Book review: First Class: A History of Britain in 36 Postage Stamps by Chris West

The Penny Black, the world's first stamp. Picture: Reuters
The Penny Black, the world's first stamp. Picture: Reuters
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Chris West, himself a stamp collector, selects 36 stamps as a gateway to summaries of significant moments in British history.

First Class: A History of Britain in 36 Postage Stamps

by Chris West

Square Peg, 257pp, £16.99

Although it is a truism of philately that “every stamp tells a story”, the fact is it takes a storyteller to help the stamps along, and in this regard it helps a great deal that West is also a master of the précis, ably showing how stamps are a way in to the social and political history of Britain and have been ever since the issue of the Penny Black in 1840.

This was not, however, the start of paying for postage. There had been a postal service in London since 1680 which gradually spread to other cities. The addressee paid and, if we think the cost of a stamp is excessive in 2012, it would have cost the equivalent of £40 to receive a one-page letter under the earlier system.

Roland Hill changed the postal service, making it more efficient as a nationwide service and requiring the sender to pay. The Penny Black was the first in the world and the first for the new Queen Victoria. Another first was its use on a political mail shot to promote the repeal of the Corn Laws. (It may come as no surprise that members of parliament and of the House of Lords did not pay.) And what a service it soon became: in 1857, there were no fewer than 12 deliveries a day in London, each on the hour.

In due course, there was a need for a parcel stamp. Reputedly, one parcel was dispatched with 77 penny stamps so the Shilling Red was introduced in 1867. If more parcels were being posted, people must have had more money which leads to a chapter on the rise of the middle classes and the strength of British industry in Victorian times balanced by an account of the poverty of the working classes and the rise of Marxism.

The desperate conditions of the working classes led to the need for Lord Shaftesbury’s factory reforms and for the Elementary Education Act in England which was passed in 1870, the year of the Three Halfpence Red. The 1887 Jubilee stamp acts as the gateway for a discussion of Victorian sexual habits and hang-ups. British Imperial history is introduced by way of the 1892 Hong Kong 5 cents stamp.

This year’s Olympics had plenty of commemorative stamps but the 1908 London Olympics didn’t have a single one. In 1948, for the “Austerity Olympics” postponed from 1944, there were four stamps. Austerity meant no stadia were built, the money spent was fully recouped, athletes stayed in army camps and brought their own towels. When one event went on beyond daylight, cars were brought into the arena and their headlights pointed at the track. Quite a difference from London 2012.

Although most of the book deals with the lives of ordinary men and women, rulers are included inevitably as the stamps bear their portraits. Victoria led the way. George V was a keen collector himself and was no doubt proud of the ten shilling Seahorse stamp of 1913 portraying Britannia ruling the world. His face was on the 1916 Penny Red – often dreaded because it was used to send news of the deaths of soldiers at the Front.

Edward VIII’s portrait on the 1936 halfpenny stamp was a departure from tradition as was the king himself. The design was sent in by a 17-year-old boy who didn’t know it had been accepted until the stamp was issued. His father had to fight to have his son’s success acknowledged.

The 20th century saw a rash of commemorative stamps including 96 for the Millennium. This led to a move away from single events to the celebration of themes. The first of these recorded the growth of youth organisations starting with a stamp for cubs and scouts in 1982 with a non-white scout on the stamp. That leads to an astute chapter on diversity in British society in which West celebrates the story of immigration into Britain as “adding immeasurably to Britain’s cultural and sporting success”. The history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the life of Princess Diana, and the collapse of Britain’s banking sector are all excellently covered.

Stamps have been largely silent about the major changes brought about by the computer. The Penny Post transformed communication but email and the internet could have reduced the use of stamps. That has not happened. Online shopping has given the postal service more parcels to deliver and most people still post cards for Christmas and special occasions. In fact, the introduction of the telephone did more damage than the computer.

Chris West deplores the trend to seeing stamps as keepsakes rather than as primarily serving a useful purpose. He cites the stamps issued for the Earl and Countess of Strathearn’s wedding as an example. These lead him into another piece of social history. He notes that the new princess came from a family of strong women, marking the development of women’s role in society.

This is an unusual and accomplished project. It is a book to lift and lay, probably a good bedtime book or one for the post office queue. Perhaps that would let the reader reflect that the cost of posting Christmas cards in 2012 is better value than in 1840.