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To any one disposed to belief in omens it would seem that the beginning of Rowland Hill's connection with the Treasury augured ill for its continuance. Even the letter which invited him to office went near to miss reaching its destination.

He had left town for a brief rest after the strenuous work of the close upon three years' struggle for postal reform, leaving strict orders at the South Australian Office that if any communication from the Government intended for him arrived there it should be forwarded without delay. The document did arrive, but was laid aside to await the wanderer's return because it bore in the left-hand corner what seemed to be the signature of a then well-known man connected with Australian affairs who, at the meetings of the Association, was much given to bestow on its members much unsought advice and worthless criticism; and was therefore, by unanimous consent, voted an insufferable bore. However, when a messenger came from the Treasury to ask why no notice had been taken of a letter from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the alarmed clerk on duty hastened to send on the belated dispatch, wrapped up as a [Pg 149] brown paper parcel, by railway, as being, to his mind, the most expeditious, apparently because most novel mode of conveyance. But parcels by rail made slower progress in those days than in these; and when at last this one reached its destination its date was hardly of the newest.
The residence of Rowland Hill when Penny Postage was established.
The Tablet was put up by the L.C.C.
From a Photograph by Messrs. Whiteley & Co.

The first interview with the Chancellor of the Exchequer was scarcely satisfactory, but through no fault of Mr Baring, who was but the mouthpiece of the Cabinet. The Government, as we have seen, offered a temporary (two years') engagement to a man already provided with steady employment, and therefore in a fairly good financial position, as things were then accounted; required him to devote his whole time to the public service; and to this temporary engagement proposed to attach the salary of a head clerk. This, too, to a man who, with the help of thousands of supporters of every class, had just inaugurated an epoch-making reform destined to confer lasting benefit on his own country and on the entire civilised world; who was on the wrong side of forty; and who had a wife and young children to support. The offer—however intended—could only be described as shabby; and the fact that during the interview the amount of emolument was twice increased suggested a hard-bargain-driving transaction rather than a discussion between friendly negotiators. We have also seen that in 1837 Rowland Hill, through his friend Mr Villiers, offered to make a present to the Government of his plan—willing, because he was convinced of its soundness and workability, to let them have the full credit of [Pg 150] its introduction, but stipulating that if the gift were refused he should refer his proposals to the Press, and to the country—a gift the Government had not the courage to accept. It is therefore clear that monetary greed found no place in my father's temperament, but only the dread which every prudent husband and father must feel when confronted with the prospect, in two years' time and at the age of forty-six, of recommencing the arduous battle of life.

He told Mr Baring that while he was willing to give his services gratuitously, or to postpone the question of remuneration till the new system should have had adequate trial, it would be impossible for him to enter on such an undertaking were he placed on a footing inferior to that of the Secretary to the Post Office—a necessary stipulation if the reformer was to have full power to carry his plan into operation. He was well aware that the post officials viewed it and him with unfriendly eyes; and his anxiety was not diminished by the knowledge that his reform would be developed under another roof than that of the Treasury, and by the very men who had pronounced the measure revolutionary, preposterous, wild, visionary, absurd, clumsy, and impracticable. His opponents had prophesied that the plan would fail; and as Matthew Davenport Hill, when writing of this subject, wittily and wisely said: “I hold in great awe prophets who may have the means of assisting in the fulfilment of their own predictions.” It was therefore imperative that Rowland Hill's position should be a well-defined one, and he [Pg 151] himself be placed on an equality with the principal executive officer among those with whose habits and prejudices he was bound to interfere. The labour would be heavy, and the conditions were unusual. He must try to turn enemies still smarting under the bitterness of defeat into allies willing as well as able to help on the reform they detested; and to persuade them not to place obstacles in its way. The innovations to be made would be numerous, because, while reduction of postage and modes of prepayment formed the principal features of the plan, they were far from being the only features. The projected increase of facilities for transmitting letters, etc., would cause an immense amount of extra work; and as in this matter he would have to contend with the Post Office almost single-handed, nothing would be easier than for its head officials to raise plausible objections by the score to every proposal made. Nor could the public, who had now secured cheap postage and an easier mode of paying for it—to superficial eyes the only part of the plan worth fighting for—be henceforth relied upon to give the reformer that support which was necessary to carry out other important details; the less so as the reformer would be debarred from appealing for outside help or sympathy, because, when once the official doorways are passed, a man's independence is lost, and his lips are perforce sealed.

The interview was brought to a close by Rowland Hill telling Mr Baring that before returning a definite answer he must consult his friends; and that as his eldest brother was away on circuit at Leicester, and he proposed to start at once for that town to seek [Pg 152] fraternal advice, three days must elapse before the matter could be settled.

He found his brother lying on a couch in a state of exhaustion after a very hard day's work, and Rowland proposed to delay discussion of the question till the following day. But Matthew would not hear of this; and, getting more and more moved as the younger man proceeded with his tale, presently sprang upright, and, oblivious of fatigue, threw himself with ardour into the subject of the offered appointment. After a while, Matthew proposed to write a letter on his own account to Rowland, which the latter should hand to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This was done the next day, the younger brother writing to the elder's dictation; and the letter is given at full length in my father's “Life” and in my brother's “The Post Office of Fifty Years Ago.” In Matthew's own clear and eloquent language—for he was as admirable a writer as he was a speaker—are expressed the views enunciated above, which Rowland had already laid before Mr Baring at the interview just described.

Before the Chancellor of the Exchequer and my father met again the former wrote him a letter explanatory of the course of conduct to be adopted on his engagement at the Treasury, stating, among other things, that free access to the Post Office, and every facility of enquiry as to the arrangements made would be given, but that all “your communications will be to the Treasury, from which any directions to the Post Office will be issued; and you will not exercise any direct authority, or give any immediate orders to the officers of the Post Office.” The [Pg 153] explanation was said to be given “to prevent future misunderstanding”; and this was doubtless the euphonious mode of expressing apprehension of a state of things which, in view of the well-known hostility of St Martin's-le-Grand, the writer felt was likely to arise; and again mention was made of the condition that “the employment is considered as temporary, and not to give a claim to continued employment in office at the termination of those two years.”[126]

The prospect was scarcely satisfactory; nevertheless, my father hoped that by the end of his term of engagement, and by unceasing effort on his part, he might find himself “in a recognised position, in direct communication with persons of high authority, and entrusted with powers which, however weak and limited in the outset, seemed, if discreetly used, not unlikely in due time to acquire strength and durability. I was far from supposing that the attainment of my post was the attainment of my object. The obstacles, numerous and formidable, which had been indicated in my brother's letter had all, I felt, a real existence; while others were sure to appear of which, as yet, I knew little or nothing. Still, I felt no way daunted, but, relying at once on the efficiency of my plan, I felt confident of succeeding in the end.”[127]

The goal at which Rowland Hill aimed was, as he told Mr Baring at this second interview, the permanent headship—as distinguished from the [Pg 154] political headship—of the Post Office, then filled by Colonel Maberly:[128] the only position in which the reformer could really acquire that authority which was essential to the development of his plan. But the Fates were stronger even than one strong-willed man; and Colonel Maberly held the post for fifteen years longer. Thus, when the helm came at last into Rowland Hill's hands, he was long past middle life; and his years of almost unrestricted influence were destined to be but few.

Further encouragement to accept the present position was given by Mr Baring's friendly, sympathetic attitude; and it should here be recorded that the longer Rowland Hill served under his chief the more cordial grew the relations between them. Ample proof of this confidence was seen in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's increased readiness to adopt suggestions from the new official, and to leave to him the decision on not a few questions of importance.

On the first day of my father's appointment he accompanied Mr Baring to the Post Office, that being the first time the reformer had set foot within its portals. He was much interested in the different processes at work, such as date-stamping, “taxing”—the latter destined soon, happily, to be abolished—sorting, etc. But the building, which had been erected at great expense only ten years previously, struck him as too small for the business carried on [Pg 155] in it; badly planned, badly ventilated, and deficient in sanitary arrangements—a monument to the fatuity alike of architect and builder. This discovery led him to think of practicable alterations in the existing edifice and of devolution in the shape of erection of district offices; and by Mr Baring's wish he drew up a paper giving his views in detail, and including with his proposals that necessary accompaniment of amalgamation into one force of the two corps of letter-carriers, the general and the “twopenny post” men, which has already been alluded to. But this greatly needed measure was, perforce, deferred till after Colonel Maberly's retirement.

In order the better to get through as much of his projected work as he could accomplish in the twice twelvemonths before him, my father rose daily at six, and after an early breakfast set off for the Treasury, where at first his appearance at an hour when many officials were probably only beginning to rise caused considerable astonishment, and where he stayed as long as he could. If even under these circumstances the progress made seemed slow and unsatisfactory to the man longing to behold his scheme adopted in its entirety, how much worse would not the reform have fared had he kept strictly to the hours prescribed by official custom!

A few weeks after his acceptance of office, and at Mr Baring's suggestion, he visited Paris to inspect the postal system there. He found it in many respects well ahead of our own. In France the old system never weighed so heavily upon the people as did our own old system upon us. The charges were [Pg 156] about two-thirds of our own for corresponding distances, but the number of a letter's enclosures was not taken into consideration, the postage varying according to weight. Though Paris was much smaller than London, its post offices were more numerous than ours, being 246 against our 237. There was a sort of book post, a parcel post for valuables of small dimensions at a commission paid of 5 per cent.—the Post Office, in case of loss, indemnifying the loser to the extent of the value of the article; and a money order system so far in advance of our own that the French people sent more than double as much money through the post as we did. The gross revenue was about two-thirds that of the British Post Office; the expenses 20 per cent. more; the nett revenue less than half.

Street letter-boxes were an old institution in France; our own, therefore, were but an adaptation. The larger towns of Germany possessed them, as did also the towns and villages of the Channel Isles. After his visit to France, Rowland Hill urged the Treasury to adopt street letter-boxes, and one was put up in Westminster Hall. But it was not till the early 'fifties that they were introduced to any great extent. Before the establishment of penny postage there were only some 4,500 post offices in the United Kingdom. In the year of my father's death (1879), the number had grown to over 13,000, in addition to nearly 12,000 pillar and wall boxes. And the advance since 1879 has, of course, been very great.[129] But it is not alone in number that the [Pg 157] change is seen. In the case of post offices, a handsome edifice full of busy workers has, in many towns and districts, replaced an insignificant building managed by a few more or less leisurely officials, or by even one person.
A Post-Office in 1790.
By permission of the Proprietors of the City Press.

It was during this visit to Paris that my father became acquainted with M. Piron, Sous Directeur des Postes aux Lettres, a man whose memory should not be suffered to perish, since it was mainly through his exertions that the postal reform was adopted in France. For several years during the latter part of Louis Philippe's reign, M. Piron strove so persistently to promote the cause of cheap postage that he actually injured his prospects of rising in the Service, as the innovation was strenuously opposed both by the monarch and by the Postmaster-General, M. Dubost, the “French Maberly.” Therefore, while the “citizen king” remained on the throne the Government gave little or no encouragement to the proposed reform. But M. Piron, too much in earnest to put personal advancement above his country's welfare, went on manfully fighting for cheap postage. He it was who made the accidental discovery among the archives of the French Post Office of documents which showed that a M. de Valayer had, nearly two hundred years before, established in Paris a private [Pg 158] (penny?) post—of which further mention will be made in the next chapter. Neither Charles Knight, who first suggested the impressed stamp, nor Rowland Hill, who first suggested the adhesive stamp, had heard of M. de Valayer or of his private post; and even in France they had been forgotten, and might have remained so but for M. Piron's discovery. One is reminded of the re-invention of the mariner's compass and of many other new-old things.

Nine years after my father's official visit to Paris, that is, with the advent of the Revolution of 1848, the reforming spirit in France had stronger sway; and M. Piron's efforts were at last crowned with success. The uniform rate proposed by him (20 centimes) was adopted, and the stamp issued was the well-known black head of Liberty. In order to keep pace with the public demand, the first sheets were printed in such a hurry that some of the heads—the dies to produce which were then detached from one another—were turned upside down. M. Piron sent my father one of the earliest sheets with apologies for the reversals. These are now almost unobtainable, and are therefore much prized by philatelists.

During this visit to Paris, or at a later one, my father also made the acquaintance of M. Grasset, M. St Priest, and other leading post officials; and, among non-official and very interesting people, M. Horace Say, son to the famous Jean Baptiste Say, and father to the late M. Léon Say, three generations of illustrious Frenchmen.

Although travelling in France—or, indeed, in England or any other country—was in 1839 very [Pg 159] different from what it has become in these luxurious days, for railways were established later in France than they were here, my mother had accompanied her husband. One day the pair set off in a calèche to visit some old friends who lived in a rather distant part of the country. Darkness came on, and ere long all trace of the road was lost. At last the wretched little vehicle broke down in a field; and the driver, detaching the horse, rode off to try to discover their whereabouts. The process was a slow one; and the travellers were left alone for what seemed to be many hours. Near the field was a wood in which wolves had been seen that day, and there was good reason to dread a visit from them. When at last the driver, having found the right road, reappeared, attached the horse to the calèche, and pushed on again, he drove his party by mistake to the back-door of their friends' house. It was now late at night, and the family, who had retired to rest, and were waked by the driver's loud knocking, mistook the belated travellers for robbers, and refused to unbar the door. It was only after a long parley that the wearied visitors were admitted, to receive, of course, the warmest welcome. The master of the house had been the hero of an unusually romantic story. As a young officer in the French army, he was captured at the time of the unfortunate Walcheren expedition, and carried to England, there to remain some years as a prisoner of war. While on parole he made many friends in this country, where he occupied part of his time by the study of English law, in which he became a proficient. During his [Pg 160] novitiate he became acquainted with a young lady unto whom he was not long in losing his heart. As he came to know her and her widowed mother better, a suspicion crossed his mind that the daughter was being kept out of a handsome property, rightly hers, by a fraudulent relative. Examination of the case strengthened suspicion into conviction, and he undertook to champion her cause, his knowledge of English law coming in as a powerful weapon to his hand. On conclusion of the trial, he and some of those who had acted with him set off for the lady's home as fast as horses, post-boys, and money could take them. “They are scattering guineas!” exclaimed a bystander. “They have won the case!” It was so, and something more than the case, for the gallant young Frenchman was rewarded for his prowess by receiving in marriage the hand of the girl for whom he had accomplished so much. When the war was over, M. Chevalier returned to France together with his wife and her mother.

Heartily as Mr Baring approved of the new system, he still distrusted the principle of prepayment. In this opinion he was, as we have seen, not singular. By many people it was still pronounced “un-English” to prepay letters. But my father was so confident of the wisdom of the step that Mr Baring ultimately gave way, stipulating only that the responsibility should rest, not on the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but on the author of the reform. The condition was unhesitatingly accepted.

To ensure use of the stamps, Mr Baring, later, proposed that it should be made illegal to prepay [Pg 161] postage other than by their means; but Rowland Hill, hating compulsion, and feeling confident of their ultimate acceptability, maintained that it would be better if at first the two modes of payment, money and stamps, contended for public favour on equal terms, and succeeded in convincing Mr Baring of the soundness of that view.

The question of the stamps was therefore one of the first to require my father's attention on his return from Paris; and he found much to occupy him in dealing with the many suggestions contained in the letters sent in by the public, and in the vast number of designs accompanying them. As the succeeding chapter will show, the subject, in one form or another, took up much of his time for a little over twelve months.

Early in December, at his suggestion, the tentative postal rate of 1d. for London, and 4d. for the rest of the kingdom was introduced, all tiresome extras such as the penny on each letter for using the Menai and Conway bridges, the halfpenny for crossing the Scottish border, etc., being abolished. This experiment was made to allow the postal staff to become familiarised with the new system, as a vast increase of letters, necessarily productive of some temporary confusion, was looked for on the advent of the uniform penny rate. Under the old system 4d. had been the lowest charge beyond the radius of the “twopenny post”; therefore, even the preliminary reduction was a relief. But although three years earlier a lowering of the existing rates to a minimum of 6d. or 8d. would have been eagerly [Pg 162] welcomed, the public were now looking forward to yet lower charges; and the prospect of paying 4d. was viewed with great dissatisfaction. People began to suspect that the concession would go no further, that the Government intended to “cheat the public,” and my father was accused of having “betrayed his own cause.” Thus easily is a scare manufactured.

The result of the first day of this preliminary measure was awaited with some anxiety. The increase of the fourpenny letters was about 50, and of the penny letters nearly 150 per cent., the unpaid letters being about as numerous as usual, prepayment being not yet made compulsory. This state of things my father considered “satisfactory”; Mr Baring “very much so.” The next day the numbers fell off, and this gave the enemies of postal reform a delightful, and by no means neglected, opportunity of writing to its author letters of the “I told you so!” description.

The 10th of January 1840, when the uniform penny rate came into operation, was a busy day at the post offices of the country. Many people made a point of celebrating the occasion by writing to their friends, and not a few—some of the writers being entire strangers—addressed letters of thanks to the reformer.[130] One of these was from Miss Martineau, [Pg 163] who had worked ably and well for the reform; and another from the veteran authoress, Miss Edgeworth, whom, some twenty years earlier, Rowland Hill had visited in her interesting ancestral home.[131]

At that time, and for many years after, there was at St Martin's-le-Grand a large centre hall open to the public, but, later, covered over and appropriated by the ever-growing Circulation Department. At one end of the hall was a window, which during part of the day always stood open to receive the different kinds of missives. These, as the hour for closing drew near, poured in with increasing volume, until at “six sharp,” when the reception of matter for the chief outgoing mail of the day ended, the window shut suddenly, sometimes with a letter or newspaper only half-way through.[132] On the afternoon [Pg 164] of the 10th, six windows instead of one were opened; and a few minutes before post time a seventh was thrown up, at which the chief of the Circulation Department himself stood to help in the receipt of letters. The crowd was good-tempered, and evidently enjoyed the crush, though towards the last letters and accompanying pennies were [Pg 165] thrown in anyhow, sometimes separating beyond hope of reunion; and though many people were unable to reach the windows before six o'clock struck. When the last stroke of the hour had rung out, and the lower sash of every window had come down with a rush like the guillotine, a great cheer went up for “penny postage and Rowland Hill,” and another for the Post Office staff who had worked so well.

So much enthusiasm was displayed by the public that the author of the new system fully expected to hear that 100,000 letters, or more than three times the number usually dispatched, had been posted. The actual total was about 112,000.

The reformer kept a constant watch on the returns of the number of inland letters passing through the post. The result was sometimes satisfactory, sometimes the reverse, especially when a return issued about two months after the establishment of the penny rate showed that the increase was rather less than two-and-three-quarters-fold. The average postage on the inland letters proved to be three halfpence; and the reformer calculated that at that rate a four-and-three-quarters-fold increase would be required to bring up the gross revenue to its former dimensions. Eleven years later his calculation was justified by the result; and in the thirteenth year of the reform the number of letters was exactly five times as many as during the last year of the old system.

Meanwhile, it was satisfactory to find that the reductions which had recently been made in the [Pg 166] postage of foreign letters had led to a great increase of receipts, and that in no case had loss to the revenue followed.

One reason for the comparatively slow increase in the number of inland letters must be attributed to the persistent delay in carrying out my father's plan for extending rural distribution. In the minute he drew up, he says: “The amount of population thus seriously inconvenienced the Post Office has declared itself unable to estimate, but it is probable that in England and Wales alone it is not less than 4,000,000. The great extent of the deficiency [of postal facilities] is shown by the fact that, while these two divisions of the empire contain about 11,000 parishes, their total number of post offices of all descriptions is only about 2,000. In some places quasi post offices have been established by carriers and others, whose charges add to the cost of a letter, in some instances as much as sixpence. A penny for every mile from the post office is a customary demand.”[133]

Of the beneficent effects of cheap postage, gratifying accounts were meanwhile being reported; some told in conversation, or in letters from friends or strangers, some in the Press or elsewhere.

One immediate effect was an impetus to education, especially among the less affluent classes. When one poor person could send another of like condition a letter for a penny instead of many times that amount, it was worth the while of both to learn to [Pg 167] read and write. Many people even past middle age tried to master the twin arts; and at evening classes, some of which were improvised for the purpose, two generations of a family would, not infrequently, be seen at work seated side by side on the same school bench. Other poor people, with whom letter-writing, for lack of opportunity to practise it, had become a half-forgotten handicraft, made laborious efforts to recover it. And thus old ties were knit afresh, as severed relatives and friends came into touch again. Surely, to hinder such reunion by “blocking” rural distribution and other important improvements was little, if at all, short of a crime.

Mr Brookes, a Birmingham home missionary, reported that the correspondence of the poorer classes had probably increased a hundredfold; and that adults as well as young people took readily to prepayment, and enjoyed affixing the adhesive Queen's head outside their letters.

Professor Henslow, then rector of Hitcham, Suffolk, wrote of the importance of the new system to those who cultivated science and needed to exchange ideas and documents. He also stated that before penny postage came in he had often acted as amanuensis to his poorer parishioners, but that they now aspired to play the part of scribe themselves.

The servant class, hitherto generally illiterate, also began to indite letters home; and a young footman of Mr Baring's one day told my father that he was learning to write in order to send letters to his mother, who lived in a remote part of the [Pg 168] country; and added that he had many friends who were also learning. Indeed, one poor man, settled in the metropolis, proudly boasted that he was now able to receive daily bulletins of the condition of a sick parent living many miles away.

Charles Knight found that the reduced rates of postage stimulated every branch of his trade—an opinion endorsed by other publishers and book-sellers; and the honorary secretary to the Parker Society, whose business was the reprinting of the early reformers' works, wrote, two years after the abolition of the old system, to tell the author of the new one that the very existence of the Society was due to the penny post.

“Dear Rowland,” wrote Charles Knight, in a letter dated 10th May 1843, “The Poor Law 'Official Circular' to which par. No. 7 chiefly refers, is one of the most striking examples of the benefit of cheap postage. It could not have existed without cheap postage. The Commissioners could not have sent it under their frank without giving it away, which would have cost them £1,000 a year. It is sold at 4d., including the postage, which we prepay; and we send out 5,000 to various Boards of Guardians and others who are subscribers, and who pay, in many cases, by post office orders. The work affords a profit to the Government instead of costing a thousand a year.”

After four years of the new system Messrs Pickford said that their letters had grown in number from 30,000 to 720,000 per annum. And testimony of similar character was given either in evidence [Pg 169] before the Committee on Postage of 1843, or, from time to time, was independently volunteered.

The postal reform not only gave a vast impetus to trade and education, but even created new industries, among them the manufacture of letter-boxes and letter-weighing machines—which were turned out in immense quantities—to say nothing of the making of stamps and of stamped and other envelopes, etc.

In two years the number of chargeable letters passing through the post had increased from 72,000,000 per annum to 208,000,000. Illicit conveyance had all but ceased, and the gross revenue amounted to two-thirds of the largest sum ever recorded. The nett revenue showed an increase the second year of £100,000, and the inland letters were found to be the most profitable part of the Post Office business.[134] It is a marvel that the new system should have fared as well as it did, when we take into consideration the bitter hostility of the postal authorities, the frequent hindrances thrown in the path of reform, to say nothing of the terrible poverty then existing among many classes of our fellow country people under the blighting influence of Protection and of the still unrepealed Corn Laws; poverty which is revealed in the many official reports issued during that sad time, in “S.G.O.'s” once famous letters, and in other trustworthy documents of those days, whose hideous picture has, later, been revived for us in that stirring book, “The Hungry Forties.”

The hindrances to recovery of the postal revenue [Pg 170] were in great measure caused by the delay in carrying out the details of Rowland Hill's plan of reform. Especially was this the case in the postponement of the extension of rural distribution—to which allusion has already been made—one of the most essential features of the plan, one long and wrongfully kept back; and, when granted, gratefully appreciated. Issue of the stamps was also delayed, these not being obtainable for some months after the introduction of the new system; and there was a still longer delay in providing the public with an adequate supply.[135]

The increase of postal expenditure was another factor in the case. The total charge for carrying the inland mails in 1835—the year before “Post Office Reform” was written—was £225,920; and it remained approximately at that figure while the old system continued in force. Then it went up by leaps and bounds, till by the end of the first year of the new system (1840) it reached the sum of £333,418. It has gone on steadily growing, as was indeed inevitable, owing to the increase of postal business; but the growth of expenditure would seem to be out of all proportion to the service, great as that is, rendered. By 1868 the charge stood at £718,000,[136] and before the nineteenth century died out even this last sum had doubled.

The following instance is typical of the changes made in this respect. In 1844 the Post Office received from the coach contractors about £200 for [Pg 171] the privilege of carrying the mail twice a day between Lancaster and Carlisle. Only ten years later, the same service performed by the railway cost the Post Office some £12,000 a year.[137]

Another form of monetary wastefulness through overcharge arose from misrepresentation as to the length of railway used by the Post Office on different lines, one Company receiving about £400 a year more than was its due—although, of course, the true distance was given in official notices and time-tables. Even when the error was pointed out, the postal authorities maintained that the charge was correct.

This lavish and needless increase of expenditure on the part of the Post Office made Mr Baring as uneasy as it did my father. Not infrequently when explanations were demanded as to the necessity for these enhanced payments, evasive or long-delayed replies were given. Thus Rowland Hill found himself “engaged in petty contests often unavailing and always invidious”;[138] and in these petty contests and ceaseless strivings to push forward some item or other of his plan, much of his time, from first to last, was wasted. Thus, at the beginning of 1841, when he had been at the Treasury a year and quarter, it became evident that, unless some improvement took place, two years or even a longer period would not suffice to carry out the whole of his plan.

Before 1841 came to an end he was destined to find the opposing powers stronger than ever. In the summer of that year the Melbourne Ministry [Pg 172] fell—to the harassed postal reformer a heavy blow. For, if during the past two years he had not succeeded in accomplishing nearly all he had hoped to do, still the record of work was far from meagre. But if, with Mr Baring as an ally, and under a Government among whose members, so far as he knew, he counted but a single enemy, progress was slow, he had everything to dread from a Ministry bound to be unfriendly.

With their advent, conviction was speedily forced upon him that the end was not far off. The amount and scope of his work was gradually lessened; minutes on postal matters were settled without his even seeing them; and minutes he had himself drawn up, with the seeming approbation of his official chiefs, were quietly laid aside to be forgotten. On the plea of insufficiency of employment—insufficiency which was the natural consequence of the taking of work out of his hands—the number of his clerks was cut down to one; and all sorts of minor annoyances were put in his way. Meanwhile, the demands from the Post Office for increased salaries, advances, allowances, etc., which during the past two years had been frequently sent up to the Treasury, became more persistent and incessant than ever.

Rural distribution was still delayed, or was only partially and unsatisfactorily carried out. Some places of 200 or 300 inhabitants were allowed a post office, while other centres peopled by 2,000 or 3,000 went without that boon. This plan of rural distribution, whose object was to provide post offices in 400 registrars' districts which were without anything of [Pg 173] the sort, was, after long waiting, conceded by the Treasury before the break-up of the Melbourne Ministry; and my father, unused till latterly to strenuous modes of official evasion, believed the measure safe. He forgot to take into account the Post Office's power of passive resistance; and several months were yet to elapse ere he discovered that Mr Baring's successor had suspended his predecessor's minute; nor was its real author ever able to obtain further information concerning it.

Nor was this all. Letters written by Rowland Hill to the new Chancellor of the Exchequer on the subject of registration and other reforms remained unnoticed, as did also a request to be allowed to proceed with one or two more out of a list of measures which stood in need of adoption. Later, my father wrote urging that other parts of his reform should be undertaken, drawing attention to the work which had already been successfully achieved; and so forth. A brief acknowledgment giving no answer to anything mentioned in his letter was the only outcome. At intervals of two months between the sending of each letter, he twice wrote again, but of neither missive was any notice taken.

Among other projects it had been decided that Rowland Hill should go to Newcastle-on-Tyne to arrange about a day mail to that town; and the necessary leave of absence was duly granted. He was also desirous of visiting some of the country post offices; but, being anxious to avoid possible breach of rule, he wrote to Colonel Maberly on the subject. The letter was referred to the Postmaster [Pg 174]-General, and, after him, to the Chancellor of the Exchequer: the result being that the sanction to any portion of the journey was withdrawn.

One of the worst instances of the official “veiled hostility” to reform and reformer appeared in a document which my father—who might easily have given it a harsher name—always called the “fallacious return,” published in 1843. In this the Post Office accounts were so manipulated as to make it seem that the Department was being worked at an annual loss of £12,000 or more. The unfriendly powers had all along prophesied that the reform could not pay; and now, indeed, they had a fine opportunity of “assisting in the fulfilment of their own predictions.”

Till the new postal system was established, the “packet service” for foreign and colonial mails had, “with little exception,” been charged to the Admiralty. In the “fallacious return” the entire amount (£612,850) was charged against the Post Office. Now, in comparing the fiscal results of the old and new systems, it was obviously unfair to include the cost of the packet service in the one and exclude it from the other. Despite all statements made to the contrary—and a great deal of fiction relating to postal arithmetic has long been allowed to pass current, and will probably continue so to do all down the “ringing grooves of time”—the nett revenue of the Department amounted to £600,000 per annum.[139]

Another “mistake” lay in under-stating the gross [Pg 175] revenue by some £100,000. On this being pointed out by my father to the Accountant-General, he at once admitted the error, but said that a corrective entry made by him had been “removed by order.”[140] And not only was correction in this case refused, but other “blunders” in the Post Office accounts on the wrong side of the ledger continued to be made, pointed out, and suffered to remain.

In one account furnished by the Department it was found, says my father, “that the balance carried forward at the close of a quarter changed its amount in the transit; and when I pointed out this fact as conclusive against the correctness of the account, it was urged that without such modification the next quarter's account could not be made to balance.”[141] Not a very bright example of the application of culinary operations to official book-keeping because of the ease with which it could be detected. What wonder that to any one whose eyes are opened to such ways, faith in official and other statistics should be rudely shaken!

The effect of these high-handed proceedings was naturally to foster mistaken ideas as to postal revenues.

In 1842 Lord Fitzgerald, during a debate on the income-tax, said that the Post Office revenue had perished. The statement was speedily disposed of by Lord Monteagle, who, after pointing out the falseness of the allegation, declared that the expense of the packet service had no more to do with penny postage than with the expense of the war in [Pg 176] Afghanistan or China, or the expense of the Army and Navy.[142]

In the House of Commons, Peel, of course only quoting memoranda which had been provided for his use, repeated these misleading statistics; and, later, they have found further repetition even in some of the Postmaster-General's Annual Reports.

These frequently recurring instances of thwarting, hindering, and misrepresentation showed plainly that the working of the postal reform should not have been entrusted to men whose official reputation was pledged not to its success but to its failure; and that the “shunting” of its author on to a Department other than that in which if endowed with due authority he might have exercised some control, was, to put the case mildly, a great mistake.

One ray of comfort came to him in the midst of his troubles. In the hard times which prevailed in the early 'forties diminution of revenue was far from being peculiar to the Post Office. The country was undergoing one of the heaviest of those periodically recurrent waves of depression which lessen the product of all taxes (or the ability to pay them) when, in April 1843, my father was able to write in his diary that the Post Office “revenue accounts show an increase of £90,000 on the year.... The Post Office is the only Department which does not show a deficiency on the quarter.”[143]

In July 1842, the Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote to Rowland Hill to remind him that his three [Pg 177] years' engagement at the Treasury would terminate in the ensuing September, and adding that he did not consider it advisable to make any further extension of the period of engagement beyond the date assigned to it.

Dreading lest, when the official doors should close behind him, his cherished reform should be wrecked outright, its author offered to work for a time without salary. The offer was refused, and the intended dismissal was announced in Parliament. The news was received with surprise and indignation there and elsewhere.

The Liberal Press was unanimous in condemnation of the Government's conduct, and some of the papers on their own side, though naturally cautious of tone, were of opinion that Rowland Hill had been harshly used. The Ministers themselves were probably of divided mind; and my father, when commenting upon a letter which the Prime Minister about this time addressed to him, says: “I cannot but think that, as he wrote, he must have felt some little of that painful feeling which unquestionably pressed hard upon him in more than one important passage of his political career.”[144]

At the last interview the postal reformer had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Goulburn's courteous manner also went “far to confirm the impression that he feels he is acting unjustly and under compulsion.”[145]

One of the most indignant and outspoken of the [Pg 178] many letters which Rowland Hill received was from his former chief, Mr Baring, who stigmatised the conduct of the Government as “very shabby,” more than hinted that jealousy was the cause of dismissal, and added that had the Postmaster-General's plan of letter-registration been carried into effect, it “would have created an uproar throughout the country.” It was well known that the head of the Post Office did not feel too kindly towards the reform, and was bent on charging a shilling on every registered letter, while Rowland Hill stoutly maintained that sixpence would be sufficient.[146] Hence the allusion. The Postmaster-General is said to have demanded his opponent's dismissal, and as he was credited with being in command of several votes in the Lower House, his wishes naturally carried weight.

Cobden gave vent to his disgust in a characteristic letter in which he suggested that the programme of the Anti-Corn-Law League should be followed:—a national subscription raised, a demonstration made, and a seat in Parliament secured. But the programme was not followed.

Among other letters of sympathy came one from the poet who, as his epitaph at Kensal Green reminds us, “sang the Song of the Shirt.” Said Hood: “I have seen so many instances of folly and ingratitude similar to those you have met with that it would never surprise me to hear of the railway people, [Pg 179] some day, finding their trains running on so well, proposing to discharge the engines.”[147]

The public, used to nearly four years of the new system, took alarm lest it should be jeopardised; and the Mercantile Committee, well entitled as, after its arduous labours, it was to repose, roused itself to renewed action, and petitioned the Government to carry out the postal reform in its entirety.

But the ruling powers were deaf to all protests; and thus to the list of dismissed postal reformers was added yet one more. First, Witherings; then, Dockwra; next, Palmer; and now, Hill.

While giving due prominence to the more salient features of the intrigue against the postal reform and reformer, the painful narrative has been as far [Pg 180] as possible curtailed. It is, however, well worth telling if only to serve as warning to any would-be reformer—perhaps in any field: in the Post Office certainly—of the difficulties that lie in the path he yearns to tread. Should the reader be inclined to fancy the picture overdrawn, reference to the “Life of Sir Rowland Hill,” edited by Dr G. B. Hill, will show that in those pages the story is told with far more fulness of detail and bluntness of truth-speaking.

More than thirty years after Peel had “given Rowland Hill the sack,” as at the time Punch, in a humorous cartoon, expressed it, the real story of the dismissal was revealed to its victim by one who was very likely to be well-informed on the subject. It is an ugly story; and for a long time my brother and I agreed that it should be told in these pages. Later, seeing that all whom it concerned are dead, and that it is well, however difficult at times, to follow the good old rule of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, it has seemed wiser to draw across that relic of the long-ago past a veil of oblivion.

But here a digression may be made into a several years' later history, because, however chronologically out of place, it fits in at this juncture with entire appropriateness.

It is obvious that no person could succeed in cleansing so Augean a stable as was the Post Office of long ago without making enemies of those whose incompetency had to be demonstrated, or whose profitable sinecures had to be suppressed. Thus even when Rowland Hill's position had become too secure in public estimation for open attack to be of much [Pg 181] avail, he was still exposed to that powerful “back-stairs” influence which, by hindering the progress of his reform, had done both the public service and himself individually much harm.

Of the reality of this secret hostility, ample proof was from time to time afforded, none, perhaps, being more striking than the following. When Lord Canning had been political head of the Post Office for some months, he one day said to my father: “Mr Hill, I think it right to let you know that you have enemies in high places who run you down behind your back. When I became Postmaster-General, every endeavour was made to prejudice me against you. I determined, however, to judge for myself. I have hitherto kept my eyes open, saying nothing. But I am bound to tell you now that I find every charge made against you to be absolutely untrue. I think it well, however, that you should know the fact that such influences are being exerted against you.”[148]

When, at the age of forty-seven, Rowland Hill had to begin the world afresh, one dread weighed heavily upon his mind. It was that Peel's Government might advance the postal charges to, as was rumoured, a figure twice, thrice, or even four times those established by the reformed system. It was a dread shared by Messrs Baring, Wallace, Moffatt, and very many more. Great, therefore, was the relief when the last-named friend reported that the new [Pg 182] Postmaster-General had assured him that there was no danger of the postage rates being raised.[149]

After the dismissal by Peel, a long and anxious time set in for the little household in the then semi-rural precinct of Orme Square, Bayswater; and again my mother's sterling qualities were revealed. Reared as she had been in a circle where money was plentiful and hospitality unbounded, she wasted no time in useless lamentations, but at once curtailed domestic expenses—those most ruthlessly cut down being, as, later, our father failed not to tell us, her own. In his parents' home he had lived in far plainer style than that maintained in the house of which, for many years, owing to her mother's early death, she had been mistress. Yet in all that ministered to her husband's comfort she allowed scarcely any change to be made. At the same time, there was no running into debt, because she had a hearty contempt for the practice she was wont to describe as “living on the forbearance of one's tradespeople.”

But at last anxiety was changed to relief. One morning a letter arrived inviting her husband to join the London and Brighton Railway Board of Directors. Owing to gross mismanagement, the line had long been going from bad to worse in every way; and an entirely new directorate was now chosen. The [Pg 183] invitation was especially gratifying because it came from personal strangers.

My father's connection with the railway forms an interesting chapter of his life which has been told elsewhere. In a work dealing only with the postal reform, repetition of the story in detail would be out of place. One brief paragraph, therefore, shall suffice to recall what was a pleasant episode in his career.

The “new brooms” went to work with a will, and the railway soon began to prosper. The price of shares—notwithstanding the announcement that for the ensuing half-year no payment of dividends could be looked for—rose rapidly; ordinary trains were increased in speed and number, expresses started, and Sunday excursion trains, by which the jaded dwellers “in populous city pent” were enabled once a week to breathe health-giving sea-breezes, were instituted; the rolling stock was improved, and, by the building of branch lines, the Company was ere long enabled to add to its title “and South Coast.” The invitation to my father to join the Board met, at the sitting which discussed the proposal, with but one dissentient voice, that of Mr John Meesom Parsons of the Stock Exchange. “We want no Rowland Hills here,” he said, “to interfere in everything; and even, perhaps, to introduce penny fares in all directions”—a rate undreamed of in those distant days. He therefore resolved to oppose the unwelcome intruder on every favourable occasion. The day the two men first met at the Board, the magnetic attraction, instinct, whatever be its rightful name, which almost at once and simultaneously draws together kindred souls, affected [Pg 184] both; and forthwith commenced a friendship which in heartiness resembled that of David and Jonathan, and lasted throughout life. Mr Parsons, as gleefully as any school-boy, told us the story against himself on one out of many visits which he paid us; and with equal gleefulness told it, on other occasions and in our presence, to other people.[150]

An incident which occurred four years after the termination of Rowland Hill's engagement at the Treasury seemed to indicate a wish on Peel's part to show that he felt not unkindly towards the reformer, however much he disliked the reform. In the seventh year of penny postage, and while its author was still excluded from office, the nation showed its appreciation of Rowland Hill's work by presenting him with a monetary testimonial. Sir Robert Peel was among the earliest contributors, his cheque being for the maximum amount fixed by the promoters of the tribute. Again Mr “Punch” displayed his customary genius for clothing a truism in a felicitous phrase by comparing Peel's action with that of an assassin who deals a stab at a man with one hand, and with the other applies sticking-plaster to the wound.


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