A British Telephone Stamp of 1884


Wait a minute! We all know what postage stamps are, and what they do. If you're a philatelic super-sophisticate, you may even know about telegraph stamps. But a telephone stamp? What in @#&%$# is that? Gotcha!

Telephone stamps were issued in many countries in the latter days of the 19th century, and the early years of the 20th, usually by privately-owned telephone companies. Their purpose was, quite simply, just like postage and telegraph stamps, to prepay the cost of a communications service. The stamps would be cancelled as the service is used. The leading authority on telephone stamps is Dr. S. E. R. Hiscock's seminal work, Telegraph & Telephone Stamps of the World-A Priced and Annotated Catalogue, last published in 1982. Our office copy, now getting a bit worn from years of daily use, is autographed by Dr. Hiscocks himself.

Now, let's address the question: private telephone companies in the U.K.? Yes. Even though British Telecom held a state-owned national telephone monopoly (all except the city of Hull, Yorkshire, in England's northeast) until it was de-nationalized by Margaret Thatcher's government in 1984, it didn't begin that way. In his introduction to the section on Great Britain's telephone stamps, Dr. Hiscocks advises us that at the time that the very first telephone stamps were issued in 1884, at telephone call boxes (public pay phones) a subscriber (i.e., some one that as a customer of the telephone company, had a telephone at home) could make calls for free, while the general public (non-subscribers) had to pay.

Even though National Telephone Co., Ltd. was then a private enterprise, it was essential for the Post Office to track its revenues, because it received a commission (fee? royalty?) of ten per cent! So when a subscriber went to a public telephone call office, he signed his name, date and the duration of his call on a tally sheet. But what did the non-subscriber do? Aha! He affixed stamps to the tally sheet, in a total amount equal to the cost of his call! Around 1888, the National Telephone Company also authorized subscribers to use its stamps to pay their telephone bills, simply by purchasing stamps in advance, affixing them to the bill in the correct amount, and mailing it in.

Accordingly, whether used at a public call center or affixed to a bill and mailed, all used stamps ended up in the possession of the telephone company. There was no opportunity for used telephone stamps to end up in the albums of collectors until the international stamp exhibitions held in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1886 and 1890. At both of these venues, complete sets of used National Telephone Company stamps were sold in packets for a few pence. The use of these stamps was always vigorously opposed by the Post Office, which objected most vociferously to the appearance on a stamp of any portrait other than that of Her Majesty Queen Vic.

Whose portrait is it? [for the answer, please see the fine print below]. The use of telephone stamps in Britain was discontinued in late 1891 (until it commenced again in 1979—but that's another story!), when they were overcome by a new development in technology—the coin-slot pay phone! The 3-penny stamp was printed in many shades of brown-red by intaglio (engraving) by Maclure, MacDonald & Co. in Glasgow, in sheets of 12, perf 12, in an initial printing of 125,000, although further printings may have subsequently been made.

The example shown here is in exceptionally well-centered condition (most are not), used for its intended purpose and cancelled in purple by the National Telephone Co., Ltd.

FINE PRINT: It's the Chairman of the Board of the National Telephone Co. Ltd., Col. Robert Raynsford Jackson. Didn't you guess?

Words by Neal Bruckman, who had this stamp for sale on eBay—until I bought it!

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