Early in 2002 after successfully installing computer terminals in all post office branches, Royal Mail followed the lead set by postal authorities in the USA, South Africa, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, by producing at the post office counters labels to be used instead of stamps. These are known, after the computer network, Horizon labels. Unlike some other countries the British labels indicate the postal service for which payment is made. But also unlike some other countries, the British labels are plain white labels, printed in black.
In January 2004 Royal Mail introduced 'Smartstamp', a system which allows users to produce postage impressions - confusingly referred to as 'Postage Marks' on a personal computer. For more about the system and examples of the product, click here .
On this page I have described the rationale behind the move to labels, and given some details of the initial trials and the timetable for introduction across the country. At the foot of the page I show labels of various types. And I have also discovered why an unintended consequence of the introduction will be of benefit to collectors who may have thought that their chances of finding fine-used stamps had reduced.
On 14 February 2002, Royal Mail started trials of a new postage label, to be printed at post office counters. This initiative, promoted by Consignia's Business and Consumer Markets Directorate, was trialled in about 650 post office branches in the Edinburgh, Southampton, and Watford postcode areas (EH, SO, WD). So confident was Royal Mail about the success of these trials that they announced in April that the scheme would be rolled-out to all 17,500 branches by the end of May 2002, and the Philatelic Bulletin reported extension to Portsmouth (PO) and two London areas on 9 May. In the event the trials produced useful information which was used to modify the system and the nationwide launch was delayed until August - See below.
With my accounting background,
it is difficult to argue against the economics of the new labels, which
will help to solve two major problems, and should achieve manpower and
The inland mail is divided into 1st and 2nd class for letters and packets weighing up to 750gr, the higher cost of first class being reflected in priority handling and earlier delivery. But if a mixture of stamps is used, how quickly can postal sorters decide whether a packet is 1st or 2nd class? In Europe, where blue 'Priority' labels are used, this is easy. Not so in Britain. Consequently if there is any doubt, the postman will assume 1st class, otherwise the item might be delayed into the 2nd class stream, which may bring complaints.
Secondly, all postage stamps must be cancelled to prevent re-use. While ordinary letters - inland up to 60gr and international up to 20gr - can be machine processed, most items of mail over these weights cannot be machined, and the stamps have to be hand-cancelled at the sorting offices. Royal Mail estimate that over 500 million items a year fall into this category, of which 80% are posted at post office branches. This labour-intensive operation will be avoided by the use of labels for items in these categories, as these labels will not be postmarked.
This label is for a 2nd
class packet with postage costing £0.44, ie weighing
101-150gr. The service indicator in the top segment shows 1st
for first class, A
for international airmail, S
for international surface mail, SD
for special delivery, and P
for parcels. Earlier PF
had been used for parcels indicating 'ParcelForce' the division of
Royal Mail responsible for parcels at that time.
Illustrations of these have been added at the end of the page.
The labels can also be used for inland Recorded Delivery, and the following international services:
These have now been replaced by Airsure, Swiftair and 'International Signed For'.
Coloured service indicator labels and bar-codes will continue to be used on these priority services.
At this stage the labels will not be used for international parcels or mail to British Forces.
The labels are 59x65mm [2.3x2.6"] and are plain white with no preprinting (unlike the US ones, with the pink strip at the top). As a security measure each label has four 2cm cuts, one from the centre of each edge towards the centre of the label. [These can be seen in the picture above.] This is to prevent reuse, as in similar (but more colourful) labels from Spain and Portugal. According to the British Philatelic Bulletin the printing is by ink-jet, but the machine sounds like an old dot-matrix printer!
The labels are not available in mint condition, and as they contain information which identifies the machine (and therefore the branch) which produces them, action will be taken against staff if any unused examples are on the market. (They are not sold by the Philatelic Bureau.)
The national roll-out
The scheme was extended
nationally in three phases from 8 August 2002. The first phase was in
London, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and south-east and the very north
of England. Phase 2 the following week includes north Wales, central
england and East Anglia. Phase 3, on september 5, includes south Wales,
south & west England, and the rest of northern England, as
shown in the table below.
|Phase 1 - 8 August||Phase 2 - 15 August||Phase 3 - 5 September|
Tunbridge Wells (Kent)
Dumfries & Galloway
Western Isles (Harris)
Chester (Cheshire) #
Hemel Hempstead (Herts)
Shrewsbury (Shropshire) #
Llandrindod Wells #
Fylde Coast (Lancashire)
Well, no. Counter clerks will
still supply stamps to those who want them. Also, the system has
drawbacks which actually makes it slower to issue the labels than
stamps. The computer has a 'quantity' facility for stamps, but not for
these labels. So if you have six 550gr packets at £1.60 it is
quicker to tear off 6x £1.50 stamps and 6 x 10p stamps than
to produce 6 individual labels.
At sub-post offices, which are owned as businesses by small shop-keepers, the postmaster receives a payment based on business throughput. I understand that the payment is less when labels are used than when stamps are used: this may explain why some postmasters are keen to continue the use of stamps rather than labels, especially as the computer is not linked to the scales so there is little benefit of speed!
Update March 2004. With effect from 31 March 2004, all stamps with a face value over £1 will be withdrawn from post office counters so that they cannot be used on packets and parcels. The £1.50, £2, £3, £5 stamps will only be available in bulk by mail order to Royal Mail's business customers, and from the Philatelic Bureau and Counters.
This is a definite possibility, and it will be interesting to see how inventive collectors can be in creating covers bearing a combination of stamps plus a label. No item can bear two labels, because any fee can be paid on one label. In the event that a customer changes his mind - say from 2nd class to 1st class - or upgrades to special delivery after a label has been produced, the extra postage should be shown by stamps. Any item bearing two labels "will be treated as suspicious and will be investigated".
source of Very Fine Used stamps
For collectors the new labels, and the ability to mix labels and stamps does open up a new facility. Collectors of British postage stamps have known for years how difficult it is to get very-fine-used (VFU) copies of any stamp. Ordinary letter rate stamps have a machine postmark, higher value stamps on packets have ugly black rubber postmarks, either round(ish) for letters and packets or rectangular for parcels*. Postal items bearing these labels will not be cancelled at the sorting office. But - if the postage is partly paid by stamps, then those stamps must be cancelled at the branch when the label is affixed for the balance of the postage cost. And that cancellation must be done with the branch's steel counter date stamp - the very thing that collectors of VFU want! [* update September 03 - I understand that the rectangular parcel post handstamps have been withdrawn.]
Update - actual treatment of
labels in the post
It is no surprise that labels have not always been treated in the way that the system intended. I have received one packet on which the label has been clearly postmarked, and another which has a postmark, but not on the label. (Both are shown in the images table below.) Watch this space for more reports!
Current UK legislation requires widespread use of the use of the Welsh language in Wales. Public signs, postal rate leaflets, Special Delivery labels, internal signs and voice announcements ("Please go to position 3") have Welsh versions. This is also the case with these labels, as shown at the foot of this page. Two lines are added between 'Postage Paid UK' and the variable date/value information. Post Brenhinol = Royal Mail. Talwyd Y Post DG = Postage Paid UK. The till receipt is also adapted, but with the minimum of Welsh content in lines 1 & 3 - Swyddfa'r Post Cyf. and Eich Derbynneb. The first line on the receipt is for an actual stamp rather than a label.
From August 2003 labels appeared in a new format with the 1st & 2nd class indicator placed centrally and a different typeface, with 'nd' and 'st' in lower case - see below. This label from LL53 (North Wales) is entirely in English, not the first time non-Welsh labels have been seen from this Welsh-speaking area.
The earliest Welsh label we have in the new format is December 2003, so we cannot be certain of the actual date of introduction of the new format which incorporates a change to the service designation. In English, 'second' is abbreviated as 2nd. The Welsh for 'second' is 'ail', so the Welsh 2nd class label now reads 2 il - see below.
Normal airmail labels have A
on. I posted an Airsure packet to the USA and the label was printed AX.
The postmaster didn't recall seeing AX before, so we don't know when
this started. I asked the customer for a scan of the label for this
page and it is shown in the table below. Parcel
labels have changed again, from P
(= Standard Parcel). I have been told by a correspondent of an example
dated 20 October 2003 which is much earlier than I thought. If you have
an earlier date, please let me know (link at the foot of the page).
I'm told that the sheet of 2 labels is now narrower than originally, which means that the impression is not printed centrally on the label. But the size of the label remains the same. This will account for any off-centre labels you see from spring 2005 onwards. (See July 2009 for change to AAX)
I understand that these were trialled in September 2006 but my informant did not say where, and I hadn't seen any of the new labels. Epson printers are being gradually introduced at all post office branches. A special delivery (SD) example of new label from Glasgow (postcode G2) is shown at the foot of the page. The most noticeable difference is that the bottom line is only 2mm high instead of nearly 3mm. The overall height of the printed area is 38mm compared with 41mm from the old printers, but the size of the labels remains the same (65mm).
The other change that the Epson printers bring is the use of colour and a new format for receipts. These now show the Post Office logo in red, as show here.
Fifteen months after the introduction of Pricing in Proportion and the sale of appropriately-marked adhesive stamps, changes were made to the Horizon labels. 2nd was replaced by 2L, 2LL or 2PK. !st class changed in a similar way, and British Forces mail adopted the designations BL, BLL & BPK.At about this time Royal Mail or Post Office limited prevented the use of the labels for basic rate mailpieces. This means that simple letters must be over 100gr to get a label - which means in turn that they are no longer simple letters but Large Letters! Apparently even a partly-paid simple letter cannot receive a label for the make-up value. I understand, however, that a simple letter sent by the Recorded Delivery service can have any shortfall made up with a Horizon label, which would be 1L 2L or BL.
Update - Golden Machin label -
8 June 2009
This is such a big unannounced development that we've given it a separate page.
A further unannounced change took place in July 2009 when the LL designations were changed to LG, thus 2LL became 2LG, etc. Some say this is tied in with the introduction and possible nationwide use of a label bearing the Queen's head. Some have said that there could be adverse comment from some of the non-philatelic press (insert the name of any appropriate newspaper here!) regarding overprinting the Queen's head with the word ILL. At the same time Airsure changed from AX to AAX for some reason.
Pictures of these, including Welsh versions will be added as soon as we have time to scan them. (If anybody has an AAX label, please contact us on the link below.)
If you would like to receive envelopes bearing these labels, please email Norvic Philatelics - note that this is not a free service, given that basic letter labels can only be obtained for the more expensive (75p currently) recorded delivery service, and Large letters have to be 101gr (which currently costs 90p for 1LL and 76p for 2LL).
Return to H O M E page
|1st class label from NN8 (Northampton) area 30 September 2002 for letter packet weight 1-1.25kg, postage £4.34|| Parcel
label from EX36 (Devon) 30 November 2002 for parcel of between 2kg and
4kg, postage £6.55.
[In early trials, parcel labels showed PF for ParcelForce.]
|2nd class label unnecessarily and incorrectly postmarked at Milton Keynes 17 September 2002||2nd class label from Shrewsbury centre (SY1) with bi-lingual postmark SHROPSHIRE & Y CANOLBARTH (Mid-Wales)|
|(Above)Special Delivery business envelope, with silver bar-code label applied correctly at top left, and SD postage label for £3.65, posted 21 October 2002 in Stevenage area (SG5).|
This 79p 2nd class label is on a 500-600gr packet (postage rate £1.60), where 81p has been prepaid. Note the stamps have been cancelled with the counter handstamp.
| < < Left
1st & 2nd class labels from Abergavenny (NP7) with the additional Welsh language lines above the date. These are both basic rate 20gramme letters at the new rates of 28p and 20p effective 8 May 2003.
From August 2003 labels appeared in a new format with the 1st & 2nd class indicator placed centrally and a different typeface, with 'nd' and 'st in lower case. This is also from a Welsh area (LL53) but is solely in English.
The new format label in Welsh shows the correct designation 2il instead of 2nd as shown on the Abergavenny labels above. This one is also from the Llandudno area (LL38).
Probably introduced in spring 2005 this AX label for Airsure, used with stamps prepaying a packet to the USA.
See paragraph above.
English language label from new Epson printer introduced in spring 2007, overall height reduced to 38mm. Last line now 2mm.
>> RightWelsh language label from new Epson printer from Swansea area, SA2. Zero value because the postage and fee had been prepaid in cash.
New January 2004 - SmartStamps - postage via the PC - see a page of specimens and covers.
New June 2009 - Machin head on Golden Horizon label - Details and pictures!