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Photograph of Rowland Hill and a facsimile of his signature

Sir Rowland Hill KCB, FRS (3 December 1795 - 27 August 1879) was an English teacher, inventor and social reformer. He campaigned for a comprehensive reform of the postal system, based on the concept of penny postage 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.


Earlier life

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.[1] At the age of eleven, 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[2] and painted landscapes in his spare time.[3]

Educational reform

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”.[4][5] 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”.[6] The school, which Hill designed, included such marvels (for its time) as a science lab, 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.[3][7] Hazelwood gained international attention when French education leader and editor Marc Antoine Jullien, former secretary to Robespierre, visited and wrote about the school in the June 1823 issue of his journal Revue. Jullien even transferred his son there. Hazelwood so impressed Jeremy Bentham that the school was moved to Bruce Castle in Tottenham, London in 1827.

Colonisation of South Australia

The colonisation of South Australia was a project of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who believed that many of the social problems in Britain were caused by overcrowding and overpopulation. In 1832 Rowland Hill published a tract, entitled Home colonies : sketch of a plan for the gradual extinction of pauperism, and for the diminution of crime, based on a Dutch model.[8] Hill then served from 1833 until 1839 as secretary of the South Australian Colonization Commission, which worked successfully to establish a settlement without convicts at what is today Adelaide. The political economist, Robert Torrens was chairman of the Commission.[9] Under the South Australia Act 1834, the colony was to embody the ideals and best qualities of British society, shaped by religious freedom and a commitment to social progress and civil liberties.

Postal reform

Rowland Hill first started to take a serious interest in postal reforms in 1835.[10] In 1836 Robert Wallace, MP, provided Hill with numerous books and documents, which Hill described as a “half hundred weight of material”.[11] Hill commenced a detailed study of these documents and this led him to the publication, in early 1837, of a pamphlet entitled “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.[12] This first edition was marked “private and confidential” and was not released to the general public. The Chancellor summoned Hill to a meeting during which the Chancellor suggested improvements, asked for reconsiderations and requested a supplement which Hill duly produced and supplied on 28 January 1837.[13]

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.[14] 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.[15]

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."[16]

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 showed 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.[17] He first presented his proposal to the Government in 1837.

The Penny Black, the first postage stamp

In the House of Lords the Postmaster, Lord Lichfield, thundered about Hill's "wild and visionary schemes." William Leader Maberly, Secretary to the Post Office, 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.

The Uniform Fourpenny Post rate was introduced that lowered the cost to fourpence from 5 December 1839,[18] 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, the Penny Black was an immediate success. Refinements, such as perforations to ease the separating of the stamps, would be instituted with later issues.

Later life

Rowland Hill continued at the Post Office until the Conservative Party won re-election. Sir Robert Peel returned to office between 30 August 1841 and 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.[19] 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.[20]

In 1846, when the Conservatives left office, Hill became 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 became a Fellow of the Royal Society and was given an honorary degree from Oxford.

He died in Hampstead, London in 1879. Sir Rowland Hill 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 (running off Haverstock Hill, down the side of The Royal Free Hospital), and Tottenham (off White Hart Lane).


Hill's legacies are twofold: the first was his model for education of the emerging middle classes. The second was his model for an efficient postal system to serve business and the public, including the postage stamp and the system of low and uniform postal rates, which is often taken for granted in the modern world.[21] In this, he not only changed postal services around the world, but also made commerce more efficient and profitable, notwithstanding the fact that it took 30 years before the British Post Office's revenue recovered to the level it had been at in 1839. In fact the Uniform Penny Post continued in the UK into the 20th century, and at one point, one penny paid for up to four ounces.

There are three public statues of him. The first, sculpted by Sir Thomas Brock and unveiled in 1881, stands in the town of his birthplace, Kidderminster.[22] The second, by Edward Onslow Ford stands at King Edward Street, London[23] The third, less known, by Peter Hollins, used to stand in Hurst Street, Birmingham but it is currently in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery store.[24] A life size white marble bust by W. D. Keyworth, Jr. may be viewed in St. Paul's Chapel, Westminster Abbey.[25]

At Tottenham there is now a local History Museum at Bruce Castle (where Hill lived during the 1840s) including some relevant exhibits.

The Rowland Hill Awards,[26] started by the Royal Mail and the British Philatelic Trust in 1997,[27] are annual awards for philatelic "innovation, initiative and enterprise."

In 1882, the Post Office instituted the Rowland Hill Fund for postal workers, pensioners and dependants in need.[28]

See also


  1. ^ "Joseph Priestley and his Influence on Education in Birmingham". Revolutionary Players. 2004-02-28. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  2. ^ Seaborne, Malcolm (1971). The English school: Its architecture and organization, 1370-1870. London: Routledge and K. Paul. pp. 196. 
  3. ^ a b Tim Midgley, "Sir Rowland Hill, a social reformer" (2009)
  4. ^ W. H. G. Armytage, “The Lunar Society and its Contribution to Education”, University of Birmingham Historical Journal, (1967-8) V, 67.
  5. ^ Bartrip, P.W.J. (2008-02-01). "A Thoroughly Good School": An Examination of the Hazelwood Experiment in Progressive Education". British Journal of Educational Studies (British Journal of Educational Studies): 46–59. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  6. ^ Elie Halévy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism. Faber (1972) pp.153-4, 249-478, 433, 491.
  7. ^ "Sir Rowland Hill". Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  8. ^ "Encyclopedia of World Biography on Rowland Hill". Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  9. ^ O'Brien, Denis P. (2007-07-08). "The Classical Economists Revisited''". Princeton University Press. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  10. ^ Hill, Rowland & Hill, George Birkbeck, The Life of Sir Rowland Hill and the History of the Penny Post, Thomas De La Rue, 1880, p.242
  11. ^ The Life of Sir Rowland Hill, p.246
  12. ^ Muir, Douglas N, Postal Reform & the Penny Black, National Postal Museum, 1990, p.42
  13. ^ The Life of Sir Rowland Hill, p.264
  14. ^ David Allam, "The Social and Economic Importance of Postal Reform in 1840," Harry Hays Philatelic Pamphlets No. 4. (1976) ISBN O 905222 17 2
  15. ^ "Frédéric Bastiat: Economic Sophisms: Series 2, Chapter 12. See II.12.25". Library of Economics and Liberty. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  16. ^ Howard Robinson, The British Post Office; a History. Princeton, Princeton Univ. Press. (1948)
  17. ^ Rowland Hill (1795-1879): Post Office Reform, its Importance and Practicability
  18. ^ "Glossary of Stamp Collecting Terms". - Collectors Club of Chicago. Retrieved 2009-04-17. 
  19. ^ "Biography of Edwin Chadwick". DNB. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  20. ^ "D. P. O'Brien, The Classical Economists Revisited". Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  21. ^ The British Postal Museum & Archive — Rowland Hill’s Postal Reforms
  22. ^ "Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879)". Public Monument and Sculpture Association National Recording Project. 1990-05-01. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  23. ^ "Rowland Hill, Statue, King Edward St.". Public Monument and Sculpture Association National Recording Project. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  24. ^ "Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879)". Rowland Hill, Statue, King Edward St.. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  25. ^ "People Buried or Commemorated - Rowland Hill". Westminster Abbey. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  26. ^ "What Are the Rowland Hill Awards?". British Philatelic Trust. 2007-05-14. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  27. ^ "Welcome to the British Philatelic Trust". British Philatelic Trust. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  28. ^ "Rowland Hill Fund". CWU. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  • Matthew Davenport Hill and Rowland Hill, Plans for the Government and Liberal Instruction of Boys in Large Numbers Drawn from Experience (1822); new ed. with additions (1827).
  • Rowland Hill, Home Colonies: a Plan for the Gradual Extinction of Pauperism and the Diminution of Crime. London, Simpkin and Marshall (1832) 52 pages. (New York Public Library SGF p.v.16, no.11.)
  • Rowland Hill, Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability (1837)
  • Rowland Hill and Arthur Hill, A History of Penny Postage with intro. by George Birkbeck Hill, "The Life of Sir Rowland Hill and the Penny Postage". 2 vols. London, T. De La Rue & Co. (1880)
  • David Allam, The Social and Economic Importance of Postal Reform in 1840. Batley: Harry Hayes, 1976
  • R. H. Coase, Rowland Hill and the Penny Post. Economica, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 24 (Nov., 1939), pp. 423-435.
  • H. W. Hill, Rowland Hill and the Fight for the Penny Post. Frederick Warne, 1940
  • M.J. Daunton, Rowland Hill and the Penny Post, History Today, August, 1985.
  • Jean Farrugia, The Life and Work of Sir Rowland Hill, 1795-1879.
  • Smyth, Eleanor C, Sir Rowland Hill, the story of a great reform, told by his daughter, 1907
  • Golden, Catherine J. (2009). Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing. [University Press of Florida]. ISBN 978-0-8130-3379-2. 

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