Sierra Leone 1933 Wilberforce Stamps

The year 1933 marked a double centenary: of the Statute for the abolition of slavery within the British Empire and of the death of William Wilberforce who had done so much to promote that legislation. It was appropriate that there should be a commemorative stamp issue and that this should be associated with Sierra Leone which had received so many of the liberated Africans.

On April 21st 1933 the Crown Agents wrote to De La Rue asking for designs and quotations. They sent thirteen sketches which were to be returned within forty-eight hours: offers with designs were to be submitted by May 26th. A letter in similar terms was sent to Bradbury Wilkinson. There were to be three values in single colours, a ½d green, a 1½d red and a 3d blue, and another ten values which could be either single or bi-coloured. The firms had to follow the sketches and the notes on their backs ‘but the designer is allowed slight latitude to introduce his ideas providing the general layout etc of the sketches is maintained’. The stamp sizes were to be like those of the current stamps (the so-called Rice Fields), printed in sheets of sixty, gummed, perforated, numbered and interleaved with wax paper. Printing was to be by the direct plate or intaglio method. Crown Agents would supply CA white watermarked paper of the size 17¼ in. 15 1/8in. at 17s 4d per ream of 500 sheets. All dies, plates and other material were to be under the control of Crown Agents’ Chief Inspector. Proofs of the dies, and subsequent colour proofs in triplicate, were to be submitted before printing was commenced and, ultimately, the approved working designs were to be returned to Crown Agents suitably mounted for presentation to His Majesty.

A schedule of costs was attached to the Crown Agents’ letter. For the dies and plates £42.10s would be paid for the single colour, £55 for the bi-colour. For the 424 perforated Specimens that would be required 4s per duty was allowed, and for the printing costs there was a range of prices from 1s 11½d per 1,000 stamps if single colour and 1,221,000 printed, to 25s ½d per 1,000 stamps if bi-coloured and 7,680 printed. These costs were to include the paper.

Messrs De La Rue submitted photographic essays on May 25th, a total of 14 in all which included ‘two of the sixpence to illustrate the bi-colour effect’. On the back of each essay was a colour wash of the colours recommended. They undertook to supply proofs of the first die within four weeks, to complete the engraving in ten weeks, and to have the last printing plates ready four weeks after that. The letter asked if, in the event of their being unsuccessful in obtaining the order, Crown Agents would ask the Government of Sierra Leone to reimburse their costs.

Bradbury Wilkinson also submitted designs on May 26th and by June 13th Crown Agents had decided to award the contract to them. Eleven designs were accepted; on the 5s value the eye of the elephant was to be repositioned and on the 6d the letters GR were to be removed from the scrolls under the duty tablets. They were told to go ahead with engraving and to supply black proofs in triplicate. Further alterations were to be made on the 5s, this time to the herons and the tusks, and these were to be approved by June 29th. On that day the first black proof was accepted and permission given to start making the printing plates in two panes of sixty.

Over the next few weeks small modifications were made in the designs. The shading in the border of the 1d, the sky shading on the 5d, and the elephant’s eye on the 5s were all altered.

The black proofs, a set of colour proofs on unwatermarked paper, and the final colour proofs, were all finished in that order by July 26th. One final modification was made to the 4d when the printers were asked ‘to move the nurse’s left hand lower on the patient’s pulse’. It is interesting to notice the extreme care taken over this issue and to realise that the engraving method could allow for such minor modifications.

Meanwhile Crown Agents had written to De La Rue to say that their application had been unsuccessful. Both companies had followed the artist’s sketches very closely but a comparison of the Bradbury Wilkinson proofs and the De La Rue essays shows that the former’s lettering and figures were generally larger and clearer. There was also far more shading in the De La Rue sky effects giving a heavier appearance. On August 11th Crown Agents wrote to say that the Sierra Leone Government would not accept a claim for expenses from the unsuccessful tenderer.

The sketches on which the final designs were based were the work of Father F. Welsh and repay close study for they are, in respect of the lower values, most ingenious. In the De La Rue archives there was an annotated tracing of the original sketch for the ½d value. On one side is a seated native warrior welcoming the arrival of an old time sailing vessel. Alongside is a palm tree, suitable as the main export of the country at that time was palm oil and kernels; above is a Union flag without the arms of St Patrick as used before 1801, presumably indicating the founding of a colony before that date. Beneath the vignette is a dove of peace bearing an olive branch. On the 1d was a liberated slave with broken fetters, freed on African soil. To each side is a cross of a pattern known as the cross of redemption. The 1½d showed a map of Africa and an enlargement of part of West Africa. The frame lines are those of latitude and longitude. The 2d shows the Law Courts on the left and Fort Thornton, the Governor’s residence, on the right. In the centre is the great silk cotton tree of Freetown. The century of progress is shown by old and new modes of transport.

On none of the stamps was there a portrait of Wilberforce, but that was a reflection of policy at that time which limited portraits to those of the Royal family. However, on the 3d the double centenary was mentioned. Above this was a native woman bearing a basket of local produce and behind her was a panorama of Freetown harbour. The 4d is the most complex in its symbolism. In the centre are nurses attending a patient. One of them takes his pulse but we can see from the chart above the bed that the fever is abating. The portal through which the scene is viewed is historical, being that of the enclosure within which the slaves were liberated, sheltered, fed and nursed. Later it was to be the site of a hospital. Above is a cross representing the Christian involvement. An article in Gibbons Stamp Monthly November 1st 1933 provides much information and a comment of Father Welsh’s, ‘the whole design is meant to be a monument to all those who, like Wilberforce, Sharpe, and so many others sacrificed themselves for the benefit of their African brothers. In particular I meant it as a tribute to the Medical and Sanitary Department. . .’ The palm branches shown in the borders had a deeper meaning than that of a local export for they were evocative of the palms shown on early Christian monuments.

Designs on the remaining stamps are simpler to understand. There are local canoes, Government buildings, Bunce Island, notorious as a former slaving centre, Freetown harbour, and an elephant meant to represent the Governor’s prowess as a hunter. The 10s showed the King’s head, a native policeman on the right and a trooper of the Royal West African Frontier Force on the left. In conclusion, we can notice the borders of the various stamps which include canoe paddles, bamboo, native designs and slave shackles.

423 Specimens were supplied and the printers had to make a second vignette for the 6d plate as the first one stretched when it was flattened for a re-entry. Deliveries were made between August 17th and 31st. The issue was put on sale on October 2nd and the intention was that it would be withdrawn after twelve months during which the Rice Fields stamps would not be sold. However, there were stocks in hand a year later and a further three months of sales were permitted. The artist’s drawings were sent to the Royal Collection and Crown Agents retained two sets of colour proofs dated July 31st. The printer’s mounted proofs are marked ‘appd for colour’, dated 15.7.33 and 26.7.33. The unaccepted De La Rue essays went into their archives, eventually to be sold through Robson Lowe’s auctions. In retrospect philatelists have generally recognised this as one of the finest of colonial engraved issues.


  1. The Postal Service of Sierra Leone: Its history, stamps and stationery until 1961 by P.O.Beal, RPSL, 1988.