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CHAPTER VII AT THE POST OFFICE
As the evident weakening of Peel's Government became more marked, the thoughts of the man who had been sacrificed to official intrigues, and unto whom it was, as he pathetically writes, “grief and bitterness to be so long kept aloof from my true work,” turned longingly towards the Post Office and to his insecurely established and only partially developed plan. With a change of Ministry, better things must surely come.

His hopes were realised. In 1846 the Peel Administration fell, and Lord John (afterwards Earl) Russell became Prime Minister. The public voice, clearly echoed in the Press, demanded Rowland Hill's recall to office, there to complete his reform.[174]

One of the first intimations he received of his [Pg 212] probable restoration was a letter from Mr Warburton advising him to be “within call if wanted.” A discussion had risen overnight in Parliament. Mr Duncombe had complained of the management of the Post Office, and so had Mr Parker, the Secretary to the Treasury. The new Postmaster-General, Lord Clanricarde, it was reported, had found “the whole establishment in a most unsatisfactory condition”; and the new Prime Minister himself was “by no means satisfied with the state of the Post Office,” and did not “think the plans of reform instituted by Mr Hill had been sufficiently carried out.” Messrs Hume and Warburton urged Mr Hill's recall.[175]

Several of the good friends who had worked so well for the reform both within and without Parliament also approached the new Government, which, indeed, was not slow to act; and my father entered, not, as before, the Treasury, but his fitter field of work—the Post Office. The whirligig of time was indeed bringing in his revenges. An entire decade had elapsed since the reformer, then hopeful and enthusiastic, inwardly digested the cabful of volumes sent him by Mr Wallace, and dictated to Mrs Hill the pages of [Pg 213] “Post Office Reform.” He had at the time been denied admission to the Post Office when seeking for information as to the working of the old system he was destined to destroy. He now found himself installed within the official precincts, and in something resembling authority there.

Thus before the passing of the year 1846 he was able to comment yet further in his diary on the curious parallel between his own treatment and that of Dockwra and Palmer. “Both these remarkable men,” he wrote, “saw their plans adopted, were themselves engaged to work them out, and subsequently, on the complaint of the Post Office, were turned adrift by the Treasury.” We “were all alike in the fact of dismissal.... I alone was so far favoured as to be recalled to aid in the completion of my plan.”[176]

At the time when Dockwra, the most hardly used of all, was driven from office a ruined man, and with the further aggravation of responsibility for the costs of a trial which had been decided unjustly against him, the “merry monarch's” numerous progeny were being lavishly provided for out of the national purse. The contrast between their treatment and that of the man who had been one of the greatest benefactors to his country renders his case doubly hard.

In an interview which Mr Warburton had with the Postmaster-General preparatory to Rowland Hill's appointment, the Member for Bridport pointed to the fact that his friend was now fifty-one years of [Pg 214] age, and that it would be most unfair to call on him to throw up his present assured position only to run risk of being presently “shelved”; and further urged the desirability of creating for him the post of Adviser to the Post Office, in order that his time should not be wasted in mere routine duty. At the same time, Mr Warburton stipulated that Rowland Hill should not be made subordinate to the inimical permanent head of the Office. Had Mr Warburton's advice been followed, it would have been well for the incompleted plan, the reformer, and the public service. Rowland Hill himself suggested, by way of official designation, the revival of Palmer's old title of Surveyor-General to the Post Office; but the proposal was not received with favour. Ultimately he was given the post of Secretary to the Postmaster-General, a title especially created for him, which lapsed altogether when at last he succeeded to Colonel Maberly's vacated chair. The new office was of inferior rank and of smaller salary than his rival's; and, as a natural consequence, the old hindrances and thwartings were revived, and minor reforms were frequently set aside or made to wait for several years longer. Happily, it was now too late for the penny post itself to be swept away; the country would not have allowed it; and in this, the seventh year of its establishment, its author was glad to record that the number of letters delivered within 12 miles of St Martin's-le-Grand was already equal to that delivered under the old system throughout the whole United Kingdom.

By 1846 Rowland Hill was occupying a better [Pg 215] pecuniary position than when in 1839 he went to the Treasury. He had made his mark in the railway world; and just when rumours of his retirement therefrom were gaining ground, the South Western Railway Board of Directors offered him the managership of that line. The salary proposed was unusually high, and the invitation was transparently veiled under a Desdemona-like request that he would recommend to the Board some one with qualifications “as much like your own as possible.” But he declined this and other flattering offers, resigned his three directorships, and thus relinquished a far larger income than that which the Government asked him to accept. The monetary sacrifice, however, counted for little when weighed in the balance against the prospect of working out his plan.

His first interview with Lord Clanricarde was a very pleasant one; and he left his new chief's presence much impressed with his straightforward, business-like manner.

On this first day at St Martin's-le-Grand's Colonel Maberly and Rowland Hill met, and went through the ceremony of shaking hands. But the old animosity still possessed considerable vitality. The hatchet was but partially interred.

With Lord Clanricarde my father worked harmoniously; the diarist after one especially satisfactory interview writing that he “never met with a public man who is less afraid of a novel and decided course of action.”

Early in his postal career, my father, by Lord Clanricarde's wish, went to Bristol to reorganise [Pg 216] the Post Office there, the first of several similar missions to other towns. In nearly every case he found one condition of things prevailing: an office small, badly lighted, badly ventilated, and with defective sanitary arrangements; the delivery of letters irregular and unnecessarily late; the mail trains leaving the provincial towns at inconvenient hours; and other vexatious regulations, or lack of regulations. He found that by an annual expenditure of £125 Bristol's chief delivery of the day could be completed by nine in the morning instead of by noon. Although unable to carry out all the improvements needed, he effected a good deal, and on the termination of his visit received the thanks of the clerks and letter-carriers.[177]

In 1847 a thorough revision of the money order system was entrusted to him; and, thenceforth, that office came entirely under his control. Seventeen years later, Lord Clanricarde, in the Upper House, paid his former lieutenant, then about to retire, a handsome tribute of praise, saying, among other things, that, but for Mr Hill, the business of that office could hardly have been much longer carried on. No balance had been struck, and no one knew what assets were in hand. On passing under Mr Hill's management, the system was altered: four or five entries for each order were made instead of eleven; and official defalcation or fraud, once common, was now no more heard of.[178]

[Pg 217]

Lord Clanricarde placed the management of that office under my father's command in order that the latter should have a free hand; and it was settled that all returns to Parliament should be submitted to Rowland Hill before being sent to the Treasury, with leave to attack any that seemed unfair to penny postage. Previous to this act of friendliness and justice on the Postmaster-General's part, papers had generally been submitted to the permanent head of the office and even to officers of lower rank, but had been withheld from the reformer's observation.[179]

“Eternal vigilance” is said to be the necessary price to pay for the preservation of our liberties; and, half a century ago, a like vigilance had to be exercised whenever and wherever the interests of the postal reform were concerned.

The arrears in the Money Order Departments of [Pg 218] the London and provincial offices were so serious that to clear them off would, it was declared, fully employ thirty-five men for four years. The Post Office had always maintained that the Money Order Department yielded a large profit; but a return sent to Parliament in 1848 showed that the expenditure of the year before the change of management exceeded the receipts by more than £10,000. In 1849 my father expressed “a confident expectation” that in the course of the year the Money Order Office would become self-supporting. By 1850 that hope was realised. By 1852 the office showed a profit of £11,664, thereby, in six years, converting the previous loss into a gain of more than £22,000;[180] and during the last year of Rowland Hill's life (1878-79) the profits were £39,000.

A reduction of size in the money order forms and letters of advice, and the abolition of duplicate advices effected a considerable saving in stationery alone; while the reduction of fees and the greater facilities for the transmission of money given by cheap postage raised the amount sent, in ten years only, twenty-fold. In 1839 about £313,000 passed through the post; and in 1864, the year of my father's resignation, £16,494,000. By 1879 the sum had risen to £27,000,000; and it has gone on steadily increasing.

Perhaps the following extract from Rowland Hill's journal is satisfactory, as showing improvement in account-keeping, etc. “July 8th, 1853.—A recent return to Parliament of the number and cost of prosecutions [for Post Office offences] from 1848 to [Pg 219] 1852 inclusive, shows an enormous decrease—nearly, I think, in the ratio of three to one. This very satisfactory result is, I believe, mainly owing to the improved arrangements in the Money Order Office.”[181]

The new postal system, indeed, caused almost a revolution in official account-keeping. Under the old system the accounts of the provincial postmasters were usually from three to six months in arrear, and no vouchers were demanded for the proper disbursement of the money with which the postmasters were credited. In consequence of this dilatoriness, the officials themselves were often ignorant of the actual state of affairs, or were sometimes tempted to divert the public funds to their own pockets, while the revenue was further injured by the delay in remitting balances. Under the new system each postmaster rendered his account weekly, showing proper vouchers for receipts and payments and the money left in hand, to the smallest possible sum. This improvement was accompanied by lighter work to a smaller number of men, and a fair allowance of holiday to each of them.

When, in 1851, my father's attention was turned to the question of facilitating life insurance for the benefit of the staff, and especially of its humbler members, it was arranged with Sir George Cornwall Lewis,[182] at that time Chancellor of the Exchequer, that, to aid in making up the requisite funds, the proceeds of unclaimed money orders, then averaging [Pg 220] £1,100 a year, and all such money found in “dead” letters as could not be returned to their writers, should be used. Accumulations brought the fund up to about £12,000. In this manner “The Post Office Widows' and Orphans' Fund Society” was placed on a firm footing. A portion of the void order fund was also employed in rescuing from difficulties another society in the London office called “The Letter-Carriers' Burial Fund.”[183]

Although in 1857 my father, with the approval of Lord Colchester, the then Postmaster-General, had proposed the extension of the money order system to the Colonies, it was not till the Canadian Government took the initiative in 1859 that the Treasury consented to try the experiment. It proved so successful that the measure was gradually extended to all the other colonies, and even to some foreign countries.

Like Palmer, Rowland Hill was a born organiser, and work such as that effected in the Money Order Office was so thoroughly congenial that it could scarcely fail to be successful. The race of born organisers can hardly be extinct. Is it vain to hope that one may yet arise to set in order the said-to-be-unprofitable Post Office Savings Bank, whose abolition is sometimes threatened? As a teacher of thrift to one of the least thrifty of nations, [Pg 221] it is an institution that should be mended rather than ended. Mending must surely be possible when, for example, each transaction of that Bank costs 7.55d. exclusive of postage—or so we are told—while other savings banks can do their work at a far lower price.[184]

The following story is illustrative of the strange want of common-sense which distinguishes the race, especially when posting missives. “Mr Ramsey, (missing-letter clerk),” writes Rowland Hill in his diary of 27th May 1847, “has brought me a packet containing whole banknotes to the amount of £1,500 so carelessly made up that they had all slipped out, and the packet was addressed to some country house in Hereford, no post-town being named. It had found its way, after much delay, into the post office at Ross, and had been sent to London by the postmistress.”

It is not often that the head of so dignified and peaceful an institution as the Post Office is seen in a maimed condition, and that condition the result of fierce combat. Nevertheless, in that stirring time known as “the year of revolutions” (1848), a newly-appointed chief of the French Post Office, in the pleasant person of M. Thayer, arrived in this country on official business. He came supported on crutches, having been badly wounded in the foot during the June insurrection in Paris. He told us that his family came originally from London, and that one of our streets was named after them. If, as was surmised, he made a pilgrimage to Marylebone [Pg 222] to discover it, it must have looked to one fresh from Paris a rather dismal thoroughfare.

About 1849 Rowland Hill instituted periodical meetings of the Post Office Surveyors to discuss questions which had hitherto been settled by the slower method of writing minutes. These postal parliaments were so satisfactory that henceforth they were often held. They proved “both profitable and pleasant, increased the interest of the surveyors in the work of improvement, and by the collision of many opinions, broke down prejudices, and overthrew obstacles.”

One of the greatest boons which, under my father's lead, was secured to the letter-carriers, sorters, postmasters, and others, all over the kingdom, was the all but total abolition of Post Office Sunday labour. In a single day 450 offices in England and Wales were relieved of a material portion of their Sunday duties. Three months later the measure was extended to Ireland and Scotland, 234 additional offices being similarly relieved. While these arrangements were in process of settlement, Rowland Hill, in the autumn of 1849, resolved to still further curtail Sunday labour. Hitherto the relief had been carried out in the Money Order Department only, but it was now decided to close the offices entirely between the hours of ten and five. To make this easier, it became necessary to provide for the transmission of a certain class of letters through London on the Sunday, and to ask a few men to lend their services on this account. Compulsion there was none: every man was a volunteer; and for this absence of force my father, from beginning to end of the movement, [Pg 223] resolutely bargained. Previous to the enactment of this measure of relief, 27 men had been regularly employed every Sunday at the General Post Office. Their number was temporarily increased to 52 in order that some 5,829 men—all of whom were compulsory workers—should elsewhere be relieved, each of some five-and-three-quarters hours of labour every “day of rest.” In a few months, all the arrangements being complete, and the plan got into working order, the London staff was reduced to little more than half the number employed before the change was made. Ultimately, the services even of this tiny contingent were reduced, four men sufficing; and Sunday labour at the Post Office was cut down to its minimum amount—a state of things which remained undisturbed during my father's connection with that great public Department.

The actual bearing of this beneficent reform was, strange to say, very generally misunderstood, and perhaps more especially by “The Lord's Day Society.” Thus for some months Rowland Hill was publicly denounced as a “Sabbath-breaker” and a friend and accomplice of His Satanic Majesty. The misunderstanding was not altogether discouraged by some of the old Post Office irreconcilables; but it is only fair to the memory of the chief opponent to record the fact that when the ill-feeling was at its height Colonel Maberly called his clerks together, told them that, owing to unjust attacks, the Department was in danger, and exhorted them to stand forth in its defence.[185]

[Pg 224]

When the turmoil began the Postmaster-General was inclined to side with some of the leading officials who advocated compulsion should the number volunteering for the London work be insufficient. Happily, the supply was more than ample. But when the trouble subsided Lord Clanricarde generously admitted that he had been wrong and my father right.

Some of the provincial postmasters and other officials, misunderstanding the case, joined in the [Pg 225] clamour, and went far on the way to defeat a measure planned for their relief. Others were more discerning, and the postmaster of Plymouth wrote to say that at his office alone thirty men would be relieved by an enactment which was “one of the most important in the annals of the Post Office.”

The agitation showed how prone is the public to fly to wrong conclusions. Here was Rowland Hill striving to diminish Sunday work, and being denounced as if he was seeking to increase it! It goes without saying that, during the agitation, numerous letters, generally anonymous, and sometimes violently abusive, deluged the Department, and especially the author of the relief; and that not even Rowland Hill's family were spared the pain of receiving from candid and, of course, entirely unknown friends letters of the most detestable description. Truly, the ways of the unco gude are past finding out.

While the conflict raged, many of the clergy proved no wiser than the generality of their flocks, and were quite as vituperative. Others, to their honour be it recorded, tried hard to stem the tide of ignorance and bigotry. Among these enlightened men were the Hon. and Rev. Grantham Yorke, rector of St Philip's, Birmingham; the Professor Henslow already mentioned; and Dr Vaughan, then head-master of Harrow and, later, Dean of Llandaff. All three, although at the time personal strangers, wrote letters which did their authors infinite credit, and which the recipient valued highly. The veteran free-trader, General Peronnet Thompson, also contributed [Pg 226] a series of able articles on the subject to the then existing Sun.

Some of the newspapers at first misunderstood the question quite as thoroughly as did the public; but, so far as we ever knew, only the Leeds Mercury—unto whose editor, in common with other editors, had been sent a copy of the published report on the reduction of Sunday labour—had the frankness to express regret for having misrepresented the situation.[186] Other newspapers were throughout more discriminating; and the Times, in its issue of 25th April 1850, contained an admirable and lengthy exposition of the case stated with very great clearness and ability.[187]

“Carrying out a plan of relief which I had suggested as a more general measure when at the Treasury,” says Rowland Hill in his diary, “ I proposed [Pg 227] to substitute a late Saturday night delivery in the nearer suburbs for that on Sunday morning. By this plan more than a hundred men would be forthwith released from Sunday duty in the metropolitan district alone.”[188] He further comments, perhaps a little slyly, on the “notable fact that while so much has been said by the London merchants and bankers against a delivery where their places of business are, of course, closed, not a word has been said against a delivery in the suburbs where they live.”[189]

To give further relief to Sunday labour, Rowland Hill proposed “so to arrange the work as to have the greatest practicable amount of sorting done in the travelling offices on the railways; the earlier portion ending by five on Sunday morning, and the later not beginning till nine on Sunday evening. The pursuit of this object led to a singular device.”[190] He was puzzling over the problem how to deal with letters belonging to good-sized towns too near to London to allow of sorting on the way. The railway in case was the London and North-Western; the towns St Albans and Watford. The thought suddenly flashed upon him that the easiest way out of the difficulty would be to let the down night mail train to Liverpool receive the St Albans and Watford up mails to London; and that on arrival at some more remote town on the road to Liverpool they [Pg 228] should be transferred, sorted, to an up train to be carried to London. No time would be really lost to the public, because, while the letters were performing the double journey their destined recipients would be in bed; nor would any additional expense or trouble be incurred. The plan was a success, was extended to other railways, and the apparently eccentric proceeding long since became a matter of everyday occurrence.

In 1851 prepayment in money of postage on inland letters was abolished at all those provincial offices where it had thus far been allowed. Early in the following year the abolition was extended to Dublin, ne............
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