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The first letter to use a Penny Black?

Continuing with our celebration of the Great British Stamp this month, I found myself falling down somewhat of a rabbit hole researching our stamps and their history. I wanted to find out more about the Penny Black, where it all began, and see if I could find copies of any of the first letters to be posted using one.

Prior to the stamp, sending letters in the United Kingdom was incredibly expensive. Royalty could afford it, as well as MPs who could send letters free of charge using their own 'free frank' system - mail with their signatures attached to it. As such, MPs would regularly sell this frank to businesses as well as supporters and friends and family, and the system was highly abused.

For anyone else, postage was charged according to the amount of pages per letter, as well as how far it was being sent. Not only that, but postage was charged to the receiver instead of the sender, and as such, it became incredibly difficult to send mail.

To solve this issue, idea came to the mind of Rowland Hill who created a system of a flat rate postage. The Penny Black was introduced and, as the name would suggest, it cost just one penny to post a letter regardless of the distance it was travelling nor quantity of pages, making it affordable for most people to use, and enabling the country to be connected through the written word - reforming our postal system forever.

As far we know, the first ever Penny Black was then posted by Thomas Moore Musgrave, the Postmaster of Bath, on May 2nd 1840 - 4 days before it officially came into use. He is believed to have posted a letter on behalf of a family member, and became the first person to use our now very familiar system of posting letters. Try as I might, I'm frustratingly unable to find a copy of this letter!

I did, however, stumble across this letter from the Smithsonian Museum, which I just loved. It is a copy of one of the first letters ever to be posted using the Penny Black on May 5th, 1840 (one day before it came into effect). Its contents were a little blurred and the photo very aged, making it quite difficult to read (huge thanks to the Smithsonian for sharing the transcript with me). The letter was sent from an address in Brompton Place to Camberwell in London, and reads:

One of the first ever letters to be sent using the Penny Black stamp


"My dear Floral friend! To make you stare I send you a Queen’s Head, the Day before it is in Penny circulation. Tomorrow it will be obliterated by a Post Office stamp. What a pity that they should make Victoria gummy, like an old woman without teeth! As I am! 

I write this without spectacles, therefore will strain my ninety and one eyes no longer than in saying I hope you are all well at home.

Yours gratefully, John Alexander"


For more information on the Penny Black and all things postal, head over to the Smithsonian website, or the Bath Postal Museum website - both of whom have been wonderfully helpful during my research.


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