At the age of 12, I joined the distinguished ranks of young philatelists and, almost seventy years on, I find myself unwilling to dump my tattered Stamp Album. As I paid it a nostalgic visit recently my Penny Red fell onto the desk in front of me. To judge by the expression on Queen Victoria’s face she is just a bit miffed after so many years of neglect.
This particular stamp, post-marked 7 October 1864, still tenaciously clinging to its original envelope, was given to me circa 1940 by a class-mate, Peter Darling, in exchange for the biggest stamp I possessed, a triangular Tannu Tuva no less. It was a toss-up between the Tannu Tuva and an issue of five Djibouti stamps featuring railway engines that I had bought in Woolworths for sixpence. Peter knew how to drive a hard bargain and settled for the Tannu Tuva and I left the proud owner of a Penny Red!
At a distance of seventy years I have chosen to pen this short essay as a memento of those care-free days at school and of the friendships that enriched our young lives. Anyway, here is my Penny Red for all to admire. It has at last seen the light of day and I hope it may restore a smile to Victoria’s face.
What can I say of this miniature work of art? I liked it then and I like it even more now. It is, of course, an engraving of the head of the young Queen Victoria. I know the Penny Red succeeded the Penny Black in 1841 and was destined to survive for almost forty years. The colour was evidently changed from black to red because the black franking mark could not be seen on top of the black stamp and there were unscrupulous persons who were disposed to re-use old stamps.
To describe this stamp as a Penny Red is to do less than justice to its colour. This is not one of your angry reds. This red seems to be influenced by the warmth of the portrait of Victoria. To receive such a letter with its friendly red stamp would already generate a sense of well-being, unlike most of the letters we get with a faceless ‘Royal Mail Postage Paid’ take it or leave it, stamped on the front. I understand that over 20 billion Penny Reds were issued during that time. Mine is one of the many survivors and is in mint condition. I have now discovered, after all these years the labyrinthine world of the Penny Red and its zealots. I have also come to the conclusion that no two of the 20 billion Penny Reds are exactly the same.
The fine craftsmanship displayed in the engraving of Victoria’s profile is obvious. The name of the engraver is less obvious. The case can be made for one William Wyon (1795-1851). His name is associated more with coins than with stamps but the argument runs that his engraving of the head of the young Victoria (aged about 15) acted as the template for the effigy on the stamps.
Easily read with the naked eye are four letters of the alphabet, one in each corner of the stamp. The bottom two letters are the reverse of the upper two. In this case EO and OE. These letters establish the position held by this stamp on a sheet of 120. Not visible with the naked eye is a number which runs vertically down both sides in the lace-work border of our stamp. This number refers to the engraver’s plate and is of considerable interest to collectors but to nobody else. It could be read with a good eye-glass if it were not for the fact that the black franking-stamp has obscured it completely.
My Penny Red, unlike the earlier versions which were cut from a page using a pair of scissors, is taken from a perforated sheet of 120 stamps. Readers with 20/20 vision will be able to count the 14 perforations. This fixes the date of the stamp after 1860 when the gauge changed from 16 to 14 perforations which evidently had several advantages none of which need detain us. Not even Cyclops could discern the water-mark on the paper but I have it on good authority that it is certainly there or I have a counterfeit on my hands.
At this point, amateurs like myself begin to drift a bit and lose concentration as the experts explore hidden flaws or unexplained exceptions to every known rule of philately. Evidently the more esoteric and obscure the flaws the greater the value of the stamp. To get a hold of a stamp showing Victoria looking in the wrong direction would be a real find.
Our story does not end with the stamp. As I mentioned earlier the stamp remains tenaciously attached to the original letter which is addressed to Messrs J.R.Cochrane & Co, Wellington Mills, Glasgow. The contents of the letter carry the heading: The Liverpool General Brokers’ Association Prices Current dated Friday, October 7, 1864. There follows a list of the latest Cotton prices on the world market. A further post-office marking on the letter indicates that it was delivered on October 8, the day after it was posted in Liverpool. O tempora! O mores! The addressee, J.R.Cochrane, was an employee of Wellington Mills in Glasgow which, I would like to think was not one of your ‘dark satanic mills’. Such letters updating cotton prices on the market were sent on a weekly basis to the Cotton Mills throughout the land.
Penny Reds can be bought today for a few bob unless they fall into the category of ‘classics’ when they can realise thousands. Needless to say, mine does not qualify for that title. However, I wonder what would be the present-day value of my long-departed TannuTuva? Pace Peter Darling!