London’s Top Postal Curiosities

With the world’s most expensive stamp coming to London soon, we look at what other postal landmarks the city holds.

British Guiana 1c magenta

A scruffy piece of paper which will hopefully become the world’s most expensive item by weight next month, and will be on show at Sotheby’s on June 1-4.

The British Guiana 1c magenta from 1856 isn’t much to look at but the estimate is $10million-$20million for the 17 June New York sale. The unique item is revered by philatelists and has been owned by the world’s top collectors. The most recent owner was John du Pont, the chemical company billionaire, who died in prison after being convicted of murder. The stamp hasn’t been seen in public since 1988, but prepare to be underwhelmed.

9154 British Guiana Silo

 

Treasures of the British Library

The anonymous ‘frames’ on the first floor of the British Library, which anyone can pull open and look at, hold some surprising secrets. The Library owns a 2d ‘Blue Mauritius’, of which just 12 exist. Only the island’s first set of stamps, in 1847, read ‘Post Office’ down the side, before it was changed to ‘Post Paid’ – and no one really knows why. Perhaps the ‘Post Office’ was a mistake. When one last changed hands, it fetched £1,053,090.

Penny Black

The frames hold several other rarities, and the world’s first stamp, the Penny Black. These aren’t rare at all – about 68 million were printed. The pre-paid stamp, invented by Victorian reformer Sir Rowland Hill, enabled the Post Office to streamline its complicated charges. Ordinary people loved it, too, because a letter to anywhere in the country now cost a penny, and communication boomed.

Statue of Victorian reformer

Sir Rowland Hill’s statue stands proudly outside the former King Edward Building on King Edward St, for years the Post Office’s main hub. Two London streets are named after him, too: one off Haverstock Hill, Hampstead, and one off White Hart Lane, Tottenham.

Postboy coaching horns

Hill had strong Tottenham connections. His father had set up a progressive school in Birmingham, at which Hill taught from the age of 12. It moved to Bruce Castle in Tottenham in 1827 and Hill ran it for 12 years. The museum there now has some postboys’ coaching horns, quirky items made out of stamps, historic postboxes and collecting tins.

First postmarks

One of Hill’s predecessors as a postal innovator was Henry Bishop, Postmaster General to Charles II. In 1661, after complaints that letter-carriers were delaying the post, he came up with a handstruck date stamp, which meant they could no longer do so. It was first used in the General Letter Office just off Post Office Yard, and there is now a plaque in the Princes Street side of NatWest to commemorate it. The stone even has a small AP/19 ‘Bishop Mark’, because the first day of use was 19 April.

Bishop Mark plaque

Two-monarch postbox

London contains the only postbox in the country with the symbol of two monarchs. It’s on Gray’s Inn Road, at the Holborn end, and was erected in 1901 under King Edward VII. It has a lovely, florid, swooping ER VII cipher. However, at some point, one of the doors was replaced and it has also has an older VR (Victoria Regina) cipher as well.

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Gold postboxes

As Olympic fever swept the nation, Royal Mail hit on a great way to link its brand with the country’s success. It painted gold postboxes for each Olympic and Paralympic gold medallist. There’s only one in central London, outside Westminster Abbey on Tothill Street, and it’s not actually for anyone – it’s the mock-up Royal Mail did to advertise the scheme. But there are plenty dotted about the suburbs, including Mo Farah’s in Teddington and Isleworth. Go to www.goldpostboxes.com to start postbox hunting.

Pillarbox Alley

The best place to see postboxes in London – with the added bonus that it’s indoors – is the British Postal Museum and Archive Store in Debden. It’s only open for tours, usually on the first Wednesday of the month. There’s an entire ‘Pillarbox Alley’, Rowland Hill’s desk, a ‘hen and chickens’ penny-farthing (one big wheel, four small ones) and a mail coach.

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Mail Rail

There is no dedicated postal museum in London. But the BPMA, which is currently crammed into a small site behind Mount Pleasant post office, wants to change that. It plans to open a swish, interactive museum that will get across the importance of the postal network. The cool bit, though, is that it also want to open up part of Mail Rail, the underground railway that shuttled from Whitechapel to Paddington. Visitors will be able to ride in the tiny carriages under the city. The museum is scheduled to open in 2016, but Londonist rode on it earlier this year.

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By Julia Lee

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  • garthbanks

    How could they deliver post posted the same day for half a new penny – and run to two deliveries per day?

  • CanAmSteve

    I toured the Paddington end of Mail Rail shortly before it was decommissioned. Hard to believe it is not of any use given the traffic today.