Stamps blog: Why is the Penny Black so famous?

LAST month we looked at the changes in the UK postal service that gave rise to the Penny Post, writes philately specialist Phil Ives.

These reforms necessitated a way of pre paying the postage and providing a receipt that could be stuck to the letter to be sent, showing that postage had been paid; the stamp was born.

The first stamp was the Penny Black and its cousin the twopenny blue. Both issued in May 1840. If you’re going to start a stamp collection, it makes sense to start at the beginning. This explains the enduring popularity of the Penny Black stamp.

Early stamps were printed by a process known to philatelists as Line Engraving or intaglio. In the technique a master is engraved into soft steel, which is then hardened. A softened steel roller is then applied under great pressure to the master, so then the design is transferred to the softened roller. This is then hardened and becomes the transfer roller. This transfer roller was then applied 240 times onto a softened steel plate in 12 rows of 20 to produce a plate capable of printing 240 stamps at a time, ie a sheet of stamps.

Eleven plates were produced for the penny black and due to wear and tear the plates were often repaired or retouched. Specialist collectors study these repairs and they can command good premiums when sold.

So how rare are Penny Blacks? Well not that rare really, 68 million were printed, many haven’t survived but plenty do. A really scruffy example can be had for £20 or so. A really nice used example will typically be valued at between £50 to £250 depending on eye appeal. Mint ones are usually upwards of £700 and may run into thousands. Most stamps can be plated and most plates are of similar value, however stamps from plate 11 are very rare and command a significant premium.

Early Penny Blacks were cancelled (ie rendered unusable again) with a red postmark but, when lightly applied, it could be difficult to detect the mark and sometimes the postmark was cleaned off by nefarious individuals.

This cleaning necessitated a change to black postmarks in early 1841 which did not always show up well against the background, so finally the Penny Black was replaced by the Penny Red in 1841.

So factors to consider when valuing a Penny Black include but not limited to are:

  • Is it mint or used?
  • The stamps were hand cut from sheets, do the stamps have all 4 margins?
  • Is it a rare plate 11?
  • Does it have a notable retouch.
  • Is it a rare plate/postmark combination (EG plate 10 or 11 with red cancel)?
  • Is it free from faults like creases tears etc?
  • Does it have eye appeal?

As you can see, there is a lot to consider. This is why it is important to have a specialist’s opinion on the subject.

Stamps valuations with Phil Ives next take place by appointment at The Lichfield Auction Centre on Wednesday 21st June 10am-2pm (telephone 01543 251081 or email and at The Tamworth Auction Rooms on Thursday 22nd June 10am-2pm (telephone 01827 217746 or email

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