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In Mr Joyce's already quoted and exhaustive work upon the Post Office as it existed before 1840 an interesting account is given of the reformers who, long before Rowland Hill's time, did so much to render the service efficient, and therefore to benefit the nation. As pioneers in a good cause, they deserve mention in another volume dealing with the same public Department; and their story is perhaps the better worth repeating because it shows how curiously similar is the treatment meted out to those who are rash enough to meddle with a long-established monopoly, no matter how greatly it may stand in need of reform. In every instance the reformer struggled hard for recognition of the soundness of his views, toiled manfully when once he had acquired the position he deserved to hold, was more or less thwarted and harassed while he filled it, and, precisely as if he had been a mischievous innovator instead of a public benefactor, was eventually got rid of.

As regards the Post Office, each of the best-known reformers was handicapped by the fact that, with one notable exception, he was that unwelcome thing, an outsider. Murray was an upholsterer, or, according to another account, a clerk in the Assize Office; [Pg 71] Dockwra was a sub-searcher at the Custom House; and Palmer was the proprietor of the Bath theatre. My father, as has been shown, had been a schoolmaster, a rotatory printing press inventor, and a member of the South Australian Commission. Even when his plan was accepted by the Government, he had yet to set foot within the Post Office, though not for want of trying to enter, because while collecting material for his pamphlet in 1836 he had applied to the authorities for permission to inspect the working of the Department, only to meet with a refusal.

The one notable exception was Ralph Allen, Pope's “humble Allen,” and, as mentioned in the previous chapter, the author of the cross-posts. The original of Fielding's “Squire Allworthy” had, Mr Joyce tells us, “been cradled and nursed in the Post Office,” and his grandmother was postmistress at St Columb, Cornwall. Here he kept the official accounts in so neat and regular a manner that he attracted the attention of the district surveyor, and, later, was given a situation in the Bath Post Office, eventually becoming its chief official.[48]

Mr Joyce's narrative, as we have seen, is brought down only to the end of the old postal system. To that which superseded it he makes but brief allusion, because the subject had already been dealt with in the two volumes edited and added to by Dr Birkbeck Hill.

In the present work the story will be carried less than thirty years beyond the time at which Mr Joyce's narrative ends—that is, so far as postal reform is [Pg 72] concerned. The later history of the Post Office, which would easily make a volume as large as Mr Joyce's, has yet to find an author, and to rank worthily beside his should be written with a corresponding care and accuracy of detail.

One chapter only need be devoted here to the most prominent early postal reformers, and their story shall begin with Witherings (1635). Speaking of his work, Mr Joyce says, “This was the introduction of postage.”[49] To Witherings, therefore, must be awarded the merit of having furnished cause for a new meaning of the word “post,” whose earlier usage still survives in some provincial hotel notices announcing “posting in all its branches.”[50]

In Witherings' time the postal rates were, for single letters, “under 80 miles, 2d.; under 140 miles, 4d.; over 140 miles, 6d.—for until 1840 the charges were calculated according to distance. For double [Pg 73] letters double rates were, of course, exacted. If “bigger” than double, the postage became 6d., 9d. and 1s. Single postage to and from Scotland was 8d., to and from Ireland 9d. These were heavy rates at a time when the country was far less wealthy and the relative value of money higher than is now the case. But at least service was rendered for the heavy rates, as “Henceforth the posts were to be equally open to all; all would be at liberty to use them; all would be welcome.”[51]

Witherings especially distinguished himself in the management of the foreign postal service, which he accelerated and made more efficient. In 1637 he was appointed “Master of the Posts,” and was thus the only reformer from outside who, withinside, rose to become supreme head of the Department. The office was given to enable him to undertake, unhindered, the improvements he proposed to make in the inland posts. Three years later he was dismissed, and an end put to “the career of one who had the sagacity to project and the energy to carry out a system, the main features of which endure to the present day.”[52]

In 1643 the postal revenue amounted to some £5,000 a year only. By 1677 the Department's profits were farmed at £43,000 a year, and the officials consisted of one Postmaster-General and seventy-five employees. A writer of the day tells us that “the number of letter missives is now prodigiously great.”

[Pg 74]

In 1658 John Hill, a Yorkshire attorney, did good work, and tried to accomplish more. He already supplied post horses between York and London, undertook the conveyance, at cheap rates, of parcels and letters, and established agencies about the country for the furtherance of a scheme to greatly reduce the postal charges throughout the kingdom; his proposal being a penny rate for England and Wales, a twopenny rate for Scotland, and a fourpenny rate for Ireland. But the Government declined to consider the merits of the plan.

When Dockwra—who gave practical shape to the scheme which Murray had assigned to him—established his reform of a penny post, London had no other post office than the general one in Lombard Street,[53] and there was no such thing as a delivery of letters between one part of London and another. Thus, if any Londoner wished to write to any other Londoner, he was obliged to employ a messenger to convey his missive to its destination; and as the houses then had no numbers, but were distinguished only by signs, the amateur letter-carrier must have been often puzzled at which door to knock.

Dockwra soon put his great scheme into working order. He divided city and suburbs into districts—in that respect forestalling a feature of Rowland Hill's plan—seven in number, each with a sorting office; and in one day opened over four hundred receiving offices. In the city letters were delivered for 1d., in the suburbs for 2d. It must have been quite [Pg 75] as epoch-making a reform to the Londoners of the seventeenth century, as was the far wider-reaching, completer scheme established a hundred and sixty years later to the entire nation. For Dockwra's, though for its time a wonderful advance, was but a local institution, the area served being “from Hackney in the north to Lambeth in the south, and from Blackwall in the east to Westminster in the west.”[54] He also introduced a parcel post.

The local penny posts—for they were afterwards extended to many other towns—have given some people the erroneous impression that Rowland Hill's plan of penny postage was simply an elaboration and a widening of Dockwra's older system. Things called by a similar name are not necessarily identical. Indeed, as we have seen, the word “postage” had formerly quite a different meaning from that it now has; and, although Dockwra's “penny post” and Rowland Hill's “penny postage” related equally to postage in its modern interpretation of the word, that the system established in 1840 materially differed from preceding systems will be shown in the succeeding chapter.[55]

Dockwra's reform was inaugurated in 1680, proved of immense benefit to the public, was intended to last for ever, and did last for a hundred and twenty-one years. In 1801 the charges on the local—to say nothing of those on the general—post were raised [Pg 76] from 1d. and 2d. to 2d. and 3d., while its area, which in Queen Anne's reign had been extended to from 18 to 20 miles beyond London, shrank into much narrower limits.[56] The increase of charge was due to that augmented contribution, on the part of the Post Office, to the war-tax which has been already mentioned. During the last twenty-five of the years 1801-1840 the country was at peace, but the tendency of “temporary” war-taxes is to become permanent, or to die a very lingering death; and, as has been shown, no diminution was made in postal rates; and letter-writing in thousands of homes practically ceased to be.

In 1663 the entire profits of the Post Office had been settled on James, Duke of York; and Dockwra's reform, like other large measures, being costly to establish, he had to seek financial help outside the Department, the requisite money being furnished by a few public-spirited citizens of London. The undertaking was a losing speculation at first, but presently began to prosper; and the Duke's jealousy was at once roused. “So long,” says Mr Joyce, “as the outgoings exceeded the receipts, Dockwra remained unmolested; but no sooner had the balance turned than the Duke complained of his monopoly being infringed, and the Courts of Law decided in his favour. Not only was Dockwra cast in damages, but the undertaking was wrested out of his hands.”[57]

[Pg 77]

During James's reign this eminent public servant met with no recognition of his valuable work; but under William and Mary he was granted a pension, and after some delay was reinstated as comptroller of the penny post. But in 1700 both situation and pension came to an end; and the man who had conferred so signal a benefit upon his fellow-citizens was finally dismissed.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the posts in Ireland were few and far between. Carrick-on-Shannon was the only town in County Leitrim which received a mail, and that not oftener than twice a week. Several districts in Ireland were served only at the cost of their inhabitants.

Besides London, Bath alone—favoured by its two distinguished citizens, Ralph Allen and John Palmer—had, before 1792, more than one letter-carrier; and many important centres of population, such as Norwich, York, Derby, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and Plymouth, had none at all—the postmaster, and in some instances a single assistant, constituting the entire staff, no sort of duty outside the official walls being undertaken. The Channel Islands were treated as though they had been in another planet. Before 1794 they had no postal communication with the rest of the United Kingdom, though for some years local enterprise had provided them with an inter-insular service. When Palmer appeared on the scene, the number of towns in the British Isles which received mails increased rapidly, while those already served two or three times a week began to receive a post daily.

[Pg 78]

In no respect, perhaps, has greater progress been made than in the matter of mail conveyance, both as regards acceleration and safety, and in other ways. In Witherings' time about two months were required for a letter and its answer to pass between London and Scotland or London and Ireland. Exchange of correspondence between the three kingdoms was, strange to say, far less expeditiously carried on than that between London and Madrid. But when it is remembered how direful was the condition of our thoroughfares in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the impossibility of anything like swift progress becomes evident. Ruts there were, says Arthur Young, which measured 3 feet in depth, and in wet weather were filled to the brim with water; while in “Guy Mannering” Scott speaks of districts “only accessible through a succession of tremendous morasses.” In “Waverley” (temp. 1745) is described the “Northern Diligence, a huge, old-fashioned tub drawn by three horses, which completed the journey from Edinburgh to London ('God willing,' as the advertisement expressed it) in three weeks.” Twenty years later, even, the coaches spent from twelve to fourteen days upon the journey, and went once a month only. In some places the roads were so bad that it was necessary to erect beacons alongside them to keep the travelling public after dark from falling into the ponds and bogs which lined the highways and sometimes encroached upon them. Elsewhere, the ponderous “machines” groaned or clattered over rocky and precipitous ways, rolling and pitching like a vessel on an angry sea. Not even by the more [Pg 79] lightly-freighted men on foot and boys mounted on the wretched steeds provided for the Post Office service could swifter progress be made. No wonder that letter and answer should travel but slowly.

In 1784, when Palmer proposed the abolition of these slow-moving and far from trustworthy mail-carriers,[58] and the substitution in their place of the existing stage-coaches,[59] great were the scorn and indignation of the postal authorities. Seven miles an hour instead of three and a half! And coaches instead of post-boys! Were ever such mad proposals heard of! The officials were “amazed that any dissatisfaction, any desire for change should exist.” Not so very long before, they had plumed themselves on the gratifying fact that “in five days an answer to a letter might be had from a place distant 200 miles from the writer.” And now, even in face of that notable advance, the public wanted further concessions! One prominent official “could not see why the post should be the swiftest conveyance in England.” Another [Pg 80] was sure that if travelling were made quicker, the correspondence of the country would be thrown into the utmost confusion. But he thought—and perhaps the parentage of the thought was not far to seek—that to expedite the mails was simply impossible. The officials, indeed, were “unanimously of opinion that the thing is totally impracticable.”[60] And, doubtless, Palmer was set down as “a visionary” and “a revolutionist”—names to be bestowed, some fifty-three years later, upon another persistent reformer. A second Committee, formed to consider Palmer's proposals, reported that it had “examined the oldest and ablest officers of the Post Office, and they had no confidence whatever in the plan.” “It is always,” said Brougham, when, in the Upper House, he was advocating adoption of the later reform, “the oldest and ablest, for the Committee considered the terms synonymous.”[61]

Thus does history repeat itself. As it was with Palmer, so, before him, it was with Witherings and Dockwra; and, after him, with Rowland Hill. The unforgivable offence is to be wiser than one's opponents, and to achieve success when failure has been predicted.

But worse things than prophecy of failure accompany reforms, attempted or accomplished, and act like a discordant chorus striving to drown sweet music. Prophecy of dire results, such as ruin of society, disruption of the Empire, etc., are sometimes raised, and carry dismay into the hearts of the timid. My father, who was born less than forty-three years [Pg 81] after “the change of style,” as a child often heard old people, in all seriousness, lament the loss of “our eleven days,” and declare that since it was made everything in this country had gone wrong.[62] I too, when young, have heard aged lips attribute the awful cholera visitation of 1832 to our sinfulness in passing the Catholic Emancipation Bill; and the potato disease and consequent Irish famine in the mid 'forties to interference with the sacred Corn Laws. We laugh at this sort of thing to-day, but are we much wiser than our forebears?

Although these great reforms differ widely in character, the gloomy predictions concerning them are substantially alike. The terrible things prophesied never come to pass; and of the reforms when once established no sane person wishes to get rid.

When at last Palmer had borne down opposition [Pg 82] and been placed in authority, he set to work in a far-reaching, statesmanlike manner. The old, worthless vehicles which, owing to their frequent habit of breaking down on the road, had become a constant source of complaint, were gradually got rid of; and by 1792 all his mail-coaches were new. He was a born organiser, and insisted on the introduction and maintenance of business-like methods. Unnecessary stoppages along the road were put an end to, and necessary stoppages shortened; the mail-bags to be taken on were made up before the coaches appeared, the mail-bags to be taken off were ready to the guard's hand; and strict punctuality was enforced. The guards and coachmen were armed, and no one unskilled in the use of firearms was employed in either capacity. The harness and other accoutrements were kept in good repair, the coaches were well-horsed, and the relays were made with reasonable frequency.[63]

Palmer had calculated that sixteen hours ought to suffice for the London and Bath coach when covering the distance between the two cities. The time usually spent on the road was thirty-eight hours. The first mail-coach which started from Bath to London under his auspices in 1784 performed the journey in seventeen hours, proving with what nearness to absolute accuracy he had made his calculations. For a while seventeen hours became the customary time-limit. Not long after this date mail-coaches were plying on all the principal roads.

[Pg 83]

Before the first of Palmer's coaches went to Liverpool, that seaport was served by one letter-carrier. Ten years later, six were needed. One postman had sufficed for Edinburgh; now four were required. Manchester till 1792 had but one letter-carrier, and its postal staff consisted of an aged widow and her daughter. Previous to 1794 the Isle of Wight was served by one postmaster and one letter-carrier only.

Before Palmer took over the management of the coaches they were robbed, along one road or another, at least once a week. It was not till his rule was ten years old that a coach was stopped or robbed; and then it was not a highwayman, but a passenger who did the looting. Before 1784 the annual expenditure incurred through prosecution of the thieves had been a heavy charge on the service, one trial alone—that of the brothers Weston, who figure in Thackeray's “Denis Duval”—having cost £4,000. This burden on the Post Office revenue henceforth shrank into comparatively insignificant dimensions.

Palmer traversed the entire kingdom along its coach routes, making notes of the length of time consumed on each journey, calculating in how much less time it could be performed by the newer vehicles, and always keeping an observant eye on other possible improvements.

Before the end of the eighteenth century Dockwra's London penny post[64] had fallen upon [Pg 84] evil days. Neglect and mismanagement had been its lot for many years; there was a steady diminution of its area, and no accounts were kept of its gains. Palmer looked into the condition of the local post, as, in addition to the mail conveyance, he had already looked into the condition of the newspaper post and other things which stood in need of rectification; and, later, the old penny post, now transformed into a twopenny post, was taken in hand by Johnson, who, from the position of letter-carrier, rose, by sheer ability, to the office of “Deputy Comptroller of the Penny Post.”

As a rule, Palmer was fortunate in choosing subordinates, of whom several not only accomplished useful work long after their chief had been dismissed, but who introduced reforms on their own account. Hasker, the head superintendent of the mail-coaches, kept the vehicles, horses, accoutrements, etc., to say nothing of the officials, quite up to Palmer's level. But in another chosen man the great reformer was fatally deceived, for Bonner intrigued against his benefactor, and helped to bring about his downfall.

One reform paves the way for succeeding reforms. Palmer's improved coaches caused a marked increase of travelling; and the establishment of yet better and more numerous vehicles led to the making of [Pg 85] better roads. By this time people were beginning to get over the ground at such a rate that the late Lord Campbell, when a young man, was once, in all seriousness, advised to avoid using Palmer's coaches, which, it was said, owing to the speed at which they travelled between London and Edinburgh, and elsewhere, had caused the death of several passengers from apoplexy! “The pace that killed” was 8 miles an hour. By the time the iron horse had beaten the flesh-and-blood quadruped out of the field, or rather road, the coaches were running at the rate of 12 miles an hour.

Everywhere the mails were being accelerated and increased in number. For now the science of engineering was making giant strides; and Telford and his contemporary MacAdam—whose name has enriched our language with a verb, while the man himself endowed our thoroughfares with a solid foundation—were covering Great Britain with highways the like of which had not been seen since the days of the Roman Conquest.

And then arrived the late 'twenties of the nineteenth century, bringing with them talk of railways and of steam-propelled locomotives whose speed, it was prophesied by sanguine enthusiasts, might some day even rival that of a horse at full gallop. The threatened mail-coaches lived on for many a year, but from each long country highway they disappeared one after another, some of them, it is said, carrying, on their last journey, the union Jack at half-mast; and, ere long, the once busy roadside inn-keepers put up their shutters, and closed the [Pg 86] doors of their empty stables. More than half a century had to elapse before the hostelries opened again to the cyclists and motorists who have given to them fresh life and energy.

And thus passed away the outward and visible witnesses to Palmer's great reform, not as many things pass because they have reached the period of senile decay, but when his work was at the high water-mark of efficiency and fame. Perhaps that singular fact is suggestive of the reason why the disappearance of the once familiar pageant gave rise to a widespread regret that was far from being mere sentimentality.

When they were in their prime, the “royal mail-coaches” made a brave display. Ruddy were they with paint and varnish, and golden with Majesty's coat-of-arms, initials, etc. The driver and guard were clad in scarlet uniforms, and the four fine horses—often increased in a “difficult” country to six or more—were harnessed two abreast, and went at a good, swinging pace. Once upon a time a little child was taken for a stroll along a suburban highroad to watch for the passing of the mail-coaches on their way from London to the north—a literally everyday pageant, but one unstaled by custom. In the growing dusk could be distinguished a rapidly-moving procession of dark crimson and gold vehicles in single file, each with its load of comfortably wrapped-up passengers sitting outside, and each drawn by four galloping steeds, whose quick footfalls made a pleasant, rhythmic sound. One heard the long, silvern horns of the guards, [Pg 87] every now and then, give notice in peremptory tones to the drivers of ordinary conveyances to scatter to right and left, and one noted the heavy cloud of dust which rolled with and after the striking picture. A spectacle it was beside which the modern railway train is ugly, the motor-car hideous: which rarely failed to draw onlookers to doorways and windows, and to give pedestrians pause; and which always swept out of sight much too quickly. The elderly cousin accompanying the child drew her attention to the passing procession, and said that her father was doing something in connection with those coaches—meaning, of course, their mails—something that would make his country more prosperous and his own name long remembered. The child listened in perplexity, not understanding. In many noble arts—above all, in the fashioning of large, square kites warranted, unlike those bought at shops, to fly and not to come to pieces—she knew him to be the first of men. Yet how even he could improve upon the gorgeous moving picture that had just flashed past it was not easy to understand.

In the days when railways and telegraphs were not, the coach was the most frequent, because the fastest, medium of communication. It was therefore the chief purveyor of news. On the occurrence of any event of absorbing interest, such as the most stirring episodes of the twenty-years-long war with France, or the trial of Queen-Consort Caroline, people lined the roads in crowds, and as the coach swept past, the passengers shouted out the latest intelligence. Even from afar the waiting throngs [Pg 88] in war time could always tell when the news was of victories gained, or, better still, of peace, such as the short-lived pact of Amiens, and the one of long duration after June 1815. On these occasions the vehicle was made gay with flags, ribbons, green boughs, and floral trophies; and the passengers shouted and cheered madly, the roadside public speedily becoming equally excited. It fell one day to Rowland Hill's lot, as a lad of nineteen, to meet near Birmingham an especially gaily-decked coach, and to hurry home with the joyful intelligence of the “crowning mercy”—at one stage of the battle, 'tis said, not far from becoming a defeat—of Waterloo.

The once celebrated Bianconi was known as “the Palmer of Ireland.” Early in the nineteenth century he covered the roads of his adopted country with an admirably managed service of swift cars carrying mails and passengers; and thus did much to remedy postal deficiencies there, and to render imperative the maintenance in good order of the public highways. Once, if not oftener, during his useful career, he came to the Post Office on official business, and “interviewed” Rowland Hill, who found him an interesting and original-minded man, his fluent English, naturally, being redolent of the Hibernian brogue. Bianconi's daughter, who married a son of the great O'Connell, wrote her father's “Life”; and, among other experiences, told how on one occasion he was amazed to see a Catholic gentleman, while driving a pair of horses along the main street of an Irish town, stopped by a Protestant who coolly detached the animals from the carriage, and walked [Pg 89] off with them. No resistance could be offered, and redress there was none. The horses were each clearly of higher value than the permitted £5 apiece, and could therefore legally become the property of any Protestant mean enough, as this one was, to tender that price, and (mis)appropriate them. When Catholic Emancipation—long promised and long deferred—was at last conceded, this iniquitous law, together with other laws as bad or worse, was swept away.[65]

With the advent of railways the “bians” gradually disappeared, doing so when, like the mail-coaches, they had reached a high level of excellence, and had been of almost incalculable public benefit.

The mail-coach, leisurely and tedious as it seems in these days of hurry, had a charm of its own in that it enabled its passengers to enjoy the fresh air—since most of them, by preference, travelled outside—and the beauties of our then comparatively unspoiled country and of our then picturesque old towns, mostly sleepy or only slowly awakening, it is true, and, doubtless, deplorably dull to live in. The journey was at least never varied by interludes of damp and evil-smelling tunnels, and the travelling ruffian of the day had less opportunity for outrage on his fellowman or woman. The coach also, perhaps, lent itself more kindly to romance than does the modern, noisy railway train; at any rate, a rather pretty story, long current in our [Pg 90] family, and strictly authentic, belongs to the ante-railway portion of the nineteenth century. One of my mother's girl-friends, pretty, lively, clever, and frankly coquettish, was once returning alone by coach to London after a visit to the country. She was the only inside passenger, but was assured that the other three places would be filled on arrival at the next stage. When, therefore, the coach halted again, she looked with some curiosity to see who were to be her travelling companions. But the expected three resolved themselves into the person of one smiling young man whose face she recognised, and who at once sat down on the seat opposite to hers, ere long confessing that, hearing she was to come to town by that coach, he had taken all the vacant places in order to make sure of a tête-à-tête. He was one of several swains with whom she was accustomed to flirt, but whom she systematically kept at arm's-length until she could make up her mind whether to say “yes” or “no.” But he had come resolved to be played with no longer, and to win from her a definite answer. Whether his eloquent pleading left her no heart to falter “no,” or whether, woman-like, she said “yes” by way of getting rid of him, is not recorded. But that they were married is certain; and it may as well be taken for granted that, in accordance with the time-honoured ending of all romantic love stories, “they lived happy ever after.”

No eminent postal reformer rose during the first thirty-seven years of the nineteenth century unless we except that doughty Parliamentary free lance, Robert Wallace of Kelly, of whom more anon. But the [Pg 91] chilling treatment meted out by officials within the postal sanctuary to those reform-loving persons sojourning outside it, or even to those who, sooner or later, penetrated to its inner walls, was scarcely likely to tempt sane men to make excursions into so inhospitable a field.

Yet it was high time that a new reformer appeared, for the Department was lagging far behind the Post Offices of other countries—especially, perhaps, that of France—and the wonderful nineteenth “century of progress” had now reached maturity.

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