The little 1/2d of 1870

1st Oct 1870. SG 48 1/2d PL 1, 3 to 6, 8 to 15, 19 and 20. Line engraved by Perkins Bacon and Petch. Perf 14 in sheet of 480, 20 horizontal rows of 24. Each stamp individually lettered in all four corners. AA to AX through to TA to TX. WMK script HALFPENNY ‘extended over three stamps 160 times throughout the sheet. First or last stamps in each row imperforate at margin side due to lateral comb perfing process at Somerset House. Number issued 3,333,909 sheets. 493,591 additional sheets spoilt or destroyed. Colours range from rose, rose red, rose lake to lake red. Paper hand made white wove. Manufactured by Stacey Wise of Rush Mills, Northampton.

The 1/2d, the lowest value issued in Britain was introduced because of reduction to 1/2d in the basic rate for postage payable on newspapers, printed matter (book post). Patterns and samples. The idea of a halfpenny stamp had first been considered in 1865 as in that year on October 5. Ormand Hill, Rowland Hills nephew requested De La Rue, to prepare a design for the postmaster general. In 1868, Somerset House issued further essays and early in 1870 the post office prepared plans for its issue. Nineteen essays were submitted by Perkins Bacon and again by De La Rue, who submitted a card with eight hand printed designs in red brown and white together with four designs for the frame surround in black and white. This it was proposed would be produced by the surface print method. During May, experimental printing were produced from New South Wales low value stamps. Miniature sheet of six were prepared in twelve different colours with partially defaced corners but these trials were soon abandoned and it was decided that the size should be half that of the current 1d. The die head was engraved by Frederick Heath, the engraver responsible for the head on the 1d black printed thirty years earlier. The first colour proposed was bright green and trials were made on white paper in green, yellow green, blue green, chrome yellow, orange yellow and orange and on blue paper in blue green and yellow green but it was finally decided to print in rose. It may seem exciting to imagine the 1/2d in these bright colours now, but the resulting colour was I feel the right choice, late in 1878, trials from plates 14, 19 and 20 in fugitive inks were explored on white paper WMK with a star in rose and purple, these are known overprinted Specimen. Some days later on regular paper imperf in pale lilac and bleu green, this idea however was discarded.

The sheet size was the same as that of the 1d and 2d but contained twice as many stamps. The current number given to this issue, that is to say the number of the plate, irrespective of its face value or plate used was 474, this number appears in the margin above the seventh stamp top row and below the seventh stamp bottom row. Plate 2 and 7 were found to be defective and destroyed, while plates 16, 17 and 18 were never finished as the master die was broken during manufacture. Plates 21 and 22 were finished but were never registered and not taken into use. The rarest plate of the 15 was plate 9. It was a reserve plate for emergency printings only and just 50,000 sheets were printed from it. It is a pretty elusive item in used condition despite its relatively low catalogue value.

In December 1870, two months after the stamp was issued, a reserve die was engraved and held in case of loss or damage to the original, there are minor differences to this die, the nose and lips are lighter and the engine turned background seems coarser. A proof from this die was struck in black but was never used to produce plates. In April 1967, a further proof was struck for the National Postal Museum, London. The gum was the same as used on the 1d and 2d values and even UM examples that exist today show in many cases quite serious gum cracks. It has been said that some sheets were gummed twice because it was reported they would not firmly adhere to the envelopes, but I can find no further information on this. Used pairs are fairly common, blocks are scarce and demand a premium over CAT value and it is quite elusive on cover. The centring was generally poor and nowadays A VFU clean well centred example is quite hard to find.

The plate number of the stamps in incorporated in the design and also in the sheet corners within a circle in the margin, known by collectors as positional singles they are rare. Some examples are difficult to plate as the number is often unclear, nearly 2000 million stamps were issued but it is not nearly as common as the 1d plate, the reason being that the circulars and samples it was used to carry were often discarded and relatively few have survived. The 1/2d is an attractive and interesting little fellow and it may now be seen that its birth was both complex and long. In November 1874 a farthing essay was prepared based on the size and rough layout of the 1/2d, but was never adopted. Our story of the little 1/2d ends here, to some the background of the birth of a stamp from inception to its issue may seem rather technical and even tedious. The story of the 1d black would take many pages more and every single stamp issued has a story behind it as long or longer than this.

In the future series we will not tread as deeply as we have here but this short article may give some idea of just how well our Victorian descendants went about their task of preparing the very first postage stamps the world have ever seen.