Blog > Sir Rowland Hill, Postal Reformer
218 years ago today, the great Rowland Hill was born! If his name does not ring a bell, read on – we have tales of postal corruption and innovation to share with you today!
Once upon a time, the British postal system was… a mess. Expensive, complex and widely corrupt, it was seen as wasteful and inadequate for the needs of a growing industrial nation. For instance, did you know that correspondence at the time was paid by the recipient and it depended on the distance travelled and number of paper sheets it contained? As a result, people often cross-wrote letters to save space or encoded messages on the cover of the letter – which could be analyzed and then discarded without payment. A significant percentage of letter-writers would also abuse the system by sending their correspondence under the personal frank of members of the parliament (who could send them without paying).
Rowland Hill, a teacher from Worcestershire, studied the state of the postal service for several years, before producing a pamphlet called “Post Office Reform; its Importance and Practicability”, in early 1837. In in, Hill called for “low and uniform rates” according to weight, rather than distance:
“The postage on all letters received in a post-town, and delivered in the same, or any other post-town in the British Isles, shall be at the uniform rate of one penny per half ounce”.
He also showed that most of the costs incurred in mail delivery were not for transport but rather handling at the origins and destinations – and these could be greatly reduced if pre-payment of postage by the sender was implemented. In order to achieve this, Rowland Hill proposed official pre-printed lettersheets and adhesive stamps – a piece of paper “covered at the back with a glutinous wash”.
The plan was met with resistance from the part of Royal Mail, but also with plenty of support from traders, merchants and bankers, fed up with the high costs and the corruption of the system in place. With a lot of pressure from these groups, Rowland Hill was appointed to the Treasury, in order to put his plan into operation: the Postal Reform was born!
A design competition was held to figure out how to implement the prepaid postage, and after a few false starts, the Penny Black made its debut in May 1840. It featured an engraving of a very young Queen Victoria, based on a commemorative medal sculpted by William Wyon.
The success of Rowland Hill’s reforms were mixed. One one hand, the financial cost of the Uniform Penny Post was disastrous and it would take over 30 years for Royal Mail to reach once more the revenue levels they had before 1840. On the other hand, postal traffic was greatly increased, since the lower cost made postal communications more affordable and accessible to the masses – paving the way to the development of many sectors of the economy.
Rowland Hill was knighted in 1860 for his many services to the United Kingdom. His legacy lives on in the form of the modern postal service.