorian era the General Post Office would remain a staid yet profitable bastion of the Treasury. The service had extended throughout the country and, with the introduction of mail coaches in 1784, its speed had increased dramatically. The problem was inefficiency and cost. The Post Office was such a good source of revenue that whenever the government needed money the public was made to pay through higher postage rates. By 1812 the rate for a letter traveling up to 15 miles was 4d.. From London to Glasgow in Scotland, a distance of over 400 miles, the cost was 1s. 2d..

1840 One Penny Black, from plate 1a, lettered A-I, unused
Proof of the accepted Master Die for the Penny Black


Robert Wallace entered Parliament in 1833 following the Reform Act of 1832 that created the new seat of Greenock,

a port town twenty-five miles northwest of Glasgow. His first contribution in the House of Commons on March 11th was a speech against the suppression of disturbances in Ireland.

An interesting note is that although petitions against the government had been received from all parts of the country only a small percentage had been accepted from the Post Office. The greater number had been refused for want of payment of postal charges. Less than five months later, on August 6th, Wallace brought forward a motion in the House of Commons “For copies of the instruction under which Postmasters claim a right to unfold or open letters in all or any of the Post Offices of Great Britain and Ireland.” The matter revolved around the insinuation that the Post Office freely and regularly opened letters and packages to check for surplus enclosures being sent unpaid through the mail - this being due to the Post Office charging by the number of sheets rather than weight. Wallace’s argument was that the Postmaster General was condoning a felony in pursuit of a fraud. After making his point, Wallace then launched into a tirade against the Post Office. He complained of the unchecked powers of the Postmaster General, the speed of services, the inequities of salaries, foreign mail charges, and corruption. He pointed out that the government had spent £90,000 on an 1829 report on the Post Office by the Commissioners of Revenue and had, so far, taken up none of its suggestions. He went as far as to suggest that he would call for a Select Committee in the next session of Parliament if his motion were denied. Wallace received little support for his complaints even though the motion was passed. He was ridiculed and regarded as a crank by his peers, but rather than letting the matter rest, he doubled his efforts. The major obstacle he faced was that the Post Office was a profitable business that transported information throughout the country and the civilized world. It was perceived as successful and efficient and, although expensive, the best that could be expected.

The following year he railed against the ship mails known as the steam packets and also made his first attack on the abuse of the free postage granted to all members of both Houses of Parliament. Further persistent criticisms backed by facts and figures ensued, leading by 1834 to the first of several Commissions of Inquiry into the management of the Post Office being appointed. Wallace not only criticized the Post Office but also made several noteworthy suggestions as to the improvement of the organization including opening for public competition the contract for the construction of mail coaches, this measure alone saving over £17,000 a year. The following year while working almost exclusively with the Committee, Wallace arrived at three suggestions that he presented to Parliament in 1836: the reduction of the maximum postage rate from 1s. 6d. to 8d.; the introduction of Registered Mail; and that the postage rate should be regulated by the shortest route to the destination rather than the somewhat circuitous routes often employed and charged for by the Post Office. Later in the same year, the 63-year-old Wallace received a request from the noted Scottish prison reformer Matthew Davenport Hill. His younger brother, a 41-year-old former schoolteacher named Rowland, was seeking the loan of any books or papers relating to the Post Office.

As described by Hill, “A half hundredweight of material” arrived on loan from Wallace with whom Hill would be in almost daily communication for the next three years. These included Parliamentary and Post Office reports and returns and provided “essential aid” to Hill in formulating his idea of an inland postage rate of just one penny, regardless of distance. In January 1837 Hill’s private pamphlet “Post Office Reform; its Importance and Practicability” was published by William Clowes and Sons, London. On January 4th a copy was forwarded to Thomas Spring-Rice, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who met with Hill shortly thereafter to discuss a number of suggestions leading to a supplement that was produced on January 28th. Two weeks later on February 13th, Hill was called to testify in front of the Duncannon Commission of Inquiry into the Post Office. It was here that Hill quoted from his letter to the Chancellor in regard to prepayment by a certain small gummed label.

Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879), Mary Martha Pearson, 1836 ©The British Postal Museum Archive, London

Hill’s plan was a diligent and respectful analysis of the entire Post Office system then in place. He pointed out that although the amount of mail carried had increased steadily, the revenue had actually fallen. He explained how management costs were exorbitant; the lengths to which the public would go in evading payment; and the abuses of the free franking system enjoyed by Parliament. He calculated the average cost of sending a letter from London to Edinburgh at a fraction of a penny and argued that a uniform rate based on weight could be adopted for sending a letter anywhere in the country. The key to his new system was prepayment: it virtually eliminated the evasion of payment and all revenue would be collected at the Post Office rather than on the street. Most importantly, the letter carriers could deliver mail almost as fast as they could walk without having to stop and collect payment. Hill predicted that with a uniform rate of one penny the new system would cost between £300,000 and £400,000 in lost revenue in its first year but that it would return to previous levels of profitability within three years.

On February 22nd the pamphlet and the supplement containing some 28,000 words was published and made available to the general public. It was immediately condemned by both the Postmaster General and the Secretary to the Post Office who described it as “wild and visionary”, “preposterous” and “utterly unsupported by facts”. At this point however, through years of constant haranguing, the prestige of the Post Office had diminished in the eyes of the public. Wallace, as the chief reformer, was completely in support of the idea as were a growing number of merchants and traders who viewed the existing system as expensive and corrupt. By the end of the year public opinion forced the government to create a bi-partisan Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the merits of the proposal with Robert Wallace as Chairman. The committee worked throughout the 1838 session of Parliament interviewing witnesses and compiling evidence. On two occasions the Committee deadlocked on votes that would have abandoned the plan had it not been for Wallace as Chairman issuing his casting vote to carry the day. In March 1839 the Committee issued its final report in favor of Rowland Hill’s proposal.

By far the largest percentage of mail in the British Isles was commercial correspondence and therefore it was trade and industry that stood to gain the most by a reduction of the postal rates. Early in 1838 a tea merchant named George Moffatt bought and read Hill’s pamphlet and was very impressed. The two met shortly after and Hill informed Moffatt that he thought his scheme would have to wait for years, Hill having failed to interest influential City people in it. Moffatt immediately set about arranging a public meeting at the Jerusalem Coffee House in the City of London. The meeting led to the formation of the Mercantile Committee for Postal Reform with Joshua Bates of Baring Bros. as Chairman and Moffatt as Treasurer. The position of Secretary was filled by Henry Cole who would go on to be Rowland Hill’s assistant at the Treasury. Together with Hill and Wallace the Committee attracted powerful support and by March 14th were publishing a newsletter “the Post Circular”, edited by Cole. The Circular was distributed nationally to local newspapers, churches, libraries, chambers of commerce, and municipal authorities. It lauded Hill’s plan while mocking the Post Office and its excesses and proved a powerful tool in swaying public opinion. Following the Select Committee’s recommendation of Hill’s scheme Moffatt continued, using his own money, to support the cause. On May 2nd 1839 he organized a deputation of one hundred and fifty members to visit the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Thomas Spring-Rice, and encourage him to introduce a resolution in Parliament in favour of penny postage.

On May 7th 1839 the Liberal government of Lord Melbourne resigned and, but for a bizarre incident in British political history, the Postal Reform act may never have occurred. Sir Robert Peel was offered the chance to form a minority Tory government and, as was the custom, wished that a certain number of the Queen’s predominantly Whig ladies-in-waiting be replaced by their Tory counterparts. The young Queen refused in what has become known as the “bedchamber crisis” and Melbourne’s Whigs were returned to power.

On July 5th, following the delivery of his annual budget, Chancellor of the Exchequer Thomas Spring-Rice introduced a resolution: “That it is expedient to reduce the postage on letters to one uniform rate of one penny, charged upon every letter of a weight to be hereafter fixed by law.” Sir Robert Peel and the Tories objected on the grounds that the loss of revenue would add to the national deficit the country was now facing. It was a well-delivered and persuasive argument but public opinion was now settled. During the 1839 session of Parliament over 2,000 petitions containing over a quarter of a million signatures had been received in support of cheaper postage. On July 12th the House voted 184 to 125 to accept the resolution and on the 29th the House of Commons passed the Postage Duties Bill. The final step, the passage of the Bill through the House of Lords was completed on August 8th at the very end of that year’s session. It was helped significantly when none other than the grand old Tory the Duke of Wellington begrudgingly rose and announced his support. Queen Victoria gave her Royal assent on August 17th which vested the Treasury with complete power to overhaul and reform the General Post Office of Great Britain and Ireland.

Following the end of the Parliamentary session, Spring-Rice was elevated to the peerage and Francis Baring became the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Born to privilege as a scion of the famous banking family, he was a notably brilliant and hard-working man who had previously held the position of Secretary to the Treasury. It was Baring who immediately employed Rowland Hill to implement his plan for the penny postage and the creation of the new methods for pre-payment. During his tenure he would introduce the reduction of the postal rates, firstly to 4d. on December 5th 1839, then to 1d. on January 10th 1840. More importantly, Baring would oversee the conception, development and implementation of the Penny stamps and Mulready stationery that would come (came?) into use in May 1840.

From the Mercantile Committee, 1839 - propaganda cartoon leaflet by Henry Cole


The Penny Black is known the world over. Its design is simple: a small and now iconic portrait of Queen Victoria’s head in profile with the words Postage One Penny and a pair of check letters on handmade watermarked paper with gum on the back. It is the progenitor of tens of thousands of other stamps from numerous countries around the globe. It is the world’s first stamp yet in early 1837 it was just a revolutionary idea:

“A bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash.”

Rowland Hill’s first recorded mention of an adhesive postage label came during testimony to the Duncannon Committee on February 13th 1837. This was one of four ideas for the prepayment of the proposed penny postage, the others being stamped envelopes and wrappers whose design would eventually fall to William Mulready, and embossed stationery which would end up being delayed until 1841.

There is no question as to the priority of these methods. Hill’s reform not only required the prepayment of mail but also the complete re-design of the whole postal system including collection, sorting, transportation, and delivery. Envelopes and wrappers of uniform size would have been seen as vital in the streamlining of the new service. The purpose of the labels would be for those who still wished to write, fold, and seal letters in the traditional way, or as a convenient way to pay excess weight charges on the envelopes and wrappers whose maximum allowed weight was one ounce.

The first essays for what we now recognize as postage stamps were produced by James Chalmers, a papermaker of Dundee in Scotland in December 1837 and February 1838. Among the suggestions we see rectangular printed designs of approximately one inch, 1d. and 2d. values for the half and one-ounce rates, and dated town cancels. Chalmers’ idea was for these “slips” to be used as seals on the back of the letter. This would have assured destruction of the stamp upon opening but it would also mean every letter having to be turned and cancelled in the sorting office. Chalmers’ son Patrick would fight a prolonged but unsuccessful battle in the 1870s for the title “inventor of the postage stamp.” He is still regarded by many, especially in Scotland, as a worthy claimant.

In September 1839 the Treasury announced to the general public an invitation to submit “any suggestions or proposals as to the manner in which the stamp may best be brought into use.” Two prizes were offered: £200 for the best proposal and £100 for the second. Proposals had to arrive by October 15th and were to be judged by the Treasury with the assistance of the newly appointed assistant, Rowland Hill. Some 2,600 entries were received though only 49 pertained to the adhesive stamp and less than half were considered practical. No record exists of all the entries but many have survived – and from these we know that they varied between simple hand-drawn sketches to elaborate designs complete with detailed descriptions of how the new system was to be implemented.

Following the close of the competition, the Treasury decided to increase the prize and when the results were announced on December 26th, four prizes of £100 each were announced. The winners were Charles Fenton Whiting, Henry Cole, Benjamin Cheverton, and James Bogardus and Francis Coffin jointly.

Charles Fenton Whiting was an established printer of smaller items including Excise labels for the government. Based at Beaufort House in the Strand, London, Whiting had use of the three-colour printing press devised by William Congreve in the 1820’s and to whose widow he was married. Long before the Treasury Competition he had suggested designs for postal labels and stationery, perhaps as far back as 1830. He was known to and had worked with both Rowland Hill and fellow winner Henry Cole, who in turn had asked printers Perkins, Bacon & Petch to print some of Whiting’s designs.

Many of Whiting’s multicoloured designs still exist and they are the most common to be found. Among his ideas that were adopted in one form or another were a machine-turned background, sheets of 240 impressions (twenty rows of twelve columns), and check letters for differentiating individual stamps. It is believed many or all of these ideas were suggested several months before the actual competition.

The youngest of the winners, 31-year-old Henry Cole, was a long-time supporter of the campaign for postal reform and a long-time associate of Rowland Hill. He was secretary and a driving force behind the Mercantile Committee mentioned earlier. A talented artist, his cartoon of a mail coach showing the inequalities of the old postal system was used extensively to push for the reform. He was, in fact, appointed as assistant to Rowland Hill at the Treasury before the results of the competition had been announced. He would go on to produce the first Christmas card, organize the Great Exhibition of 1851, and help found the Victoria and Albert Museum. His numerous achievements were rewarded with a knighthood in 1865.

His submission pertained to both suggestions - in his own words “In my essay, I entered fully on the question of forgery, and suggested postage stamps and stamped covers.”

An artist, sculptor and inventor, Benjamin Cheverton produced a machine for reproducing and miniaturizing sculptures and medallions which won a gold medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851. His submission is unique in the fact that it was rediscovered in near complete form in 1910 when the noted philatelist Lord Crawford obtained it from one of Cheverton’s relatives.

Cheverton’s proposal came in two parts: the first concerning the implementation and requirements of the system; the second for the stamps themselves. Cheverton suggested a well-executed image of a very recognizable person, embossed on a stamp that was to be produced in rolls. His initial idea was the head of Mercury (which would be used by Austria some twenty years later). However, his essays clearly show the head of Victoria. He also proposed the use of watermarked paper.

Little is known of Francis Coffin save for the fact that he lived in Russell Square, Bloomsbury and, in 1837, he received a patent, “in consequence of a communication made to him by a foreigner residing abroad, for certain improvements in the construction of printing machinery or presses.” The foreign correspondent was James Bogardus, born in New York but in 1839 living in London. His many patents covered a wide variety of subjects. His greatest claim to fame was the construction of the first cast iron framed building in New York in 1848, the forerunner of the modern skyscraper. He also produced printing presses for, among others, Rawden Wright, and Hatch, the printers of the first United States stamps.

A part of Bogardus and Coffin’s entry was almost certainly a machine designed to affix labels to envelopes by way of a seal, evidenced by a patent awarded in August 1839. Bogardus also held a patent for a machine that could apply engine-turned designs onto steel plates. Unfortunately, only a small number of essays attributed to the pair are known and all of these are consistent with the patent design of 1839.

It has to be noted that in spite of so few entries that related to postage labels, every single one of the prizewinners proposed at least one type of adhesive stamp and between them described all the facets that appeared in the finished article. Benjamin Cheverton suggested the Queen’s head and watermarked paper, whilst Charles Whiting had the ideas of an engine turned background, check letters in the corners and printing sheets of 240 impressions. Bogardus and Coffin may well have also suggested the background and a means of transferring die impressions to steel plates as well as proposals for printing.

Following the Treasury Competition, Hill began work on finalizing the requirements for the new labels. Perkins, Bacon & Petch of 69 Fleet Street, London, were security printers and were primarily engaged in banknote and stock certificate production. In 1819 the firm’s American founder Jacob Perkins had developed a process for transferring die impressions to steel plates via transfer rollers. The method involved the ability to harden soft steel using charcoal and heat so that each transfer was between hard and soft steel. The resulting plate was then hardened before printing began. Perkins, Bacon & Petch demonstrated several small plates still producing identical impressions following hundreds of thousands of prints. Jacob Perkins had also conceived and built a device known as the improved “Rose” machine. Based on a type of lathe and with the ability to produce an infinite variety of geometric patterns that could be engraved on flat, concave, or convex surfaces, this was ideal for bank notes and for stamps.

Due to a confusion as to the requirements of the Treasury, Perkins, Bacon & Petch had not submitted an entry for the Treasury Competition or a proposal for the printing of any of the new stamps. The confusion had arisen due to Perkins, Bacon & Petch being unaware that in addition to entire envelopes and wrappers being required, small inch square labels were also to be produced. The firm had been involved in discussions with both Hill and Henry Cole regarding the dry printing of a Charles Whiting design during the late summer of 1839 but nothing had come of it. On instructions from Hill, Henry Cole visited the firm on December 2nd 1839 and laid out the government’s preliminary requirements for the labels. The following day Perkins, Bacon & Petch wrote back with quite detailed estimates including a price of 8d. per 1,000 labels and a potential for producing 41,600 labels a day.

On December 13th Hill visited Joshua Bacon to outline, in greater detail, what was needed. This first meeting produced an offer from Perkins, Bacon & Petch to produce an engraved die of the Queen’s head on an engine turned background of a size to fit in a frame three quarters of an inch square. The cost would be 75 guineas with a promise that, if the firm received the contract, the cost would be offset.

Before the end of the year the specification was amended by Hill to a more rectangular shape to allow for wording “Half oz One Penny” or “1/2 oz One Penny” at the bottom of the stamp and that “The 4 corners be taken away but only to a slight extent”. Although this is not shown in any of the surviving essays it is the first indication that the individual corner lettering was to be included. It was also confirmed that the model for the Queen’s head should be taken from the City Medal of 1837 by William Wyon.

The celebrated image of Queen Victoria on the City Medal, struck to commemorate her visit to the Guildhall, was actually taken from a sculpture Wyon had made of the young Princess Victoria in 1834 when she was fifteen. The task of drawing the image fell to (Edward) Henry Corbould, a noted watercolorist, who produced numerous sketches and was paid £12 for his work. The completed drawing was then sent to Charles Heath, Corbould’s ex-father-in-law and a former business partner of Jacob Perkins.

By the middle of January, Heath and his son Frederick had produced a first die for a postage stamp. A proof was created using one of the several different engine engraved backgrounds and impressions were taken. Both were found to be too weak and both were rejected. However, one of the other backgrounds was found to be acceptable. Work started on a second die immediately and this time it was engraved directly on a cleared space on the accepted background. The first die was not entirely wasted as it was used throughout January and February 1840 to produce proofs for the labels and for use in fixing the layout and spacing of the 240 impressions on the plate. On February 20th Charles Heath sent the completed second die to Jacob Bacon with a note “If that does not transfer well nothing will.” Charles and Frederick Heath received £52.10s. for their revolutionary work, which allowed for an unprecedented multiplication of a printed image.

The last parts of the design were the top and bottom labels and blank corner squares. As previously mentioned, Hill had requested blank corners and a bottom label reading “Half (or ½) oz One Penny”. No doubt Perkins, Bacon & Petch would have informed him that these could be added at any time and, as he was unsure of the wording, should be left until later. On January 30th Hill wrote to inform them that the wording had been fixed to read “Postage One Penny” and several essays of the rejected die with this inscribed at the bottom exist.

By February 17th essays were produced using the accepted background showing two thin labels above and below - the top reading “Postage” and the bottom “One Penny.”, together with framelines around the whole design and blank squares at all four corners. The wording was presented in both black on white and white on black, the latter being approved.

On Saturday, February 22nd 1840 two proofs of the completed die comprising the head and background were delivered up to Rowland Hill. One week later Francis Baring, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, showed him a letter from the Queen expressing her “high appreciation” of the stamp.

William Mulready (1786-1863) by John Linnell, oil on panel, 1833 © National Portrait Gallery, London

A short time later the die was returned to Perkins, Bacon & Petch from Charles Heath who, along with William Wyon, had made some very minor changes to his engraving. The chosen labels were added on March 4th and during the following week the decision was made that crosses should be added to the top corner squares. The die was finally complete and on March 13th a proof was sent to H.L. Wickham, Commissioners of Stamps and Taxes, the man empowered to award the contract for printing. The two parties met the following day and major terms and conditions were agreed upon. The one matter that still had not been settled was the color for the new labels. Any color was theoretically possible - however, Perkins, Bacon & Petch were clear in their view that “we most strongly advise the penny stamp to be printed in black.”

The press selected for the task of printing the stamps was the Jacob Perkins designed “D Cylinder press”. This model of press proved so successful that with few modifications it continued in service for the next forty years. The following excerpt from an 1852 issue of Charles Dickens’s periodical Household Words, describes the printing of a sheet of 1d. Reds, using the same presses that had been built for the printing of the 1840 1d. Black – and using the same methods:

“Twelve presses are generally at work, at each of which presides its own proper mechanic, who turns out, on an average, four hundred sheets of two hundred and forty each – equal to eleven hundred and fifty thousand stamps – per day. His work is not different from ordinary copper and steel plate printing. The workman’s plate is kept warm by gas light, and he lays it on the “bed” of the press before him. He then grasps a bunch of hard blanketing duly charged with red ink and transfers the ink to the plate with a “wriggling” motion, which fills up the engraved lines with the pigment. Next he carefully smooths the polished surface, leaving the ink only in the lines into which it has been forced. Now he seizes a sheet of paper, supplied by the Government – which bears a Crown and a border, composed of the words “Penny Postage”, as watermark – and lays it on the plate. Now, he turns the wheel, which pulls it in between two cylinders, and they squeeze out the ink from the lines indented on the steel upon the paper, and it comes back to its master, radiant with crimson heads. This back movement is the pride of the press; it is caused by the form of the cylinder (a form which its name of D suggests) and saves the trouble of the mechanic’s drawing the plate back himself.”


The Mulready stationery was developed in parallel with the penny stamps. Both required denominations of 1d. and 2d.. However, the stationery was required in two forms: rectangular lettersheets or covers and also diamond-shaped envelopes. Because of their larger size, the stationery would be produced in sheets of twelve (with a sheet value of one or two shillings) compared with 240 for the stamps (sheet value of one or two pounds). It is perhaps ironic that the Mulready design was conceived on Friday the 13th and the first completed proof was delivered on April Fools’ Day. Offered for sale to the public on May 1st, the ill-fated Mulready was immediately ridiculed by the public and almost immediately caricatures appeared lampooning the design. A particular favourite was that one of the four messengers being dispatched by Britannia to the four corners of the globe appeared to only have one leg. Within two weeks even Rowland Hill admitted the design had failed miserably.

As early as 1837 Rowland Hill had proposed prepaid stationery as part of his Postal Reform. It was not a new idea, the first recorded examples being produced by a Monsieur De Valayer for his Paris local post in 1653, a system that also included mailboxes.

Almost all the 2,600 submissions for the Treasury Competition of 1839 produced suggestions and ideas for postal stationery yet none of the surviving essays bear any real resemblance to the adopted design. Of the winners, Benjamin Cheverton’s thoughts of employing fine art as a measure against forgery appears to be the only idea to make an impression on Rowland Hill. One other competitor who had also submitted essays for the London District post in 1837 with Charles Whiting was papermaker John Dickinson. His 1828 invention incorporated security paper that was embedded with silk threads.

A first essay, depicting a seated Britannia at the top of a lettersheet, was submitted in late 1839 by Henry Corbould who was soon to provide the image of Queen Victoria for the penny stamp. This essay was dismissed as unsuitable and Hill turned to his assistant Henry Cole to obtain a better design. He first consulted Sir Martin Archer Shee, President of the Royal Academy, who suggested fellow Academicians Westmacott, Cockerell, Howard, Eastlake, and Hilton. He was then advised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Francis Baring, to visit William Mulready, R.A.

Mulready was born in Ireland in 1786 though moved to London at a young age. He studied at the Royal Academy School in 1800 and enjoyed early success as a landscape artist. He was elected to the R.A. as an associate in 1815 and as a full member the following year. An accomplished draughtsman, he gained prominence for both his depictions of contemporary life and numerous book illustrations. Sir Thomas Baring, father of Francis Baring, became one of his early patrons. In later life his works were greatly admired by Queen Victoria who acquired several for the Royal Collection.

On Friday December 13th while Hill was visiting Perkins, Bacon & Petch to discuss the Penny Black, Cole visited Mulready with a view to designing the envelopes and covers. On a second visit two days later Mulready presented him with a completed sketch of the design. According to Hill’s diary, Francis Baring approved Mulready’s design on January 4th, 1840. For this work Mulready was paid £200, the equivalent to approximately £12,000 today.

William Mulready original sketch

Believed as being the preferred means of prepaying postage, it was calculated that as many as 1,000,000 would eventually be needed per day to meet demand. In paper alone the requirement would be over 150 reams per day compared with less than 3 for the same number of the diminutive stamp. At 12 covers per sheet over 80,000 would need to be printed every working day, not something that could be achieved with a hand press. The question as to which type of press must have been asked and answered at a very early stage. Rowland Hill was intimately familiar with the industry having patented, with brother Edwin, a rotary press in 1835. He had also very nearly accepted a partnership with William Clowes, the chosen printer, before taking on Postal Reform. The solution was the steam powered flat bed cylinder press originally invented by Fredrich Konig but subsequently improved upon by Applegath and Cowper. As early as January 16th Henry Cole and one of the inventors, Edward Cowper, had been in correspondence. Nineteen of these presses resided across the river Thames at the junction of Duke and Stamford Streets in Blackfriars, the home of William Clowes and Sons.

William Clowes (1779–1847) had taken over the premises in Blackfriars in 1827 from Applegath and Cowper. With a workforce of over 350 and a total of 42 hand and steam printing presses he was printing over 1,500 reams of paper per week and was the largest printer in London if not the world. An acquaintance of Rowland Hill, he had printed Hill’s Postal Reform pamphlet in 1837.

Unlike the hand press used for the stamps where the image was printed from a plate with recessed impressions, the plate used for the steam press required a raised or relief impression. This allowed the plate to be inked by passing under a roller before having the paper rolled over the plate via the cylinder thus allowing the whole process to be combined into one operation. The plates or formes were created from twelve identical stereotype plates cast in an amalgam of lead, zinc and antimony – and they were cast from plaster of Paris moulds which were all taken from one original plate.

The plate was made by John Thompson (1785–1866), the pre-eminent wood engraver of the day, who was charged with cutting the image in relief on brass. This must have proved somewhat difficult as Hill did not receive a finished proof from the brass plate until April 1st. Numerous proofs do exist from the brass plate in various stages of completion however it was not until the discovery of the Wallace correspondence that a stereotype proof dated March 15th 1840 proved that the design must have been substantially complete by the second week of March. The taking of these first stereotypes highlighted the weakness of the background design and led to an overall strengthening of the lines, not an easy task when dealing with a relief engraving. The early stereotypes did allow for at least one forme to be produced for comparative essays of the side tablets that were to accompany the design, the earliest of these dating from March 20th.

On April 3rd Francis Baring sent a copy of the finished proof to Queen Victoria with a memorandum from Mulready and Thompson explaining the design. On Monday 6th Hill’s diary notes “Met Thompson Pressley and E.H. [Edwin Hill] had been appointed to supervise the manufacture of the stamps etc at Clowes’s] to superintend the arrangement of the several parts of the covers and envelope stamps. Left Clowes’s people taking stereotype casts under direction of E.H.”. This and several surviving proofs annotated by Hill confirm this as the date the design of the side tablets were approved. Stereotype production continued all week and, on Thursday 9th, Hill confided in writing in his diary the pressure and time constraints he was working under: “E.H. is making great exertion, he is at Clowes from 6 in the morning till 10 at night. They seem to think at the Stamp Office that the whole machinery is to be set to work without any trouble on their part.”. On April 10th Hill took copies of the proof taken from the brass plate to the National Gallery.

The security paper for the issued stationery came from John Dickinson and Sons based in Hertfordshire. His silk-thread paper involved embedding lines of colored silk in a continuous web of machine-made paper while still in the pulp stage. The idea had been inspired by the government rope of the day, as intertwined in the braid was one white strand to denote its official status. The paper was prepared at Apsley Mill near Rickmansworth and it appears that it was favoured for the stationery from very early on. An early essay for the London District Penny Post in 1837 had featured the paper and had been widely circulated gaining particular praise for its protection against forgery. Even though the contract for the supply was opened to public tender in January 1840 the contract was awarded to Dickinson at the beginning of March.

Production of the finished stereotype plates of the Mulready began on April 6th 1840. Twelve plates (with a sheet value of one or two shillings depending on the denominations) were required for each forme. The size and complexity of the design meant that each of the stereotypes required correction. On April 10th Henry Cole wrote to John Thompson “Mr. Hill is desirous that, without delay you examine the stereotypes which have been taken from the brass plate and to do whatever is requisite in order that they may be ready for the press on Monday [13th].”. On Monday April 13th Rowland Hill called on Thompson to pick up 36 plates only to find that 24 had already been returned to the printers. On that day Hill also made the last addition to the stereotypes by including a unique “A” number between 1 and 210. These appear randomly on the formes although the omission of certain numbers suggest several of the stereotypes were unusable. Eight presses were put into operation during the first week of printing that actually began on Tuesday April 14th indicating that 96 individual stereotypes had been produced.

A letter from Henry Cole to William Mulready on April 15th containing a 2d. letter sheet overprinted “PROOF” reads “My dear sir, Here are specimens of the real thing now printing at the rate of seventy thousand per hour.”. A similar proof in the Wallace archive may well be the adjoining stereotype and was presented to him by Francis Baring on the same day. Of the eight presses, four were for 1d. lettersheets, two were for 1d. envelopes, and one each were for the 2d. stationery. Each sheet took approximately five seconds to produce compared with a minute and a half for every sheet of the stamps.


The Wallace correspondence was originally contained in a binder belonging to Robert Wallace. It had passed from Wallace to the Caldwell family in Scotland and they had displayed various parts of the collection at local philatelic societies throughout the years. In 1991 it was consigned to Cavendish Philatelic Auctions who sold it to an overseas buyer in its entirety. It was then broken up and the three major pieces were separated. In chronological order: the earliest known 1d. Mulready stereotype proof a91 presented to Wallace by Rowland Hill on March 15th; secondly, the April 10th document presented here; and thirdly, a 2d. Mulready letter sheet dated April 15th, fresh off the steam presses at Clowes, that had also been presented by Francis Baring. This latter was the bottom right-hand copy from the sheet of twelve, with the stereo number A99.

The Wallace document

The identically marked Mulready, likely the adjoining copy, which would have been the second removed, was sent to William Mulready and is now housed in the British Postal Museum.

It is possible that this was when the notations on the Wallace document were written. The note at the bottom of the document states “These come (came) into public use on the 6th of May”. Rowland Hill had visited both printers the previous day (April 14th) with the intention of fixing the date for the introduction of the new stamps and notice of a pending official announcement was made the following day in The Times. Wallace must have made a special allowance for this visit to Downing Street as he would have had to leave London on that day in order to return to Scotland in time for Easter, the journey then taking three days by rail and stagecoach. He did not attend that afternoon’s closing session of Parliament.

APRIL 10, 1840

On the morning of Friday April 10th, 1840 Rowland Hill made the three-mile journey from his residence at 1 Orme Square in Bayswater to his office at 11 Downing Street. It was nearly the end of a very busy week. The previous Friday April 3rd, Queen Victoria had declared herself “much pleased” with the design by William Mulready for the envelopes and wrappers. On Monday he had been able to finalize the inscriptions that were to accompany the design with William Clowes and Son, the printers, and John Thompson, the engraver. The first plate for the new Postage Stamps had been completed on Wednesday April 8th by the engravers at Perkins, Bacon & Petch and was set to begin printing only for the want of the first reams of the new crown watermark paper. The presses at both establishments were being prepared and, hopefully, full-scale production would begin the following week. Both the public and the Government were growing impatient for the appearance of these new methods of prepaying the mail that had been promised for March yet until this day only a very select few had seen the actual designs.

At the time Hill, a famed early riser, was leaving for work, Francis Baring, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Robert Wallace, M.P. were preparing to go to bed. The three-day debate on the motion against the Whig government on the question of the Opium Wars with China had been defeated by a majority of a mere nine votes at 4:30 a.m. that morning. Both had voted against, in support of the government, following the marathon twelve-and-a-half-hour session of Parliament.

It was almost certainly Francis Baring who advised Hill to visit the Royal Academy who were met “in council” at the National Gallery, as the approval for the Mulready by the Council of Royal Academicians was regarded as essential. It was Baring who, through Henry Cole, had suggested Mulready as the artist for the new postal stationery. Baring’s family had a long history of patronage of the Royal Academy and, as such, he may well have intended to attend the meeting. Unfortunately, the House of Commons was in session and the affairs of State took precedence.

Which of the thirty-seven Academicians were present is not known - they were meeting to discuss the paintings of fellow Academician J.M.W. Turner, who had submitted seven paintings for that year’s Summer Exhibition beginning on May 4th, the paintings having arrived three days previously. The list of attendees may well have included the President, Sir Martin Archer Shee; Turner; Edwin Landseer; William Wyon, the engraver of the City Medal used as the model for the Queen’s head on the Penny Black; Alfred Chalon, the royal portraitist who was to provide Her Majesty’s likeness for the early stamps of Canada, Nova Scotia and many other territories of the British Empire; Thomas Phillips, the noted antiquarian; and certainly William Mulready, who was co-auditor, with Turner, of the exhibition.

The meeting would have taken place during the natural light of day because the council was actually viewing the paintings and, in any case, the Gallery closed at 5p.m. The weather during March and April of 1840 was exceedingly dry and Hill would have walked up the half mile from Downing Street, along Whitehall to Charing Cross, and around the construction of the new Trafalgar Square to the gallery. The hoardings for Nelson’s memorial column were just starting to be erected.

It appears that the purpose of this visit was to unveil the new design to the artistic community, and its creator Mulready. The example was a proof on white paper taken from the brass plate engraved by Thompson similar to the example shown to Queen Victoria the previous week. An example in the Royal Collection, signed by Rowland Hill to William Mulready and dated April 1840, is almost certainly one of several copies brought to the Academy that day. Hill notes in his diary that the design was “greatly approved” by the members. We know the same is true of the art press who must have been in attendance and received copies of the proof.

An article that appeared in the weekly “Spectator” provides some insight into the meeting. It is the first known, and arguably one the most favourable reviews of the ill-fated stationery. Several aspects support that it refers to this meeting. Firstly, the publication date of April 11th; secondly, that it records Mulready’s reaction to having seen it; and thirdly that it is written in terms of a detailed appreciation of its artistic merits. In a second equally effusive article in the monthly “Art Critic” published on April 15th the writer informs the readership that their copy of the proof was available “for the curious” to view at their offices. The piece also mentions that the envelopes were expected to appear before June 1st. As the issue date was set following Hill’s visit to both printing houses on April 14th, this further indicates that it refers to the April 10th meeting.

One mile to the east at 69 Fleet Street at the offices of Perkins, Bacon & Petch, the completed Plate 1 of the Penny Black was being delivered for inspection to the Commissioner of Stamps and Taxes half a mile away at Somerset House on the Strand. This was the case for all parts of the production of the stamps including the master dies for the 1d. and 2d. values, the moulds for watermarking the paper, the ink to be used, and even the gum samples.

The meeting of Baring, Wallace and almost certainly Hill, would have taken place later on the afternoon of April 10th at 11 Downing Street. Both Baring and Wallace were due back at the House of Commons later that day and Wallace’s office was just up the road at 1 Great Scotland Yard and en route to Parliament. The purpose of the meeting had to have been for Hill to report on the reception to the designs at the National Gallery and to present Wallace with his copy.

Following the later arrival of the first sheet of the penny stamps, one doubts little time was wasted in cutting the first known single stamps from the sheet. As the main purpose of the stamp was seen as a means of paying excess postage on the Mulready envelopes and wrappers, this would be the first time to see how the finished articles complemented one another. Only three of these pristine ungummed examples from the very first printing are believed to exist, and all are from the first row with adjoining lettering. The first, AI, is the specimen presented here and the second, a loose pair AG-AH, was donated in the 1960s by Reginald Phillips and resides in the British Postal Museum. Its date is corroborated by an April 30th letter from Rowland Hill to his former teacher and family friend Samuel Lines, but therefore later dated than the Wallace Document and not integrally either.

Fortunately for posterity, the presentation of both the Mulready proof and the first Penny Black “fly or loose stamp” was recorded by Wallace at the time he stuck these items into his personal scrap-album. Wallace’s notation included the actual date when this presentation took place, the main page heading above the Mulready proof reading: “1st Proof of Penny Postage Stamp Cover, presented to Mr Wallace by Mr The Right Honble The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Francis Thornhill Baring - April 10th 1840”.

Beneath the One Penny Black lettered AI label that Wallace attached to the left of the Mulready proof is the notation:

“Universal Penny Postage Fly or Loose Stamp, presented to me Mr. Wallace as above.”

A further notation then, stating: “These come (came) into public use on the 6th of May 1840.”

Later that day, Baring and Wallace returned to the House of Commons to debate an act to grant a pension to the retired Lord Seaton. Having together just witnessed the birth of the very first of what would eventually number many trillions of postage stamps, they returned to politics and sat in opposition over the motion.