The postmark is one of the most important features of a cover. Stamps are cancelled by a postmark, which shows they have been used and can’t be re-used to send a letter. The postmark also shows the date and place where the item was posted. On a cover, the postmark should touch each stamp and link them to the envelope.
[Red Cross West Willow] Postmarks came to the foreground in the early 1960s, when collectors started to demand more interesting cancellations on their first day covers. For the Red Cross issue in 1963, a special Florence Nightingale cover was posted at her birthplace, West Wellow, which is now worth around £90-£100. The Botanical Conference issue of 1964 featured primroses on the stamps, so one cover dealer posted his covers at Primrose Valley. This kind of relevant postmark made a cover worth often ten times more than the same cover with a standard postmark issued by the Philatelic Bureau at Edinburgh (a place with no connection to the stamps).
These days anyone – cover dealers, organisations or even individuals - can sponsor a Royal Mail postmark. They need to design the postmark, get it approved by Royal Mail and then pay a fee. The postmark then becomes the property of Royal Mail and anyone is allowed to use it on their covers. This means that to a certain extent, most cover producers “borrow” other people’s postmarks. However, to be official”, a postmark has to be on the cover produced by the organisation that sponsored the postmark in the first place. All our official postmarks are designed by Cath Buckingham.
Royal Mail is very strict about postmarking. As well as meticulously checking all postmark designs before approving them, the Handstamp Centres (which is where postmarks get applied) will not postmark covers that arrive after the date on the postmark. Cover producers have to meet the deadline!
Pictorial postmarks are also known as Special Handstamps.