Stamp collecting guide: the Victorian halfpenny stamp of 1870
During the first thirty years of adhesive stamp sales in Great Britain (1840 to 1870) only two values – ONE PENNY (The Penny Black) and TWO PENCE (Tuppeny Blue) – were needed for use on the several billion inland letters weighing up to one ounce that passed through the mails in those decades.
The eventual introduction of a lower halfpenny stamp was prompted by a reduction in the postal rate for newspapers and postcards.
The Halfpenny Rose Red was issued on 1 October 1870 and was Britain's first halfpenny stamp.
To represent the value, the new stamp was half the size of the one penny stamp, and the stamps were soon being called 'Bantams'.
The London City Press described the halfpenny stamp as 'about two thirds the size of the ordinary penny stamp and printed in a similar red. But the portrait of Her Majesty in a circular medallion is disfigured by large halfpenny symbols on the left and right.'
The stamp’s design continued to meet with disapproval well into the 20th century, probably culminating in 1943 with the disparaging remarks of John Easton, author of British Postage Stamp Design: 'The Halfpenny of 1870 was a freak with a miniature head of the Sovereign floating in a small white circle, with figures of value of huge disproportion flanking to left and to right.'
Design implications of the half-sized, halfpenny stamp
Difficulties had arisen from the unexpected introduction of HALFPENNY into the design mix.
The word was almost twice as long as PENNY, yet required to fit on a stamp much smaller than a Penny Red.
The paper on which bantams were printed had the word halfpenny in manuscript style as a watermark that stretched across three stamps. Perkins, Bacon & Co’s solution to space restrictions on the surface involved moving the d abbreviation of denarius to a position above the ½ symbols on both sides of the portrait; an innovative if puzzling value figure on a postage stamp.
The printer’s original intention had been to issue the miniature HALFPENNY in a shade of light green. Experiments to produce a fugitive ink in that hue proved, however, too time-consuming; so they dropped the plan and used rose-red ink instead.
The Bantam’s replacement – a standard-sized stamp inscribed POSTAGE HALFPENNY – was surface printed and issued in light green by De La Rue in 1880.