The Penny Black, the world's first adhesive postage stamp of a public postal system, was issued by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 1 May, 1840, for use from 6 May of that year. Although all London post offices received official issues of the new stamps, other offices throughout the United Kingdom did not, and continued to accept postage payments in cash only for some time. Post offices in some other localities, such as those in the city of Bath, began offering the stamp unofficially after 2 May.
Postal delivery systems using what may have been adhesive stamps existed before the Penny Black. Apparently the idea had at least been suggested earlier, notably in Austria, Sweden, and possibly Greece.
Hill was given a two-year contract to run the new system, and together with Henry Cole he subsequently ran a competition to identify the best way to pre-pay letters. None of the 2600 entries was good enough, so in the end Hill launched the service in 1840 with an envelope bearing a reproduction of a design created by the artist William Mulready and a stamp bearing a reproduction of the profile of the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria. There are also references on the record to covers bearing the Mulready design. To this day, all British stamps bear a profile of the reigning monarch somewhere on the design, and are the only stamps that do not name their country of origin.
In 1839, the British Treasury announced a competition to design the new stamps, but none of the submissions was considered suitable. The Treasury chose instead to use a rough design endorsed by Rowland Hill, featuring an easily recognisable profile of a 15-year-old Princess Victoria. Hill believed this would be difficult to forge. The head was engraved by Charles and Fredrick Heath based on a sketch provided by Henry Corbould. Corbould's sketch, in turn, was based on the cameo-like head by William Wyon, that had been designed for a medal used to commemorate the visit of Queen Victoria to the City of London in 1837, the year of her coronation The word "POSTAGE" appeared at the top of the stamp, to denote its intended use (revenue stamps had long been used in the UK) and "ONE PENNY." at the bottom, indicating the amount that had been pre-paid for the transmission of the letter to which it was affixed. The background consisted of finely engraved engine turnings. In addition, the two upper corners contained star-like designs and the lower corners contained letters designating the position of the stamp in the printed sheet; "A A" for the stamp located in the top left position, and "T L" for the stamp in the bottom right position. The sheets, printed by Perkins Bacon, consisted of 240 stamps formatted of 20 rows and 12 columns. As the name suggests, the stamp was printed all in black.
Although 6 May was the official first date when the labels were available for the pre-payment of postage, there are known covers postmarked 2 May, due to postmasters selling the stamps from 1 May. Stamps used on letters prior to 6 May should have been treated as un-paid and charged double the rate on delivery. A single example is also known on cover dated 1 May 1840.
The Penny Black was in use for only a little over a year. It was found that a red cancellation was hard to see on a black background. Also, the red ink was easy to remove from the Penny Black, making it possible to re-use stamps, even after they had been cancelled. In 1841 the Treasury switched to the Penny Red and issued cancellation devices with black ink. The black ink, which was much more effective as a cancellation, was also harder to remove. The re-use of stamps with the un-cancelled portions of two stamps to form an unused whole impression continued and in 1864 the stars in the top corners were replaced by the check letters, as they appeared in the lower corners, but in reverse order.
The stamps were printed in sheets of 240, unperforated and cut out with scissors.
The Penny Black is readily available on the collectors' market today; a used stamp in poor condition can cost as little as £10 ($20). However, because of its significance, this stamp in fine condition is in demand by collectors and therefore not cheap; in 2000, a used stamp cost about £110 (around US$200), an unused example about £1,600 (around US$3,000) with prices steadily rising. By contrast, a used Penny Red was £1.50 ($3).
The VR official is stated to have been made from the original master die. However, this cannot be the case as this die still exists with the original stars intact; this is housed in the National Postal Museum in London. It is believed that the master for this stamp was produced from the transfer roller used for the production of plate 1 with the stars removed from the top corners as some impressions show traces of these original stars.