Sunday 11 March 2018

Campaign against pen-cancels - if you care, join now!

Readers of Britain's Stamp Magazine and Stamp and Coin Mart will see in the April issues the start of a campaign by John Gray to persuade Royal Mail to find an alternative to cancellation by pen and marker with which we have all become so familiar.

I've written about it before (recently, identifying a reason why stamps are not cancelled at the Post Office, and previously when Royal Mail introduced neat little devices (which seem to have got lost in the mail centres and delivery offices).   We are often served with - in some cases unnecessary or wanton - destruction of our property.

I deliberately used the terms unnecessary and wanton here after receiving this perfectly cancelled but subsequently ruined piece of mail which would have joined my postal history collection. The 2017 £1.57, pair of 2016 20p, 1p and 10p definitives have been correctly and well cancelled at the Post Office counter.  Somebody in Royal Mail has then decided that these postmarks were insufficient, and has taken a thick black marker pen to them.

Royal Mail correctly say that they are permitted - for revenue protection reasons - to render stamps unusable by marking them in any way that they wish.  Obviously machine postmarks and packet postmarks are the most obvious but should the mail not get properly processed, then the pen is the last resort.  The last resort, not an extra embellishment!

Sometimes, as shown in these pictures John supplied, the markings are offensive, sometimes humorous.  The item on the right could be included in a 'cats on stamps' collection if you felt that way, but the drawing of a Hitler moustache on PM Churchill could hardly be less offensive.


Aiming High
John writes that rather than simply writing to the philatelic press (where we are clearly preaching to the converted) we should target Moya Greene, the Chief Executive of Royal Mail.  After months of correspondence with her Executive Office team, John has decided that the best way forward is for all those affected to send pictures of the offensive mail to the Chief Executive on every occasion.  Colour scans or photographs should be sent direct to

John suggests that each email should contain just a single image and a polite request.  Multiple examples should be the subject of separate emails.  To see the whole article, go to this page.

I suspect when we do this, we will all get standard replies, but I'm happy to publish here anything different and further examples of, especially unnecessary, pen cancels.

Alternatives - what else can be done to avoid this scourge?

1. The first alternative is that - tiresome and time consuming as it may be - we should all post our mail over a PO counter or RM Enquiry Point, and ask that the stamps be cancelled.  For many of us obtaining a certificate of posting is mandatory, so that's not really a problem.  More of a problem is persuading the counter staff that it is not against the rules, or that it is positively required by Royal Mail instructions.

As I know how concerned collectors and dealers alike are with this problem, especially as the device introduced earlier appears to be so little used, I have been discussing the problem with Royal Mail managers.  I have two suggestions that could help at least on mail to and from collectors and dealers.  Both would need to be properly communicated to employees, but job-training is a continuous process and that should be no problem.

2. The first is a brightly coloured official label to be placed near the stamps, indicating that the mail is philatelic and should not be pen-cancelled (see right). Some people will highlight a potential drawback to this, in that it reveals the contents as potentially 'attractive' in the financial sense.
     But we must remember that the vast majority of British postal workers are honest and not assume that marking in this way would encourage theft.  [I accept that this may not be the case in some other countries; the label would have to be used with discretion.]

Any postman finding uncanclled stamps on mail bearing this label should be required to find an acceptable means of cancelling the stamps.  If the person who finds it is the last in the chain, ie the one who delivers it to the addressee, it should not be delivered, but returned to the delivery office so that the stamps can be acceptably cancelled, and delivery should be effected on the next working day.  Such a delay is a small price to pay.

3. The United States Postal System has for decades allowed any senders to cancel their own mail, which is then segregated in the mailstream so that it should receive no further cancellation.  These are are known as Mailer's Postmarks and the devices are marked with the Mailer's Postmark Permit number.  They are widely used by collectors and dealers, and much appreciated by people who receive mail from these people.   It would not be difficult to introduce such a system here.

As you can see from the examples* here, designs are not limited to circles or wavy lines.

The key point appears to be that the date and place of posting, and the permit number, should be visible.  The great thing about this service in the US is that no payment is required, apart from the manufacture of the device itself.  USPS makes no charge for this.

The difficult thing would be segregation in the mailstream, but this is achieved with franked/meter and PPI mail, which is still sorted at mail centres (receiving the red bar codes after address interpretation), so obviously it is workable.  The mail would have to be handed over the counter (not a problem if a certificate of postage is wanted anyway), and enclosed in a returnable pouch, as meter mail is.

It's early days yet, and any moves to introduce anything new have been held up while Royal Mail has had more pressing matters to discuss with its staff and unions.  And let's face it, the benefits of pleasing us in any of these ways do not add much to their bottom line financially.  But I did receive encouraging responses when I first mentioned these suggestions last autumn, and I am hopeful that John's campaign may encourage Royal Mail to consider suggestions on how the problem can be solved.  All it needs is a little goodwill on their part towards the people who provide them with profit,
however small, at virtually no cost to them.

I have found a copy of a Horizon instruction that was issued 10 years ago (pictured right - click for a larger view), principally regarding packet segregation.  The key for our purposes is the lower part.  Feel free to copy this for your own purposes and to send with any images of badly-cancelled covers.

When you've had time to digest this, and study the Stamp Magazine/Stamp & Coin Mart articles write to the editors in support, and send your examples to Moya Greene.  Let us know what happens.  If you have any other suggestions to solve the problem, I'll be happy to add them here - send them to me by email.   I'll add them here to get other reactions, and forward them to Royal Mail for consideration.

Update: Added new page of images that readers have sent to Royal Mail:

(*Note, I have taken these images from and shall be sending Timothy some postmark examples, and details of how to get British postmarks soon.)

UPDATE An anonymous writer left a comment suggesting ways of removing the pen cancel, and marker-pen. I won't allow this to be printed as it would also enable the stamps to be re-used.



  1. I suspect that after a few emails have been received, their e-mail server will start to block any further emails. Alternatively you could always cut the affected stamps from the envelope or wrapping and post it to her, forgetting to put a stamp on the letter would be a nice touch, BUT neither I nor I dare say Ian would condone such a course of action.

    I doubt that the use of a sticker or label would have any effect given the number of envelopes that are marked do not bend ending up looking like they won first prize in a origami contest.

  2. One of the problems with the cancelling tool is the cost. From what my Postman told me, Mail Centres were provided with them they don’t have enough. They usually put casual staff on items the machines reject so they often don’t know about the hand tool.

    The tool is used, I bought a couple of items (blister packed stamps) on ebay, posted with six non current stamps on the envelope in the area covered by the Greenford/Windsor Mail Centre and delivered in the area covered by the Jubilee centre. My money is on Greenford/Windsor.

    The question that should also be asked is why so much mail is getting through the sorting process at Mail Centres without being cancelled. Is it that Royal ail have closed so many Mail Centres that the remaining Centres equipment can’t cope.

    1. "Is it that Royal Mail have closed so many Mail Centres that the remaining Centres equipment can’t cope. "

      I can't comment on closures, but in my discussions I was told that MC quality controls will now be including cancellation of the stamps as well as processing speed, address interpretation, sorting, and throughput.

  3. It is my understanding that a lot of the problem stems back to the splitting up of the Post Office business between Royal Mail and Post Office Counters. It used to be, back in the days of the PO, that when you handed items over the counter, that the staff would wack a handstamp on the item there and then. After the split, POC staff were told that they must no longer do this and that it would all be handled by mechanisation. I vividly recall asking POC staff to handstamp souvenir postcards and being told that it was by then strictly forbidden.

    Move on a bit to the point where RM seem to struggling with quite a bit of their mechanisation program, and they asked POC to revert to the practice of cancelling mail at the counter. In a busy office with slim margins, doing "somebody else's job" is really going to happen, isn't it?

  4. I know people complaining about pen cancels in the US...

    1. India is also a problem, but we can only fix one thing at a time :-)

  5. I just received some mail from Singapore. The three stamps on the envelope were defaced with ugly ball-point pen ink lines.
    How do I complain and to whom? I made a paper copy of the envelope.

    1. Who do you want to complain to? Only if you are sure the damage was done in the UK, then complain to as suggested.
      But as the sending country has more reason to cancel the stamps this way than the receiving country, maybe you should complain to Singapore Post.

  6. Thanks for the info. I will start with Singapore Post.

  7. I’ve had mail from Italy (the majority), Germany (frequent). Netherlands (occasional) and USA (frequent, even if stamps are cancelled in red) which have had the ‘pen cancel’ applied.

    My Domestic mail (UK), which is sent using A4 are usually un-cancelled, over the last couple of weeks the number which attract the pen has increased significantly.

    I’ve found that using Lighter fluid and a cotton bud or LOW TACK masking tape can remove the offending cancel on stamps and P&G labels. It takes a few attempts to master it, some will need a wash with lighter fluid and once its evaporated, the low tack masking tape and pressure applied over the pen mark will remove some of the mark, you will need to repeat the masking tape step a few times, tough perseverance is required you can remove the pen mark.

    The use of nail varnish remover will remove the printed image of the stamp or P&G label, but will leave the phosphor bands. On Post and Go stamps it will leave the carbonised service indicator!



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