Sir Rowland Hill was an English teacher, inventor and social reformer. He campaigned for a comprehensive reform of the postal system, based on the concept of Uniform Penny Post and his solution of prepayment, facilitating the safe, speedy and cheap transfer of letters. Hill later served as a government postal official, and he is usually credited with originating the basic concepts of the modern postal service, including the invention of the postage stamp.
Hill was born in Blackwell Street, Kidderminster, Worcestershire, England. Rowland's father, Thomas Wright Hill, was an innovator in education and politics, including among his friends Joseph Priestley, Tom Paine and Richard Price.At the age of 12, Rowland became a student-teacher in his father's school. He taught astronomy and earned extra money fixing scientific instruments. He also worked at the Assay Office in Birmingham and painted landscapes in his spare time.
In 1819 he moved his father's school "Hill Top" from central Birmingham, establishing the Hazelwood School at Edgbaston, an affluent neighbourhood of Birmingham, as an "educational refraction of Priestley's ideas".Hazelwood was to provide a model for public education for the emerging middle classes, aiming for useful, pupil-centred education which would give sufficient knowledge, skills and understanding to allow a student to continue self-education through a life "most useful to society and most happy to himself".The school, which Hill designed, included innovations including a science laboratory, a swimming pool, and forced air heating. In his Plans for the Government and Liberal Instruction of Boys in Large Numbers Drawn from Experience (1822, often cited as Public Education) he argued that kindness, instead of caning, and moral influence, rather than fear, should be the predominant forces in school discipline. Science was to be a compulsory subject, and students were to be self-governing.Hazelwood gained international attention when French education leader and editor Marc Antoine Jullien, former secretary to Maximilien de Robespierre, visited and wrote about the school in the June 1823 issue of his journal Revue encyclopédique. Jullien even transferred his son there. Hazelwood so impressed Jeremy Bentham that in 1827 a branch of the school was created at Bruce Castle in Tottenham, London. In 1833, the original Hazelwood School closed and its educational system was continued at the new Bruce Castle School of which Hill was head master from 1827 until 1839.
Rowland Hill first started to take a serious interest in postal reforms in 1835.In 1836 Robert Wallace, MP, provided Hill with numerous books and documents, which Hill described as a "half hundred weight of material".Hill commenced a detailed study of these documents and this led him to the publication, in early 1837, of a pamphlet called Post Office Reform its Importance and Practicability. He submitted a copy of this to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Thomas Spring-Rice, on 4 January 1837.This first edition was marked "private and confidential" and was not released to the general public. The Chancellor summoned Hill to a meeting in which the Chancellor suggested improvements, asked for reconsiderations and requested a supplement which Hill duly produced and supplied on 28 January 1837.
In the 1830s at least 12½% of all British mail was conveyed under the personal frank of peers, dignitaries and members of parliament, while censorship and political espionage were conducted by postal officials. Fundamentally, the postal system was mismanaged, wasteful, expensive and slow. It had become inadequate for the needs of an expanding commercial and industrial nation.There is a well-known story, probably apocryphal, about how Hill gained an interest in reforming the postal system; he apparently noticed a young woman too poor to redeem a letter sent to her by her fiancé. At that time, letters were normally paid for by the recipient, not the sender. The recipient could simply refuse delivery. Frauds were commonplace; for example, coded information could appear on the cover of the letter; the recipient would examine the cover to gain the information, and then refuse delivery to avoid payment. Each individual letter had to be logged. In addition, postal rates were complex, depending on the distance and the number of sheets in the letter.
Richard Cobden and John Ramsey McCulloch, both advocates of free trade, attacked the policies of privilege and protection of the Tory government. McCulloch, in 1833, advanced the view that "nothing contributes more to facilitate commerce than the safe, speedy and cheap conveyance of letters."
Hill's famous pamphlet, Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability, referred to above, was privately circulated in 1837. The report called for "low and uniform rates" according to weight, rather than distance. Hill's study reported his findings and those of Charles Babbage that most of the costs in the postal system were not for transport, but rather for laborious handling procedures at the origins and the destinations. Costs could be reduced dramatically if postage were prepaid by the sender, the prepayment to be proven by the use of prepaid letter sheets or adhesive stamps (adhesive stamps had long been used to show payment of taxes, on documents for example). Letter sheets were to be used because envelopes were not yet common; they were not yet mass-produced, and in an era when postage was calculated partly on the basis of the number of sheets of paper used, the same sheet of paper would be folded and serve for both the message and the address. In addition, Hill proposed to lower the postage rate to a penny per half ounce, without regard to distance.He first presented his proposal to the Government in 1837.
In the House of Lords the Postmaster, Lord Lichfield, a Whig, denounced Hill's "wild and visionary schemes." William Leader Maberly, Secretary to the Post Office, also a Whig, denounced Hill's study: "This plan appears to be a preposterous one, utterly unsupported by facts and resting entirely on assumption". But merchants, traders and bankers viewed the existing system as corrupt and a restraint of trade. They formed a "Mercantile Committee" to advocate for Hill's plan and pushed for its adoption. In 1839 Hill was given a two-year contract to run the new system.
From 1839-42, Hill lived at 1 Orme Square, Bayswater, London, and there is an LCC plaque there in his honour.
The Uniform Fourpenny Post rate was introduced that lowered the cost to fourpence from 5 December 1839,then to the penny rate on 10 January 1840, even before stamps or letter sheets could be printed. The volume of paid internal correspondence increased dramatically, by 120%, between November 1839 and February 1840. This initial increase resulted from the elimination of "free franking" privileges and fraud.
Prepaid letter sheets, with a design by William Mulready, were distributed in early 1840. These Mulready envelopes were not popular and were widely satirised. According to a brochure distributed by the National Postal Museum (now the British Postal Museum & Archive), the Mulready envelopes threatened the livelihoods of stationery manufacturers, who encouraged the satires. They became so unpopular that the government used them on official mail and destroyed many others.
However, as a niche commercial publishing industry for machine-printed illustrated envelopes subsequently developed in Britain and elsewhere, it is likely that it was the sentiment of the illustration that provoked the ridicule and led to their withdrawal. Indeed in the absence of examples of machine-printed illustrated envelopes prior to this it may be appropriate to recognise the Mulready envelope as a significant innovation in its own right. Machine-printed illustrated envelopes are a mainstay of the direct mail industry.
In May 1840 the World's first adhesive postage stamps were distributed. With an elegant engraving of the young Queen Victoria (whose 21st birthday was celebrated that month), the Penny Black was an instant success. Refinements, such as perforations to ease the separating of the stamps, were instituted with later issues.
Rowland Hill continued at the Post Office until the Conservative Party won the 1841 General Election. Sir Robert Peel returned to office on 30 August 1841 and served until 29 June 1846. Amid rancorous controversy, Hill was dismissed in July 1842. However, the London and Brighton Railway named him a director and later chairman of the board, from 1843 to 1846. He lowered the fares from London to Brighton, expanded the routes, offered special excursion trains, and made the commute comfortable for passengers. In 1844 Edwin Chadwick, Rowland Hill, John Stuart Mill, Lyon Playfair, Dr. Neill Arnott, and other friends formed a society called "Friends in Council," which met at each other's houses to discuss questions of political economy.Hill also became a member of the influential Political Economy Club, founded by David Ricardo and other classical economists, but now including many powerful businessmen and political figures.
In 1846 the Conservative party split over the repeal of the Corn Laws and was replaced by a Whig government led by Lord Russell. Hill was made Secretary to the Postmaster General, and then Secretary to the Post Office from 1854 until 1864. For his services Hill was knighted as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1860. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and awarded an honorary degree from University of Oxford.
Hill died in Hampstead, London in 1879. He is buried in Westminster Abbey; there is a memorial to him on his family grave in Highgate Cemetery. There are streets named after him in Hampstead (off Haverstock Hill, down the side of The Royal Free Hospital), and Tottenham (off White Hart Lane). A Royal Society of Arts blue plaque, unveiled in 1893, commemorates Hill at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead.
Albert Medal (1864)