Collecting revenue stamps has again become popular after a lull of nearly a century, and popular for very good reasons. These stamps offer a wealth of interest for collection and original study. The scope is very wide, collectors not so plentiful and material not so abundant as with many postal issues.
There is the added satisfaction (or frustration) of knowing that a complete collection is unlikely to be achieved. It is therefore possible to devise one's own scheme of collecting and also to find quite considerable rarities far more often than in conventional philately. Revenue stamps are now accepted for entry into national and international competitions under FIP rules and with their own guidelines. Why not start at the beginning with the very first British document stamp duty, dating  back to1694?             
The Stamp Office has its tercentenary in 1994.  It is of course possible to collect fascinating documents such as tax certificates and receipts which date back even earlier, or collect early stamped material of various kinds emanating from other  countries (1- number in brackets refer to the reference books listed at the end of the article).  A full history of British document stamps is given in such excellent publications as Booth (2) and Frank, Schonfeld and Barber (3). There are also specialist societies such as Revenue Society of Great Britain and the Cinderella Stamp Club, each with their own journal (4, 5).
This article will merely highlight and simplify some facets of the embossed document revenue stamps from 1694 to the present. It will not be looking at the later embossed and other revenue adhesive stamps, which developed from 1853, some of which are well known to philatelists as they became available for postal use from 1881. Nor will the article deal with , the elegant engraved copperplate stamps, used from 1711 on almanacs, newspapers, post horse duty, hats, patent medicines, etc.
With any revenue stamp, it is convenient to think why they were used, where they were used, when they were used and who made them.
The 17th century saw an increasing need for taxation to pay for various wars. These needs have continued to increase ever since and, as with postal rates, even such relatively peaceful times as 1815-1840 did not diminish them. Indeed, social reforms required more. At first, all stamping was done at the Stamp Office in London (6,7). Other offices were opened in Edinburgh (1712) and Dublin (1774) and several more provincial ones from 1888 (2)
Embossing was the chosen technique for such security printing. From 1694, there was a clear distinction between the techniques for stamping paper and parchment. Embossing on paper was quite straightforward, at first uncolored and then, from about 1883, often with dies that could both emboss and ink simultaneously. The ink could be of different colors for different purposes. However, parchment (vellum or skins) was used for many important legal documents because of its durable properties. Being tougher, it resisted the impression of the early hand worked presses and any embossing would tend to be erased by damp.
This led to the use of ‘semi-adhesives’. A small rectangle (about 5cm x 4 cm) of base paper, uniformly colored, was glued, and usually onto the top left corner of the document, and embossing was then done through both paper and parchment together.
It was sometimes argues, when the paper was found to be missing, that the embossing had been done but the paper had fallen off. So from 1701 security was improved by making a small double slit through the parchment with paper attached, passing a thin strip of metal right through, bending it over and then holding it in place by gumming on a square of paper (2.2 cm x 2.5 cm) called a cipher seal. Only then were the embossing done and the parchment ready to be written up.
This escutcheon process took a skilled man about one minute.
The cipher seals can be complete studies in themselves. They were engraved with the monarch’s monogram and were printed from copper plates, each with usually 320 dies. At least 18 different plates were used over 220 years; most with one or more re-cuts.
The authoritative monograph by Barber and Brown (8) can be recommended.
As with embossing on paper, the technology of printing advanced and a combination of inking and embossing was used from the second half of the 19th century. At about the same time, it became possible to emboss and ink directly onto the improved parchment or parchment equivalents and the need for the base paper semi-adhesives disappeared gradually up to about 1920.
As mentioned earlier, embossed document stamps can be collected in several different ways depending on one’s own interests. The following is a guide to some of the areas of interest.  
    1.   £ 900 blue stamp from probate document of 1876.
    2.   Rare William III cypher stamp from 1705 document.
    3. and 5. Altered for use in Great Britain.
    4. Appropriate die of 1869 (Common law courts)
    6. A 6/- composite die.









The fascination of the subject is enhanced by the variety of legal documents that are involved – often lead to hours of ‘side tracking ‘ !  Where possible, stamps should be retained on documents, despite the problems of storage or display.



From 1694 to 1875, the base paper for parchment documents was blue, but in a wide range of shades. Beige is only a detoriation of the blue paper and examples often come from 1760-1787. Red base paper was uncommon and was use for civil court proceedings, writs, etc, from 1701 to 1834. Green base paper was for apprentices from 1710-1780, and is rare. Only a few examples of white base paper (unlinked) are known, from 1694-95. From the 1860s, pink base paper was used for donating stamps, Duplicate or Counterpart and Ad Val Orem duties. Any other colored inks of the second half of the 19th century, both for paper and parchment, the vermilion ink on white paper came to replace the blue paper. Again, colored inks were used for special purposes. Pink was used as above, to be replaced by blue ink from 1902. Purple and green inks were for use in Ireland.  

    1. Earlier typical circular date mark
    2. and 3. Cost marks
    4.  External press letter of 1892
    5.  Cancelled stamps



Different dies were needed for each value. Indeed, quite often where one value was needed for a different purpose a new die would be prepared. For the semi-adhesives on blue paper it is possible to collect over 150 different values from I d to £5,000 (for probate on estates over £350,000 in 1815). The dies used with vermilion ink up to £15,000 are reasonably. From late 1833, accessible but those further up to £ 1 million less so!          


1 Directly embossed
Color that
 of the 
paper and
 of no special significance
Booth 1
Frank et al
Dates (approx)
Relative Commonness
2 Semi adhesive Base paper colored
Green white


General Denoting Civil courts Apprentices
1694-1881 1869-1900 1701-1834 1710-1750 1694-1695





3 Semi
Adhesive Base paper white
Vermilion Pink
Green Purple
Denoting Penalty






4 Directly embossed Dies inked
Paper or Parchment
Vermilion Pink
Green Purple Others
General Denoting Denoting Irish


5 Embossed adhesives


The many values, and many dies for each value, make the total number of collectible dies quite formidable. Each one has its own design, often of considerable elegance. The niceties of die letters, ‘balancing marks’ and other features all add to the interest. The Britannia head came into ascendancy from 1864 and especially with the vermilion ink.
Appropriate dies
This means that a die was earmarked for one particular duty only. All early dies, and many later, were General Duty dies, not obviously designed for any one special purpose. The first appropriated die was the ‘Policy’ die of 1765 used on insurance policies of under £1,000. next came the State Lottery (1778) Receipt and very many more. The America dies may be mentioned here. Many dies were prepared in the 1760s for the special purpose of levying taxes from the American colonies.
These were one of the causes of the American War of Independence.
The dies included the word ‘America ‘, so they became redundant after the war. Rather than scrap well-made dies, they were altered and remained in use in the United Kingdom well into the 19th century. They can be recognized by comparison with standard texts and are not rare (2, 3).
Many of the stamps show the changes in the Royal Arms, supporters, etc. it is surprising how clearly the details can show after embossing.
Multiple, combined, composite, consolidated
From early days and up to 1757, when the duty was increased by a new Act, each component had to be shown on a separate stamp. Thus the 1s 6d rate for 1714 was shown by three embossed 6d stamps in a vertical strip. A single document might come to have dozen stamps.
From 157, the various components of a duty could be shown on a single die, but each component still had to be indicated. For example, the 6/- composite stamp of 1783 (illustrated) shows 6d (1694), 6d (1698, 6d (1714), 1/- (1757), 1/- (1776), 1/- (1777), and 1s 6d (1783)- a remarkable testimony to the troubles of the century, all in one stamp. Over 70 such composite stamps have been recognized (1, 2, 3). From 1804, new dies were allowed to be ‘consolidated ‘, spelling out in words rather than figures the duty in one sum.
Date marks
From late 1833, date plugs were incorporated into the design of some new dies, following the suggestion of Sir Henry Bessemer and his fiancée. These are an absolutely reliable indicator of the date a document was stamped (but not necessarily when it was written upon).
Circular date marks, applied as stamps, were also introduced about the same time, with a variety of towns, codes, and so on. Dates before 1832 are scarce. Otherwise, dating has to be done on the basis of the document itself, with less reliable clues from the dies, cipher seals and heraldry.
Other marks
The unwritten paper or skin had to be paid for irrespective of the additional cost of the tax stamp.
Cost marks come in a wide range of designs.
External Press Letters were used around the main design from 1891 to 1894 to denote different dies of an otherwise identical design. After 1894, such letters or figures were incorporated within the design when they were needed.
When a document was stamped incorrectly, it was possible to obliterate the initial stamp by overprinting it with a special cancelled die, usually re-embossed with a characteristic grill pattern and then with the word ‘ cancelled ’in black.
These are only a few of the ramifications, of an absorbing aspect of collecting. It is not difficult to develop a ‘personalized ‘study, or thematic collection.
  1. S. B. Frank and J. Schonfeld, The Stamp Duty of Great Britain and Ireland, 1st edition
  2. (Mamaroneck N.Y. 1970)
  3. R. G. Booth, Catalogue of the revenue stamps of the United Kingdom, Isle of Man, Channel
  4. Islands and Eire, 3rd edition, 1990
  5. S.B. Frank, J Schonfeld and W.A. Barber, The impressed duty stamps of Great Britain,
  6. (San Diego 1981).
  7. Revenue Journal of Great Britain. (The journal of the Revenue Society of Great Britain)
  8. Cinderella Philatelist. The journal of the Cinderella Stamp Club.
  9. M. Samuel, The Stamp Office 1694-1894 (GB Journal number 22)
  10. H. Dagnell, An introduction to Revenue Stamps.
  11. W.A.Barber and A.F. Brown, The Royal Cypher Labels of Great Britain, Ireland and the colonies (1701-1922).
  12. Dr R. H. Champion Stamp Magazine March 1994