World Stamps

Uniform penny post of 1840 brought more than adhesive stamps in its wake

Nov 6, 2015, 5 AM
Penny post visionary Rowland Hill’s initial idea was for users to prepay postage using wrappers. The Mulready envelope, issued May 1, 1840, was ridiculed by the public, despite being designed by a distinguished artist. Image courtesy of Robert A. Siegel A

By Kathleen Wunderly

By this time 175 years ago, Great Britain’s grand experiment in drastically changing its historic postal system was a reality, rather than just the dream of Rowland Hill, a teacher turned social reformer.

As stamp collectors, we naturally tend to focus on the immediate tangible results of Hill’s uniform penny postal system: the world’s first adhesive stamp, the 1-penny stamp depicting Queen Victoria, known as the Penny Black, issued May 6, 1840 (Scott 1), and the envelopes (U1-U2) and lettersheets (U3-U4) designed by William Mulready.

This postal innovation — a low-cost minimum rate — literally changed society, first in Great Britain and eventually in much of the civilized world. And its philatelic artifacts, though they loom large in collectors’ landscapes, fade in comparison with the social changes in which they played a part. Hill wanted his ideas to help the common people, but even he did not foresee the scope of the results.

At the end of the 18th century in England, mail coaches traveled with speed and regularity, but at considerable expense to postal customers. George Walker, in Haste, Post, Haste! Postmen and Post-roads through the Ages (published in 1938), said that “the post was more expensive than at any time since its establishment,” and that mailing a single-sheet letter could cost “as much as an agricultural labourer could ever earn in a day, and meant that such a man would be denied all communication with distant relatives.”

Penny posts had been in use in in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin and Newcastle, and some had pondered the notion of a countrywide system, but the idea had never been taken seriously by the government.

In 1833, Hill, a 38-year-old schoolteacher with many firm ideas about education and social reform, left his hometown in the West Midlands, not far from the city of Birmingham. He came to London to assume the position of secretary to the Colonization Commissioners for South Australia, a job he kept until 1839.

A few years after coming to London, Hill became interested in the postal system, which was like the weather: Everyone complained about it but no one could do anything to change or improve it. Rates were rising, revenue was falling, the franking privilege was hugely abused, and evasions of payment by using delivery outside the mails were rampant.

Hill began an intensive, three-year study of the postal service, gathering data on all its financial aspects, to determine what he called “the natural cost of delivering a letter.”

Postal rates at the time were calculated according to weight and distance, and to Hill’s surprise, his findings clearly showed that distance was almost irrelevant to the actual expense of mail service.

For example, he examined the route from London to Edinburgh, some 400 miles and one of the longest stretches in the domestic postal system. The major expenses were for the coach, driver and guard, and Hill determined that the actual cost of handling a single-sheet letter on that route was no more than 1/36th of a penny (from one town to another was only about 9/100th of a penny).

The major costs of mail service were for labor. A letter was handed to a clerk, who examined it and entered the estimated postage fee amount in a ledger. Other clerks then “candled” the letter in a darkened room to try to visually determine the number of sheets enclosed and adjust the postage due accordingly.

The letter was then given to a postman who had to locate the addressee and collect the fee, sometimes after a delay for an argument with the recipient, who could refuse to accept the letter. The postman then carried the fee (or the letter) back to the post office for further ledger entries. There were throngs of bookkeepers at the large post offices.

Hill distilled his findings and recommendations into a pamphlet published in 1836, titled Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability. He presented four major recommendations.

First, there should be a fixed minimum postage rate, as cheap as possible, so that the common people could afford to use the post, and this increased usage would compensate for any lost revenue.

Second, this fixed rate should be 1 penny for a half-ounce letter (which would mean a rate that was one-fourth of the existing short-distance rate and 1/17th of the long-distance rate).

Third, the rate should be the same for a half-ounce letter (however many pages) traveling any distance within the country.

And, fourth, all letters should be prepaid, eliminating the whole labor-intensive process of accounting and fee collecting.

Wrappers or envelopes would be available for sale singly or in quantity. In the absence of a wrapper, Hill suggested, “Perhaps this difficulty might be obviated by using a bit of paper just large enough to bear the (ink) stamp and covered at the back with a glutinous wash, which the bringer might, by the application of a little moisture, attach to the back of the letter.” Adhesive stamps for revenue purposes already existed, so Hill was not suggesting an entirely new invention.

Hill sent his pamphlet privately to the government, but after several months of no response, he published it publicly in February 1837. It caused a sensation and was reprinted twice to meet demand. Most important, Hill’s friend, Robert Wallace, an energetic member of Parliament and much in favor of postal reform, formally presented it to the legislature.

Meetings were held all over the country as enthusiasm swept the people. The press, even the conservative (and influential) Times, backed Hill, and the government decided to set up a select commission to receive testimony and make a recommendation on the proposed reforms.

Wallace was appointed to head the committee, the Commission of Post-Office Inquiry, and hearings were conducted from November 1837 to August 1838.

Richard Cobden, a prominent manufacturer in Manchester and well-known proponent of free trade policies, told the commission, “We have 50,000 Irish in Manchester who are almost as precluded, as though they lived in New South Wales, from all correspondence with their relatives in Ireland.”

One of the worst problems with the then-current postal system was the rampant use of illicit ways of delivery to avoid the high rates. Cobden said that 80 percent of the letters in Manchester were conveyed without going through the post office. A publisher in Glasgow said that he sent out 20,000 letters by illegal means before he was caught.

Members of Parliament, who enjoyed the franking privilege, testified about the common practice of selling the franked envelopes that they received for free. One member paid his servant’s wages in franked House of Commons envelopes.

Speaking for the common people, a postmaster in western England told the commission about a laboring man who received a letter from his daughter, 8d due, which he hesitated to accept, as “it would take a loaf of bread from his other children.” At this time, in England and Wales, an average of one letter per inhabitant was mailed in three months; in Scotland, one in four months; and in Ireland, one a year.

The Wallace commission recommended the adoption of Hill’s plan, specifying that “any letter not exceeding half an ounce shall be conveyed free within the metropolis, and the district to which the town and country deliveries extend, if inclosed in an envelope bearing a penny stamp.”

Public opinion propelled the idea (though with a higher fee) through the houses of Parliament, despite the doubts of many. On Dec. 5, 1839, the Uniform Four-Penny Post was introduced by the General Post Office, but it lasted only 36 days, until the Uniform Penny Post was introduced Jan. 10, 1840.

Hill was grudgingly given a subordinate post in the treasury to work on implementing the new program, under the supervision of some of those who had worked hardest to try to thwart his plan. William Maberly, joint secretary to the General Post Office, had denounced Hill’s work as “fallacious, preposterous, utterly unsupported by facts, and resting entirely on assumption.”  Maberly stated that even if postal fees were reduced to nothing, people would not write more frequently than before.

Conservative critics called cheap postage “only a means of making sedition easier.”

The new Mulready lettersheets and envelopes were not ready for the Jan. 10 start date (and the new 1d stamp was not issued until May 1840), but their absence was immaterial. Crowds jammed the London post office on the first day of the penny rate. Extra workers were brought out to serve the throngs, amid a festive atmosphere.

By day’s end, that office had accepted 112,000 letters, three times the usual number. An anonymous poem titled Lines Written on the First Day of the Penny Postage cheered: “Hail joyous day! The Postage Bill/Brings blessings great and many: And best of all, say what we will, It only costs a penny. From John o’ Groats to England’s End, From Norfolk to Kilkenny, A letter now may reach a friend, And it only costs a penny.”

And letters were indeed reaching friends, family and business contacts. Harriet Martineau, an author now considered the first female sociologist, wrote, “We are all putting up our letter boxes on our hall doors with great glee, anticipating hearing from brothers and sisters a line or two, almost every day.”

A professor in Suffolk said the new rate aided the progress of agricultural science, enabling the inexpensive and efficient exchange of specimens and research information. The professor added that he often acted as writer and reader for his rural neighbors, and “frequently heard them express their satisfaction at the facility they enjoy of now corresponding with distant relatives: of the vast domestic comfort which the penny post has added to homes like my own, I need say nothing more.”

Those who had doubted the likelihood of an increase in mailing may have been underestimating the public’s abilities. Literacy among the British working class in 1840 is estimated at between 67 percent and 75 percent, and the postal reforms brought about a seemingly unanticipated consequence: “people were everywhere learning to write for the first time in order to enjoy the benefits of a free correspondence,” according to some educators, with night classes for adult literacy starting in many towns across the country.

The emotional and psychological benefits, which government officials seem not to have understood or foreseen (but which surely were the basis of the public’s immediate support of Hill’s ideas), were enormous. Samuel Laing, secretary of the railway department, noted, “By the reduction of the postage on letters, the use and advantage of education has been brought home to the common man (for it no longer costs him a day’s pay to communicate with his family).”

One of Hill’s friends wrote to tell him of the joy felt by the poor in that district, who “can at last write to one another as if they were all Members of Parliament. Every mother in the kingdom who has children earning their bread at a distance, lays her head on the pillow at night with a feeling of gratitude for this blessing.”

A Scottish official visiting the Shetland Islands in 1842 was told by the postmaster that the increase in the number of letters was astonishing, saying that “cheap postage has had the effect of reconciling families to the temporary absence of their members, and has thus opened to the islanders the labour-market of the mainland.”

Hill’s battles did not end with the introduction of his penny post. Costs did rise, to his detractors’ satisfaction, but the reasons were many: waste, inefficiency and even sabotage, as well as the great increase in mail. Possibly the greatest problem, however, was the railways, growing in importance and taking full advantage by charging the post office exorbitant fees, an unforeseen expense.

But, on the plus side of the ledger, most of the illegal mail carrying stopped almost immediately, in the face of competition from the low postal rates. In the second year of the new rates, the post office had received 208 million chargeable letters, as compared with 72 million previously.

At a meeting in 1843 to review the first three years of the new system, Hill and the parliamentary committee noted that money-order office business had increased almost 2,000 percent, and commercial transactions of nearly every kind had soared – circulars, printer’s proofs, invoices and business correspondence, etc. – all to the benefit of the British economy.

In time (about 11 years), revenue returned to profitable levels, but during the interim the reduced fees were so deeply popular and ingrained in British society that to attempt to end them would have been political suicide for any member of Parliament. The farmer who had asked his postmaster in the early days of the penny post if the new reform was going to last — and after being assured that it would, bought three stamps — was able to use them to maximum effect.

Looking back, Joseph Hume, for many years a social-reform member of Parliament, wrote in 1848 to the American Minister at the Court of St. James, “I am not aware of any return, amongst the many which I have promoted during the past forty years, that has had, and will have, better results towards the improvement of the country socially, morally, and politically.”

Of course, not everyone was happy. Poet William Wordsworth, for example, reclusive in his Lake District abode, complained in February 1841, “The multitude of communications which reach me, especially since the reduction of postage to a trifle, is so great that I have neither time nor eyesight to acknowledge the greatest part of them . . . if I were to attend to one half of them I should really have no time for myself.”

Complaints also were heard in the United States, but they were cries of envy. In 1840 in America, a single-sheet letter going less than 30 miles cost 6¢, and one traveling more than 400 miles cost 25¢. (As a point of reference, a Massachusetts textile millworker in 1840 made about $2 for a 73-hour week.) Congress finally approved lower postage rates beginning in 1845, and, in 1847, the first government-produced U.S. postage stamps were issued.

By 1860, Hill’s once-revolutionary ideas about cheap postage had spread across the civilized world.