World Stamps

Examining the Half-Length stamps of Victoria

May 3, 2021, 7 PM

By Sergio Sismondo

Ever since a few intrepid travelers settled in the faraway western lands of New South Wales in 1834 and 1835, the great bay in which the magnificent city of Melbourne would one day shine became known as Port Phillip. In May 1836, its population was a mere 177 souls. Governor Sir Richard Bourke of New South Wales visited the area in 1837 and named it the Port Phillip District. With solemn authority confirmed, it was part of New South Wales. 

With three nascent urban centers —Melbourne, Geelong and Portland — the population in the bay area grew at a phenomenal rate. By the beginning of 1851, it had grown to more than 77,000 persons, sustaining for its first 15 years the incredible rate of 50 percent population growth per annum. 

It was a productive and proud population, and soon its requirements exceeded the capacity of the Sydney government to deliver the required infrastructure and services. Distances were too large, communications were necessarily cumbersome, and the spirit of colonial unity accordingly began to fray. 

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In July 1851, the potential for gold mining in the region was confirmed. Word of this discovery was published in London in September 1851. Naturally, in view of the great success of this industry, the population of Victoria continued to grow — explode, some would say — at similar rates for many more years. 

There were not only geological developments, but political ones as well. An amicable decision was reached between the folks of Sydney and of Melbourne. A kind of mitosis of the colony was in order: New South Wales would become two — New South Wales and Port Phillip.

The British Government was informed of these proposals and gave approval in principle in 1849. Charles LaTrobe, superintendent at Melbourne, received the propitious news from London on Oct. 20, 1849. Those most affected thought “Victoria” was a good name for the new colony. Perhaps they reasoned that the Crown was most likely to give royal assent if this name was put forth. In fact, in July 1851 the assent was given to the Act of Separation, which went into effect July 1, 1851. 

As reported in an earlier article, postal reform had been instituted in New South Wales in mid-1848. Details were given in October 1849 by an Act of the Legislature. Prepayment of postage by means of adhesive stamps was to begin Jan. 1, 1850. This, and other related regulations, applied equally to all parts of the colony, including Port Phillip. 

Thus, although movements toward self-government had begun, and knowing full well that improvements in the efficiency of the post would make important contributions to the rapidly expanding district, Superintendent LaTrobe’s men in Melbourne pushed the program ahead, in parallel with events taking place in Sydney. 

From the collector’s viewpoint, the most important decision taken was that stamps would be produced locally, rather than depending on contracts with Perkins, Bacon & Company in London. (Only New South Wales and Victoria took that route. The other Australian jurisdictions opted for stamp contracts with the London company, including South Australia, Western Australia, Van Diemen’s Land and Queensland.) 

In Melbourne, attention turned to the most urgent item on the agenda: finding an engraver of sufficient competence to design and produce dies for the necessary stamps. The search turned up only one name: Thomas Ham, an Englishman, eldest son of the Rev. John Ham, himself also a minister and trained engraver, recently arrived in New South Wales. He was 21 years old when his family emigrated to Australia. They arrived in 1842. 

Thomas Ham vigorously pursued two parallel careers: minister of the church, and engraver. By 1849 he was no stranger to government contracts. He engraved various items for the superintendent; cancelers and other items for the post office; and a number of items for other government agencies and banks, including paper money. He engraved and printed bookplates and maps of the expanding city and surroundings. He made fancy letterheads and even engraved decorations in metal. 

Thomas Ham was the only candidate approached and was offered the task of producing postage stamps. The postmaster, H.D. Kemp, spoke with Ham regarding the production of stamps, and substantial agreement was reached. LaTrobe objected to one provision only. Ham had stipulated that he would own the printing plate or plates, and the government would have to pay him for their eventual use. After some give-and-take, Ham agreed to transfer ownership of the plates to the government.

With that obstacle removed and a budget agreed upon, a contract was signed on Dec. 29, 1849, just two working days before the stamps were to be placed on sale at post offices. 

Three dies were necessary, for stamps covering the basic rates: 1 penny for local mail and newspapers, 2d for colonial mail, and 3d for the post office’s share of postage for ship letters. The contract was for the production of 600,000 stamps of each denomination, or 1.8 million stamps altogether. 

A composite die proof of the three stamps shows that the choice of engraver was enormously successful. As many philatelic writers have noted, the artistry and finesse of the initial steel engraving is at least the equal, but for most is superior, to the work done by Perkins, Bacon & Company of London. 

The seated Queen Victoria, crowned and bejeweled, holding orb and staff, with a contented and assured expression in her well-executed face, is framed by extremely fine lathework, which lends balance between the monarch and her background. The queen stands out, and the background recedes. At top is the inscription “VICTORIA” and below is the denomination. 

In the absence of any other drawing, painting or engraving even similar to the issued stamps, we can assume that the artwork was the brainchild of Ham.

Curiously, because the colony and its name, “Victoria,” did not have legal status until July 1,1851, the stamps, all 1.8 million of them, circulated far and wide, to many parts of the world, although any casual observer could have noted that the name of the issuing authority did not appear in any map. Of course, the stamps could have been inscribed “Port Phillip” and that might have been even more enigmatic. No evidence has survived of objections that might have been raised regarding this issue, either in London or in Sydney. 

The youthful engraver was confident and went ahead with the preparation of plates before the contract was signed and before a bond was issued. By late November or early December the production of dies and plates had begun. The result was that a sufficient number of stamps were available to commence their sale and distribution on Jan. 3, 1850. (It was a Thursday, and the newspapers of Melbourne were most happy to report the auspicious event.)

For the first printings, Ham prepared stones of 30 subjects, one stone for each value, laid down directly from the die. This procedure was chosen in response to the lack of time necessary to prepare transfer groups and larger printing stones. It had been his initial intention to print from stones of 120 subjects, which, he estimated, would permit the completion of the entire contract with a single stone for each denomination. He would return to that plan very soon, just before embarking on a second printing of the stamps in February 1850. 

In this column, we will take a close look at the 1d stamps. We will leave the 2d and 3d stamps for later installments. 

Specialists recognize four printings of 1d stamps by Ham, followed by a single printing by J.S. Campbell & Co. of Melbourne, and followed once more by printings by Campbell & Fergusson of Melbourne. These later printings may be subdivided into three groups. For simplicity, we will avoid further subdivisions. 

Following is a list of the printings, showing their distinctive colors, the estimated quantities printed of each, and some of their identifying characteristics. (For this list we follow closely the classification offered by Stanley Gibbons Inc. of London in Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth and British Empire Stamps 1840-1970.) 

A. Four printings in lithography by Thomas Ham 

I. Jan. 3, 1850. Lithographed by Thomas Ham. Thin line at top, putting almost no space between the word VICTORIA and the stamp’s upper border. (9,600)

The first printing was made with a stone of 30 subjects. At first the resulting prints were extremely fine, distinctly showing every detail. Margins between stamps were generally very narrow and somewhat uneven from stamp to stamp. Obtaining stamps from the Ham printings with full and clear margins all around is very difficult. The margins of stamps from the Ham printings remained very challenging through all four Ham printings. 

Three colors are recognized:

Orange-vermilion (est. 1,380). Shown nearby is a mint example from this printing in the orange-vermilion shade.

Orange-brown (est. 5,460)

Chocolate brown (est. 2,760)

II. February-March, 1850. Lithographed by Thomas Ham. Increased space between VICTORIA and the stamp’s upper border. (52,440)

By February-March, at the time of the second printing, the stone began to show some wear. Ham’s second printing differs from the first in the wider space between the word VICTORIA and the top margin of the stamp. In addition, the second printing was made from a stone with 120 subjects made by repeating four times an intermediate transfer stone of 30 images. In part, the relative lack of clarity of design details was naturally caused by the intermediate transfer process.

Three colors are recognized:

Deep red-brown (recognized by J.H. Barwis) (est. 5,400)

Barwis and R.W. Moreton wrote The Half-Lengths of Victoria: The Stamps and Postal History 1850-59, published by the Royal Philatelic Society of Victoria. Estimated quantities printed are taken from this splendid compendium.

No covers are recorded with the deep red-brown shade stamps. 

Red-brown (est. 36,840). Shown nearby is a mint example from this printing in the red-brown shade.

Pale dull red-brown (est. 15,600)

III. May and June 1850. Framelines added around the stamp’s design. (299,400)

Framelines were added to the plates for all three values (1d, 2d, and 3d). By adding framelines, Ham facilitated the process of transferring the images to printing stones, and whether intended or not, he also facilitated the practice of separating stamps with scissors. It also should be pointed out that the framelines were only lightly engraved. Sometimes they are not clearly visible on all sides, and in some extreme cases they are only visible in small parts of the stamp’s margins.

Nonetheless, what is clear is that stamps even showing only vestiges of the framelines meet the necessary condition for membership to this group, and may not be classed as belonging to the first two printings.

Five colors are recognized:

Dull orange-vermilion (est. 32,000)

Dull red (est. 58,000), a mint example of which is shown nearby.

Deep red-brown (1,200)

Brownish red (69,600)

Dull rose (138,600)

IV. June 1851. Altered design to give appearance of “white veil” on queen. (est. 209,400)

The removal of the shade in the veils, rendering them white in print, was a laborious task. It is believed that Ham undertook this revision, altering all 30 positions of the intermediary transfer group, in order to give his queen a more youthful and happy appearance. Queen Victoria was born in 1819 and was still a charming young woman when these stamps were being produced. In this portrayal of her, he was successful. 

Two colors are recognized:

Reddish brown (est. 104,760). Shown is a mint example from this printing in the reddish brown shade.

Bright pinky red (est. 104,640)

B. Printing by J.S.Campbell & Co., Melbourne

V. February-June 1854. Orange-red or rose on good quality wove paper. (Contract 500,000)

This printing was made with a stone containing 192 images. That was accomplished by transferring eight times an intermediate transfer block of 24 images. There was a 9-millimeter wide gutter separating the 96 upper images (4 by 24) and the 96 lower images.

A single gutter pair exists. Other gutter pairs could be found, although authors have maintained that all sheets were cut along the gutter before being supplied to post offices.

The paper used for this printing was of high quality and finished or surfaced on one side. That has been a major contributing factor in the production of attractive stamps with high definition of design details.

Finally, the printer made a concession to public opinion by increasing the margins between stamps to a more normal 2mm horizontally and 1.75mm (on average) vertically. That also contributes to the positive impression made by these stamps. 

Two colors are recognized:

Orange-red (est. 498,464). Shown is a mint example from this printing in the orange-red shade.

Rose (est. 1,536)

C. Printings by Campbell & Fergusson, on poor quality wove paper

Horizontal margins between stamps were again increased, now being about 3mm on average. Vertical margins remained narrow, about 1.75mm on average.

The papers used were not uniform, but generally of poor quality with coarse fibers and not at all surfaced, leading not only to poor lithographic impressions and many lithographic flaws, but also to a disturbing propensity of these stamps to creasing, tearing and thinning. Fortunately for collectors, the stamps are relatively abundant, and fine examples can be located with patience.

As with stamps of New South Wales, however, the 1d stamps are more elusive than their 2d and 3d counterparts, because most penny stamps were used on newspapers, and newspapers were seldom kept. The stamps from these printings also present a plethora of lithographic faults, from small to huge, which render their close examination rewarding. 

VI. July 1854. (Contract 1 million)

Three colors are recognized:

Brown (est. 460,000)

Brick-red (est. 230,000)

Dull red (est. 310,000)

VII. February 1855. Still poor quality of paper stock characterizes this printing, the most plentiful of all the 1d Half-Length stamps. A broad range of colors are found, the lilac-rose offering the most striking examples. (Contract 2.2 million) 

Four colors are recognized:

Pink (est. 100,000)

Rose (est. 1,040,000)

Lilac-rose (est. 1,040,000)

Dull brown-red. (est. 20,000)

VIII. August 1855. Orange-brown to rose-red and pink. (Contract 800,000)

Three colors are recognized:

Orange-brown (est. 350,000)

Dull rose-red (est. 400,000)

Bright rose-pink (est. 50,000)

I will close these brief notes on the 1d Half-Length stamps of Victoria with a personal anecdote. Many years ago, looking through a catalog of one of America’s premier auction firms, in New York City, and having reached the very last page, I saw in it a picture that opened my eyes wide. It was a picture of a used block of six of Victoria Scott 1, first printing, in the deep orange-brown shade, and canceled with six neat strikes of the “butterfly” No. 15 postmark, which corresponds to the post office of Geelong.

Just a few weeks earlier, I was speaking with an Asian collector of Victoria, and we made mention of used multiples. We agreed, in passing conversation, that the largest multiple recorded of the first printing 1d was a pair. And then came along a used block of six.

I took a big breath and placed a bid on the telephone. I purchased the block for the largest sum of money I had ever spent on one philatelic item before.

This block, pictured nearby, is now widely recognized and illustrated in the appropriate philatelic literature, and is considered by some to be among the most important stamp items of the Colony of Victoria.

You never know where things will turn up!