Following a Royal Proclamation by King William III and Queen Mary II on 31st May 1694, Stamp Duty was introduced on a wide variety of legal documents. It quickly became clear that vellum documents could not be directly embossed, as the impression faded over time, so an embossed "base paper" was glued onto the documents, but these papers were quite easy to remove and attach to other documents, leading to widespread fraud, despite the severe punishments for doing so ("Death Penalty without Benefit of Clergy" anyone?).
In late 1701 a solution was found: the stamp was glued onto the document as before, then a thin strip of metal was passed through 2 slits cut into the document and the stamp, and secured at the back using a further stamp, the cypher label, which was then fixed in place over the ends of the strip using hot fish glue. The stamp, and the exposed section of the metal strip, was then embossed using a die, and fraud became virtually impossible. This highly effective composite security device was used continuously from 1702 to 1922.
(Paraphrased from the introduction of the book by William A. Barber "The Royal Cypher Labels of Great Britain, Ireland & the Colonies" 1988).
As collectors' items the cypher labels seem to be mostly ignored and forgotten, but these little pieces of paper are a fascinating area of study in their own right. As well as different designs for each monarch (with the exception of an overlap between King George IV and King William IV) there are multiple design variations to collect, and a large number of recuts. Each label is individually numbered, and until the Queen Victoria Plate 3 printed labels in the latter part of the 19th Century, all the labels were produced from individually hand-engraved dies, meaning that every numbered stamp is unique.
I had a plan to collect examples of cyphers labels from all the reigning monarchs over the 220 year life of the labels, as well as examples of all the recuts and the main design variations. The main problem with this Completist's dream was that I couldn't even get started, as the first ever cypher label, the King William III, proved impossible to get hold of. The first use of a cypher label was in 1701, but William III died in early 1702 so the William label is very rare (though they continued to be used up to December 1703).
I asked my dealer and collector friend if he could supply me with one but he said that in 30 years of searching, he'd only found 10, and had long ago sold on his spares. Dieter Bortfeldt in 2003 (Royal Cypher Labels 1701-1922") claimed that there are only about 100 recorded examples of the King William III cypher label but my friend tells me that the number of surviving copies must surely run into the hundreds but many of them would be on entire
documents rather than cut-outs.
Then yesterday I had the most amazing stoke of luck. I bought this job lot of around 30 embossed stamps on eBay. The cypher labels were not shown, and it was not possible to make out the designs of the embossed stamps either, but for £12 this was a bargain not to be missed.
Looking closely at the collection, two pairs of stamps stood out. The single Die letter on the left of these 6d type 2 stamps identifies them as potentially being from the William III period. The A die was in use from 8th December 1699 to a last-seen date of 2nd June 1703, and the F die dates from 20th December 1698 - 11th May 1708 (last seen).
Still not expecting much, I looked first on the back of the A Die stamp and there was the very first cypher label, a King William III!
There are 4 distinct Types of William III labels, A-D. My #37 is a Type A, which is the same as the one on the cover of the Dieter Bortfeldt book. There are slight variations due to these being hand-engraved.
Having found The Holy Grail I had no expectations at all for the other stamp, the F die, but turning it over revealed another William III cypher, and it was a different type, a Type B. As you can see, it's quite different from the A type, and in my opinion is the most beautiful of all the cypher labels, with a level of ornamentation not seen on any of the other labels. Happy days!
In the next post I'll show the label which superseded the William cypher labels following his death on 8th March 1702.