Friday 27 August 2021

Coils produced for applying to Bureau FDCs date from at least 2001 - and not just for definitives.

It has been well known for many years that the definitive stamps applied to Royal Mail standing order FDCs are produced in mutli-value side-ways delivered coils, usually with a different direction of print (DOP), to those sold in sheets.  This has been of interest mainly to extreme specialists who can see and therefore monitor and collect DOP differences. They are produced this way because the stamps are affixed by machine rather than by hand. 

If you think this is a familiar story, I wrote that paragraph here in 2018 when the difference between counter sheet stamps and those definitives produced for the new tariff was more than just direction of print

Registered dealers can also buy uncancelled Royal Mail FDCs with stamps affixed which enables us to have any first day postmark applied for customers, without the workload involved in carefully affixing over 4 stamps or long se-tenant strips to the covers.  

For a period during the early part of the present century the machinery used by Royal Mail for affixing gummed stamps to their FDCs must have been wearing out because I had to return a number on which the stamps were not fixed in alignment or not totally stuck down  (including one where there was a spare single stamp only just affixed over the printed address on the cover!).

But in 2001 the first self-adhesive special stamps were issued - the Cats and Dogs 'booklet' and folded sheet.  This was followed by that year's Christmas stamps, and the Rudyard Kipling folded sheet in 2002 and that year's Christmas stamps. In 2003 the innovative Fruit & Vegetables sheet was issued, but it was the Ice Sculptures Christmas stamps that year that provided conclusive evidence and brought an admission from Royal Mail that they did indeed use stamps printed in a different arrangement for at least the Christmas stamps.  

I wrote this for the Association of GB First Day Cover Collectors journal in early 2004 (and did have it on our website, but it got lost in one of the updates or migrations).

I happened upon an unusual Christmas FDC offered for sale on eBay. This was described as: 

The World's Rarest First Day Cover? 2003 Christmas issue on official Royal Mail FDC with 1st class and "E" stamp printed in red. Worth £5,000-£10,000? Selling with normal cover for comparison - striking! .A most amazing error and... starting at...only £4.99.

The World's Rarest First Day Cover? 2003 Ice Sculptures Christmas stamp FDC

Of course the stamps were not printed in red as suggested, but were printed in the regular colours on red repair tape. But if the stamps were printed in separate sheets, as we know they were. how did the tape come to be on both the 1 class and E rate stamps. The reason seemed to be that all six stamps in the set were printed in one sheet for fixing to the PO cover.

Just before he dashed off for his Christmas break, my contact at Royal Mail confirmed what we thought:

Apparently coils are only produced to fix self adhesives to FDCs. The first time the self adhesive affixing machine was used was for Cats and Dogs in 2001.

"For Christmas (2003), coils were run for the first time with 6 stamps on the coil printed in sequence. The coils will have joins in them (one or two joins per coil) but this should not impact upon the quality of the product."


Royal Mail have used machines to fix the stamps to their FDCs for Bureau standing order customers and for those provided to key account holders for some time. But this is the first time to my knowledge that we have known about special printing arrangements. Obviously this cover should not have been sent out from Edinburgh, but it was. So should the SHC have processed it, or should they have impounded it? I suppose we should be thankful that they processed it, because this has shed light on a new printing arrangement.

And don't forget, as the coils are horizontal, produced from on a web, then the red repair tape would have been applied to the wider web, not just the narrow coil. If this is the case, then more covers COULD exist, but they may not have reached dealers. Time will tell if this cover is unique. This one sold for £500 – the winning bidder tried a £28 start but was pushed up by other bidders. What do you think of this price for what should have been wasted?

I asked some overseas colleagues about this cover before we got the RM reply, and this brought out interesting new information on the system in other countries. Apparently in some of the Scandinavian countries (and others?) the printers have produced slightly different stamps for fixing to FDCs – the gum or perforation is different. In some cases the PO FDC is the only source of the variety as the bureaux were not aware until collectors told them! It might be worth checking all Royal Mail Bureau FDCs that collectors spurn, just to see if the same thing has happened here, without anyone noticing! 

Well, since 2004 no more have appeared as far as I know, but my fortunate chancing upon this eBay listing shows that everything you find by chance that appears to be different, is worth recording and sharing.  And if you haven't got the means to share it (like a blog) then pass it to somebody who has. You'll get credit (or not, as you wish).


  1. Thanks. That's very interesting.
    I've often wondered how many FDCs, Presentation Packs etc, Royal Mail sell for each issue but expect they might keep statistics to themselves.

  2. No doubt as Norvic says it's more economical and convenient for Royal Mail to do this. I also wonder if gummed stamps have been printed in special sheets for FDCs. They certainly have been in Australia, especially when using the actual printed stamps would have produced too much waste.


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