Did you know that since Royal Mail issued their first Christmas stamp in 1966, over 17 billion Christmas stamps have been printed in Britain? In most years since, Christmas stamps have gone on to become the most popular issue of the year. The 3rd November 2015 saw the 50th Great Britain Christmas issue to be released.
In honour of this milestone I would like to take the opportunity to look at some my favourites from these 50 issues.
Despite many requests over the years that the Post Office issue Christmas stamps, these had always been refused until Tony Benn became Postmaster General. He had originally wanted them in 1965 and even suggested a charity surcharge. Time was against him which meant 1966 was the soonest possible.
Benn, through the Post Office, organised a competition among schoolchildren aged under 15. The competition was launched on Blue Peter, which at the time received viewing figures of around 8 million twice a week. Response to the competition was huge. Over 5,000 designs were submitted which were assessed by a team of eight professional stamp designers. These first British Christmas stamps featured a design by Tasveer Shemza (of King Wencleslas) and James Berry (Snowman).
In 1977 the Twelve Days of Christmas were immortalised on the Christmas issue. David Gentleman’s clever design managed to include all 78 gifts mentioned in the song without the stamps looking cluttered and untidy.
The Christmas issue of 1981 really stands out for me as they were the first Christmas stamps that I remember. Again a nationwide competition was launched on Blue Peter and really caught the attention of children up and down the country. Unfortunately my entry did not make it on to the issued stamps! The five designs that were chosen were from children aged between 5 and 16.
I think 2004 is my favourite of all the 50 Christmas issues. These six stamps feature Raymond Briggs’ beloved Father Christmas as he goes about his duties on his busiest night of the year.
Starting with the 2nd class stamp we see him begin to deliver presents in a calm moonlit night, before battling through the elements(40p, 57p, 68p and £1.12) but by sunrise on Christmas Day all is calm again and his work is done (1st class).
From 2005 Royal Mail decided to alternate each year between secular and non secular Christmas issues. For the 50th issue the Christmas issue is non secular. The eight Christmas 2015 stamps feature six traditional scenes from the Nativity story: The Journey to Bethlehem, The Nativity, The Animals of the Nativity, The Shepherds, The Three Wise Men and The Annunciation.
If you’re interested…
Send festive wishes with this beautifully designed limited edition Christmas card issued to mark the 50th Great Britain Christmas issue
A nation woke on Friday 14 March to hear the sad news that Tony Benn had passed away. Whether we believed in his politics or not, for many of us Tony Benn was the last of an era – a national politician of true conviction.
But for philatelists he was something else. Tony Benn was both the father of the modern commemorative stamp and the man who nearly saw the Queen’s head removed from our stamps.
Tony Benn entered Parliament in 1950 before being forced to resign his seat after inheriting his father’s peerage in 1960. He went on to successfully force a change in the law that allowed him to revoke his peerage and return the House in a 1963 by-election.
Stamps to reflect “Britain’s unique contribution”
The following year’s General Election saw Harold Wilson’s Labour Government scrape to power and with it the appointment of Tony Benn to position of Postmaster General.
One of his very first actions was to widen the scope for commemorative stamps “to celebrate events of national importance, to commemorate appropriate anniversaries and occasions, [and] to reflect Britain’s unique contribution to the arts and world affairs”.
Keen to develop his ideas for a more democratic stamp programme, Benn solicited views from the general public. One contribution came from David Gentleman an already well-established stamp designer. He suggested that the Queen’s portrait should be removed from pictorial stamps to give more space and freedom for the designers.
Off with her head
Benn, of course, was a keen republican and he jumped on the idea as a non-politicised way to achieve his goal of removing the Queen’s head from stamps.
Indeed the Robert Burns stamps (ultimately issued in 1966 with a full portrait of the Queen) were originally commissioned allowing “non-traditional” designs – the result was that 21 of the 40 submissions carried the legend “UK Postage”, a crown or a royal cypher in place of Her Majesty.
Throughout 1965 arguments raged between Benn and Gentleman on one side and the Stamp Advisory Committee, Palace and post office officials on the other. Finally, the Queen made her views clear: her head should remain on British stamps. Benn was not impressed, stating:
“If the Queen can reject the advice of a minister on a little thing like a postage stamp,
what would happen if she rejected the advice of the Prime Minister on a major matter?”
Ironically, it was David Gentleman who was responsible for the final Queen’s head that still features on our commemorative stamps today, creating the silhouette design from Mary Gillick’s original coin design.
The Westminster Collection was privileged to have Tony Benn sign a limited number of Sub-Post Offices First Day Covers in 1997.
A limited number of covers are still in our archive stock and are available at the original issue price of £19.99 (+p&p).
NOW SOLD OUT.