Smith Elder & Co Precancel

Precancels of Great Britain

This part of the web site is to consolidate information on GB precancels.

The site has expanded. Click here for a site-map.

Henry S. King & Co Precancel
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Smith Elder & Co Precancel Henry S. King & Co Precancel William Dawson & Sons 1st Precancel W. H. Smith & Son 1st Precancel Public-Precancel Frank-Precancel Times-Precancel Railway-Precancel Army-Precancel
Smith Elder & Co H. S. King & Co W.Dawson & Sons W. H. Smith & Son 'Public Precancels' Precancel Franking Newspapers Railway Precancels Army Telegraphs
Private Telegraphs Booklets T.O.6 obliteration ENT.O.1 Cancel Calendar Embossed Perfin Sloper Contributions
Private Telegraphs Booklets T.O.1 to T.O.6 Anomalies Time frame Embossed Perfins Sloper punch Contributions

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Or continue reading background information below:

For anyone interested, I also have sections on GB Telegraph stamps (Private as well as Post Office)
More recently the rest of the world got added, and finally Telegram seals.
Electric Telegraph


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The Precancels of Great Britain are relatively few in number compared to countries like France, Belgium, Canada and the U.S.A., but the information about them is rather sparse and scattered. Unfortunately the official records are also fragmentary. Britain started using precancels in 1865.

William Dawson & Sons small Precancel on 1d W. H. Smith & Son 1st Precancel - Small

I originally entitled this website 'Early Precancels of Great Britain' as the only examples that I knew of were Victorian.
Since I started digging into the subject though, it has become apparent that precancels did not simply
disappear in the Victorian age but evolved to survive into the Elizabethan era.
The items above might be considered the 'holy grail' of British precancels, they are the only examples of each that I have ever seen.


By the beginning of the 1860s, the post office was under a lot of pressure to deliver mail quicker under an ever-increasing workload. This pressure came from several quarters including:
  • Bankers trying to get the latest share-prices to customers.
  • Distributors of newspapers.
  • Publishers sending out lists of products.

This is the scenario that created the need for time-saving innovations such as precancels.


Britain was not the first country to use precancels, James Hale & Co. operated an independent Postal Service in the U. S. A. from March 1844 until June 1845 when closed down by an Act of Congress (March 1845).
During this time, precancels are known to have been used on local issue stamps, for example Boston, Mass. 16/8/44.
The Government issues of 1847 onwards continued to use precancels.

According to 'The History of Precancels', the first non-US precancel was the French 1-centime used from November 1860 to 1862 to affix to blank newspapers and subsequently pre-cancelled by the newsprint prior to posting.
It is reasonable to suppose that the Postal Authorities in Britain were aware of at least the French usage, and may have been inspired by them to introduce a similar system into the U. K.


With the introduction of Precancels, companies were allowed to cancel and sort their own mail so that they could then deliver it themselves
either to the main post office for local mail, Mail-Boats for foreign destinations or a railway station for other inland destinations.
This arrangement took some of the workload off the post office whilst cutting delivery times.


It has to be said that there is a contrary opinion circulating to the effect that all of these precancels were used by the Post Office either at the Newspaper Branch or the Foreign Office.

I have tried to track down the source of this information.

J.G.Hendy, H.C.Westley, James Mackay, J.B.Seymour, J.Parmenter and Alcock & Holland say that the precancels prior to the 'Public' precancels and the 1878 Stamford Mercury were in the hands of and used by the firms concerned.

Curt Fernau quotes Alcock & Holland, I have not so far found an opinion expressed by G.Brumell or J.T.Whitney, whilst F.H.Vallencey seems confused and ambiguous on the subject.

The only strong support for this minority opinion that I have found is that given by John H.Chandler & H.Dagnall who have done some excellent work on the "Milled Edge Postmarks" ('Public' precancels) and are also familiar with the story of the 1878 Stamford Mercury precancel. It may be that they have simply assumed that the earlier precancels were done the same way, certainly I can see no references in their work in support of the assertion unless it is W.G.Stitt Dibden whose work I have not yet seen.


Not Precancels:

These are things that are sometimes mistaken for precancels.

Not a Precancel-5Seen from the back, these perforated initials or designs are known as 'Perfins'. They are not used to cancel the stamps (at least not in Britain) and are for the purpose of identifying the owner of the stamp to discourage petty theft by employees. Although not precancels themselves, they are often found on precancelled stamps.
Not a Precancel-1These are known as 'Commercial Overprints'. The stamp is usually overprinted with the name of a local authority or utility company to prevent petty-theft much in the same way as perfins. The difference is that these were used for receipt purposes at a time when duty was payable hence some have 'Received for' as part of the design. When this duty was abolished in 1971, the unused stocks could be used postally for a period of 6 months.
Not a Precancel-4

The first item here really belongs with the group above, these were used in the Victorian period and most often found on the 1881 penny lilac.

The others are Telegraph cancellations, the circular ones for England and Wales, less commonly rectangular ones for Scotland and a rather scarce diamond shape for Ireland. Sizes vary and there is sometimes an 'A' or 'B' on the end of the number.

Not a Precancel-2 These are official overprints prepared for the use of various Government Departments. A word of warning, there are many forged overprints, particularly on the rare items. When buying, compare the overprint to a known genuine example (say a poor common example). Any postmark should obviously be on top of the overprint and also the overprint is usually easily legible from the back of the stamp. Be wary of say an eBay item that does not show a scan of the back, especially if the seller appears to have large numbers of officials for sale.
Not a Precancel-3

The Victorian 1d one shows a Scottish cancellation, in this case Aberdeen (they were numbered alphabetically). The next is a parcel cancellation which can come in many varieties often with rectangular designs, the next two are machine cancellations and the last is a type used by the Post Office for training purposes which is often seen on King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stamps with 1 or 2 bars.

Apart from the last, these postmarks are more often at an angle, but when neatly parallel with top or sides can look like a precancel.


What's New

There are two significant changes recently.
1) The T.O.1 to T.O.6 series has had significant new material
added and now shows examples of the complete 'set'.
2) A new page has been added for Booklets
3) A site map has now been added.


Due to the dynamic nature of the website, I will list significant updates here:

Aug. 29th Sloper punch has been added and, rather overdue, Private Telegraphs has been added.
Mar. 29th W.Dawson & Sons Added an image of the only example of the small DS/F that I have ever seen.
Nov. 25thT.O.1 to T.O.6   Significant updates, including strip of six T.O.4 image added.
July 21stT.O.1 to T.O.6   9 T.O. images added.
June 15th Comms   Page added so that people without a scanner or email can still be involved.
Feb. 5th 'Public Precancels' Started adding Perfin information for the Milled-Edge precancels.
Rest of year Telegraphs Working on Telegraph Stamps etc.
Feb. 6th Newspapers George V. example of Stamford Mercury added.
Feb. 5th 'Public Precancels' Started adding Perfin information for the Milled-Edge precancels.
Dec. 16th 'Public Precancels' Another Edinburgh NPB type added.
Dec. 12th T.O.1 to T.O.6  Another upright T.O.2 added.
Dec. 11th W. H. Smith & Son Two more examples of WHS Type V added, including another Eason wrapper.  
Oct. 17th T.O.1 to T.O.6   Another T.O.3 cover added. and another 1879 upright T.O.2 example added.
Oct. 15thT.O.1 to T.O.6   6 examples added including the first perfin (D & S) on the 1860 series.
May 26th Booklets Significant updates made.
May 14th Booklets New page added. These do not appear to be genuine precancels, but have been called precancels.  
May 12th W.Dawson & Sons 3d on 3d DS/F image added.
May 2nd W. H. Smith & Son Two more wrappers to H.M.S. Neptune images added.
Apr. 18th Embossed Added Advertising ring dates for precancel companies.
Apr. 17th Smith Elder & Co 4d Advertising ring added with 'Smith, Elder & Co' crossed out.
Apr. 15th Smith Elder & Co 5s Plate 2 added.
Apr. 3rd H. S. King & Co Images of 4d plate 14 and 6d plate 15 added.
Mar. 29th W.Dawson & Sons 2s6d Large DS/F added.
Mar. 29th W. H. Smith & Son Large SS/F example on 3d Collar and Type-V on KEVII 2d pair images added.
Dec. 7th Time frame Page updated with HTML5 technology.
Feb. 1st Domain name changed and updates added.




Tim Burgess, A Postmark Mystery, The postage stamps of the Queen Victoria period of Great Britain, 1840-1901  
and is the site that got me started on this.  


Jan Kosniowski, W H Smith & Son Newspaper Wrappers 1870 – 1901, Stamp Domain - another good resource.

Philatec Newsletter.004 30/3/07 - The McInroy Collection, available as a pdf document.

GB Meter Franking (Gibbons Stamp Monthly) - Jack Peach’s history of meter franking Parts 1 to 4 available in pdf format at the bottom of this Meter Stamp Society page.

The History of the Postmarks of the British Isles from 1840 to 1876, compiled chiefly from official records John G. Hendy - Available at (see chapter 4)

The Encyclopedia of British Empire Postage Stamps,  Volume 1, Robson Lowe 1948 - Sorry, can't help you with this - see below.

The Postmarks of Great Britain and IrelandAlcock and Holland (1940). - Sorry, can't help you with this either.

Alternatively, British Postmarks - a Short History and Guide, R. C. Alcock and F. C. Holland (1960)

The Postmarks of the British Isles George Brumell (1930). - Sorry, can't help you with this either.

British Post Office Numbers 1844-1906 George Brumell (Reprinted 1979, Pub. R. C. Alcock Ltd.). - Try AbeBooks

British Postal Stationery, A Priced Handbook of the Postal Stationery of Great Britain, Alan K. Huggins (1970) - 3 important pages available as a zip file from

Collect British Postal Stationery, Alan Huggins and Colin Baker (2007) ISBN 978-0-907630-22-7 A Simplified Listing of British Postal Stationery 1840 to 2007 - readily available.

A Historical Survey of Precancels by R. Malcolm Hooper (1979) - Relating to the U. S. A.

The History of Precancels, collected works of N. R. Hoover, Published by the Precancel Stamp Society Inc. (PSS350 - 1989) - Almost exclusively U. S. A.

The Postage Stamps of Great Britain Part One: The Line-Engraved Issues 1840 to 1853, J. B. Seymour , edition 2 (1 Jan 1950) or 3 (1967)

English and Welsh Postmarks Since 1840, James A. Mackay (March 1980) - or try the library.

First with the News: The History of W.H.Smith, 1792-1972 (1985) Charles Wilson.

Collect British Postmarks: Handbook to British Postal Markings and Their Values, Compiled by Dr. J. T. Whitney.

Newspaper and Almanac Stamps of Great Britain and Ireland (1981) by John H.Chandler & H.Dagnall .

Newspaper Branch Cancels / Killers (1971) by W.G.Stitt Dibden.

The railway letter stamps of Great Britain & Ireland 1891-1947 (2000) by Roger De Lacy-Spencer.

The Plating of Alphabet III, 1856-64; plates 22-68, R15-R17 by W.R.D.Wiggins, G.C.Tonna (5 volumes, 1973) - I got my copies from Amazon for £11.25 plus postage, but you have to shop around.

The Story of the Stamford Mercury Postage and Revenue Stamps by John H. Chandler Published in 1958, Rutland & Stamford Mercury (Stamford, Lincolnshire) - I have a photocopy only of this.

The next three are well out of print, but are thankfully, available for free download at: - a valuable resource that few seem to know about.

London Postmarks used on printed matter and parcels from 1860, Curt N. Fernau pages 19 & 20

The Postal Cancellations of London 1840-1890 by H. C. Westley pages 43 to 45 and 59.

Billig's Handbook on Postmarks Volume 9 'British Postmarks' by F. Hugh Vallancey Page 28, 32

Life Span of the Printing Plates by Allan Oliver - Good for Line-Engraved, incomplete for Surface Mounted. -

Barred Numeral Cancellations of London by John Parmenter. British Philatelic Trust Publications (£25 + £3 P&P)
                        (1999, ISBN 1 871777 10 X, 392 pages, hundreds of cancellations illustrated and PRICED)


Other worthwhile links:

Great Britain Collectors Club (GBCC) - Offers friendly help and information.

Great Britain Philatelic Society (GBPS) - Offers a wealth of information on GB stamps.

The Precancel Stamp Society of Great Britain. (PSSGB) - General information on Precancels.

British Postmark Society (BPS) - promotes and to co-ordinates the study and collection of British postal markings.

UK Philately - A wide range of information on all aspects of collecting. - General Postal History website.

The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) - Records in The Royal Mail Archive.

The Perfin Society. - Information on Perfins used on GB stamps.

Guidelines for Authors on the preparation of a manuscript + more.

The Great Britain & Commonwealth Philatelic Society (Switzerland) has produced a range of useful booklets.

The Railway Philatelic GroupThe Society for Railway Philatelists. - A valuable resource for GB stamps.

Stamp Collecting Links - as well as offering links, also have on offer cheap website hosting.

Philatelic Foundation

missing imprimaturs


If you have problems obtaining out-of-print books,

It may be worth trying these:

If you are living in the U.S.A. try these: Stocks a Wide Range of New, Used & Out-of-Print Books. A wide range of hard-to-find publications.

Your local Library is very under-rated. If it isn't in their reference section, it might take a while though.
However it can save you a lot of money.

If you have any information to add or if you have any examples and are prepared to supply a scan,
then for details click below:
then your input would be welcome and much appreciated


Comments, criticisms, information or suggestions are always welcome.

Contact:     Emale

Please include the word 'Precancels' in the subject.

Last updated 10th. July 2020

©Copyright Steve Panting 2010/11/12/13/14/15/16/17/18/19/20 except where stated.
Permission is hereby granted to copy material for which the copyright is owned by myself, on condition that any data is not altered and this website is given credit.


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