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100 Years of British Commemorative Stamps

Updated: Apr 26

Guest blog from Andy Bowden at PTS Member, Sedbergh Stamps

First published 11th April, 2024, Edited 15th April 2024

The 23rd of April 2024 sees a milestone in British stamp history. It is the date when the first commemorative stamps were ever issued by the GPO (or Royal Mail as we would know it today).

Up to this point, issues of Queen Victoria and Edward VII and George V stamps had always featured the monarchs head. But in April of 1923, the idea was muted to produce a commemorative stamped envelope and postcard to mark the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Park. The exhibition itself was aimed at promoting trade and strengthening bonds with other countries within the then known Empire and Commonwealth. Additionally it was aimed to lift the spirits of the nation post World War 1.

Post office Assistant Secretary, Sir Evelyn Murray prepared a memo in May of 1923 also suggesting that a special adhesive stamp be prepared for the show. 

An invitation was sent out to eight artists to submit finished drawings by the following Febraury of 1924. Criteria included that the designs had to be symbolic of the British Empire, to include a portrait of the Kings Head and the inscription “British Empire Exhibition 1924”. Two values were to be designed; a 1d and a 1 1/2d value. Only five submissions were received with ultimately the design by a gentleman called Harold Nelson being selected by no other than King George V himself. 

The stamps were prepared and printed by Waterlow and Sons, in two formats, in full sheets, and in stamp rolls from the sheets, so that they could be used from the ticket / vending machines at the show.

The show opened on the 23rd April 1924, which is when the two stamps were issued. Initially they were only available at the post offices within the show, but after the 1st July they were also available to purchase by post from the London Chief Office. The two values were only ever valid for use in the United Kingdom. The two stamps had a relatively short life, being withdrawn on the 31st October when the show finished.

The following year the show re-opened on the 9th May and the stamps were once again issued with a change to the inscription to “British Empire Exhibition 1925”. They were also withdrawn from service at the end of October 1925 once the show had closed.

In this time some 17 million stamps were sold. Nelson’s Lion design on the stamps is now more commonly known as the Wembley Lion.

It took another five years before the next commemorative issues were issued in Britain, again it transpired it was for a major event, the Postal Union Congress which was held in London in 1929. From this issue is probably one of the most iconic British stamps ever, in our eyes the £1 PUC again designed by Harold Nelson. This stamp formed part of a set of five values.

The last commemorative issue of George V’s reign was for his Silver Jubilee in 1935, when a set of four stamps was issued. But this forms part of a much larger range of stamps that were also jointly issued around the British Empire. This complete set comprises of 250 stamps!

Commemorative issues were issued during the reign of George VI, but bearing in mind further war years, the number of issues was limited. The most notable commemorative issues were the Coronation issue of 1937, the centenary of the first adhesive postage stamp in 1940, Victory of 1946, and the Royal Silver Wedding issue of 1948.

The mainstay of commemorative issues is from Queen Elizabeth's era. Although few and far between for the first years of her reign, from the1960’s onwards, these designs had major appeal to many British Collectors - including children who collected stamps received in the mail. One of the most famous designers was David Gentleman. Born in 1930, he is also perhaps better known as an English Artist and studied at the Royal College of Arts under John Nash and Edward Bawden. However, between 1962 and 2000, he designed 100+ stamps, the first being the National Productivity Year issue of 1962, as well as many other 1960’s issues such as Churchill, Concorde, and the Battle of Britain.

Although considered radical at the time, his work is now so fundamental that his legacy of design is still seen on commemorative stamps today. His early designs and essays were experimental, and his work was commissioned by the then Postmaster General, Tony Benn. Benn and Gentleman were looking at ways of “dispensing” with the ‘photo’ image of the Queen’s head which at the time was mandatory on all issues. The aim of the work was to replace the picture with a smaller silhouette, which was in fact derived from Mary Gillick’s coinage head design.

Now, some 60 years later, this profile and silhouette remain a feature of all British Commemorative stamps. The British Flowers issue of 2023 was the first to display the silhouette of King Charles III.


Discover GB and Commonwealth stamps, collections and other interesting philatelic items from around the world from Sedbergh Stamps on eBay: tommystrezures

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