CONTROL NUMBERS ON BRITISH STAMPS by Anthony Simmonds
The system of "controls" commenced in February 1884 and continued until October 1947. The "control" consisted of a letter in the sheet margin and the primary reason for its introduction was the huge number of 1/2d and 1d stamps which needed to be printed, necessitating a method of accounting for the printers.
Controls were first used on the Queen Victoria 1 penny lilac in 1884 and subsequently on the ½d vermilion of 1887 and the ½d blue-green of 1900. For the 1d lilac, letters from A to X were used and on the Victorian halfpenny, letters A to R. During this early period the different values had different control letters at the same time.
With the introduction of the Edward VII ½d and 1d stamps in 1902 the series returned to the letter A with the lettering on both values becoming concurrent. From February 1904 the final format of control was adopted when a number denoting the year was added after the control letter. This commenced with C4.
Until 1912 the system of controls had only been used on the ½d and 1d stamps but with the issue of George V stamps the opportunity was taken to extend the system to all the low value postage stamps up to and including the 1/- and postage due stamps up to 2/6. These numbers continued to be used to denote the year up to 1947 and appropriate examples can be found in the 1929 P.U.C. issue with controls K29 and L29 and in the Silver Jubilee issue of 1935 where only W35 was used.
There are two types of controls recognised especially when collecting single stamp pieces: (a) imperforate, where the sheet margin is imperforate, and (b) perforated, where the sheet margin is perforated. Larger corner pieces may offer more perforation varieties.
A change of monarch always resulted in the series being restarted with the letter A except in 1924, during the reign of George V, when the watermark Royal Cypher finished at W24 and restarted with the change to Block Cypher and the, slightly smaller, lettering of A24.
The same control letters and numbers were used on all printing plates in use at any one time. The typographed stamps issued prior to 1934 (and the 6d. which was in use up to 1938) had the different printing plates denoted by marginal markings in the Jubilee line and a more specialised collection can be formed showing these markings – some with larger pieces probably required as these markings can be found at various points away from the controls. These markings served the same purpose as the cylinder numbers found on all subsequent photogravure issues to 1947. In this case up to as many as 12 or more cylinder numbers can be found for each control number.
Stanley Gibbons Specialised Stamp Catalogue, Vols. 1 & 2., Stanley Gibbons, London.
Lowe Robson., The Encyclopaedia of British Empire Postage Stamps, Vol.1 Great Britain and The Empire in Europe, Robson Lowe, London, 1948.
Alexander, J. & C., “G.B. Heads and Tails” in Stamp Collecting, 21st September 1978.
Young P., B.P.F., “Where are the G.B. Controls?” in Stamp & Postal History News, July 8-July 21, 1981.
Further information about plate and cylinder numbers may be found here:
Anthony Simmonds is President of the Maidenhead and District Philatelic Society.
Copyright: Anthony Simmonds 2010