Notes from the Past

Uniform Penny Postage Introduced

Sir Rowland Hill first showed interest in British postal affairs in 1834 when he tried to abolish the newspaper tax.  Although he couldn't get the tax eliminated, he did succeed in getting a reduction from 3½d. to 1d.  It was two years later that be began to compile statistics which demonstrated the inefficiency and waste of the Post Office.  He was supported by some friends including Robert Wallace, Member of Parliament from Greenock.

His research showed that, while the population of Great Britain grew by six million from 1815 to 1835, the net revenue of the Post Office dropped by £17,000.  Hill compared postal revenues with the stagecoach tax which he suggested were affected by nearly the same influences and concluded that postal revenue was £2 million less than it should have been.

Hill concluded correctly that this discrepancy in revenue was due to the exorbitant postal rates.  Rates were based on distance.  A single sheet letter ranged from 4d. for 15 miles to 1s. for not more than 300 miles with 1d. more for every 100 added miles or less.  A letter from London to Manchester cost 11d., and one from London to Cork, 1s. 3d.  Heavier mail cost more.  A 2 oz. letter from London to Cork was 9s. 11d.!

To back up his contention that the Post Office would be more successful if rates were lowered, Hill compiled data showing that the cost of conveying a single letter from London to Edinburgh was only 1/36 of a penny.  Thus, he concluded, if the rate were only 1d., there would be a substantial increase in the number of letters posted leading to increased postal income.  In January, 1837, Hill published his analysis and proposals in a pamphlet entitled Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Profitability.  After the small printing privately circulated received a favorable reception, the following month Hill published an expanded edition incorporating some of the suggestions he received.

The new edition was distributed to many influential people and he gained a number of supporters in the Radical party.  However, the time for postal reforms had not yet arrived.

Hill continued work on his proposals for the next two years.  Finally on April 9, 1839, a Bill was introduced which led to the Government's resignation.  After Sir Robert Peel was unable to form a government, Lord Melbourne formed a government with the support of the Radicals whose conditions included a commitment that Hill's Penny Postage scheme would be introduced.

Among the opponents of the scheme was Lord Lichfield, the Postmaster-General, who noted, "Of all the wild and visionary schemes I have ever heard or read of, it is the most extraordinary."  Despite opposition the Chancellor of the Exchequer presented his Budget based on adoption of Penny Postage.  The opposition in Parliament was led by Sir Robert Peel who argued principally that there would be a large loss in revenue and by Sir Robert Inglis who was opposed to the abolition of the franking privilege for Members of Parliament.  Finally, the bill passed on third reading and Royal assent was given on August 17, 1839.

The plan was begun with an experimental uniform 4d. rate on December 4, 1839.  On January 10, 1840, the Uniform Penny Postage was established.  This provided the foundation for the introduction of adhesive stamps and the other reforms proposed by Sir Rowland Hill.

Posted August 12, 2000

Editor's Note:  I have willingly excerpted (almost plagiarized) this from Stamps Day By Day, L. N. and M Williams. Blandford Press Ltd, 1950.

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