A relatively unexplored field offers opportunities to forge one’s own path seeking out beautiful, undervalued rarities
Consider, for a moment, the Basutoland £1 stamp shown in Figure 1. It pictures King George V of Great Britain and a Nile crocodile, and appears to belong to the country’s first definitive series, issued in 1933. George V was king of Great Britain, and Basutoland (nowadays known as Lesotho) was a British protectorate, part of the sprawling empire upon which the sun proverbially never set.
Figure 1. A 1933 Basutoland £1 King George V and Crocodile stamp. Although it was designed, printed and issued together with the nearly identical “Postage – Revenue” set, it is inscribed only “Revenue.” So how collectible is it?
Crocodiles do not live in Lesotho, although they are the heraldic symbol of the local ruling Koena dynasty. (If that seems slightly weird, just remember that lions and unicorns don’t live in the British Isles, either.)
But the large reptile isn’t the only peculiar thing happening here. A quick look in any postage stamp catalog will reveal that this series, which used the same design for each stamp, started at 1 penny and went up to 10 shillings — and then stopped. There was no £1 value.
So what have we got here?
A closer inspection reveals that where the other stamps in the set (Basutoland Scott 1-10) are inscribed “Postage” and “Revenue” in the little ribbons near the top of the design, the ribbons on the £1 stamp read “Revenue” and “Revenue” instead. This is not an error. The £1 stamp, having a very high face value, was never intended to be used for postage — only for things like taxes, duties and court fees.
The Old Philatelist sniffs, “Bah, that’s not a postage stamp after all. It’s only a revenue.”
But I like this stamp and I want to collect it anyway; and after all, the First Commandment of Philately is to collect whatever you like. The distinction between postage and revenue stamps seems rather trivial in a case like this.
In every respect besides its intended usage, this £1 stamp belongs with the postage set: it was printed by the same printers (Waterlow and Sons) using the same intaglio process (also known as recess or line-engraving) on the same watermarked paper (multiple Crown-over-Script CA) and issued at the same time as the others. But if it’s not in Scott, where can I find out about it?
The catalog British Commonwealth Revenues, published by J. Barefoot Ltd. in the United Kingdom, lists the £1 crocodile as Basutoland No. 70 and values it, used, at £200 in the 2012 edition, which is the most recent (a new edition may be coming shortly, according to the publisher’s website).
I purchased the example shown last year for £50 (about $65) in a Stanley Gibbons online auction. If that seems like a pretty good price for a high-value George V British empire stamp, well, I thought so too. Then again, revenue stamps, like postage stamps used for revenue purposes, have historically been undervalued by the hobby, compared to their postage-paying counterparts of similar scarcity. If a £1 George V postage stamp of Basutoland existed, I’m pretty sure it would be worth a lot more.
And therein lies the chance to explore — quite affordably — a fascinating hybrid area: postage stamps repurposed as revenues and revenue stamps that appear rightfully to belong with a postage or postage-and-revenue set. To mangle an old saying, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, who cares whether it carried the mail?
While many British colonies produced examples of such crossover stamps, British Africa seems to have had the highest concentration. I’ll survey a few examples here. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully will whet readers’ appetites to go forth, research on their own, and collect whatever they like.
The first category I mentioned, postage stamps used as revenues, is probably the easiest for a casual or beginning collector to obtain, as they are often dismissed by traditional philatelists and left languishing in an album’s back pages. Big caveat: it’s actually quite important for all collectors to have some knowledge in this area, as there can be a huge price difference between high-value stamps genuinely used for postage, which tend to be rare, and those used as revenues, which can be common. Catalogs don’t always quote the (much lower) prices for revenue cancels, or explain how to spot the difference, so unwary collectors are sometimes at risk of getting burned if they don’t know.
Beginning in 1880, British authorities allowed the same stamps to be used for both postage and revenue, and from that time on, inscriptions on most stamps up to 2 shillings and 6 pence (half a crown) reflected this dual purpose. The practice spread throughout the colonial empire.
Unlike today, when most government income arises from corporate and personal income taxes, in those days it largely stemmed from small documentary taxes on everyday items like receipts and checks, as well as legal documents such as deeds and wills. A penny here and a pound there, it soon added up. Since it all had to be collected by means of stamps, millions were printed for the purpose, and post offices were typically the channel by which all stamps, revenue as well as postage, were distributed to the public.
Sometimes, the high-face-value stamps were not designated for revenue purposes alone, as the Basutoland £1 Crocodile was, but remained technically valid for postage too, even though it was virtually impossible to use them in that manner. This was the case with the stamp shown in Figure 2, a famous £100 red-and-black stamp from Kenya and Uganda, whose design didn’t specify either purpose.
Figure 2. Kenya and Uganda’s long 1922 King George V definitive series includes more than a dozen high values up to £100. This mint example, of which fewer than 10 exist, sold at auction in 2015 for $145,000. Used, it is only known with fiscal or revenue cancels and can be had for just a few hundred dollars.
A fiscally used example of this stamp is priced by Barefoot at £650 (about $780) — in other words, scarce but not unobtainable. Scott prices it slightly higher, at $2,250, perhaps a reflection of its greater desirability to postage stamp collectors as a space filler. Examples with a “Specimen” overprint can be worth about the same.
The unused valuation in Scott, however, is a different story: $160,000. This is borne out by public auction results: the premium example shown here sold in 2015 in London for the equivalent of $145,000. It is said that only between four and ten mint examples exist in private hands.
Most low-value stamps used as revenues were soon discarded. As Barefoot points out in its introduction, trivial items like sales receipts were not preserved with the same rigor as property deeds. In addition to this, philatelists historically have sought out and salvaged the high-value stamps more energetically than the low values with fiscal cancels. As a result, a 1-penny stamp used as a revenue could actually be scarcer today than a £10 one.
Since many colonial stamps were printed in England, it happened that occasionally there could be a gap between supplies running out and the arrival of a new shipment, or the colonial administration simply lacked the budget (or inclination) to order up a whole new series of revenue stamps. In that case, stocks of postage stamps on hand might be provisionally repurposed as revenues by means of an overprint.
Figure 3 shows four Victorian-era postage stamps of Sierra Leone that got this treatment in 1884, with a “Revenue” overprint. However, there’s a twist: with the exception of the 6d (the underlying stamp is Sierra Leone Scott 17), the three others are not in the issued colors of the postage stamps. Rather, they are in lilac, with the denomination in a second color. These would have been specially printed that way in England, using a fugitive ink for security, with the intention of immediately applying the revenue overprint.
Figure 3. Four Sierra Leone postage stamps were reissued in 1884 overprinted “Revenue.” Three of the four were special printings in lilac, a different color than the issued postage versions.
Barefoot notes that this revenue set was little used, and that mint remainders later reached the philatelic market. Their value is minimal, but they make a nice “footnote” to a postage-stamp album page.
The issued 1s green postage stamp (Sierra Leone Scott 20) was also given a 5s surcharge for revenue purposes. It is known remaindered with a red bar cancel. Subsequent Sierra Leone postage stamps over £1 are also listed in Barefoot as revenues, as that was their primary purpose, with values mostly in the £20 to £25 ($26-$32) range. This is the normal price for one of these stamps with a revenue cancel; the Scott catalog values, by comparison, are in the hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars — but those are for stamps with authenticated postal cancels.
Figure 4 shows a couple of overprinted stamps from Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika (often referred to by collectors simply as “K.U.T.”). Their faint, violet cancels are typical of revenue usage.
Figure 4. Postage stamps of Kenya and Uganda — later Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika — were sometimes overprinted “Uganda Revenue” or “Kenya Revenue” in various styles for fiscal use in the individual countries.
The wording “Kenya Revenue” and “Uganda Revenue” requires a little explanation. The three countries’ postal administrations were amalgamated in 1933 (Kenya and Uganda having already joined up in 1922) and used combined stamps until the 1960s (Tanganyika was renamed Tanzania after its merger with Zanzibar in 1964). Although their postal operations were combined, they continued to have independent governments, so when postage stamps were pressed into service as revenues, it was necessary to include the name of the individual country in the overprint.
The block of four Nyasaland stamps in Figure 5, overprinted “Revenue Only,” is another example of postage stamps repurposed for fiscal use. Several other countries did likewise.
Figure 5. Stamps of several other countries received provisional overprints for revenue use. This block of four 6-penny stamps from Nyasaland is a typical example. (Image courtesy Spink and Son.)
Let’s return to our Basutoland crocodile, or at least its concept. As one might suspect, this was not an isolated case.
Figure 6 shows a couple of Bechuanaland Protectorate high values — much higher than ever appeared as postage. Both depict the standard scene of cattle grazing beneath a baobab tree; the left one shows King George VI and a denomination of £1, while the right one has Queen Elizabeth II and denomination of £5. The latter is also overprinted “R10,” or 10 rand, the decimal currency introduced in 1961.
Figure 6. Like Basutoland, the Bechuanaland Protectorate had little-known, high-value extensions of its postage and revenue series designated only for revenue use. Here is a £1 King George VI stamp and a £5 Queen Elizabeth II stamp (surcharged 10 rand upon decimalization), both with normal fiscal cancels. Though hard to find, they are relatively affordable when they do turn up.
This set, which began with George V in 1932, continued over three reigns, and each time the top postage value was 10 shillings (that’s right, once upon a time inflation wasn’t such a scourge). Both examples shown here bear oval fiscal cancels.
Figure 7 shows a piece cut from a legal document with several high-denomination stamps of Northern Rhodesia, nowadays known as Zambia. They are a mix of George V and Elizabeth II; it was not uncommon for revenue stamps, especially high-value ones, to remain in use for decades after a new monarch ascended, until stocks were finally exhausted. Barefoot notes that the George V stamps remained current until at least 1959.
Figure 7. Northern Rhodesia was another British colony in Africa that issued high-value revenues in the style of its postage series. In this case, the pound values are also slightly larger, made apparent on this piece by the presence of a 20sh Queen Elizabeth II postage stamp (lower right) overprinted “R” for revenue. (Image courtesy Spink and Son.)
The design, of course, is familiar to philatelists as the standard definitive series of that country. You’ll observe two differences, though. First, there is a tiny “Revenue” inscribed just below the portrait, and second, the stamps are slightly larger than their lower-value postage counterparts. This is illustrated by the stamp at lower right in the cluster, which is in fact a regular 20sh (equal to £1) postage stamp, overprinted “R” for, you guessed it, revenue use.
George V stamps of this series up to 20sh are inscribed “Postage & Revenue” below the portrait. The values from £2 to £50 just say “Revenue.”
For King George VI, there was no designation at all; any need for higher denominations in that reign was fulfilled with George V leftovers. For Elizabeth, lower value revenues were produced by overprinting postage stamps, though around 1955, the “Revenue” series was expanded with low values in different colors from the postage stamps.
An intriguing and beautiful series came from the earlier colony of Rhodesia, which had previously been known as British Central Africa but was administered by the British South Africa Company (colonialism could be needlessly complicated).
It issued a series of postage stamps in the 1890s featuring a coat of arms. These went up to £10. Naturally, the higher values hardly saw any postal use, though some remainders were postally canceled by favor.
A set of large-size revenues was also produced, on which the central vignette was the same engraving of the coat of arms familiar from the postage series. Figure 8 shows the £1, £10 and £50 stamps. Mint, no gum examples emanate from the archive of the printers, Bradbury Wilkinson. Used examples are worth about 50 percent more.
Figure 8. The British South Africa Company, which administered the colony known first as British Central Africa and later as Rhodesia, used the coat-of-arms vignette from its postage stamps as the centerpiece of its oversized revenue stamps. (Images courtesy Stanley Gibbons.)
Most collectors are familiar with the designs of the stamps shown on the essay card in Figure 9. Known as a key-type design, this style — particularly the larger design on the second row — was utilized for high-value definitives throughout the British empire. It is sometimes known as the “Nyasaland type,” due to its first deployment in that colony with a profile of King Edward VII in 1908.
The note at the base of the card in Figure 9 is revealing: “These border plates show ‘Postage Revenue’ but could be made ‘Postage’ or ‘Revenue’ only.” As indeed they were.
Figure 10 shows two examples of the latter from the reign of King George V: a 1-shilling revenue from Nigeria, which never used this design for any postage stamps, and a 1sh stamp, inscribed “Kodi,” from Kenya. The “kodi” stamps, which paid a poll tax, were issued by all three K.U.T. countries right up to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Highly sought after, they generally bring hundreds of dollars apiece at auction.
These stamps are unusual in the way they copy the postage design but have no connection to postage at all. Unlike many other crossover stamps, these could never be used for postage, not even theoretically.
Figure 9. A bicolor key-type design, introduced in 1908 and first adopted for Nyasaland, was consciously intended — as the note on this proof card indicates — to serve as both a postage and a revenue stamp, or to fulfill either purpose exclusively. (Image courtesy Spink and Son.)
As it happens, using a postage-style keyplate design for revenue stamps was nothing new. Figure 11 shows three Queen Victoria stamps of the standard colonial keyplate design with blank tablets for the country name at top and denomination at bottom. These, too, were put to use all over the world.
Figure 10. Two examples of the “Nyasaland”-style key-type design on revenue-only stamps, a 1sh from Nigeria (which never used this design for postage) and a 1sh from Kenya, inscribed at top “Kodi,” the local name for the poll tax it paid.
This trio illustrates the unlikely journey taken by one design from postage to revenue and back to postage again.
The inscriptions on the leftmost stamp are “Natal Revenue” and “Twenty Pounds,” far more money than was ever on a postage stamp. The stamp is overprinted Specimen and stuck to a small piece from a proof book. (Natal was one of the colonies that merged in 1910 to form the Union of South Africa.)
Figure 11. Three stamps that illustrate the revolving door between postage and revenue usage: a specimen of the Queen Victoria postage-style key-type issue inscribed “Natal Revenue / Twenty Pounds;” a £5 stamp of the same series overprinted for use in neighboring Zululand; and a 1-penny stamp of that overprinted revenue set temporarily authorized for postal use.
The Natal Revenue series was also overprinted for use in Zululand, an adjacent territory that did not at the time have the means to procure its own stamps. A £5 example, canceled in bright red pen, appears in the middle.
However, the 1-penny of the overprinted set, for a brief time in 1891, became a postage stamp by decree of the governor, as explained in the footnote after Zululand Scott 14 in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue. The example on the right shows this stamp with a regular postal cancel: a circular datestamp of Eshowe, the oldest European settlement in the country and its capital.
There are many examples of postage-revenue crossovers beyond the few described here, including postage stamps overprinted for specific taxes such as cigarettes and entertainment duties, customs, consular fees and more. It is a rich and rewarding field, with endless opportunities to discover beautiful stamps used in fascinating ways. Happy hunting!
Matthew Healey is a freelance philatelic writer who loves classic stamps and postal history, with an emphasis on Great Britain and its current and former realms. He contributes regularly to Linn’s Stamp News and has also appeared in the Collectors Club Philatelist and The New York Times. His stamp auction newsletter is at matthewhealey.substack.com.
Read an interview with Matthew about his APS experience here.
For Further Learning
Recommendations from the APRL research staff:
British East Africa by John Minns. (London: The Royal Philatelic Society London, 1981). [G8400 .M665b]
British East Africa: A Supplement to the Handbook by John Minns. (London: The Royal Philatelic Society London, 1990). [G8400 .M665b Suppl. 1990]
British East Africa: The Stamps and Postal Stationery by John Minns & George T. Krieger. (Carmel, CA: George T. Krieger, 2006). [G8400 .M665b 2006]
East Africa, The Story of East Africa and Its Stamps by James A. MacKay. (London: Philatelic Publishers, 1970). [G8400 .M153e]
Stamps of South Africa by W.N. Sheffield, T.B. Berry, S.J. Hagger & Sam Legator. (Bergvliet, South Africa: Philatelic Federation of Southern Africa, 1979). [G8500 .A1 P544h 1979]
The Revenue Stamps of South Africa by Leonard J. Dodd. (Cheshire, Great Britain: C.E. Sherwood, 1967). [G8501 .R451 D639r 1967]
The Postage Stamps and Postal Stationery of The Colony and Protectorate of Lagos, 1874-1906 by J.F. Ince. (Great Britain: British West Africa Study Circle, 1979). [G8843 .L3 I36p]
The Postage Stamps of the Gold Coast by Bertram W.H. Poole. (London: D. Field, 1910). [G8850 .P822p 1910]
The Postage Stamps of Sierra Leone by Bertram W.H. Poole. (London: D. Field, 1911). [G8860 .P822p 1911]
Gambia by Fred. J. Melville & Douglas Ellis. (London: Melville Stamp Books, 1909). [G8870 .M531g 1909d CLOSED STACKS 1]
The Stamps and Postal History of the Gambia: A Handbook by the West Africa Study Circle & J.O. Andrew. (Bournemouth, England: Christie's Robson Lowe, 1985). [G8870 .W522s]