Robert Murray Stamp Shop, Edinburgh
The Penny Red Stamp

The "Penny Red" is one of the world's most famous stamps. This page is intended to give a basic introduction to the stamp, and is aimed at non-collectors or newer/less specialised collectors. There is much more material available for specialised study.

History; The world's first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black, was issued by the UK in May 1840. From the outset, the Post Office was concerned about the postmarks on these; red postmarks were not entirely secure, but black postmarks did not show up so well against the black print of the stamp. It was therefore decided to keep the same design of stamp but change the colour to a brownish-red against which the black postmark would be distinct.

Different Types, and the Reasons for their Issue; The range of Penny Reds splits into three very basic groups; the imperforates, the "Penny Stars", and the "Penny Plates".
{1} Penny Red Imperforates; The first Penny Reds (1841) were in fact simply Penny Blacks but printed with red ink; that is that the existing printing plates used for the Penny Blacks continued in use but with the new colour of ink. Further printing plates were made as required. Some of the earlier printings used a slightly bluish paper.
{2} Penny Red Stars; Following some experiments of different methods of separating stamps, perforated sheets of stamps went on sale in 1854. The basic design of the stamp was the same, that is with letters in the two lower corners, and stars in the two upper corners. During the life of these there was a change in watermark and a change in perforating machine, giving four basic different varieties, but they are even more complicated than that !!
{3} Penny Red Plates; The design was changed in various ways in 1858, the two most obvious being that there were letters instead of stars in the upper corners, and there were small plate numbers hidden away in the interlocking lines at each side.

Corner Letters; Every penny red stamp has letters in the lower two corners. These simply identify what sheet position the stamp occupied. When the printing plates were produced the lower squares were blank, and the letters were punched in by hand. The left square letter shows which horizontal row the stamp was in - the first row being A, the second B, and so on down to the twentieth row with T. The right square letter indicates the vertical column, again with A for the first column, B, C, and so on across to L for the last (twelfth) column. It should be noted therefore that each letter combination is just as common or as scarce as any other.
In the last main group of Penny Reds ("Penny Plates") the lower corner letters were repeated in the upper corners, but with the order reversed. This made it more challenging for people to take two uncancelled half stamps and stick them on mail to pay the postage again.

Penny Red Plate 196 Plate Numbers; Although every Penny Red can be allocated to its printing plate, it is only when you get to the 1858 "Penny Plates" that it
becomes relatively easy to tell the numbers. These numbers can sometimes be seen by the keen naked eye (that shown to the left is plate 196, to be seen reading upwards between the "IN" of "DUNFERMLINE" and the perforations at the left), can almost always be discerned with the use of a medium magnifier, but some stubborn examples defy examination. The same number is repeated reading downwards at the right.
Problems often come across when trying to read plate numbers include obliteration by black postmark, or ink filling into the numbers (so that sometimes one digit might be almost invisible, or it might be easy to confuse a "9" for a "0").
Telling plate numbers on the Penny Imperfs and Penny Stars is a job for the specialist !  You need all the reference works, you need quality magnifiers, you need lots of experience, and you need a sense of realism (it's amazing how often newcomers find rarities, how seldom experienced collectors do.....). A combination of various attributes of each stamp need to be taken into account - variations in the portrait, shapes and positions of the letters, odd flaws in the stars, "guide lines", weak entries and re-entries, and so on.

Postmarks; There are some areas of interest to the collector here also.
The imperforate issue came in while the Maltese Cross cancel was in use. There are some distinctive Maltese Cross postmarks to be found.
In 1844 a new system of postmarking came in so that, instead of all post offices cancelling the stamps with virtually identical cancels, each post office in Great Britain and Ireland was allocated a number. There's an excellent resource on the Great Britain Philatelic Society website where they explain the different types and list all the different numbers. See the following links for the postmarks of Scotland, England (part 1), England (part 2), Ireland, and London.
There's lots of room for study and collecting in just the postmarks on Penny Reds. Scotland has some particular tyes such as the
Edinburgh Brunswick Star, the Glasgow Madeleine Smith, dotted circles, etc.

Penny Red Edinburgh Penny Red Glasgow Penny Red Dunfermline Penny Red Dundrum
Penny Red Star, corner letters "GE" (i.e. 7th row, 5th stamp from left). Fairly well centred, rough perforations at top. "131" postmark of Edinburgh.
Penny Red Star, corner letters OB (i.e. 15th row, 2nd stamp). Badly centred - see wide white margin at foot but cut into by perforations at top. "159" postmark of Glasgow.
Penny Red Plate 196, corner letters IB (with same letters reversed at top) (i.e. 9th row, 2nd stamp), with better perforations but centred high. This stamp of most interest for the postmark, which is a style not often seen on Penny Reds, this example having been used in 1889 - nine years after the replacement penny stamps came into use.
Penny Red Plate, with less distinct plate number (possibly 130), corner letters NH. Badly centred, but this shows just how narrow the "tramlines" were that the perforations were meant to be punched in - see the frame of the next stamp to the right. Irish "186" postmark, which is possibly of the Dublin & Holyhead & Kingston Packet.

Values; Enormous numbers (thousands of millions) of Penny Reds were produced and used. A large proportion survived because many were of folded letters which were folded away in the files of banks, lawyers, and the like. Here's a very rough indication of the prices you might pay for Penny Reds in mixed batches in auction, on the basis of good average condition.
Penny Red Imperforates are usually about 50p to 1 each, but cheaper with very bad margins, and considerably dearer for fine four-margin examples. Those with Maltese Cross cancels normally get more than numeral cancels.
Penny Red Stars vary a great deal depending on watermark and perforation. A general batch of the cheaper types might work out at about 30p to 1 each.
Penny Red Plates turn up most often, and even now we sometimes see boxes with many thousands appearing on the market. These tend to be about 10p to 30p each in bulk, though they can easily be 50p if there's a good range of plate numbers and some better examples scattered through. Beware however that sometimes a batch will turn up which was in fact an earlier collector's rejects, picked clean of anything scarcer or nicer, and such a batch will be cheaper.
Holed Stamps. Now and again a quantity will appear where every stamp has a small hole near the centre. Some of these come from old Victorian Christmas decorations, where stamps would be pierced by a stout needle and strung out along thick thread across a room.


 Last updated Tuesday 24 December 2013.
Copyright Robert Murray 2013. Errors and ommissions excepted.
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Robert Murray Stamp Shop
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