CHARLES AND FREDERICK HEATH: The Original Whodunit (part 3)


Image courtesy of David Feldman Auctions
No, if we’re looking for something a bit more substantiated we need to turn our attention to the writings of Fred. J. Melville. Melville entered the fray in 1909 with his booklet Great Britain: Line-engraved stamps, which was reviewed in the London Philatelist of 1909 (volume 18). Interestingly enough, Melville takes aforementioned article by Wills and Hannay as the basis for his treatment of the creation of the Penny Black, though adding ‘details since ascertained’.

Taking the bull by the horns, Melville begins by saying that the engraving has been variously attributed to both Charles and Frederick, and blames ‘apparent confusion between the authorities’ for this. Citing a number of publications professing that Charles was the engraver, he eventually comes up with his trump card proving the opposite: an entry dated 7 April 1840 in Messrs. Perkins, Bacon & Co.’s books stating that Frederick received payment for this or similar work. Only to weaken his argument by saying that it has been pointed out that Frederick may only have been given a receipt for the amount on his father’s behalf.

But Melville has more tricks upon his sleeve. A die proof exists with the manuscript annotation: Engravers Proof by Fredk. Heath after Drawing by Henry Corbould, F.S.A. This note on the proof, which at the time was still owned by the family, is in Henry Corbould’s son Edward Henry Corbould’s handwriting. This seems important, because not only was Edward Henry closely related to those actively involved in producing the Penny Black, he is also very closely related to Frederick Heath, as they both went on to create the 5/- New South Wales coin design stamp of 1861.
If nothing else, this proof seems to prove that Frederick was at least involved in the engraving of Victoria’s portrait on the stamp. Apparently, according to later members of the Heath family, Frederick used to assist his father in his later years, when the latter was suffering from failing eyesight.


Melville repeats his arguments in a subsequent publication of his, Chats on Stamps, published in 1911, adding that (according to a Mrs Haywood, related to the Corboulds and a niece of Frederick Heath) ‘…there has never been any doubt among the older members of the family that Frederick was the engraver and not Charles…’.

And so it was high time to find more quotes or information regarding the Heath family. In 1993, John Heath wrote a three-volume book on the engravers family, entitled The Heath family engravers 1779-1878. It is Volume 2, describing the lives and works of Charles Heath and his two engraving sons Frederick and Alfred Heath, to which we must direct our attention.

Admittedly, the bulk of the book is about Charles, and only one chapter deals with both his sons. The six measerly pages of this particular chapter are aptly subtitled the End of an Era. Only one paragraph deals with Frederick’s philatelic credentials, stating that he had ‘…prime responsibility for engraving the master roller die which was to produce the first postage stamps in 1840…’. It then goes on to mention the New South Wales coin stamp again, and the Great Britain 1870 halfpenny, for which Frederick engraved yet another Queen Victoria profile. There is actually an illustration of a Penny Black in the book, which is captioned ‘Engraved by Frederick and Charles Heath, 1840’.

Another booklet written about the Heath family, this time by George W. Smith, entitled James Heath, Engraver to Kings and Tutor to Many, again gives most credit to Frederick, saying it is ‘probable that the dies for the Penny Black were entirely his work, under the supervision of his father’. After all, that was how it worked in those days: Charles supervising his employees, with his name usually ending up on the finished product even though he wasn’t always involved in the actual engraving or had been assisted with the engraving by a number of others.

To be continued!