James Chalmers lived from 2 February 1782 to 26 May 1853. Trained as a weaver, he is often credited with the invention of the adhesive postal stamp. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
James Chalmers was born in Arbroath where he trained as a weaver. In 1809 he moved to Dundee, where he set up as a bookseller, printer and newspaper publisher on Castle Street. Increasingly part of the Dundee establishment, he went on to become a Burgh Councillor and served as Convener of the Nine Incorporated Trades. He became a strong supporter of the reform of local politics and, unsurprisingly given his business, campaigned for the repeal of taxes on newspapers and newspaper adverts.
From the mid 1820s he began to campaign for improvements to the speed of the postal service between Edinburgh and London, eventually succeeding in reducing the time letters took by a day in each direction. At the time the postal service was fragmented and chaotic, and Chalmers was one of a number of people seeking to bring about improvements. Two key problems revolved around the charges made for post, which varied in a highly complex way depending on the distance the item of mail was due to travel, and finding a means of showing that postage had been paid on mail.
From 1834, James Chalmers was promoting the idea of an adhesive stamp which could then be cancelled when used. Change only came, however, following the publication of a pamphlet Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability by Rowland Hill in 1837. In it he proposed a single rate of postage, tied to the use of adhesive stamps. The result was the penny post, introduced in 1840 alongside the world's first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black. Rowland Hill went on to achieve great acclaim, considerable wealth and a knighthood. James Chalmers, in contrast, died in relative obscurity in 1853 and was buried in the Howff, a burial ground in the centre of Dundee.
James' son, Patrick Chalmers, worked tirelessly throughout his life to have his father's role in the invention of the adhesive postage stamp recognised. The substance of his campaign is told in the inscription on the gravestone he erected over his father's grave in 1888: "Originator of the adhesive postal stamp, which saved the penny postage scheme of 1840 from collapse, rendering it an unqualified success, and which has been adopted throughout the postal systems of the world."