The BPMA is saddened to learn today of the passing of Tony Benn. Benn served as Postmaster General under Harold Wilson 1964-66 and was instrumental in establishing our predecessor the National Postal Museum, which closed in 1998. There are many things he will be remembered for including the building of the Post Office Tower, introduction of the Post Bus, creation of the Girobank and overseeing the introduction of postcodes. Possibly the most famous and controversial action, however, was his attempt to remove the Queen’s head from stamps.
This revolutionary idea came about as part of a now infamous partnership with the artist and designer David Gentleman. In 1964 Benn launched an appeal for ideas to widen the scope of commemorative stamps to, in his own words, “celebrate events of national or international importance, to commemorate appropriate anniversaries and occasions, [and] to reflect Britain’s unique contribution to the arts and world affairs”.
In responding to this appeal Gentleman raised with Benn the issue of removing the Queen’s head, as he felt that its inclusion often caused problems for designers in terms of space for their work. This appealed to Benn’s socialist leanings and he encouraged Gentleman to submit his designs without the monarch.
Both Benn and Gentleman fought hard for this radical change to stamp design suggesting that the Queen’s head be replaced with the words “Great Britain” or “U.K. Postage” as can be seen on examples such as Churchill design below. However by the end of 1965 the Queen, having initially entertained the idea, decided in no uncertain terms that she wanted her head to remain on stamps.
A compromise was put forward to address Gentleman’s initial issue of space that resulted in a new small cameo silhouette, created from Mary Gillick’s sculpture for pre-decimal coinage, being included on pictorial stamps instead of the full Queen’s head image. This gave designers much greater leeway and changed the form, appearance and subject matter of stamps for over 20 years, allowing for a wider variety of images to appear including the first British Christmas stamps designed by children.
Gentleman had won his battle, but for Tony Benn his socialist idea of removing the Queen’s head off of stamps was never realised. He had however challenged the system, and as a result implemented the first major change to stamps in many years.