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Between the date of Rowland Hill's leaving the Treasury, and that of his appointment to the Post Office to take up afresh the work to which, more than aught else, he was devoted, an interval of about four years elapsed, during a great part of which, as has just been mentioned, he found congenial employment on the directorate of the London and Brighton railway; a little later becoming also a member of the Board of Directors of two minor lines of railway. But as this episode is outside the scope of the present work, the four-years-long gap may be conveniently bridged over by the writing of a chapter on postage stamps.

Since their collection became a fashion—or, as it is sometimes unkindly called, a craze—much has been written concerning them, of which a great part is interesting, and, as a rule, veracious; while the rest, even when interesting, has not infrequently been decidedly the reverse of true. This latter fact is especially regrettable when the untruths occur in works of reference, a class of books professedly compiled with every care to guard against intrusion of error. Neglect of this precaution, whether the result of carelessness or ignorance, or from quite dissimilar [Pg 186] reasons, is to be deplored. No hungry person cares to be offered a stone when he has asked for bread; nor is it gratifying to the student, who turns with a heart full of faith to a should-be infallible guide into the ways of truth, to find that he has strayed into the realm of fiction.

The present chapter on stamps merely touches the fringe of the subject, in no wise resembles a philatelist catalogue, and may therefore be found to lack interest. But at least every endeavour shall be made to avoid excursion into fableland.

Since the story of the postal labels should be told from the beginning, it will be well to comment here on some of the more glaring of the misstatements regarding that beginning contained in the notice on postage stamps which forms part of the carelessly-written article on the Post Office which appeared in the ninth edition of the “Encyclop?dia Britannica,” vol. xix. p. 585.

(1) “A postpaid envelope,” the writer declares, “was in common use in Paris in the year 1653.”

So far from being “in common use,” the envelope or cover was the outcome of an aristocratic monopoly granted, as we have seen in a previous chapter, to M. de Valayer, who, “under royal approbation” set up “'a private' [penny?][151] post, placing boxes at the corners of the streets for the reception of letters wrapped up in envelopes which were to be bought at offices established for that purpose.”[1] To M. de [Pg 187] Valayer, therefore, would seem to belong priority of invention of the street letter-box, and perhaps of the impressed stamp and envelope; although evidence to prove that the boon was intended for public use seems to be wanting. In the days of Louis XIV. how many of the “common”alty were able to make use of the post? M. de Valayer also devised printed forms of “billets,” prepaid, and a facsimile of one is given in the Quarterly Review's article.[152] Like our own present-day postcards, one side of the billet was to be used for the address, the other for correspondence; but the billet was a sheet of paper longer than our postcard, and no doubt it was folded up—the address, of course, showing—before being posted. There is no trace on the facsimile of an adhesive stamp. Neither is mention made of any invention or use of such stamp in France or elsewhere in the year 1670, although some seeker after philatelist mare's-nests a while since read into the article aforesaid fiction of that sort.

(2) “Stamped postal letter paper (carta postale bollata) was issued to the public by the Government of the Sardinian States in November 1818; and stamped postal envelopes were issued by the same Government from 1820 till 1836.”

There was no such issue “to the public.” For the purpose of collecting postal duties, “stamped paper or [Pg 188] covers of several values, both with embossed and with impressed stamps, appear to have been used in the kingdom of Sardinia about the year 1819.” [153] The use of these stamped covers, etc., was almost entirely limited to one small class of the community, namely the Ministers of State, and was in force from about 1819 to 1821 only. “In March 1836, a formal decree was passed suppressing their further use, the decree being required simply to demonetise a large stock found unused in the Stamp Office at Turin.”[1] The Sardinian experiment, like the earlier one of M. de Valayer in Paris, had but a brief existence, the cause [Pg 189] of failure in both cases being apparently attributable to the absence of uniformity of rate.

(3) “Stamped wrappers for newspapers were made experimentally in London by Mr Charles Whiting, under the name of 'go-frees,' in 1830.”

In this country Charles Knight—in as complete ignorance as was my father of M. de Valayer's experiment in the mid-seventeenth century—has always been considered the first to propose the use of stamped covers or wrappers for newspapers; and this he did in 1834, his covers being intended to take the place, as payers of postage, of the duty stamp, when that odious “tax on knowledge” should be abolished. Had it been possible under the old postal system to prepay letter-postage as well as newspaper-postage, what more likely than that a man so far-seeing as was Mr Knight would also have suggested the application of his stamp to all mail matter? Letter postage stamps and prepayment had, of necessity, to await the advent of 1840 and uniformity of rate.[154]

(4) “Finally, and in its results most important of all, the adhesive stamp was made experimentally by Mr James Chalmers in his printing office at Dundee, in 1834.”

An untruth followed by other untruths equally astounding.

Mr Chalmers, when writing of his stamps, has [Pg 190] happily supplied refutation of the fraudulent claim set up for him since his own death and that of the postal reformer; and as Mr Chalmers is the person chiefly concerned in that claim, and was a man as honourable as he was public-spirited, his evidence must necessarily be more valuable than that of any other witness. He published his suggestions as to postal reform, etc., in full, with his name and address added, in the Post Circular[155] of 5th April 1838, his paper being dated 8th February of the same year. Specimens of his stamps accompanied his communication; and in a reprint of this paper made in 1839 he claimed November 1837 as the date of his “first” experiments in stamp-making—the italics being his own. In none of his writings is there mention of any earlier experiments; neither is allusion made to any such in the numerously-signed “certificate” addressed by his fellow-citizens of Dundee to the Treasury in September 1839. The certificate eulogises Mr Chalmers' valuable public services, speaks of his successful efforts in 1825 to establish a 48 hours' acceleration of the mail-coaches plying between Dundee and London, and recommends to “My Lords” the adoption of the accompanying “slips” proposed by him. But nowhere in the certificate is reference made to the mythical stamps declared, nearly half a century later, to have been made in 1834. Yet some of these over one hundred signatories must have been among the friends who, [Pg 191] according to the fable, visited Mr Chalmers' printing office in that year to inspect those early stamps. An extraordinary instance of wholesale forgetfulness if the stamps had had actual existence.[156] The “slips” made “first” in November 1837 were narrow pieces of paper of which one end bore the printed stamp, while the other end was to be slipped under the envelope flap—a clumsy device, entailing probable divorce between envelope and “slip” during their passage through the post. The fatal objection to all his stamps was that they were type-set, thereby making forgery easy. In every case the stamps bear the face-value proposed by Rowland Hill in his plan of reform—a penny the half, and twopence the whole ounce. Not only did Mr Chalmers not invent the stamp, adhesive or otherwise, but of the former he disapproved on the ground of the then supposed difficulty of gumming large sheets of paper.[157]

It may be added that copies of the Post Circular figure in the “Cole Bequest” to the South Kensington Museum; and if a very necessary caution addressed to the custodians there while the Chalmers claim was being rather hotly urged has received due attention, those documents should still be in the Museum, unimpeachable witnesses to the truth.

This claim to priority of invention, or of publication of invention, of the stamps which, with culpable carelessness, obtained recognition in the pages of the [Pg 192] “Encyclop?dia Britannica” has no foundation in fact. The writer of the article on the Post Office in “Chambers's Encyclop?dia,” ix. 677 (edition 1901), is far better informed on the subject of which he treats, though even he says that “Both” [men] “seem to have hit on the plan independently; but,” he adds, with true discernment of the weakest feature of the claim, “the use of adhesive postage stamps, without uniform rates, and at a time when the practice of sending letters unpaid was almost universal, would obviously have been impossible.”

This impossibility has already been demonstrated in the present work in the chapter on “The Old System.” The simple explanation of the cause which prompted Mr Chalmers, late in 1837, to make designs for the stamps is not far to seek. At some time during the intervening months he had read “Post Office Reform,”[158] opened up a correspondence with its author—till then an entire stranger—and joined the ranks of those who were helping on the reform. It is a pity that in the attempt to fix upon this public-spirited man credit for an invention which was not his, the good work he actually accomplished should be frequently lost sight of.

The “Dictionary of National Biography” also too readily gave countenance to the Chalmers fable, a decision perhaps explained by the priority of position accorded in the alphabet to C over H. An accident of this sort gives a misstatement that proverbial long start which is required for its establishment, and [Pg 193] naturally handicaps truth in the race; the consequence being that rectification of error is not made, and the later article is altered to bring it into seeming agreement with the earlier.[159]

On the other hand, the conductors of “Chambers's Encyclop?dia” evidently recognise that a work of reference should be a mine of reliable information, one of their most notable corrections in a later edition of a mistake made in one earlier being that attributing the suppression of garrotting to the infliction on the criminals of corporal punishment—an allegation which, however, often asserted by those outside the legal profession, has more than once been denied by some of the ablest men within it.

No notice would have been taken in these pages of this preposterous claim were it not that the two works of reference whose editors or conductors seem [Pg 194] to have been only too easily imposed upon have a wide circulation, and that until retraction be made—an invitation to accord which, in at least one case, was refused for apparently a quite frivolous reason—the foolish myth will in all probability be kept alive. The fraud was so clumsily constructed that it was scarcely taken seriously by those who know anything of the real history of the stamps, impressed and adhesive; and surprise might be felt that sane persons should have put even a passing faith in it, but for recollection that—to say nothing of less notorious cases—the once famous Tichborne claimant never lacked believers in his equally egregious and clumsily constructed imposture.

How little the Chalmers claimant believed in his own story is shown by his repeated refusal to accept any of the invitations my brother gave him to carry the case into Court. Had the claim been genuine, its truth might then and there have been established beyond hope of refutation.

In all probability most of the claimants to invention of the postage stamp—they have, to our knowledge, numbered over a dozen, while the claimants to the entire plan of reform make up at least half that tale—came from the many competitors who, in response to the Treasury's invitation to the public to furnish designs, sent in drawings and written suggestions.[160] What more natural than that, as years [Pg 195] went past and old age and weakened memory came on, these persons should gradually persuade themselves and others that not only had they invented the designs they sent up for competition, but also the very idea of employing stamps with which to pay postage? Even in such a strange world as this, it is not likely that all the claimants were wilful impostors.[161]

[Pg 196]

Rowland Hill's first proposal in regard to the postage stamps was that they and the envelopes should be of one piece, the stamps being printed on the envelopes. But some days later the convenience of making the stamp separate, and therefore adhesive, occurred to him; and he at once proposed its use, describing it, as we have seen, as “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with glutinous wash,” etc. As both stamps are recommended in “Post Office Reform” as well as in its author's examination before the Commissioners of Post Office Inquiry in February 1837, it is clear that priority of suggestion as well as of publication belong to Rowland Hill.[162]

By 1838 official opinion, though still adverse to the proposal to tax letters by weight, had come to view with favour the idea of prepayment by means of stamps. Still, one of the chief opponents enumerated as many as nine classes of letters to which he thought that stamps would be inapplicable. The task of replying to eight of these objections was easy enough; with the ninth Rowland Hill was [Pg 197] fain to confess his inability to deal. Stamps, it was declared, would be unsuitable to “half-ounce letters weighing an ounce or more.”[163]

That the stamps—whatever should be the design chosen—would run risk of forgery was a danger which caused no little apprehension; and the Chairman of the Board of Stamps and Taxes (Inland Revenue) proposed to minimise that risk by having them printed on paper especially prepared. In the case of the envelopes bearing the embossed head, the once famous “Dickinson” paper, which contained fine threads of silk stretched across the pulp while at its softest, was that chosen. It was believed to be proof against forgery, and was in vogue for several years, but has long fallen into disuse.

The Government, as we have seen, decided in July 1839 to adopt the plan of uniform penny postage, including the employment of “stamped covers, stamped paper, and stamps to be used separately,”[164] and invited the public to furnish designs for these novel objects. In answer to the appeal came in some 2,600 letters containing suggestions and many sets of drawings, of which forty-nine varieties alone were for the adhesive stamps. It was, if possible, an even less artistic age than the present—though, at least, it adorned the walls of its rooms with something better than tawdry [Pg 198] bric-à-brac, unlovely Japanese fans, and the contents of the china-closet—and in most cases beauty of design was conspicuous by its absence, a fault which, coupled with others more serious, especially that of entire lack of security against forgery, fore-doomed the greater number of the essays to rejection.[165]

To become a financial success it was necessary that the stamps should be produced cheaply, yet of workmanship so excellent that imitation could be easily detected. Now there is one art which we unconsciously practise from infancy to old age—that of traci............
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