The Imperforate Penny Reds of Great Britain - 1841-1854

The Imperforate Penny Reds of Great Britain - 1841-1854

This week we get into what in my opinion, is THE classic stamp that every aspiring philatelist has to try their hand at studying and collecting at least once in their collecting lifetime. Why? Because it is the oldest issue that was in use for more than a year. The Penny Black of course is most famous for being the first stamp in the world, but it was in use for only 8 months, and being a black stamp, there is a limited amount you can do with it. Don't get me wrong: you can still make a magnificent lifetime collection with the Penny Black. But it is nothing compared to what you can do with the Penny Red. You could make a lifetime pursuit out of just a portion of the Imperforate issue, talk less of the perforated "stars" of the later "plate numbered" issues from 1858-1880. 

This issue offers everything for the student, and as such it is a great way to gain a very solid foundation in the fundamentals of philatelic study and research. There is probably more written and published about this stamp than almost any other, because it has been studied since the beginning. 

On this issue there were no less than 177 plates used to print the stamps during its period of use from early 1841 until 1854, when perforating was introduced, following the experiments conducted by the treasury to find ways to separate the stamps. During this time, most plates had a very short lifespan, lasting less than a year, and quite often a plate would undergo one or more repairs, which results in recognizable second, third and fourth states of the plate. 

What truly makes this issue unique and further sets it apart from other classic stamps is the fact that you can plate single stamps down to their exact position in the sheet, in most cases. Why? Two reasons. One, the treasury was deeply concerned about fraudulent re-use of the stamps, and so every precaution was taken to prevent this. One of these was the use of corner check letters, incorporated into the design and inserted by hand punch. I had thought that their purpose was to prevent people from joining two uncancelled halves to make a full stamp. It turns out that this was not the case until later, when letters were added to all four corners. According to a reader of this post, who contacted me, the initial reason was that the post office felt that a forger would not bother to go to the trouble to make up a large plate, and that therefore the forgeries would all have the same letters. A large quantity of forgeries would be detected by a large influx of the same corner letter. They way it was, each corner letter combination was equally as common as all the others, so if there were no forgeries then no particular combination would ever stand out as being more prevalent than another. Later on the thinking was that if someone attempted to rejoin two uncancelled halves that this that it would be caught by the fact that the letter combinations would be incorrect. So, these letters give you the exact position of the stamp in the sheet, which is one piece of information you require to do an accurate plating. 

The second reason though is because the archives of the British Library (I believe) have the imprimatur sheets for every plate. These sheets are the first sheet printed from every plate prior to the approval of the plate. So, every plate flaw, and other identifying characteristic on a stamp that comes from that plate WILL be on that sheet. I haven't done it, but apparently you can view the imprimatur sheets online now, and so if you have enough time you can compare any stamp you have with all these sheets and can figure out which plate it comes from. You cannot do that with any other classic issue on earth. THAT is what truly makes this a unique and fun issue to collect. 

Of course though, approaching the issue this way would take an eternity, and fortunately there are a number of detailed handbooks that have been written and published to help the would be plater, identify his stamps. The one I recommend to those of you starting out is the Stanley Gibbons Queen Victoria Volume 1 Specialized Catalogue. There is a fantastic digital online version available for around 58 pounds, and you can jump easily to pages, bookmark pages, and make notes. I recommend this one because the amount of information included for each plate is not too overwhelming. It probably won't allow you to plate every stamp you have, but it will give you enough information to allocate your stamps to specific groups of plates. Then, when you have accomplished that and have absorbed the information in that catalogue you can tackle the more specialized plating handbooks and then finally look at the images of the imprimatur sheets. 

At between 35 and 50 pounds in Gibbons per used stamp and $32.50 in Scott, this may seem like an extremely prohibitive issue to get deep into collecting. While it certainly can be expensive, if you insist on very fine to superb stamps, there is no reason why it need be anywhere near this much, if you are willing to tolerate fine, very good and good stamps. Those can be had for between $2 and $10 per stamp. What you will likely find as you get into studying these, is that condition has next to NO impact on the amount of fun you have with them. My suggestion actually is to collect VF for the basic stamps: one of each shade, maybe both alphabets I and II, and maybe one of each type of cancellation: Maltese Cross, 1844 type barred numeral and town postmark. But beyond that, I wouldn't worry too much about grade, as the price you pay will adjust to what you are buying, and in my view it is infinitely better to have some material and get to enjoy the wonder of philatelic study than to set yourself up for failure by insisting on only the best when you don't know realistically how difficult it will be to find and how costly it will ultimately be. Those two things can, if not checked, suck all the fun right out of collecting them, or any philatelic area for that matter. Of course if you can pick up VF examples cheap, well so much the better. I just wouldn't make it the focus. 

So how do we begin? I think the best place is to begin with the basic alphabets and then get into which plates those correspond to. Then, we can get into a discussion of the shades, the basic components of the design and the flaws that can be found, a brief discussion of the cancellations. Once we have gone through these topics, we can begin to look at the plate groups that comprise the 177 plates and look at ways to break them up into manageable groups, and finally we can put together a table that will summarize that the general plating characteristics are for those plates, and discuss how make the most efficient use of the Stanley Gibbons Specialized Volume 1 Queen Victoria Catalogue to plate your stamps. 

The Alphabets

The alphabets refer to the font of corner letters that were punched into each stamp on the plate by hand punch. Gibbons provides illustrations of up to 4 different letters for each letter and each alphabet. However, as you look over the letters you will see that in general, alphabet II letters are both taller and broader than Alphabet I letters. You can use the illustrations in Gibbons, but I find that there is nothing quite like examining a bunch of stamps that all have the same corner letter and seeing for yourself what the differences are. I had scanned a few corner letters so you can see what I am talking about:

The "L" on the left is alphabet I, while the one on the right is alphabet II. Immediately you should be able to see that the difference between them can be described thus:

  • The alphabet II L is more oblong in terms of the area it encloses, whereas the alphabet I L is more square.
  • The serif on the base of the L on the left side is more pronounced than on Alphabet II. 
  • The tongue of the L slopes upwards at a 45 degree angle on the Alphabet I, where it is more like 60 degrees on Alphabet II.
  • The vertical stroke is thicker and longer on Alphabet II compared to Alphabet I. 

Each and every letter, from A through T can be analyzed in a similar fashion. Some letters are very easy to distinguish because their characteristics are very distinct. Q is a good example of a letter that is very easy to identify. P's and B's and O's are other that are relatively easy. However, some letters are much more difficult: K's, M's, E's are all more similar to one another, and require careful comparison and study. This is where having a large number of stamps comes in handy. I find that these letter studies are the perfect way for you to deploy stamps in your collection that would otherwise not be of use anywhere else because they either have no margins, are damaged or heavily cancelled. They will be perfectly good for helping you learn the alphabets. 

Knowing the difference is important because:

  • Plates 1-131 are alphabet I
  • Plates 132-177 are alphabet II

The difference also becomes important later when you are studying the perf. 16 stars stamps, as the Experimental Archer Perforation, which is always also 16, uses stamps from alphabet I, whereas all other perf 16 stamps are alphabet II. 

As an update since I first published this post:

You will find that the difference between these two alphabets, for the most part will become readily apparent if you sort your stamps into their positions on the sheet and you have several to compare. So, what I did with the 1,700 odd stamps I had remaining after last week was that I sorted them in this fashion and I had up to 10 or so of each letter combination. Very quickly I noticed that difference. It is hard to describe accurately, but the Alphabet II letters just look larger and fuller. Many of the letters that are nearly impossible to tell apart using Gibbons' chart will become apparent when you start working with actual stamps. Generally speaking you will notice also that most rose red shades are alphabet II, whereas true red browns are usually alphabet I. 

The other thing you will find is that the fact that you have two letters to work with in each case will help you out with some of the tougher letters. For instance "A" is relatively easy, once you see the difference. So, positions like AI, AK, AC will be easier to sort because you can use just the A to make the classification. 

The Shades

The shades that this stamp a printed in comprise a truly mind boggling range. Gibbons Specialized lists six shade groups for the printings made from plates 12 to 131, and four for plates 132 to 177, but I find them to still vastly over-simplify the shades that exist. Both groups overlap considerably, with the second group being every shade mentioned in the first group, plus one additional new shade: red orange. The shade groups listed are:

  • Red brown
  • Red brown on very blue paper
  • Pale red brown
  • Deep red brown
  • Lake red
  • Orange brown
  • Red orange

The first 6 of these are listed for the group of plates from 12 to 131 in the master listing, while many of the individual listings only list orange brown as the shade, so it is not clear which plates the scarcer lake red and orange brown shades are found on. I assume that this means they could exist on any plate, but this is one thing that Gibbons does not make clear. 

The group of plates from 132 to 177 includes red brown, lake-red, orange brown and the new shade of red orange. So, it would appear from this that any orange-red shade must be from one of these plates, but again that is not made explicitly clear in the listings. 

As extensive as these groups are, it will quickly become apparent as you sort the stamps you acquire that they are inadequate and cause considerable confusion, with the result that  collectors mis-identify the scarcer orange brown and lake red shades all the time. The reason is because the red-brown category is a catch all that includes many shades that are nowhere near red brown, and  at the same time In fact, if you look at Gibbons' own colour key that they produce the red brown swatch does not match most of what would be described as red brown shades, if it matches any at all. A lot of what collectors wind up thinking are orange brown shades are actually shades of chestnut, which are grouped in with the red browns. A lot of so called lake-reds are actually very deep red brown on very blue paper, which can look like lake red, or very deep rose reds that almost match those found on the later perforated examples. 

Part of the problem is that there is a very large group of rose red and rose shades, which Gibbons curiously does not list until much later in the perforated stamps, which makes them confusing, because they are clearly not red brown. However I think what Gibbons does is group them in with the red brown group. 

It is worth noting that there is a general progression of the shades from red brown on the early printings to rose red on the last ones, which makes sense, given that many of the perforated stamps are in these shades, However, many of the early perforated stamps are also red-brown. So, I don't think you can decide on plates or plate groups on the basis of shade alone. It will help, but I doubt it will be conclusive. That being said, you will find that the vast majority of rose red shades are alphabet II. 

Looking through the detailed listings in Gibbons Specialized, we see that for all the individual plates only the red brown shades are listed, with all the other variations being in the master listing. This suggests to me that what I said earlier is correct, that is to say that the rare shades could occur on any plate. 

The Dies

The penny red stamps were printed in two dies, die 1 and die 2. All the regular imperforate stamps are die 1, so it isn't normally something you have to pay too much attention to. BUT, many of the perforated issues that appeared later do exist imperforate, in error. These are all very rare, being worth many thousands of pounds each. While it is not likely, it is conceivable that hidden in a lot of common imperf penny reds can be one of these imperforates. The main way to identify them on sight of course is that they will all be die 2, instead of die 1. Therefore, you should at least be familiar with the difference between them. 

Gibbons has two very detailed pictures where they show you some 16 characteristics that differ between the two, which sounds fantastic in theory. The problem is that many of the features on the Die 1 stamps are very difficult to see clearly. In fact this is one of the ways to identify a die 1, as die 2's are usually much more clearly printed, in terms of the portrait detail. However, this isn't sufficient enough to help you in cases where the die 1 detail is clear too. 

I read on Stampboards a post where someone pointed out a difference between the two which should settle the issue at least in cases where the cancel does not cover it, and that is in the Queen's hair. Near the top, of her head at the back you should see one thick wavy hairline on die 2 stamps that is entirely absent on die 1 stamps. It may be less bold on some of the printings that are made in pale rose, or it may not always be as clear on some stamps as others, but it will always be there on die 2 stamps. Here is what I am talking about:

Here is a die 1:

If you look at the hair at the back of the head there is really nothing that stands out. Let's take a closer look though:

As you can see, there is no such thick hairline here. 

Now let's look at a known die 2 stamp:


Here you should be able to clearly see the wavy, thick line at the back of the hair. But let's blow it up and take another look:

There it is, clear as day. But what if you have a stamp where a cancel obscures this detail? Well, the best way to deal with that is to get a feel for the overall difference between the two dies, which you can actually see if you have both of them in front of you. Let's place these two side by side and compare them:

 If you compare these two you can see that the overall shading lines and engraving are much deeper on the die 2 as compared to die 1. Everything about the Queen's face and neck is chubbier on the die 2 as compared to die 1. It's actually quite easy to see when you step back and look at it from afar. But I find that when you look closely at the details Gibbons points to in their picture guide that it is much more difficult to distinguish in practice. The inside of the nostril of the nose is also more prominent on die 2 as compared to die 1. So, there you have it. your first step when looking through a bunch of imperf penny reds is to look for any die 2's. If you have one you have a rarity. 

Now that we have dealt with these two things we need to look at other aspects of the design that will be important when reviewing the plates. These are: weak corner boxes, recut corners, recut side framelines, ray flaws, basal shifts, check letter characteristics and burr rubs. Now let's look at each of these with an illustrated example.

Basal Shift

Here is a basal shift:


As you can see here, ink from the part of the design around one appears below the lower frameline, as if the base has been "shifted" upwards slightly. 

Here are three more:

They can be quite minor, with just a hint of extra colour blobs below the frameline, or they can be quite prominent. They typically occur on the earlier plates before the 80's, but I will detail this when I review the plating groups. 


Re entries occur whenever the plate is repaired, by reapplying the master die to the plate and re-impressing the design. Of course the new design will never align exactly with the original, and this will appear as doubling, or as additional portions of the design within the design. Technically when the re-entry does not involve doubling, but a portion of the design repeated where it shouldn't be that is what we call a misplaced entry. Here are two re-entries that I have running in the November 23, 2022 auction. 


Here you are looking for that horizontal line through the P and O, as well as the mark inside the A. This is classified by Gibbons as a re-entry, but it is actually more of a misplaced entry, with the line likely being the upper frameline, shifted downwards.

Here, what we are looking at is the area above the stamp. Do you see that line broken up a thin vertical line? Well that is just the outer frameline and right side of corner check letter box doubled, but shifted downward. 

From what I have seen on this stamp, most of the re-entries described and listed are actually misplaced entries, but they are called re-entries because they occur during the repair of the plates, rather at the initial laying down of the plates. All plates, or most of them have re-entries, so having a re-entry will be helpful in plating where that re-entry occurs on a specific position on only one plate. Thanks to the corner letters on these stamps you can look up a re-entry in a special index in the Gibbons book and it will have a list of all the possible plates that it could be from. Then you can look up each plate until you find your match. Once you have found it, you know which plate the stamp is from. So, they are perhaps the most useful of all the varieties, at least from a plater's perspective. 

Burr Rubs

Here is a burr rub:

Burr rubs are discussed in quite a bit of detail in the general notes section of the book, as to how they occur, so I won't repeat that here. But their usefulness to identifying a plate is that they occur in certain positions of certain plates and they are thus another thing that will enable you to make a positive identification in most cases and in every case if you actually have access to the images of the imprimatur sheets. 

Weak and Recut Corners

Normally the corner letters are surrounded by a complete square whose borders are lines of a medium thickness, in the sense that they blend in with the side framelines and all look like they were engraved at the same time. When recutting occurs on a plate, the engraver goes over a frameline in order to deepen and strengthen it, and this gives it the appearance of being thicker of stronger than the framelines surrounding it, like it was done after the fact, which of course it has. Occasionally, the engraver will overshoot, making a line too long, which results in extended framelines that do continue past the point that the framelines are supposed to intersect and terminate. 

Here are some visual examples:


The lower frameline around the check letter is weak, while the right frame is normal. This also shows the corrected check letter in which an A was punched initially, burnished off and a D was punched in its place. 

Here is another example, but this time there is a plate variety  to the right of the L. 


On this example the framelines have been strengthened. This also shows a misplaced re-entry as well in which a portion of the stars of the stamp that would have been below this one appears in the check letter box. 

 Here you can see the extension of the upper frameline into the right margin. 

The usefulness of these recuts and weak framelines is that they tend to occur on certain plates and not others. 

Ray Flaws

The corner stars consist of a circle with four large rays that extend to the corners of the box that the circles are within, and then a series of smaller rays that surround the circle, and a dot in the centre of the circle. On some plates there is damage to the rays, usually consisting of one or more rays being broken off and missing. The common ones referred to in the Gibbons catalogue are the 10 o'clock, 7 o'clock and 1 o'clock ray flaws. 

Here is one stamp where almost all of the smaller rays are broken off:


compare this image to the one before with the extended frameline and you will see that the rays on the prior image are longer and more clearly defined. 

Corner Letter Characteristics

Within the alphabets each letter can exhibit certain characteristic variations. Some of these are peculiar to one plate or a group of plates and you can thus eliminate certain possibilities just on the basis of how the corner letters appear. The letter most commonly referred to in the Gibbons book is "J". The J can be found with both a squared foot and a rounded foot. The J with the square foot is known as the "square footed J" and is particular to a number of plates. 

 Here is an example of the square footed J that also shows a re-entry through the NNY of Penny. 

 Now we have covered the basic fundamentals of the things that need to be looked at in order to plate these stamps successfully. There is one last thing that is very useful for narrowing down the possible matches, and that is the location of the plate impressions to one another. So, if you have examples that show portions of the adjoining stamps, you can can often compare them to the images of the imprimatur sheets and can see instantly whether or not they are a match.

Here is a good example:


This is an extremely useful example, because here we can see portions of three adjoining stamps. If you look closely you can see that the stamp to the left is shifted slightly up compared to this stamp. The stamp above it is shifted slightly to the right. The stamp above the one to it's left is shifted slightly to the right. If you were to examine this corner junction on all 177 imprimatur sheets, you would be able to find a unique match most likely, unless those stamps were among those removed from the sheets already. 

Other constant varieties and plate flaws are discussed under each plate such as the "E" flaw, J flaw and P flaw. The E flaw and P flaw are little white lines, or flaws that extend upwards from the  The catalogue illustrates these clearly and so I don't feel the need to repeat it here. I think I've given you enough to get a feel for the kinds of things you are looking out for when you start examining the stamps you have looking to identify the actual plates.

Plating Table For Plates 1-131 - All Alphabet I

In this first group I summarize the general characteristics to look for when trying to identify groups of plates, and then specific ones for certain plates in that group. It should be noted that these are just general notes, and that there is no point in repeating all the content of the Gibbons catalogue here. Rather, I am trying to give you a quick roadmap to help you navigate those detailed listings and make some quick preliminary allocations of your stamps, so that you decide where you need to read and study things carefully. 

Plate or Plates  Description of Characteristics To Watch For

1b, 2, 5, 8, 9, 10 and 11 (The Black Plates)

All of these will have Maltese Cross cancels or the rare penny post or town cancels.

1b - There are four states and many varieties. Upper corner stars often appear thinned, as do the check letters. Many corner stars show re-entries. 

2 - 7 o'clock and 10 o'clock ray flaws.

5 - Double bulge below O of One, weak side framelines and weak right frameline of the right star. There are several repairs of this plate that give rise to multiple states that have their own additional characteristics, but the above should be enough to help identify this plate.

8 - The O Flaw, is on nearly all positions. This is a white tail flaw on the O of One. Several repairs of this plate were made, the last of which did eliminate the flaw for most positions. 

9 - Stage 2 of the O Flaw, horizontal guidelines through One Penny on some positions and vertical guidelines and dots in upper star boxes. Weakness in the right star and lower right ray on repaired states of the plate and no O flaw on these. 

 10 - Specific check letters: short stumpy H, long tailed R, Q with less curved tail, longer I, square footed J, short footed L, short broad M with distinct serifs, tall, narrow N, P with characteristic loop and short, stumpy T. Plate 10 also has the O flaw.

11 - Similar letters to 10 except for the H, R and Q. Small break in the upper right corner square. Broad E check letter and weak right frameline.

Plates 12-36 (The Early Red Plates)

These can be cancelled with either a Maltese Cross or an Barred Numeral

All J's are square footed except plates 14, 16, 17, 29-31 and 33.

E and D slim on plates 13-14 & 16-33.

12-16 - Break in upper right corner square. Broad E and slim D found on plates 12 and 15. Plate 12 has short H and tall I. Plate 14 has many doubled corner letters. Plate 15 has the upper frame of UR square almost completely missing on top positions and many basal shifts. Plate 16 is similar to 15, but break is not quite as complete.

17 - Often rich brown shade. No break in UR corner square. There are upper border shifts and basal shifts.

18 - Many basal shifts. Numerous horizontal guidelines in K row and spreading of postage on NF and RL.

19 - Many horizontal guidelines towards the bottom. FK and IB are defective letters, some double letters and some basal shifts.

20 - Scratches and smears in margins. No break except on the E row where similar to plates 26 and 26, but without the 1 o'clock ray flaw.

21-27 - Multiple breaks in upper right corner square until on plate 26 and 27 the upper frame on that square is completely missing. 10 O'clock ray flaw on left star and 1 o'clock ray flaw on right star (plates 26 and 27 only, except RG-TL). Weak right and LR frame and many double check letters on plate 21.  On plate 22 E and M are small and L has long foot and split serif. T is squat with thickened serif. Plate 24 has short footed L and similar T to plate 22 and right frame on UR corner is missing on DI and EJ. Plate 25 shows similar break to plates 27 and 27 without 1 o'clock ray flaw. Plate 26 has I with short foot, longer on plate 27. Many guidelines on plate 27. 

28 - Both ray flaws present but no break un UR corner square (except QC, QD and QE).

29 - Has the squat S. Horizontal lines in a number of squares. Ray flaws present.

30 - Irregular, distorted check letters often retouched. Tall, Narrow F, R's are P's with hand cut tail. H with heavy top serifs. A's mostly blind. Some re-cut framelines and squares. ray flaws present.

31 - Ray flaws present. Numerous double check letters. Similar F's and R's to plate 30. 

32 - Many basal and upper border shifts. R's have hand cut tails but different from other plates.

33 - Many basal shifts. Ray flaws present. R's are P's with hand cut tails. Most C's are placed to the left of their squares.

34-36 - E and D are broad. Plate 34 ray flaws present and many guidelines found through value and squares. A's generally blind and placed high in squares. Plate 35 has recut right frame on SH and SI as well as ray flaws present on most positions. Plate 36 has a lot of basal shifts.

Plates 37-45

All J's are square footed.

All D's and E's are broad.

37 - J flaw on a number of positions. K row shows spots and blemishes. 

38 - Many positions show coloured blur in UL corner. Basal shifts numerous and many have J flaws.

39 - UL star has short 11 o'clock ray on many stamps. coloured blurs on many UL corners and many basal shifts. Not well laid out.

40 - KB re-entry and many recut framelines. Also not well laid out.

41 - Many E's of postage have a coloured blur mark on top limb. Also right limb of second N in Penny shows similar blur on many positions.

42 - Short 11 o'clock ray and white highlights on many.

43 - Short 11 o'clock ray on many.

44 - General weakness in top rows. P flaw on many. Some positions recut. 

45 - 10 o'clock ray flaw on left star and 1 o'clock ray flaw on right star. 9 and 11 o'clock rays on right star are shorter. General weakness in top units fixed by some recuts. E flaw on many positions. 

Plate 46-58

All J's are square footed.

E flaw on plates 46-48, 53-56.

T flaw on plates 47-48.

Recut frames numerous on plates 52-56.

47 - Ray flaws present.

48 - Guide lines present but weak, except HG where strong.

49 - Basal shifts common, guide lines strong.

50 - Few very week guide lines through value, some recutting of side frames, but weakly.

51 - Basal shifts common on bottom units, some light recutting of side frames on some positions. 

52 - Poorly laid out showing burr rubs on stars. Basal shifts common. Some recutting of frames and some have weak UL corner in UR corner square.

53 - Basal shifts and some frame recutting.

54 - As plate 53. Crown flaw on HK. Break in UR corner square on DI, LE and NL. 

55 - Similar to 53 and 54. 

56 - Similar to 53, 54 and 55. Horizontal guidelines in corner squares are common. 

57 - Extensively recut with most positions having one frameline at least recut. Basal shifts common, as well as top line burr rubs and re-entries. 

58 - I's short and J's are hand cut. Sides of corner squares are weak, particularly the bottom of the LR square. Check letter E is narrow. Weakness in UR corner square. Basal shifts and upper border shifts are common.

Plates 59-75

All J's are square footed.

O's are oval where for all earlier plates they are round.

Shades often redder than usual.

Smudgy burrs common on left frame.

59 - Blurs in UL and LL corner squares are common. Basal shifts common as are upper line burr rubs.

60 - Similar to plate 59.

61 - Similar to plates 59 and 60.

62 - Similar to plates 59-61.

63 - Similar to plates 59-62. Left frameline tends to be weak and sidelines of corner squares are weak to void.

64 - Similar to other plates. Some sidelines of corner squares are weak to void.  

65 - Similar to other plates but almost no basal shifts. Some positions show a blurred mark in the UL square.

66 - Similar to plate 65. Mark in UL corner square on M through T rows. 

67 - Upper border shifts and burr rubs common, as well as basal shifts. Sidelines of corner squares weak. UL portion of UR square often weak. 

68 - Similar to plate 67.

69 - Basal shifts tend to be weaker and side lines of corner squares are stronger than on the other plates in this group.

70 - Top frameline is strong, with upper border shifts being common. few basal shifts that are weak.

71 - Both upper border shifts and basal shifts are weak. 

72 - Basal shifts are very weak. Some positions have a weakness below E of Penny.

73 - No distinct characteristics.

74 - Tops of UL and UR corner squares weak. Some show a basal shift below "One" and "Ny". Some show weakness in bottom line below E of Penny. 

 75 - Union Jack re-entry. A number of framelines partly recut and many corner squares recut.

Plates 76-87

J's are square footed on plate 76-77 and rounded on all others.

Many blind letters on plates 79-80.

Every R with hand cut tail on plates 83, 86 and 87.

76 - Spreading of "Postage" by burnishing. A & E are broad. E of Penny is extended on several positions. Many recut frames. Many re-entries. 

77 - Many recut frames, but lightly. BA had A missing, later repaired. Many squares recut resulting in extended framelines. 

78 - All S's inverted. May sidelines of corner squares are weak or missing. Basal shifts common but not very strong. 

79 - Large number of heavily blurred or unsightly check letters. Small break in UR corner, and corner squares very weak to void. 

80 - Many malformed letters. Upper border shifts and basal shifts common but weak, sidelines of corner squares weak to void. 

81 - Small break in UR square on AA to FJ. Many blurred check letters. Sides of corner squares weak and almost void. Basal shifts common but weak. 

82 - Weak 1 o'clock ray on UR star. Weak corner letters. Upper border shifts and basal shifts common. 

83 - Weak corner squares. Many re-entries. Some basal shifts in lower part of sheet, but not very strong.

84 - Small break in UR corner square. Sides of corner squares are weak or absent. Many re-entries. Some basal shifts in lower part of sheet, but not very strong.

85 - L's have a split serif on many positions. Otherwise similar to plate 84. 

86 - Sidelines of corner squares all recut. Break in UR corner square only on A row.

87 - Nearly all sidelines of corner squares all recut. Break in UR corner square only on A row, BB, BD and LA.

Plates 88-91

All J's are rounded.

Letters generally neater and cleaner than previous group.

Letters still misplaced with left letter often to the left of the square.

88- Many corner squares are recut. Letters well shaped but struck at an angle. No basal shifts.

89 - All corner squares recut except the top squares in the A row. 

90 - Every stamp except BL has a recut frame on both sides, BL is recut at left only. Letters are clear and clean but misplaced.

91 - All corner squares recut. Several check letters and corner squares are blurred. 

Plates 92-101 (The Archers)

All J's are rounded.

Shades generally pale red and not dark.

Check letters small and generally better cut than previous group. 

All squares recut with many extended framelines.

Many plate varieties (marks, blurs and dots).

No specific characteristics given for each plate, but rather an index for certain varieties and re-entries for positions that are specific to certain plates is provided in Gibbons. 

Plates 102-131

All J's are rounded

One of the most difficult groups. 

All corner squares recut. 

All letters are small, well cut and lightly outlined. 

Almost no double letters. 

Plates 118-131 can be found on lavender tinted paper. 

Shades are generally pale red to deep red brown, so orange brown and lake red do not come from this group.

105 and 107 - All S's are inverted. Corners are strong on these whereas on plate 78 they were weak. 

116 - P flaw on several stamps.

131 - Gross enlargement on 1 o'clock ray of UR corner square on GA-TA, AB-TB, AC, BC and CC.


The obvious question now is how to use this table to sort your stamps and what should you be looking for first to help you narrow down your choices. Clearly, basal shifts and upper border shifts occur on so many plates that they won't really help you narrow down the choices too much, but they will eliminate those plates that didn't have them. Also, if you have shifts that are particularly strong or weak that will eliminate choices where the shifts are known to be either much weaker or stronger than what you have. Checking for recut framelines and recut squares as well as weak squares is helpful also, as only some plates have them. 

But the best things to look for first are those varieties that occur only a very small percentage of the time. So looking for the specific corner letter varieties, the P, E and J flaws, the burr rubs, the weak or void corners will result in identifications that are considerably narrower than what you will wind up with if you start focusing on something like basal shifts, which occur in some form most of the time. Double letters, grossly misplaced letters are also good to watch for initially, as they occur on so few plates. 

Constant varieties and re-entries can be looked for and then when you find them there is a special index at the end of the section in the catalogue where you can look up the stamp by corner letter combination and can see which plates the variety could have come from. Then you can go the the page that shows the illustration, where you can compare to your stamp to see if you have a match.  This makes it go much faster, than if you were to try and look it up by comparing to every illustrated variety for every plate - a monumental and unnecessary task. 

Checking the J's on copies lettered with J is helpful, as everything after 77 has a rounded J, as well as a few earlier plates. Similarly R's with hand cut tails occur on a handful of plates. Similarly checking for inverted S's is helpful because in this alphabet they only occur on plate 78. 

The breaks in the upper squares are another good place to check, as they only occur on a handful of plates. 

Plating Table For Plates 132-177 - All Alphabet II

For these plates much, much less information is presented in Gibbons. Obviously checking for Alphabet II is the first step to identifying this group of plates. Once you have that, separating out the specifically lettered examples mentioned below that have specific varieties is the next step. Again you can look for re-entries and constant varieties and use the special index to look them up in the same way as for the earlier plates. It is very clear that most of the notes below for the identification of these plates only apply to specific positions. So, these will be challenging to plate and most will probably require comparison to the imprimatur sheets. 

Shades will help a bit, as any orange red shade must be from this group. 

Plate  Description of Characteristics To Watch For
132  G's in G column and on GC and GD are small. There are heavy burrs to the left on all stamps from AE to AK all the way down to EE to EK and all stamps of G column. 
133 All G's in G row are large. 
134 Break above AGE on BI. NF has a tall N and MH has a weak bar in the H. 
135 Top broken above AGE on JJ. Right frame wholly recut on AA, BE, JA and KE. Left frame is recut on IB, JB, MC and OB. Heavy burr between impressions on both sides of the B column. Q of QH is faint. 
136 K is large on TK.
139 All P's are blind.
140 J of HJ is large and recut.
144 Marks in one or both top squares on KD, KE and LF.
148  Stop after Penny runs into the corner square.
149 Large flaw on diadem of CI.
153 The K on TK is large, slim and recut.
154  Flaw below first N of Penny on OJ.
155 Corner letters are thin on first state. Later repairs thickened the letters. 
156 Large retouched letters on BJ, KA and RF.
157 Some show a ghost image of "One Penny" above the value tablet. Square flaw below the ear on PB. CD and DD are joined by a late state plate crack. 
158 Sizeable flaws in the vertical gutters between DI-DJ, JJ-JK and OF-OG. There is a flaw in the left margin of KA. 
159 Frame broken above AGE of postage on CF.
161 All show a break below O of One. Large dot near eye on EK, LL, OJ, OK, PK and PL.
162 Some later printings have a crack between OC and OD.
163 50% of the stamps have partly recut framelines at UR, LR and LL. FJ has a broken frame above AGE of postage. 
164  Flaw to the right of the mouth on EL.
165 Late printings had a flaw on the neck of TK diagonally upwards to the top of TL. 
166 DC has a flaw on the band of the crown.
167 Top frameline is broken on IF.
171 Marks above post on AH. Flaws on chin of FD. 
176 Bottom of D square on ID is missing. Bottom lines of letter squares on IH and LD. Worn states can be found with top lines of both top squares, and bottom lines of letter squares faint of sometimes missing. 
177 Blur above a blind A on TA. Mark in PO of Postage on ML. Dots below penny on KK. 


Conclusion and Closing Thoughts About Scarcity, Condition, The Complexity of the Issue and Novel Ways to Go About Collecting It

As you work through these stamps a number of thoughts will occur to you, and one of them will probably be how mathematically vast this issue is in its scope. Because each of the corner letters is unique and they are punched onto the plate by hand, each and every position on the plate can, potentially be thought of as its own design. Followers of this school of thought therefore want one of every plate position from all 173 plates (166 plus plates 1b, 2, 5, 8, 9, 10 and 11). At 240 stamps per plate, we are talking about 240 x 173 = 41,520 stamps. That assumes no shades, no re-entries, no ivory heads, no recut framelines and none of the other varieties that can be found on a plate, including second, third and fourth states. When all of that is factored in, the number of collectible stamps easily goes up by a factor of at least 5. So, if you take this approach you are looking at approximately 205,000 - 225,000 stamps.

This also does not consider cancellations. Cancellations are another fun area to collect, and generally what you want are clear and bold strikes, which will often, but not always be heavy. London district alone has over 76 assigned numbers. England and Wales have at least 1,600. Scotland has 412 numbers and then Ireland has 492 numbers. So, all told there are well over 2,500 cancellations you could collect for barred numerals alone, on any given stamp. 

The lot that I purchased at auction upon which this blog post and the offerings in the auction is based was described as containing just over 2,700 stamps. I must confess I didn't attempt to count them. I've simply worked on them as quickly as I can. But I assume it is correct to within plus or minus 10%. In that number I have found fewer than a dozen 4 margin examples with face free cancellations that most collectors would accept as VF-XF. Then I found another half dozen with heavier cancels that most would only grade as fine or fine to VF. Then, after that maybe another 100 or so that grade between VG and fine. The rest are all below fine. Maybe another 300-400 are pure VG. This means that the rest, some 2,185 stamps are good or fair, in terms of grade. I will say that as far as lots like this go, this was one of the better lots I have seen. Most are of lesser overall quality than this one was. 

What all of that should tell you is that if you are going to enjoy collecting this issue to the full, you will have to let go of the idea that all your stamps need to be VF. My recommendation would be to collect stamps that are not wildly cut into on any given side. I would accept any stamp that is not cut into by more than 1/4 to 1/8th of a mm, as long as it was otherwise sound and had a decent cancel. As I said earlier, if you are only collecting one of each major shade and variety without regard to plate, then I would say VF is a fairly realistic goal to set. But if you are planning on parsing those varieties out onto all the plates, then you will need to adopt a different set of criteria by which to evaluate and judge your collecting and philatelic efforts. 

Even finding one of each major shade and variety in VF-XF condition will prove to be a real challenge because although 4-margin examples are not super rare, the chances that the examples you find will be significantly different from those which you already have will drop quite rapidly as you acquire more and more examples.

Now, what I gave you just now was the most extreme way to collect this issue. You could decide that it is not necessary to have one stamp from every position in every conceivable variety or shade. Instead you could take a more measured approach as follows:

  • One of every major shade variety in each of alphabets 1 and 2, but irrespective of plate number.
  • One of every plate, from any position that does not show any specific varieties.
  • One of each re-entry, ivory head, recut corner or frame, constant variety, defective letter, etc. that exists for each plate.
  • One example of an inverted watermark for each alphabet.
  • One of each of the 2,500+ barred numeral cancellations, both for the British Isles and the colonies.
  • One of each type of distinctive Maltese Cross cancel.
  • One of each colour for the 1844 type cancel.

What I have outlined above will still involve probably some 10,000 stamps or so, and would take a lifetime to assemble, even if you set your sights on a much lower grading standard, like VG-F for instance. The cancellations for some of the colonies will set you back many hundreds of dollars in some cases. So, this type of collection will start building rapidly at first, as you need everything, but then as you progress, it will slow considerably, as much of what you find will duplicate what you already have. Of course, if you don't want to see that happen, you can do what many collectors do and open the floodgates and go after everything. That will almost certainly mean no end in sight to what you can add to your collection. But it will also mean that you will need to be very patient and organized. 

I'm hopeful that all the above will make you see how futile it is to insist on VF-XF quality for every stamp you collect from this issue, and can accept the idea of collecting VG and above. I think you will find that if you take that approach you will have a lot of fun, you can still appreciate the VF-XF copies as a real deserved treat when they do come up, and that your collecting cost will fall into line with what can be considered reasonable. Even if you collect examples valued at $2-$5 each a basic collection of 10,000 stamps is still going to be a $20,000-$50,000 investment. So, it is good to maintain some perspective as you collect these stamps. 

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Thanks for your feedback Richard. I am glad you got something out of it. In truth, I will likely update it as I work through the balance of the imperfs that I have now and lot them this week. I am testing a sorting algorithm where I am sorting them first by corner letter combinations. My hope there is that I will be able to readily see which ones are alphabet 1 and 2, and then from there if there are re-entries or varieties I can match them to specific plates. My expectation though is I will only succeed in narrowing them to groups of plates. Still, that is a start.

For the perforated stamps it looks to me like most of what I bought is perf 14 Large crown, white paper, but we’ll see. There were five lots of over 2,000 penny reds each in the auction where I bought these and I bought two of them. So I know now that I should have bought them all.

Christopher McFetridge

Fantastic entry which gives useful information to beginners and more serious collectors of the 1d imperforated penny red. I probable have several thousand of these, most to plate at some time. The re-entries and varieties are of special interest to me. I am looking forward to your perforated article as I have even more of the line engraved perforated stars.

Richard Howard Small

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