When postage stamps were first issued, they were all printed on watermarked paper. In the early years, British stamps featured an array of different watermarks ranging from crowns, orbs, flowers to various garter watermarks.
The first company to print postage stamps, the famous Penny Black, was Perkins, Bacon & Petch (later Perkins, Bacon & Co). They continued to print the smaller denominations of British postage stamps until 1879 when the Government contract was transferred in its entirety to Messrs. Thomas De La Rue and Co. This company was founded in 1813, with their first stamps appearing in 1853 (revenue) and postage stamps in 1855.
The paper supplied to Thomas De La Rue was manufactured at Chafford Paper Mill located at Fordcombe in Kent and owned by Richard Turner. For just over 30 years this paper mill continued to manufacture stamp paper. It also had contracts with the Indian Stamp Office and the supply of colonial stamps through Crown Agents. This was an organisation set up in 1831 under the supervision of the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Its responsibilities on behalf of colonial governments included purchasing supplies and managing specific colonial projects including stamp issues.
In 1878 the manufacturing of stamp paper at Chafford Mill ceased when Richard Turner’s son entered a co-partnership with Walter Monckton, under the name of Messrs R. D. Turner & Company at Roughway Mill, located at Plaxtol, Kent. Here watermarked postage stamp paper became more standardised with the Imperial Crown watermark. Roughways Paper Mill continued to expand the overseas markets with customers in Africa and Asia and the Antipodes.
In 1879 the responsibility of postage stamp procurement transferred from the Post Office to the Inland Revenue Department.
In 1910, Thomas De La Rue & Co, who had held a monopoly on British stamp printing from 1880 lost the contract. Responsibility for stamp production was divided between the Royal Mint, which made the dies and printing plates, and a new printer Messrs. Harrison and Sons, Printers in Ordinary to His Majesty located at St Martin’s Lane, London. This company was founded in London in 1750. Its first British contract was in 1881 producing embossed stamps for telegram forms. Another company Messrs McCorquodale and Sons Ltd secured the contract for the supply of stamped postal stationery. This firm specialised in registered envelope manufacture, but undertook many other government and security printing contracts.
When King George V acceded to the throne on 6 May 1910 there was a need for new stamp designs. The definitive stamps were originally based on a three-quarter profile photograph taken by W. & D. Downey, the Court Photographers, referred to as the ‘Downey head’. However, following the change in the supply chain it seemed neither party had any experience of stamp printing, and the process was rushed because the Postmaster General wanted the stamps to appear in time for the Coronation in June 1911. In consequence, the first stamps were of poor quality with the design disliked by the King and the public alike. After two attempts to improve the quality, a decision was taken to change the design and produce entirely new plates. Consequently, only the halfpenny and penny Downey Head values were ever issued.
The supply of watermarked postage stamp paper by this time was conducted from two other mills, Roughways Paper Mill seemingly having closed temporarily. Basted Paper Mill located near Platt on the River Bourne in the Medway valley and William Joynson and Sons paper mill at St Mary Cray in Kent were both producing stamp paper. One mill supplying a simple cypher watermark (strip watermark) and the other a multiple cypher version (all-over). It was also at this time that Stowford Paper Mill in Ivybridge had its first exposure to postage stamp manufacturing. Probably more widely known amongst philatelists, trials of the 1d carmine Downey head stamp were printed on a special extra superfine unwatermarked plate glazed paper supplied by John Allen & Sons.
Due to the poor reception of these new George V stamps it was decided in 1912 to replace them with a Profile Head design by Bertram Mackennel. These were first issued on paper with the simple cypher watermark with some later versions used the multiple cypher.
In 1914 the procurement of stamps was transferred from the Commissioners of Inland Revenue to the Postmaster General. The Post Office Supplies Department responsible for all security papers and contracts took over the Inland Revenue accommodation at Somerset House, Strand in London. This change covered the control of production and distribution of stamps, stamped stationery, insurance stamps, postal orders, and licences together with the staff currently employed at Somerset House who thereafter came under the control of the Post Office Stores Department.
On 1 January 1924 Harrison’s lost the print contract of postage stamps to Waterlow & Sons Ltd of London. Founded in 1810 as sellers of legal documents, Waterlow’s first stamps appeared in the early 1850s and 1913 saw their first British contract. At this point a new watermarked paper was introduced featuring a more distinctive design consisting of multiple crowns over the letters G and R in sans serif capitals and known as the Block Cypher. It was at this time that some postage stamps were printed and supplied in coils requiring an all-over distribution of watermarks to ensure no stamps were without a watermark. The original dandy supplied by Messrs. Edwin Amies & Sons of Maidstone had by this time become worn and in need of replacement. Amies were well established dandy roll makers having previously supplied many rolls to the Postmaster General including the ones for the National Health Insurance and Unemployment schemes.