6 May 1840: the launch of the Penny Black stamp

Britain's postal system underwent radical reform on this day in 1840, with the Universal Penny Post and the Penny Black stamp.

In the first half of the 19th century, the postal service was something of a mess. It was expensive and confusing, and was widely seen as corrupt.

Postage was paid by the recipient, with the amount to be paid dependent on many things, including distance travelled and the number of sheets of paper the letter contained. Many people, including Members of Parliament, had the right to send and receive letters without payment.

There were many calls for a reform of the system. The man for the job was Rowland Hill, schoolteacher, civil servant and social reformer. In January 1837, he published his pamphlet Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability, which proposed a system of pre-payment, based on weight, not distance carried.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

A year later, he made a proposal before Parliament, and, after much discussion, the Postage Act was passed in August 1839, paving the way for the new system. On 10 January 1840, the Uniform Penny Post was introduced – letters weighing up to one ounce could be posted anywhere in Britain for just one penny.

One more radical development had been proposed by Hill – the introduction of adhesive stamps to indicate that postage had been paid in advance. To go with the stamp, Hill also proposed a separate sheet of paper which could be folded to form an envelope, where the address could be written.

On 1 May 1840, post offices were issued with stocks of black one-penny stamps bearing a profile of a young Queen Victoria. And on 6 May, their use became official.

The franking mark to prevent re-use of the stamps was a red Maltese cross. Unfortunately, that could be rubbed off. So the colour of the ink was changed to black which spelled the end of the Penny Black, and the birth of the Penny Red, which was introduced in 1841 and would last until 1879.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

Ben joined MoneyWeek as website editor in 2008, just as the Great Financial Crisis was brewing. He has written extensively for the website and magazine, with a particular emphasis on alternative finance and fintech, including blockchain and bitcoin. 

As an early adopter of bitcoin, Ben bought when the price was under $200, but went on to spend it all on foolish fripperies.