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How Arbroath’s James Chalmers produced the precursor to the Penny Black


James Chalmers, born in Arbroath, played an important role in British postal history and produced the precursor to the Penny Black.

Chalmers was born on February 2, 1782.

He moved to Dundee in 1809 and became a printer, publisher and bookseller, as well as a campaigner for postal reforms in the pre-stamp era when letters were charged by weight and distance to be travelled.

According to his family, Chalmers first proposed in 1834 that adhesive stamps be adopted as the method of indicating prepaid postage.

In his Castle Street office he printed the very first stamps as we know them today and calculated such things as the costs of a uniform postal mail system and the best method of mail delivery.

His only mistake, according to his supporters, was delaying the official announcement of what he had achieved for three years, by which time Rowland Hill had put the idea to paper.

What happened?

In 1837, Hill formulated a series of proposals for postal reform, published as Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability.

In 1839 the public was invited to submit their proposals for a prepaid penny post to a parliamentary select committee which was set up.

A prize of £200 was offered for the best suggestion and £100 for the next best.

Sir Rowland Hill.

Over 2,600 designs and ideas were submitted, but Hill used his previously published suggestion to use “a bit of paper just big enough to carry the stamp, and covered on the back with a gooey wash”.

This suggestion would eventually become the Penny Black.

Both wrappers and the Penny Black stamp were introduced in 1840, but it was Hill, as the man responsible for implementing the Penny Postage Bill of 1839, who was knighted by a grateful sovereign, received a public testimony of £15,000 and was later buried in Westminster Abbey.

Chalmers was buried in the old Howff in Dundee in 1853, and through the efforts of his son Patrick, his headstone proclaimed: “Creator of the adhesive postage stamp which saved the penny postage system of 1840 from collapse”.

The gravestone of James Chalmers.

Arguments and debates have raged over the years as each man’s champions have advanced their reasons to back up the invention claims.

Postal historian Dr Norman Watson said: ‘As philatelists around the world confirmed that the Dundee printer was a pioneer, there was a cooling off in public acclaim for Hill.

“But all of this amounted to a reduction in the number of statues erected in his honor.

“Although there was no direct feud between Hill and Chalmers, disputes over who invented the postage stamps continued to rage.

“Chalmers’ son Patrick was so furious at his father’s lack of recognition that he gave up his successful career as a Far Eastern dealer to present his father’s case to prominent philatelists.

“He gave lectures, wrote pamphlets and, at times, found himself embroiled in heated debate with Pearson Hill, Sir Rowland’s son.

“The 12-year campaign cost him thousands of pounds and, some say, contributed to his untimely death.”

James Chalmers.

The baton was passed to Chalmers’ granddaughter, Leah Chalmers, who was diligent in her efforts to gain recognition for her grandfather’s invention.

In 1939, she published a book titled How The Adhesive Postage Stamp was Born.

In 1970 another book about Chalmers’ achievements was published by David Winter and Son, the Dundee firm which grew out of the printing organization the inventor had started.

It claimed to present “irrefutable evidence” that Chalmers was the world leader in stamp development and called for a campaign for wider recognition.

In 1979 new stamps and first day covers were issued by the Post Office commemorating the centenary of the death of Sir Rowland Hill who attributed the invention of the adhesive postage stamp to the Treasury official.

The Chalmers champions were offended by Rowland Hill’s stamps, claiming in apoplectic frustration that it was Chalmers, not Hill, who first suggested the adhesive stamp system.

A James Chalmers Society was quickly formed to lick the opposition.

A memorial service to James Chalmers was held at the Howff on February 2, 1982.

Following the fuss over the 1979 Rowland Hill special stamps, it was hoped that a commemorative issue would mark the bicentenary of Chalmers’ birth in February 1982.

Instead, the post office only agreed to include her portrait on a pre-printed £1.43 stamp booklet which featured a brief summary of her life.

It read: “In 1837 he submitted some examples of erased labels to Robert Wallace, MP for Greenock. Thus James Chalmers produced the first attempts at adhesive postage stamps, the ancestor of the Penny Black.

Dr Watson said the problem was that the design of the stamps Chalmers would have produced in 1834 remains controversial.

He said: “It was never verified and never mentioned by James Chalmers himself.

“Rather, its veracity rested on the 50-year-old recollections of three elderly former employees of Chalmers’ printing works in Castle Street.

“That leaves us with Rowland Hill outlining his plan for the adhesive labels in February 1837, about five months before Chalmers submitted his plans.”

The song Postman’s Knock was dedicated to Sir Rowland Hill.

In 1983, the company succeeded in having a motion in the House of Commons signed by 53 MPs recognizing Chalmers’ precedence.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, after initially crediting Sir Rowland, changed its entries after studying the arguments in favor of Chalmers.

Dr Watson said: ‘Chalmers certainly produced at his Castle Street presses the first specimens of adhesive labels, which were used as a means of postal transport by every country in the world.

“He should also be credited for using the city name and date to cancel the stamps, which have become the most integral feature of any postal service in the world.

“And when he sent a copy of one of his two-penny stamps to the secretary of the GPO in 1839, it was the first time an envelope bearing an adhesive stamp had passed through the post.”

Dr Watson concluded: “For a time it seemed as if the whole world accepted Chalmers as the inventor of stamps – except the British post office.”

However, in Dundee and in his native Arbroath, Chalmers remains “the inventor of stamps”.

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[How Arbroath’s James Chalmers produced the forerunner to the Penny Black]