When it is considered how much the religious, moral, and intellectual progress of the people, would be accelerated by the unobstructed circulation of letters ... the Post Office assumes the new and important character of a powerful engine of civilization.—Rowland Hill, Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability, 1837.
Postal reformer Rowland Hill (1795-1879) is no longer a household name, even in contemporary Britain. The National Portrait Gallery in London has relegated Hill's portrait to storage, although one can view it upon appointment. Yet this once eminent social reformer—now largely forgotten—initiated a revolutionary reform that transformed the costly, unwieldy UK postal service. Hill's universal penny post brought Britain an affordable, uniform postal rate and led to the introduction of the first ever postage stamp, the Penny Black. Both measures would eventually change postal service around the world. [End Page 9]
Hill critiqued the British postal system from the perspective of a well-informed individual who worked outside the postal system. His epic Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability quickly went into four editions and resulted in the penny post of 1840. For only a penny, all mail weighing up to half an ounce could travel anywhere within the United Kingdom.
Although "snail mail" may seem outdated in the twenty-first century, Hill's penny post was revolutionary at a time when letter writing was the only means of staying in touch with people residing at a distance. Prior to this 1840 measure, a letter could cost a working-class labourer more than a day's earnings, so leaving home often meant losing touch with friends and family. The post office charged by the miles a letter travelled and the number of letter sheets (and enclosures) a writer used; a letter enclosed in an envelope, for example, received double charge. Even more onerously, payment fell to the receiver, not the sender as in today's postal service; one had to be financially solvent to accept a letter. If the recipient could not pay for the letter, it was returned to the sender. Hill strategically aligned cheap postage with an "unobstructed circulation of letters" that would, in turn, lead to "religious, moral, and intellectual progress of the people"; in Post Office Reform, he also calls the penny post a "powerful engine of civilization" to stimulate industry, restore broken kinship ties, improve morality, spark innovation in science, and increase education and literacy (8).
Hill's plan earned royal assent from Queen Victoria on 17 August 1839, when she approved the Postage Duties Bill, but the penny post did not become official until 10 January 1840. Victorians across the nation rushed to their post offices on the opening day of the penny post; at the main London post office in St. Martin's-le-Grand, people cheered for Rowland Hill.
The penny post made the world seem smaller: Victorians could transcend geographical boundaries and stay connected in this age of relocation, emigration, and travel. With prepaid postage stamps, Victorians could now communicate directly with people outside their family or business circles. As I argue in Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing (2009), the penny post was the forerunner of current information technologies. It established a postal "network" for sending letters of friendship, condolence, and congratulations but also stimulated advertising and commerce as well as junk mail.1
During Hill's lifetime, the British people showered Hill with numerous honours, including knighthood in 1860, an honorary degree from Oxford, and designation of freeman by the City of London; Punch, the Victorian Londoner's NewYorker, even granted Hill a second knighthood, humorously dubbing him "Sir Rowland Le Grand."2 Hill's burial in Westminster Abbey and the three public statues erected in his honour speak to his importance during the Victorian age.
Hill came from a liberal-thinking family. Rowland's father, Thomas Wright Hill, was an enlightened educator who founded a school in which pupils participated in self-governance and teaching...