BISHOP MARKS, British postmarks 1661-1800 with examples of actual letters.


by Eunice Shanahan (Queensland)

Henry Bishop   datestamp 5 OC

Henry Bishop, National Postal Museum postcard


The first type of British postmark was introduced in 1661, at the London Chief Office, when Henry Bishop was Postmaster General(June 1660 to April 1663.)

When refuting charges of delays in the post, he claimed:-

"A stamp is invented, that is putt upon every letter shewing the day of the moneth that every letter comes to this office, so that no letter Carryer may dare to detayne a letter from post to post ; which, before, was usual."

Bishop published the announcement of the "Bishop Mark" in the Mercurius Publicus. The Bishop Marks varied in size and in lettering, and they remained in general use until 1787 with survivals into 1788. The examples on this page are taken from actual letters, not from catalogue illustrations

The original London Bishop Mark consisted of a small circle, bisected horizontally, with the month (in serif lettering) abbreviated to two letters, in the upper half and the day of the month in the lower half.

bishop mark of 1668  
detail click here

This example is on a letter of 1668 from Joshua Raikes
to Alderman John Moore in London.

The lettering became sans serif in 1673. From 1713 the month was transferred to the lower semi-circle. This example is dated inside, 13th July 1775. The Bishop Mark is 13 JY. The months beginning with the letter 'J' were represented as the letter 'I', i.e. IA January, IU June, and IY July. Although I have never actually seen one with IU!

InlandClick here for details

The small stamp "PARTINGTON" to the left of the Bishop Mark is the name of the General Post Receiver Richard Partington, a stationer of 58 Holborn Hill, was the GP Receiver from 1760 to the early 1780's.

The Foreign section of the General Post also used a Bishop Mark and this was in use from 1661 to 1797 with the month always above the day. This example of 1792 was applied to a letter received from Paris. The Foreign Section used this type of Bishop Mark for longer than the Inland Section.

For example this second letter from Paris has both the Foreign Section Bishop Mark, (2)showing FE 9, and the Inland section date stamp which was then showing the year in two figures,(3) FE 10 92.

Foreign & Inland  BM
To see the contents of the letter, follow this link then press the Back arrow on the toolbar to return to this page.

There is a further type of Bishop mark that was in use only for the 4 months January to April 1787, it is circular with the month in full at the top of the circle, the date at the bottom and a letter within another circle in the centre, but as we have never seen one of these, let alone owned one, there is no example put here.

The Scottish Bishop Marks

The first Scottish Bishop Marks were small and oval, the circular ones coming into use from 1725. The stamps were different from the English ones, because originally they were made up of two halves. The Post Office had 12 upper half stamps with the months of the year in two letters, and a diameter, and then 31 half-circles of the dates 1 to 31, with no diameter. These were then put together each day. Sometimes the halves did not match up perfectly. The month was always above the day, and the stamps were originally applied in black ink but from 1714 red ink was used.

The earliest example I have is of 1798, and have three of this year, all of which are slightly different dimensions, but as can be seen from this example the bisected circle is complete.

Scottish circular BM 1798

The next example is a larger circle. This is on a letter written by the Earl of Dudley & Warwick August 16 1799 from London to Edinburgh, where it was received 3 days later.

Scottish BM of 1799 click here for larger image

This example of July 23 1800 has a flat top to the circle, but this could be because it has not been impressed completely.

Scottish BM of 1800

This next one has an indented top to the frame, but there are no such examples shown in any of our reference books. This means that either it is a variety not seen before, and noted — or it has just not been properly impressed.

Scottish BM of 1801

The Irish Bishop Mark

The Irish post office used the Bishop Mark type date stamp from as early as 1670, but I have never seen one of the early ones. However, like that of Edinburgh, the Irish Bishop Mark always had the Month above the Day in the circle. This type was in use from 1746-95, always applied in black ink. From 1796 the year was included.
Irish Bishop mark click here for larger image
the letter itself is dated June 13th, from Londonderry, and the person who received it has written on the back " June 13th '93"

References: British County Catalogue of Postal History — Vol. 3 London by R.M. Willcocks & B. Jay:
British Postmarks, R.C. Alcock & F.C. Holland; The Postal History of Great Britain & Ireland by R.M. Willcocks

Copyright 1999 By EARS Leisurewrite

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