The Drama of the London Penny Post

What did the city of London do before people could send private letters through the mail inside the city?

In the mid-17th century, mostly just merchants and traders sent messengers to carry information outside of London. Only one post office existed, and private posts were few and far between.

Then William Dockwra and Robert Murray stepped in to change up the postal system forever. London’s sorely needed inner-city mail system started with Dockwra and Murray’s London Penny Post in 1680.

As the name would suggest, posts through the service cost only a penny. Suddenly, pricier posts through private carriers became unattractive and unnecessary for citizens of London. They took advantage of the Penny Post to send inner-city mail for cheap. Carriers traveled between participating receiving houses throughout the city dispatched letters once an hour for shorter distances and five times a day for longer distances.


The business venture was popular – so popular that it faced opposition. In 1680, Murray was arrested under accusation of distributing “seditious” materials on the Duke of York. Dockwra was left to lead the business himself; during that time he solidly established the business and designed the Post’s triangular postmarks. Because of this, Dockwra continually fought to be recognized as the one who brought major success to the business.

But legal issues continued to get in the way of the Penny Post, and in 1682 the government stepped in to establish the Post as part of the government’s General Post Office. Dockwra continued to petition for recognition and compensation for his creation of the service; he received a management post for four more years but got laid off again under accusations of poor management.

The price of postage gradually increased over time. The London Penny Post eventually inspired a number of other Posts in the UK and the US.

The First Postage Stamp: The Penny Black

 The Penny Black was the world’s first adhesive stamp, made to reform the British postal service. A man named Rowland Hill proposed the stamp system in 1837.

Before the issue of postage stamps, people paid for postage upon receiving the package or letter. (Some people, such as W. Reginald Bray, took advantage of this system.) The cost was determined by the distance traveled for delivery and the size of the letter. But Rowland Hill thought the system needed reform.

Hill started a competition to design the first stamp. But the public failed to give a good enough design (sounds familiar, eh?) despite the 2,600 designs. None of the winning entries were used.


A Penny Black shown with red cancel, which is hard to see on the black background.

Instead, the approved stamp design featured a profile of Queen Victoria, the monarch at the time. It came from a sketch by Henry Corbould and went through multiple hands for designing before it became the final product.

The Black Penny stamps did not have perforations and had to be hand cut. They had inscriptions in each corner, which were either stars, letters, or blank spaces.

The UK’s postage stamps are the only stamps that at times don’t name their country of origin; instead they use Queen Victoria’s image to symbolize the UK.

The stamps used a black background, but that soon revealed itself as a problem. The red cancel didn’t show up well on the black stamp. The cancel also rubbed off easily, which led to people reusing the stamps.

The Penny Black only lasted for a year. It was replaced by the Penny Red, and the cancel was given black ink, which showed up much better and didn’t come off as easily.

The Jacob Perkins press that printed the Penny Black. (via takomabibelot, CC)

The Jacob Perkins press that printed the Penny Black. (via takomabibelot, CC)

Rowland Hill’s postal reform changed the system for the better. Within seven months of the stamps’ release, the numbers of letters sent doubled to over 160 million.

Penny Black stamps are not actually that rare – over 68 million were produced. The real value comes in finding a Penny Black in mint condition with the original gum.

A stamp dealer sold one for £250,000 in 2009, the highest price paid for a Penny Black so far.

Take a moment to appreciate Rowland Hill for his postage reform. Without it, the Postal Service would not be what it is today.