In 1965 Tony Benn, then Postmaster General, set out the criteria for the development of special stamps and worked with designer David Gentleman to modernise stamp design.The stamp of Sir Winston Churchill, issued in July 1965, was designed by Gentleman and was the first under Benn’s administration. It was also the first British stamp to feature a contemporary individual, and it set the scene for the more than 2,000 Special Stamps that have been issued since.
Contemporary designers have produced stamps reflecting the times in which they were issued, and changing design styles. What remains the same is that Her Majesty The Queen has approved each of the Royal Mail stamp designs produced.
Celebrating 50 years
As part of our programme to celebrate the 50th anniversary, we launched an online gallery of every Special Stamp issued. Visitors to www.rmspecialstamps.com can browse through the stamps decade by decade.
A video presented by broadcaster and historian Dan Snow, which explores how the Special Stamp programme has been shaped by the changing face of the UK, is available on the site.
Over the past 50 years, Royal Mail stamps mirrored cultural and societal changes. In the 1960s they celebrated British technological innovations, such as the 1966 set which included the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, the hovercraft and the car industry.
By the 1980s industry was changing. Our Information Technology stamps depicted the then-cutting-edge technology of lasers reading bar codes. In 2015, we issued a new stamp to mark a British innovation that has changed all our lives – Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web.
Culture and sport
As the 1960s generation grew up, many of their influences, such as pop music, moved into the cultural mainstream. As recently as 2007, The Beatles were honoured with their own stamp issue. It featured their classic album sleeves, and is the most popular stamp issue of the last ten years.
William Shakespeare is no stranger to our special stamps, having made no less than 17 appearances on them, making him the third most featured person after the Queen herself and the Duke of Edinburgh.
Popular culture has been reflected in highly successful stamps celebrating the Harry Potter books; television icon Doctor Who; children’s favourites like Bagpuss and Bob the Builder; and literary characters from Sherlock Holmes to Winnie the Pooh.
Sport related stamp issues always generate interest. ‘England Win the Rugby World Cup’ in 2003 marked the nation’s sporting success, while the Gold Medal Winners stamps for the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games really captured the public imagination.
The Royal Family
A perennially popular subject for Special Stamps remains the Royal Family, in particular national events such as Royal Weddings, most recently the marriage of Prince William to Catherine Middleton in 2011.
Recent years have also seen the issuing of stamps in series. For example, the Kings and Queens series started in 2007 and depicted every monarch in each Royal House, starting with the House of Lancaster. The series culminated in the House of Windsor stamp set issued in 2012, in time for Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee.
Biggest publisher of artists’ work
Other series include the First World War, which will have a six-set stamp set issued every year from 2014 to 2018 to mark the centenary of the conflict.
The most ambitious series ever undertaken marked the Millennium in 1999. A total of 48 stamps depicted the people and events that shaped 1000 years of British history. Royal Mail commissioned 48 of the country’s leading artists and image makers to create a Special Stamp ‘super set’ that won a major design award.
Thanks to projects like this, our Special Stamp programme is an extensive commissioner of artists and illustrators. And, in terms of print runs of stamps, it makes us the biggest publisher of artists’ work.
During 2015, Royal Mail attached plaques to 50 postboxes across the country, in places where a Special Stamp features a landmark, or where someone of note was born or lived.,The plaques provide information about the stamp and the 50th anniversary.
The stamps and stamp products are available at all Post Office branches, online at www.royalmail.com/stamps and from:
Royal Mail Tallents House (telephone 03457 641 641)
21 South Gyle Crescent, Edinburgh, EH12 9PB.