An article of helpful hints by Dr. Kenneth W. Statham.

Many collectors having acquired some penny reds wonder how it is possible to identify the printing plates used in their production (normally referred to as " plating"). The following notes are intended as an introduction to the plating of the penny red, not a comprehensive system for the identification of all the stamps of this issue.

Altogether some 427 plates were used to produce the stamp known as the penny red. To attempt to identify which plate was used to print a particular stamp would be an impossible task were it not for the fact that there are differences which enable the plater to break the 427 plates down into smaller groups.

The first and easiest division is achieved by looking at the four corner squares. The series of plates with letters in all four squares form a convenient sub-group of 151 plates. Stamps from this sub-group are normally referred to as "penny plates" and as they have the plate number engraved in the side lattice, identification is usually a simple matter.

Stamps with letters in the lower squares only are referred to as " penny stars", although the term is often restricted to the perforated issues.

The next divisions are made by examination of the letters in the lower square (“ check letters”), the watermark and the perforations.

The check letters can be sub-divided into three main groups, referred to as alphabets I,II and III . A fourth group, consisting of two plates only (50 and 51), had the letters engraved by hand and is usually referred to as alphabet IV. The reference books dealing with the penny red usually contain a section illustrating the four alphabets and with practice this allows the novice plater to identify the alphabet of probably 90% of his stamps. Some letters (G, H and S) are very difficult to distinguish and even experienced platers can be misled.

However, for the complete novice, the following suggestions may help in the identification of the alphabets. If a mixed lot of penny reds, both imperforate and perforated, is available, sort out any with the Maltese Cross postmark. These are almost certainly from alphabet I plates and from these it should be possible to get examples showing clearly each of the letters A - T, and these can be used to supplement the illustrations in the reference books. Similarly, if there are any stamps with the large crown watermark on white paper and perf 16 then these must be alphabet III. The shade must be a true red, not brown, and the paper must be white. Using these stamps as a guide other examples of alphabet III should be identifiable, remembering that over 99% of alphabet III stamps are on large crown paper and the majority of true red shades on white paper are alphabet III.

Some of the letters of alphabet II are very much larger and heavier in appearance than alphabet I or III. The only possible confusion is with alphabet IV but this is confined to plates, 50 and 51, which only exist with the large crown watermark and perf 14. If the examination is restricted to imperf stamps or those perf 16 on blue paper then alphabet IV can be eliminated. The easiest letters to identify from alphabet II are A, B, C, D, E, Q and R and with these identified by comparison with alphabets I and III and the reference books, examples of the other letters can usually be found in the other letter squares.

In this way the novice can produce his own identification guide for the alphabets to use in conjunction with the reference books.

The watermark on these issues can be either small or large crown and stamps can be either imperforate or perforated. With these divisions we arrive at the following scheme:-

A I Small crown I 1 - 131
B II Small Crown I 132- 175
C II Small crown P 155,157,162-204 R1 - 6, 1 - 21 *
D II Large Crown P 1 - 21*, R15 - 16
E III Small Crown P 22 - 27*
F III Large Crown P 22 - 49, 52 – 3 55 - 68*, R17
G IV Large Crown P 50 51*

* second series of plates.

Some of the groups can be further divided by measuring the perforation (either 14 or 16) and observing the colour (red-brown on blue toned paper OR red on white):-

C1 II Small Crown 16 Blue 155,157,162-04, R1-6, 1-15*
C2 II Small Crown 14 Blue 194-8,200-4, R1 - 6 1 - 21*
D1 II Large Crown 16 Blue 1 - 15*
D2 II Large Crown 14 Blue 1 - 21*
D3 II Large Crown 14 White R15 - 16
F1 III Large Crown 14 Blue 22 - 38, 40, 42-48*
F2 III Large Crown 14 White 27, 33-4, 36-9, 41-9, 52-3, 55-68*, R17
F3 III Large Crown 16 White 27, 34, 36-8, 42-9 52, 55-60*

* second series of plates

The next division is more difficult but can be mastered with practice. This is to differentiate between the original die ( die I) and the re-drawn die ( die II ). Reference books illustrate the difference between the two dies and a useful clue is the much stronger frame lines of die II compared with die I. If there any alphabet II copies on blue paper with large crown watermark they must be from die II. If these are compared with imperf copies of alphabet II which are die I, then the difference between the dies becomes clearer.

With this additional point of difference further division of the groups becomes possible:-

C1a II Small Crown 16 Blue I 155,157 162-204 R1-6
C1b II Small Crown 16 Blue II 1 - 15*
C2a II Small Crown 14 Blue I 194-8 200-4 R1 -6
C2b II Small Crown 14 Blue II 1 - 21*

* second series of plates

This is not the end of the possibilities for sub-division as the largest group, A,
(alphabet I, imperf ) can be split into three groups.

Firstly, stamps with the so-called " Maltese Cross " postmark come from the early plates, starting with 1 and extending to about 45. Examples from later plates exist with this postmark but are uncommon or rare.

Secondly, the so-called "1844" postmark makes its appearance at about plate 20, occurs frequently by about plate 34 and becomes virtually the only type of postmark from plate 46 onwards. There is thus an overlap between the two postmarks and this must be borne in mind when plating alphabet I stamps.

With the second group there is a further sub-division from plates 86 and 87 onwards. The thin side lines of the corner squares became gradually weaker as the master dies were used to produce increasing numbers of plates and the plates in the late 70's and early 80's had some of these lines almost completely missing. Starting with plate 86, the majority of impressions on the plate had these lines strongly recut and they became much stronger than the lines on the early plates. By plate 92 almost every corner line was recut and this recutting continued until the introduction of die II.
From this we get the following:-

A1 I Small Crown I Maltese X Not recut 1-46 approx
A2 I Small Crown I 1844 Not recut 34 approx to 85
A3 I Small Crown I 1844 Recut strong 86 – 131

This breakdown of the penny red plates into groups of approximately 50 or less can be achieved by most collectors with practice. There are minor exceptions to the above groupings but for the novice these exceptions are sufficiently rare for him to be able to ignore them. Thus a small group of alphabet I plates exist perf 16, the so-called "Archer Trials" ( plates 92 -101 ). Also some of the plates normally issued perforated exist in the imperforate condition, 176 and 177 are rare and any others are accidental issues.

At this point the would-be plater is faced with the problem of how to identify the actual plate of a particular stamp. Anybody wanting to go further must invest in some of the very good reference books that are available at quite reasonable prices.

For a long time, the basic works were published by The Royal Philatelic Society, London under the title " The Postage Stamps of Great Britain ". Part 1 by J B Seymour and C Gardiner - Hill covers the imperforate issues and Part 2 by W R D Wiggins covers the perforated stamps.

In the 1970's a series of books were published of half tone illustrations of die II stamps from plates 1 -21 (by W R D Wiggins) and plates 22 - R17 ( by W R D Wiggins and G C Tonna). With care these books, which cover groups D, E, F and G above can be used to plate 80% to 90% of these issues without the need to refer to other sources.

Also in the 1970's, The Great Britain Philatelic Society started to publish a series of volumes entitled " The Plating of the Penny 1840-1864". These books are based on a measuring system devised by Roland Brown which records the exact position of the letters in the corner squares and also notes any constant marks etc. present on the stamps. So far the information published covers the plates up to 175, i.e. groups A and B of the above classifications. With the help of these measurements and recorded variations it is possible to identify at least 50% to 60% of the stamps in these groups with a fair degree of certainty.

There are, however, many instances where the plater is left with several alternatives and needs further help. This is now available in the form of photographs of the Imprimatur sheets in the National Postal Museum. These photographs are expensive and only the keenest plater would consider purchasing photographs of all of the plates. However, many collectors decide to concentrate on a small group of plates and it becomes a more attractive financial proposition to buy the photographs of the group that is of interest.

Dr. K Statham & Eric Paul Ltd.

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