Hill was given a two-year contract to run the new system, and together with Henry Cole he ran a competition to identify the best way to pre-pay letters. None of the 2,600 entries were good enough, so Hill launched the service in 1840 with an envelope bearing a reproduction of a design created by the artist William Mulready and a stamp bearing a representation of the profile of the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria. There are also references on the record to covers bearing the Mulready design. All British stamps still bear a picture or silhouette of the monarch somewhere on the design, and are the only postage stamps in the world that do not name their country of origin, leaving the monarch's image to symbolise the United Kingdom.
In 1839, the British Treasury announced a competition to design the new stamps, but none of the submissions was considered suitable. The Treasury chose a rough design endorsed by Rowland Hill, featuring an easily recognisable profile of 15-year-old former Princess Victoria. Hill believed this would be difficult to forge. The head was engraved by Charles and Fredrick Heath based on a sketch provided by Henry Corbould. Corbould's sketch was based on the cameo-like head by William Wyon, which had been designed for a medal used to commemorate the visit of Queen Victoria to the City of London in 1837. The word "POSTAGE" appeared at the top of the stamp (revenue stamps had long been used in the UK) and "ONE PENNY." at the bottom, indicating the amount that had been pre-paid for the transmission of the letter to which it was affixed. The background consisted of finely engraved engine turnings. The two upper corners contained star-like designs and the lower corners contained letters designating the position of the stamp in the printed sheet; "A A" for the stamp at the top left, and "T L" for the bottom right. The sheets, printed by Perkins Bacon, consisted of 240 stamps in 20 rows and 12 columns. In this way, one full sheet cost 240 pennies or one pound sterling. One row of 12 stamps cost a shilling. As the name suggests, the stamp was printed in black ink.
Although 6 May was the official date that the labels became available, there are covers postmarked 2 May, due to postmasters selling the stamps from 1 May. A single example is known on cover dated 1 May 1840.
The Penny Black was in use for only a little over a year. It was found that a red cancellation was hard to see on a black background and the red ink was easy to remove, making it possible to re-use stamps after they had been cancelled. In 1841, the Treasury switched to the Penny Red and issued cancellation devices with black ink, much more effective as a cancellation and harder to remove. However, the re-use of stamps with the un-cancelled portions of two stamps to form an unused whole impression continued, and in 1864 the stars in the top corners were replaced by the check letters as they appeared in the lower corners, but in reverse order.
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