SIR ROWLAND HILL.
The poet Coleridge, on one of his long walks among the English lakes,
stopped at a roadside inn for dinner, and while he was there the
letter-carrier came in, bringing a letter for the girl who was waiting
upon him. The postage was a shilling, nearly twenty-five cents. She
looked long and lovingly at the letter, holding it in her hand, and then
gave it back to the man, telling him that she could not afford to pay
the postage. Coleridge at once offered the shilling, which the girl
after much hesitation accepted. When the carrier was gone she told him
that he had thrown his shilling away, for the pretended letter was only
a blank sheet of paper. On the outside there were some small marks which
she had carefully noted before giving the letter back to the carrier.
Those marks were the _letter_, which was from her brother, with whom she
had agreed upon a short-hand system by which to communicate news without
expense. "We are so poor," said she to the poet, "that we have invented
this manner of corresponding and sending our letters free."
The shilling which the postman demanded was, in fact, about a week's
wages to a girl in her condition fifty years ago. Nor was it poor girls
only who then played tricks upon the post-office. Envelopes franked by
honorable members of Parliament were a common article of merchandise,
for it was the practice of their clerks and servants to procure and sell
them. Indeed, the postal laws were so generally evaded that, in some
large towns, the department was cheated of three quarters of its
revenue. Who can wonder at it? It cost more then to send a letter from
one end of London to the other, or from New York to Harlem, than it now
does to send a letter from Egypt to San Francisco. The worst effect of
dear postage was the obstacles it placed in the way of correspondence
between poor families who were separated by distance. It made
correspondence next to impossible between poor people in Europe and
their relations in America. Think of an Irish laborer who earned
sixpence a day paying _seventy-five cents_ to get news from a daughter
in Cincinnati! It required the savings of three or four months.
The man who changed all this, Sir Rowland Hill, died only three years
ago at the age of eighty-three. I have often said that an American ought
to have invented the new postal system; and Rowland Hill, though born
and reared in England, and descended from a long line of English
ancestors, was very much an American. He was educated on the American
plan. His mind was American, and he had the American way of looking at
things with a view to improving them.
His father was a Birmingham schoolmaster, a free trader, and more than
half a republican. He brought up his six sons and two daughters to use
their minds and their tongues. His eldest son, the recorder of
Birmingham, once wrote of his father thus:--
"Perhaps the greatest obligation we owe our father is this: that, from
infancy, he would reason with us, and so observe all the rules of fair
play, that we put forth our little strength without fear. Arguments were
taken at their just weight; the sword of authority was not thrown into
Miss Edgeworth's tales deeply impressed the boy, and he made up his mind
in childhood to follow the path which she recommended, and do something
which should greatly benefit mankind.
At the age of eleven he began to assist in teaching his father's pupils.
At twelve he was a pupil no more, and gave himself wholly up to
teaching. Long before he was of age he had taken upon himself all the
mere business of the school, and managed it so well as to pay off debts
which had weighed heavily upon the family ever since he was born. At the
same time he invented new methods of governing the school. He was one of
the first to abolish corporal punishment. He converted his school into a
republic governed by a constitution and code of laws, which filled a
printed volume of more than a hundred pages, which is still in the
possession of his family. His school, we are told, was governed by it
for many years. If a boy was accused of a fault, he had the right of
being tried by a jury of his school-fellows. Monitors were elected by
the boys, and these monitors met to deliberate upon school matters as a
Upon looking back in old age upon this wonderful school, he doubted very
much whether the plan was altogether good. The democratic idea, he
thought, was carried too far; it made the boys too positive and
"I greatly doubt," said he once, "if I should send my own son to a
school conducted on such a complicated system."
It had, nevertheless, admirable features, which he originated, and which
are now generally adopted. Toward middle life he became tired of this
laborious business, though he had the largest private school in that
part of England. His health failed, and he felt the need of change and
rest. Having now some leisure upon his hands he began to invent and
His attention was first called to the postal system merely by the high
price of postage. It struck him as absurd that it should cost thirteen
pence to convey half an ounce of paper from London to Birmingham, while
several pounds of merchandise could be carried for sixpence. Upon
studying the subject, he found that the mere carriage of a letter
between two post-offices cost scarcely anything, the chief expense being
incurred at the post-offices in starting and receiving it. He found that
the actual cost of conveying a letter from London to Edinburgh, four
hundred and four miles, was _one eighteenth of a cent_! This fact it was
which led him to the admirable idea of the uniform rate of one
penny--for all distances.
At that time a letter from London to Edinburgh was charged about
twenty-eight cents; but if it contained the smallest inclosure, even
half a banknote, or a strip of tissue paper, the postage was doubled. In
short, the whole service was incumbered with absurdities, which no one
noticed because they were old. In 1837, after an exhaustive study of the
whole system, he published his pamphlet, entitled Post-Office Reforms,
in which he suggested his improvements, and gave the reasons for them.
The post-office department, of course, treated his suggestions with
complete contempt. But the public took a different view of the matter.
The press warmly advocated his reforms. The thunderer of the London
"Times" favored them. Petitions poured into Parliament. Daniel O'Connell
spoke in its favor.
"Consider, my lord," said he to the premier, "that a letter to Ireland
and the answer back would cost thousands upon thousands of my poor and
affectionate countrymen more than a fifth of their week's wages. If you
shut the post-office to them, which you do now, you shut out warm hearts
and generous affections from home, kindred, and friends."
The ministry yielded, and on January 10, 1840, penny postage became the
law of the British Empire. As the whole postal service had to be
reorganized, the government offered Rowland Hill the task of introducing
the new system, and proposed to give him five hundred pounds a year for
two years. He spurned the proposal, and offered to do the work for
nothing. He was then offered fifteen hundred pounds a year for two
years, and this he accepted rather than see his plan mismanaged by
persons who did not believe in it. After many difficulties, the new
system was set in motion, and was a triumphant success from the first
A Tory ministry coming in, they had the incredible folly to dismiss the
reformer, and he retired from the public service without reward. The
English people are not accustomed to have their faithful servants
treated in that manner, and there was a universal burst of indignation.
A national testimonial was started. A public dinner was given him, at
which he was presented with a check for sixty-five thousand dollars. He
was afterwards placed in charge of the post-office department, although
with a lord over his head as nominal chief. This lord was a Tory of the
old school, and wished to use the post-office to reward political and
personal friends. Rowland Hill said:--
"No, my lord; appointment and promotion for merit only."
They quarreled upon this point, and Rowland Hill resigned. The queen
sent a message to the House of Commons asking for twenty thousand pounds
as a national gift to Sir Rowland Hill, which was granted, and he was
also allowed to retire from office upon his full salary of two thousand
pounds a year. That is the way to treat a public benefactor; and nations
which treat their servants in that spirit are likely to be well served.
The consequences of this postal reform are marvelous to think of. The
year before the new plan was adopted in Great Britain, one hundred and
six millions of letters and papers were sent through the post-office.
Year before last the number was one thousand four hundred and
seventy-eight millions. In other words, the average number of letters
per inhabitant has increased from three per annum to thirty-two. The
United States, which ought to have taken the lead in this matter, was
not slow to follow, and every civilized country has since adopted the
A few weeks before Sir Rowland Hill's death, the freedom of the city of
London was presented to him in a gold box. He died in August, 1881, full
of years and honors.