Help for Heroes

Sir Rowland Hill and Postal Reform

Once Rowland Hill had launched the Penny Post, many British citizens, it was said, first learned to read that they might enjoy a letter. By Dee Moss.

Injustice and inconvenience may be suffered by a great many until one man, or a group of reformers, suddenly see the problem clearly and conceive the solution. One may cite Fry and Howard’s penal reform, Wilberforce and Clarkson’s abolition of slavery. In the same context comes Rowland Hill, whose insight and energy fathered postal reform and the creation of pre-paid mail.

To understand the problem, one must view the situation before 1840 when Hill’s efforts culminated in the establishment of the Penny Post. The cost of correspondence was crippling to many people, a burden increased by the fact that letters were paid for on receipt. During the preceding hundred years the tax on mail had been steadily increased until many of the poorer members of the population were forced to refuse a letter they longed to read because they could not afford the fee.

For four pence, a large sum in those days, a letter travelled only fifteen miles. There were no envelopes, but any enclosure in the folded paper was taken as another item and charged separately. The strain that this put on family relationships, on the communications of business and the intercourse of scholarship can be imagined.

To make the position worse, there was the matter of the privileged few who were exempt from postal charges. By franking, or writing his name on the outside of the missive, a Peer or a Member of Parliament could send it free of charge. Inevitably, some succumbed to the temptation of selling their signatures to those who wanted the privilege of free post. The items thus ‘posted’ were not only letters or small parcels. Rowland Hill’s daughter, Mrs Eleanor Smythe, mentions thirty hounds, pairs of maidservants and a large feather bed among the mail delivered under the franking system.

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