KGV Stamps : Printing and Stamp Printers

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KGV Stamp Printing 1914 -1936 : The Commonwealth Stamp Printers


An understanding of the technology of printing stamps assist collectors in being aware why and how the various varieties, shades and colours occur on the stamps they collect.  The opposite is of course true, how can a collector know about their stamps unless the have knowledge of how those stamps were produced.

The Federation of Australia in the early 20th century changed the responsibility for the production and sale of postage stamps by placing them under the control of the Commonwealth Postmaster General, with the consequent demise of the stamps produced by the states.  

After a short period of transition the inaugural Australian Stamp Printer, J B Cooke of Adelaide, oversaw the production of the 1d red Kangaroo in 1913.

Since Guttenberg produced the first printing press, the method of printing remains the basically the same.  A surface is carved or engraved with text or a design.  Ink is applied to the surface and pressed against paper, which produces the desired image.  Repetition on fresh paper produces many identical or nearly identical multiple images.  The devil is of course in the detail, many different types of engraving, surfaces, inks and paper provide a huge variety of printing methods.  The two printing methods used within Australia, until Photoengravure was introduced the 1950’s, were ;

Line Engraving or Recess Printing

As described on a web page ( email me for the reference )

“The design is engraved in reverse on a small plate of steel. The die is recess also called in French taille douce and in Italian intagilio. When the master die is completed and the engraver has checked his work with the original by Taking a series of progressive inked proofs. It is hardened and its image is transferred under high pressure to the curved surface of the roller, a cylinder of softened steel, which now bears a positive impression of the design. Then it is made ready for use in the manufacture of the printing plate or cylinder. A softened steel plate is placed in the transfer press and under immense pressure the design image is ‘rocked in” on the plate as many time as required to form a printing plate of 100 or 50 stamps or more as per requirements.

The basic principal of recess or line engrave printing is that the ink remains in the recesses and lines after the surface of the plate has been wiped clean. In close contact with the plate, paper picks up the ink in the recessed areas, resulting in the printed stamps. The stamp design stands out in relief and the raised impression can be felt by finger tips. Throughout the process the greatest accuracy and precision is required as one stamp image may comprise up to 20,000 lines.”

Surface or Letterpress.

Sometimes referred to as Typography or Typo, from the same web page;
 “ Typography in its simplest form is the setting of loose type within a locked chase, form or frame and then printing from it. The primitive form of this process was printing from wood blocks. It is also known as surface printing. Now in modern age the design is cut by an engraver in steel plaque, is cut in relief (and reverse) and the die is made. The die is then multiplied by stereotyping or electrotyping and plates of copper or alloy are made of say 50 similar stamps which are then printed on a flat press. The copper plates have surfaces with a layer of harder metal, such as steel, nickel or chromium to give longer wearing  in the printing press.”

The Commonwealth printers between 1908 and 1936 were responsible for the production of all Kangaroo, KGV Sideface and all other Definitive and Commemorative stamps used during the period, using the above two methods.

J B Cooke to May 1918

Cooke was appointed to the position of the position in charge of the Stamp Printing Branch of the Commonwealth Treasury Department in Melbourne in 1908.  He immediately commenced organisation for the production of the Kangaroo Stamps.

The chosen method of stamp printing for the Kangaroo was Surface Printing, and the engraving, plate production and stamp printing were carried out on the Kangaroo series between 1908 and with some values throughout the tenure of Cooke as Commonwealth Stamp Printer. 

The Competition for the design of the KGV sideface was undertaken and the design chosen.  At first the process chosen was Recess Printing for the so called “Engraved” 1d Red.  However the method proved inadequate in terms of production targets, and a revised design was undertaken in Surface Printing which replaced the Engraved 1d red with the whole KGV series in Surface Printing.

Cooke introduced the surface printed 1/2d green, 1d red, 4d orange and 5d brown between 1914 and 1915. 

The major item of interest related to perforation.  The 1d red engraved was perforated with a single line perforating machine.  This punched lines of holes across the whole sheet one way, then punched the holes at right angles to make the rectangular stamps.  Delivery of a comb machine, which punches both directions at the same time, was late and some of the 1/2d green and 1d red were perforated with single line perforations.  All 5d brown stamps were perforated with single line until 1918.

Due to the expected production needs of the 1d red, it was printed from steel plates manufactured and imported from England.  All other values were printed with electroplated Australian manufactured plates.  From this can be seen the way that the common 1d red varieties, such as “secret mark”, continued through the 3 different coloured penny issues whereas the other issues had much shorter life varieties due to the constant replacement of defective electros.

The final important issue of Cooke was to use up the stocks of war savings stamp paper with the 1d red die3 issue, printed during 1917 but issued after the change over of Stamp Printer in 1918.  A new die was produced for the Die 3 as the paper sizes were different to the standard issue, and special plates were required.

T S Harrison, May 1918 to February 1926

T S Harrison was appointed to replace Cooke upon the retirement of the incumbent.  He was a note printer and engraver of experience.

Harrison reigned over, probably, the most important time in the development of stamps since Federation.   During his time of responsibility, the growth of Australia after WW1 caused stamp printing to grow exponentially.  Harrison needed to develop systems, improve quality, and produce many issues in order that the postal needs of Australia could be satisfied.  The issues were effectively all of the large single, large multiple and no watermark issues after 1918. 

A matter of note was the changes of paper.  Quality of production of large single watermark issues was always troubled by the problem of obtaining a central location of the crown over A in every stamp due to wartime paper supplies.  The large multiple was an attempt to provide a watermark that was not location centered to allow improved flexibility in paper placement.  The watermark was not particularly successful and Harrison continued to work on another option, which was the small multiple watermark.  He did not see its complete introduction, leaving this to Mullett, his successor.

The No Watermark issues were due to the lack of deliveries of the correct paper from England in 1924 and locally sourced paper was used in the emergency.

J A Mullett, Feb 1926 – June 1927

Harrison resigned in February 1926, and A J Mullett, who had retired from the Victorian Government Printer was pressured to take the job temporarily until a replacement could be brought out from England.  This did not occur until mid 1927.

The period of Mullett’s responsibility was a period of reduced quality of stamps.  This period saw much variety in printed shades from ink mixture, and many stamps issued which were poorly centred and perforated.  Most of these would have been removed from sale by Harrison or Cooke.

During his short period, Mullet introduced the small watermark issues, particularly the 1-1/2d die 2.  Due to the large expected printings required for this issue, steel printing plates were produced rather than electros.  The quality of the engraving is not as refined as previous or later engravings, as can be seen by the comparison of the “three halfpence” on die 1 and 2 issues of the 1-1/2d.

Mullett was also involved with the introduction of new perforation machines.  The new perforation of 13.5 x 12.5 was intended to be introduced with the 1-1/2d red die 2, but due to late delivery of the machines,  earlier printings of the 1-1/2d red die 2 are of perf 14 only , and there were printings in  both of the perforations hereafter until 1930.   

John Ash, June 1927 – End of King George V Reign 1936

John Ash was probably the most qualified and efficient of the four KGV stamp printers.  After his arrival in 1927, he oversaw the KGV sideface printings of small watermark until 1931 and the Multiple C of A until 1936.

During this period the perf 14 perforator was phased out and all KGV stamps were perforated 13.5 x 12.5.

Ash attempted to rectify as many varieties as possible in all the issues.  Many of the varieties that had been common for decades were replaced or repaired.  His aim was to have no stamp able to be plated, fortunately for philatelists he did not succeed completely.


Kellow G (2007) Australian Commonwealth Specialists Catalogue Sections 3, 4 and 5, King George V.

Rosemblum A A (1966) The Stamps of the Commonwealth of Australia

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