Omnibus refers to one or more commemorative stamps released by several postal entities with a common theme. Within the British Empire and Commonwealth during the era noted, most of these were stamps with uniform designs printed in the United Kingdom and issued by Crown Agents in the various colonies or dominions taking part. In the worldwide Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogues, simplified illustrated listings of omnibus stamps of Europa, Portugal, French Community, and the British Commonwealth are listed in the front of each volume following the Introduction and preceding two pages on the British Commonwealth of Nations.
Figure 1. One of four striking Grenada stamps from the 1935 King George V Silver Jubilee issue, the first of the omnibus issue.
The first and arguably best omnibus design appears on the four stamps of the same design that marked the Silver Jubilee of King George V, issued just seven months before his death. Figure 1 shows one of these, Grenada’s 1935 1½p Silver Jubilee stamp, Scott 126. These were recess-printed in attractive bicolored combinations featuring a splendid view of Windsor Castle. Newfoundland’s stamps differed distinctly by being printed in single colors.
The huge job of printing so many stamps on time was handled jointly by three of Britain’s leading security printers: De La Rue; Bradbury, Wilkinson & Co.; and Waterlow & Sons Ltd. Among several intriguing plate flaws, the celebrated “extra flagstaff” on several values at row 9, column 1, Plate 1 only from the Bradbury, Wilkinson printings stands out.
Figure 2. Though most KGV Silver Jubilee stamps shared the design in Figure 1, Great Britain went a separate way with this monochrome issue, Scott 226.
According to Scott, 62 stamp-issuing entities released Silver Anniversary stamps, of which all but 15 used the omnibus design. Adding all 245 of these stamps, Scott lists their 2019 catalog values as $1,322 mint and $2,140 used. That includes the monochrome design used in Great Britain itself, represented by the ½p green stamp (Scott 226) shown in Figure 2.
Figure 3. Three monochrome stamps of the same design were issued in May 1937 for each nation taking part in the second single-design omnibus issue for the coronation of King George VI, including this stamp from Gilbert & Ellice Islands.
Figure 3 shows a stamp from Gilbert & Ellice Islands from the second single-design omnibus series, which comprised three stamps for each entity for the coronation of King George VI in May 1937. Following the shock abdication of Edward VIII, feverish activity was necessary to prepare portraits of the new king and queen prior to Coronation Day. De La Rue and Bradbury, Wilkinson shared the printing. Postal staff from popular colonies, notably Falkland Islands, took several days to handle unprecedented demand for first day covers.
The new crown colony of Aden was added to participating countries. Australia issued 10-shilling and £1 Coronation definitives in 1938 (Scott 178–79), and India as well had no special commemoratives. According to Scott, 68 stamp-issuing entities released King George VI Coronation stamps, of which all but 13 used the omnibus design. Adding all 189 of these stamps, Scott lists their 2019 catalog values as $172.65 mint and $262.95 used.
Figure 4. This 4p stamp from Nigeria from the Peace omnibus issue of 1946 shows the Parliament Buildings of Great Britain. The date on the stamp is that of a Victory parade that took place in London in 1946.
The end of World War II prompted another single-design omnibus issue. Issued intermittently during 1946, most colonies and protectorates received two stamps showing Great Britain’s Parliament Buildings from across the Thames. The stamps provided nothing to indicate the end of World War II apart from the puzzling inscription “8th June 1946,” which refers to the Victory Parade in London to which service personnel from the Empire and allies were invited. The 4p stamp from Nigeria so inscribed is shown in Figure 4.
Perforation varieties on some of the Gold Coast, Jamaica, Northern Rhodesia and Somaliland Protectorate stamps add interest to this Peace series. The title “Straits Settlements” was replaced with “Malayan Union” on stamps that were withdrawn prior to issue for political reasons. Approximately 400 Malayan Union 8c stamps are believed to have mysteriously missed a trip to the Kuala Lumpur incinerator in 1947. Several of these, mostly without gum, exist in collections and sometimes come onto the market.
Malta’s pair, followed by several subsequent stamps, proudly added the George Cross, awarded to the island by King George VI in recognition of its resolute resilience during 29 months of aerial bombardment in 1940–42. Collectors requiring only a single set to represent the Victory series could consider Malta, British Solomon Islands or Gilbert & Ellice Islands as especially worthy of consideration, as each of these had first-hand experience of enemy aggression.
Aden’s Kathiri and Qu’aiti States, Basutoland, Bechuanaland Protectorate, Burma, Hong Kong, India, Samoa, Swaziland and Zanzibar joined 10 others in issuing their own Peace stamps in 1946, while 41 issued omnibus pairs. Of this 189-stamp total, Scott lists their 2019 catalog values as $75.20 mint and $116.95 used.
Collector criticism at the announcement of a £1 Great Britain stamp to mark the Royal Silver Wedding Anniversary in April 1948 was followed by widespread outrage over a copycat series comprising a low- and high-value denomination for each colony, including each of 11 Malayan States. Because of the late decision, it was impossible for Waterlow and Bradbury, Wilkinson — printers of the low and high values, respectively — to finish printing in time for the occasion, but nobody realized just how far they would miss the mark!
Figure 5. Collectors were steamed when a two-stamp Silver Wedding omnibus issue in 1949 included one larger high-value stamp that set collectors back a pretty penny but often had no practical postal purpose, like the 10-rupee stamp in this pair from Aden.
The first release was Turks & Caicos Islands in September 1948 — five months late. The final release was the pair for Gilbert & Ellice Islands in August 1949, a whopping 16 months after the by-then-long-forgotten anniversary. Figure 5 shows the two stamps from Aden, Scott 30–31.
Making the situation more ludicrous, assurances from the Crown Agents that high denominations would not exceed those of existing definitives were well and truly broken. Denominations quadrupled for top Anniversary omnibus stamps from Pitcairn and Gilbert & Ellice Islands, with 10sh and £1 stamps. Other colonies to exceed face value of then-current stamps were Gambia, Jamaica and North Borneo. After 70 years, it remains impossible to complete a legitimate postally used collection of 1948 Silver Wedding omnibus stamps. The only source from Ascension and Pitcairn Islands was heavy overseas parcels, because there was no internal mail delivery, no air services and no tourists.
The Scott reckoning regarding this issue is gruesome. There were just 136 stamps from 61 omnibus countries and seven that marked the event with issues of their own design. Even so, the bill comes to an appalling $2,461 mint, or $2,674 used.
Most collectors seeking a representative Silver Wedding pair acquire the Falkland Islands Dependencies stamps (Scott 1L11–1L12) with a top denomination of only 1 shilling. My way of handling these stamps is simple: I ignore them! The Silver Wedding Anniversary was not commemorated by Canada, Southern Rhodesia, Australia and New Zealand, all successful countries actively recruiting British settlers at the time, and each with a history of honoring the Royal Family.
Figure 6. Gambia marked the 75th anniversary of the Universal Postal Union in 1949 with these four omnibus stamp designs.
A four-stamp set marking the 75th anniversary of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) was released in October 1949, just weeks after the last Silver Wedding stamps were placed on sale. Printing was again shared by Bradbury, Wilkinson and Waterlow. The issue is represented here by the four stamps issued by the Gambia in Figure 6.
The UPU Monument in Berne, Switzerland, depicted on the top value, was accompanied by three unimaginative allegorical images relating to postal delivery. Unusual for British Commonwealth omnibus stamps was the absence of the royal portrait or cypher. Brunei and Tonga joined the bandwagon along with a dual series from Anglo-French condominium of New Hebrides inscribed appropriately in both languages with the UPU monument featured on every stamp. Southern Rhodesia’s issue was limited to only 2p and 3p denominations on the middle two designs.
The overall face value of the UPU Anniversary omnibus was modest, although the issuance of 313 stamps for this somewhat low-key anniversary was perhaps over the top. Australia opted for a single stamp (Scott 223), whereas several major nations including Canada and New Zealand totally bypassed the anniversary — as did I. These along with the Silver Wedding omnibus stamps are excluded from my collection. For those who feel otherwise, the catalog value for these stamps of 79 nations is now $461 mint and $696.65 used.
Figure 7. The single-design omnibus series for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953 included this attractive stamp from St. Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla.
After introducing stamps a year previously, Tristan da Cunha became eligible to join the Crown Agents single-stamp omnibus series for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953. The Queen’s portrait was appropriately framed in a repeat of the acclaimed ‘Chalon’ oval vignette design, adapted so effectively for Grenada’s 1951 low denominations. This was the final omnibus series for Leeward Islands, which ceased issuing stamps in 1954. A surprising omission from the series was Tonga, whose Queen Salote was fondly remembered as a cheerful presence at London’s rain-swept Coronation Parade. The QEII Coronation stamp of Anguilla is shown in Figure 7.
Figure 8. Ten years later in June 1963, the single-stamp Freedom From Hunger omnibus issue included this Hong Kong stamp featuring a pleasing symbolic image of protein foods.
Ten years passed before the release of another full-blown omnibus issue, this one publicizing the worldwide Freedom from Hunger campaign in June 1963. Most of Britain’s remaining possessions, with the notable omission of Barbados and St. Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla, issued a single stamp featuring a pleasing symbolic image of protein foods, as in the stamp representing Hong Kong in Figure 8. The Queen’s portrait was replaced by Brunei, Tonga and Zanzibar with that of the local ruler. The only major error was a single sheet found in Nassau devoid of wording, which yielded Scott 180a. Stamps are identified as Bahamas by color only.
Figure 9. Three months later, International Red Cross Centenary omnibus stamps were issued in pairs with the QEII and Red Cross design used on this Falkland Islands stamp.
The series preceded a spate of omnibus issues within three months. Two matching designs marked the International Red Cross centenary, represented by the Falkland Islands stamp in Figure 9. North Borneo and Sarawak, now part of Malaysia were excluded, whereas the newly independent state of Jamaica surprised many with what was regarded as a Crown Agents series. Identical designs without the Queen’s portrait were issued by the Federation of South Arabia (Aden), British New Hebrides and Tonga.
Figure 10. In June 1965 the centenary of International Telecommunications Union (ITU) was marked with omnibus pairs with designs like the one on this Basutoland stamp.
In June 1965, the centenary of International Telecommunications Union (ITU) was marked with two colorful but unimaginative stamps with little appeal, like the Basutoland stamp in Figure 10. Although widely used for postage, their primary target was clearly the philatelic market.
They were followed a few months later with two stamps marking International Co-operation Year (ICY), but if the theme was more acceptable, the lacklustre look of the matching dull colors on the stamps was not.
Figure 11. Omnibus pairs issued in 1965 for International Co-operation Year (ICY) included Gibraltar’s controversial ½p stamp at left, in which the “1” is larger than the “2,” probably from font intended to print a 1-shilling 2-pence stamp. The ½p Bahamas ICY stamp at right was printed from the correct font for that value.
Figure 11 shows Gibraltar’s controversial co-op stamp from this issue, apparently created by Harrison’s mistaken use of a typeface intended to print 1sh2p stamps. To see how such an error can occur, compare it to the nearby co-op Bahamas stamp where the correct numerals were used.
Figure 12. (Bottom) This Dominica stamp is one of 132 Churchill Memorial stamps released on the first anniversary of his death in 1966. Each depicts St. Paul’s Cathedral surrounded by searchlights during a WWII bombing raid over London, flanked by portraits of Churchill and QEII.
Harrison also printed the massive series of Winston Churchill Memorial stamps issued a year after he died in January 1966, including the one from Dominica in Figure 12. The single design printed on four stamps of each territory depicts St. Paul’s Cathedral surrounded by searchlights during a bombing raid on London flanked by portraits of Churchill and the Queen.
Four Churchill stamps were perhaps excessive, especially for tiny populations of Pitcairn Islands, Tristan da Cunha and the handful of scientists in British Antarctic Territory. Great Britain, home of the renowned statesman, issued two stamps, whereas a single stamp sufficed for Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Even the nest design can become tedious when repeated on 124 stamps, so for those wishing to represent the series with only one set, Gibraltar is likely to have had the most reason to honor the great World War II leader.
The Churchill Omnibus issue was followed with two somewhat questionable issues from July to December 1966. Two uninspired stamps were released by 21 countries (including both the British and the French New Hebrides Condominia) depicting the new WHO Headquarters Building in Geneva.
The World Health Organization is appreciated universally, but was this new building in far-off Switzerland worthy of Commonwealth omnibus recognition? In my view, Bermuda, British Honduras and Falkland Islands deserve praise for opting out. A February 1966 announcement in the Falkland Islands Review read, “Government declined to participate in stamps for the World Football Cup, opening of the WHO headquarters and UNESCO, because we believe with fewer commemorative issues our stamps will be of greater value to collectors.”
Figure 13. A British Virgin Islands stamp from the last omnibus series of the 1960s. The December 1966 set marked 20 years of the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) with three stamps showing allegorical images.
Figure 13 shows one of the British Virgin Islands stamps from the final omnibus series of the 1960s. It marked 20 years of the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) with three allegorical images. It is interesting to note that within months, international philatelic agencies began taking control of stamp marketing for most Caribbean and many other former British territories. Most of them had had enough.
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Collectors sometimes separate omnibus stamps by keeping them together in the back of an album, a stock book, or even grouped together in a special stamp album devoted to the omnibus issue itself. Other collectors of British colonial stamps prefer to include just one representative stamp or set from a single territory, which is much less expensive than buying complete issues.
I strongly advocate that the most satisfactory method for housing omnibus issues is to mount them chronologically with the other stamps of the same dominion or colony.
Seeking used omnibus issues often entails formidable challenges all its own. I recommend you avoid omnibus stamps with matching postal cancellations taken from first day or other philatelic covers; it can be quite soul-destroying to look down upon a page of identical postmarks.
Commercially used stamps and covers from major colonies such as Nigeria, Jamaica and Hong Kong are readily available. To complete sets with a variety of postal markings can be very challenging, so on stamps from Antigua, Mauritius, Grenada and Malta for example, look out for uncommon cancels from more remote postal facilities. For less populous colonies with only one or two post offices, an assortment of postal markings or dates adds interest to your collection.
Editor's Note: The “Philatelic Travels - British Colonial Omnibus Stamps from 1935 to 1966“ article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of The American Philatelist. We are bringing the archives of The American Philatelist to the Newsroom - to read back issues of The American Philatelist, click here and scroll down to the Back Issues section.