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CHAPTER VIII AT THE POST OFFICE—Continued
The important Commission appointed in 1853 to revise the scale of salaries of the Post Office employees held many sittings and did valuable work.[199] Its report was published in the following year. Rowland Hill's examination alone occupied eight days; and he had the satisfaction of finding the Commissioners' views in accordance with his own on the subject of patronage, promotion, and classification.

On the score that the business of the Post Office is of a kind which peculiarly requires centralisation, the Commission condemned the principle of the double Secretariate, and recommended that the whole should be placed under the direction of a single secretary; that in order to enable “every deserving person” to have within his reach attainment to “the highest prizes,” the ranks of the Secretary's Office should be opened to all members of the establishment; and that throughout the Department individual salaries should advance by annual increments instead of by larger ones at long intervals: all advancements to be contingent on good conduct. [Pg 246] It was also advised that, to attract suitable men, prospects of advancement should be held out; that improvement in provincial offices—then much needed—should be secured by allowing respective postmasters, under approval and in accordance with prescribed rules, to appoint their own clerks; and that promotion should be strictly regulated according to qualification and merit—a rule which in time must raise any department to the highest state of efficiency. The abolition of a crying evil was also advised. At the time in question all appointments to the office rested not with the Postmaster-General but with the Treasury, the nomination being in effect left to the Member of Parliament for the district where a vacancy occurred, provided he were a general supporter of the Government. It was a system which opened the way to many abuses, and was apt to flood the service with “undesirables.” The Commissioners advised the removal of the anomaly both for obvious reasons and “because the power which the Postmaster-General would possess of rewarding meritorious officers in his own department by promoting them to the charge of the important provincial offices would materially conduce to the general efficiency of the whole body.” The relinquishment of patronage—a privilege always held dear by politicians—was conceded so far as to allow to the Postmaster-General the appointing of all postmasterships where the salary exceeded £175 a year, thus avoiding the application in all cases where the Post Office is held in conjunction with a private business or profession. A subsequent concession reduced the minimum to £120. [Pg 247] The relinquishment of so much patronage reflected great credit on the Administration then in power.[200]

It is pleasant to remember that when, in after years, the postal reform, by its complete success, had proved the soundness of its author's reasoning, the Conservatives and “Peelites,” who of old had opposed the Penny Postage Bill, seemed sometimes to go out of their way to show him friendliness. One of the kindest of his old opponents was Disraeli—not yet Earl of Beaconsfield—who, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, invited the reformer to share his hospitality, and especially singled out the new guest for attention. The first Postmaster-General to invite Rowland Hill to his house was his second chief, the Tory Lord Hardwicke, who had also asked Colonel Maberly, but was careful to put the two men one at each end of the very long table.

When, therefore, at last (in 1854) my father was given the post Colonel Maberly had so long filled, and became thenceforth known to the world as Secretary to the Post Office, it was with deep gratification that he recorded the fact in his diary that “all those to whom I had on this occasion to return official thanks had been members of the Government by which, twelve years before, I had been dismissed from office.[201] I could not but think that the kind and earnest manner in which these gentlemen now acted proceeded in some measure [Pg 248] from a desire to compensate me for the injustice of their former leader; and this view made me even more grateful for their consideration.”[202]

The old hostility between Colonel Maberly and Rowland Hill was scarcely likely to decrease while they remained, to use the sailor Postmaster-General's favourite expression, “two kings of Brentford.” Colonel Maberly had never been sparing of his blows during the long agitation over the postal reform previous to its establishment; and a dual authority is hardly calculated to transform opponents into allies. It was therefore fortunate that the peculiar arrangement, after enduring, with considerable discomfort, for seven and a half years, was brought to a close.

We all have our strong points; and one of Colonel Maberly's was a happy knack of selecting heads of departments, the chief Secretary's immediate subordinates. They were an able staff of officers, unto whom my father always considered that the good reputation the Post Office enjoyed while he was its permanent head was largely due. With their aid the reformer devised and matured measures of improvement more rapidly than before—more rapidly because there was now far less likelihood, when once authorisation had been obtained for carrying them out, of seeing his proposals subjected to tiresome modifications or indefinite delays, too often leading to entire abandonment. Thus he was enabled to give most of his time to the work of organisation, to him always, as he has said, [Pg 249] “of all occupations the least difficult and the most pleasant.” He encouraged his newly-acquired staff “to make what proved to be a valuable change in their mode of proceeding; for whereas the practice had been for these officers simply to select the cases requiring the judgment of the Secretary, and to await his instructions before writing their minutes thereon, I gradually induced them to come prepared with an opinion of their own which might serve in a measure for my guidance.” This placing of confidence in able and experienced men had, as was but natural, excellent results.

The arrangement of secretarial and other duties being now settled, reforms proceeded satisfactorily; new and greatly improved post offices were erected, and older ones were cleared of accumulated rubbish, and made more habitable in many ways. It was found that at the General Post Office itself no sort of provision against the risk of fire existed—an extraordinary state of things in a building through which many documents, often of great value and importance, were continually passing. Little time was lost in devising measures to remedy this and other defects.

But, strange to say, in 1858 the construction and alteration of post office buildings was transferred by the Treasury to the Board of Works. Knowing that the change would lead to extravagance, Rowland Hill essayed, but quite unsuccessfully, to effect a reversal of this measure; and in support of his views instanced a striking contrast. A new post office had been erected at Brighton, the cost, exclusive of a moderate sum expended to fit it up as a residence, [Pg 250] being about £1,600. A similar building had now to be put up at Dundee, whose correspondence was half that of Brighton. The Board of Works' estimate came to four or five times that amount, and all that Rowland Hill could accomplish was to bring the cost down to £5,700.

The first of the long series of “Annual Reports of the Postmaster-General” was published in 1854. It was prefaced with an interesting historical sketch of the Post Office from its origin, written by Matthew Davenport Hill's eldest son Alfred, unto whom my father was further beholden for valuable assistance as arbitrator in the already mentioned disputes between the Post Office and the railway companies. The modern weakness of apathy—most contagious of maladies—seemed after a while to settle even on the Post Office, for, late in the 'nineties, the issue was for a time discontinued.

One passage alone in the First Report shows how satisfactory was the progress made. “On the first day of each month a report is laid before the Postmaster-General showing the principal improvements in hand, and the stage at which each has arrived. The latest of these reports (which is of the usual length) records 183 measures, in various stages of progress or completed during the month of December 1854. Minor improvements, such as extension of rural posts, etc., are not noticed in these reports.”[203]

Another small periodical publication first appeared in 1856, which, revised and issued quarterly, is now a well-known, useful little manual. This was the [Pg 251] British Postal Guide. Its acceptability was made evident by its ready sale, amounting, not long after its issue, to 20,000 or 30,000 copies. Two years later an old publication known as the Daily Packet List was rearranged, enlarged, and turned into a weekly edition, which, as the Postal Circular, accomplished much useful service. Had the Treasury allowed the extension of the sphere of this little work, as recommended by the Postmaster-General and Rowland Hill, it could have been so extended as to become a postal monitor, correcting any possible misconceptions, and keeping the public constantly informed as to the real proceedings of the Post Office.

By November 1854 the diarist was able to write that his “plan has been adopted, more or less completely, in the following States: Austria, Baden, Bavaria, Belgium, Brazil, Bremen, Brunswick, Chile, Denmark, France, Frankfort, Hamburg, Hanover, Lubeck, Naples, New Grenada, Netherlands, Oldenburg, Peru, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, Sardinia, Saxony, Spain, Switzerland, Tuscany, United States, and Wurtemberg.” It seems worth while to repeat the long list just as my father gave it, if only to show how much, since that time, the political geography of our own continent has altered, most of the tiny countries and all the “free cities” of mid-nineteenth-century Europe having since that date become absorbed by larger or stronger powers. It will be noticed that Norway and Sweden had not yet followed the example of the other western European countries. But the then “dual kingdom” did not long remain an exception.

[Pg 252]

Among the first European powers to adopt the postal reform were, strange to say, Spain and Russia, neither of which was then accounted a progressive country. In September 1843 the Spanish ambassador wrote to Rowland Hill asking for information about postal matters, as his Government contemplated introducing the postage stamp, and, presumably, a certain amount of uniformity and low rates. Not long after, news came that Russia had adopted stamps. The chief motive in each case was, however, understood to be the desire to prevent fraud among the postmasters.

Although Spain moved early in the matter of postal reform, Portugal sadly lagged behind, no new convention having been effected with that country, and, consequently, no postal improvements, save in marine transit, made for fifty years. In 1858, however, mainly through the good offices of the British Ministers at Madrid and Lisbon, and of Mr Edward Rea, who was sent out from London by the Postmaster-General for the purpose, better postal treaties were made, both with Spain and Portugal. Even with such countries as Belgium, Germany (the German Postal union), and the United States, progress in the way of treaties was very slow.

The postal revenues of all these European countries were smaller than our own, Portugal's being less than that of the city of Edinburgh. Small indeed is the connection between the amount of a country's correspondence and the number of its population. According to an official return published in the Journal de St Petersburg in 1855, the letters posted [Pg 253] during the year throughout the huge empire of Russia were only 16,400,000, or almost the same number as those posted during the same year in Manchester and its suburbs.

By 1853 a low uniform rate of postage was established over the length and breadth of our even then vast Indian Empire; a few outlying portions alone excepted. For many years after the introduction of the new system, involving, as it did, complete adoption of Rowland Hill's plan, the Indian Post Office did not pay expenses; but by 1870 it became self-supporting.[204]

It has sometimes been asserted that, in his eagerness to make his reform a financial success, Rowland Hill cut down the wages of the lower strata of employees. Nothing could be more untrue. Economy, he believed, was to be obtained by simpler methods and better organisation, not by underpaying the workers. While at the Post Office he did much to improve the lot of these classes of men. Their wages were increased, they had greater opportunity of rising in the service, a pension for old age combined with assistance in effecting life assurance, gratuitous medical advice and medicines,[205] and an annual holiday without loss of pay. The number of working hours was limited to a daily average of eight, and a regulation was made that any letter-carrier [Pg 254] who, taking one day with another, found his work exceed that limit, should be entitled to call attention to the fact and obtain assistance. An exhaustive enquiry was made as to the scale of wages paid, the hours of work required, etc.; and the report, when published, told the world that the men of similar rank in other callings, such as policemen, railway porters, and several more, were not so well treated as their brethren in the postal service. So clearly, indeed, was this proved that public endorsement of the fact was at once evidenced by a marked increase of applications for situations as sorters, letter-carriers, etc.

A striking proof of this recognition of a truth came at first hand to Rowland Hill's knowledge. He was consulting an old medical friend, and in the course of conversation the latter said that his footman wished to obtain an appointment as letter-carrier. Whereupon my father pointed out that the man was better off as footman, because, in addition to receiving good wages, he had board, lodging, and many other advantages. This, answered the doctor, had already been represented to the man; but his reply was that in the Post Office there was the certainty of continuity of employment and the pension for old age. The fact that the employees in a public department are not, like many other workers, liable at any moment to be sent adrift by the death or impoverishment of their employers, constitutes one of the strongest attractions to the service. Has this circumstance any connection with the growing disinclination of the poorer classes to enter domestic service?

[Pg 255]

In 1854 rural distribution was greatly extended, 500 new offices being opened. This extension, it may be remembered, was one of several measures which were persistently opposed by the enemies of the postal reform. How much the measure was needed, and, when granted, how beneficial were its results, is shown by the fact that it was followed by the largest increase of letters which had taken place in any year since 1840, or a gain on 1853 of 32,500,000.

The measure affected several hundreds of different places and a very large percentage of the entire correspondence of the United Kingdom. Formerly there were to every office limits, sometimes narrow, sometimes wide, beyond which there was either no delivery, or one made only at additional charge, generally of a penny a letter: an arrangement which, in spite of my father's repeated efforts to amend it, outlived the introduction of the new postal system for more than fourteen years, and in the districts thus affected partially nullified its benefits. Not until this and other survivals of the older state of things were swept away could his plan be rightly said to be established.

London—whose then population formed one-tenth and its correspondence one-fourth of the United Kingdom—was also not neglected. It was divided into ten postal districts,[206] each of which was treated as a separate town with a local chief office in addition to its many minor offices. The two corps of letter-carriers—the general postmen and those who belonged to the old “twopenny post”—which till this time [Pg 256] existed as distinct bodies of employees, were at last amalgamated; their “walks” were rearranged, and a new plan of sorting at the chief office was instituted, while the letters and other missives intended for the different districts, being sorted before they reached London, were no longer, as of old, sent to St Martin's-le-Grand, but were at once dispatched for distribution to the local chief office whose initials corresponded with those upon the covers. Door letter-boxes increased in number in the houses of the poorer as well as of the richer classes; and the use, in addition to the address, on the printed heading of a letter of the initials denoting the postal district from which it emanated, and on the envelope of that where it should be delivered—a use to which the public generally accustomed itself kindly—greatly facilitated and expedited communication within the 12 miles circuit, so that thenceforth it became possible to post a letter and receive its reply within the space of a few hours—a heartily appreciated boon in the days when the telephone was not. As a natural consequence, the number of district letters grew apace, and the congestion at St Martin's-le-Grand was perceptibly lessened. At the same time, the Board of Works to some extent amended the nomenclature of the streets and the numbering of houses. The most important delivery of the day, the first, was accelerated by two hours; in some of the suburbs by two and a half hours. That is, the morning's letters were distributed at nine o'clock instead of at half-past eleven. Since that time, and for many years now, the delivery has been made at [Pg 257] or before eight o'clock. Nothing facilitated these earlier deliveries more than the sorting of letters en route; and the practice also enabled more frequent deliveries to be made. Improved communication with the colonies and foreign countries, through better treaties, was likewise effected; and each improvement was rendered easier by the rapid growth everywhere of railways and shipping companies, and the increased speed of trains and steamships.

In 1855 “the system of promotion by merit,” recommended by my father and endorsed with approval by the Civil Service Commissioners “was brought into full operation. In the three metropolitan offices, when a vacancy occurred application for appointment was open to all; the respective claims were carefully compared, and, without the admission of any other consideration whatever, the claim which was adjudged to be best carried the day. To keep our course free from disturbing influences, it was laid down that any intercession from without in favour of individual officers should act, if not injuriously, at least not beneficially, on the advancement of those concerned.” ... “By the transfer to the Post Office of appointment to all the higher postmasterships, opportunity for promotion was greatly enlarged, and posts formally bestowed for political services now became the rewards of approved merit. This change obviously involved great improvement in the quality of the persons thus entrusted with powers and duties of no small importance to the public. In the provincial offices a corresponding improvement was, in great measure, secured by [Pg 258] delegating the power of appointing their subordinates, under certain restrictions, to the respective postmasters, who, being themselves responsible for the good working of their offices, were naturally led to such selection as would best conduce to that end. This delegation, so far as related to clerks, was made on the recommendation of the Civil Service Commissioners; and the trust being satisfactorily exercised, was subsequently extended to the appointment of letter-carriers also.” The measure worked well. “From the different departments of the metropolitan offices, and from the provincial surveyors the reports of its operation were almost uniformly satisfactory. Officers were found to take more personal interest in their duties, to do more work without augmentation of force, to make up in some degree by additional zeal for the increased yearly holiday that was granted them, and to discharge their duties with more cheerfulness and spirit, knowing that good service would bring eventual reward.”[207]

The new system of promotion by merit worked far better than that of the Commissioners' examinations for admission to the Civil Service. As regards the letter-carriers, it has always been found that the men best fitted for this duty were those whose previous life had inured them to bodily labour and endurance of all kinds of weather. The new educational requirements in many instances excluded these people, while giving easy admission to shopmen, clerks, servants, and others accustomed to indoor and even sedentary life, who were little fitted to [Pg 259] perform a postman's rounds. The Duke of Argyll, then Postmaster-General, requested the Commissioners to adopt a somewhat lower standard of acquirement. At the same time he authorised the subjection of candidates for the office of letter-carriers to a stricter test as regards bodily strength, with the result that about one man in every four was rejected. By these means, and the greater attention paid to the laws of sanitation in offices and private dwellings, the health of the department gradually reached a high standard.

That the plan of confining admission to the service to candidates who have passed the Civil Service examinations is not without its drawbacks, is seen by the following extract from a Report by Mr Abbott, Secretary to the Post Office in Scotland. “Considering,” he says, “the different duties of the account, the secretary's and the sorting branches, I am inclined to believe that the examination should have more special reference to the vacancy the candidate is to fill than to his general knowledge on certain subjects proposed for all in the same class, more especially as regards persons nominated to the sorting office, where manual dexterity, quick sight, and physical activity are more valuable than mere educational requirements.”[208]

As may be surmised by the foregoing, Rowland Hill was one of the many clear-sighted men who declined to yield unquestioning approbation to the system of competitive examinations introduced by the Civil Service Commissioners; nor did longer [Pg 260] acquaintance with it tend to modify his opinion on the subject. The scheme, he thought, “worked unsatisfactorily, the criteria not being the best, and the responsibility being so divided that no one is in effect answerable for an appointment made under it. The consequence of its adoption has been, in many instances, the rejection of men who gave promise of great usefulness, and the admission of others whose usefulness has proved very small.[209] If no way had been open to the public service but through competitive examination as now conducted, I cannot say what might have been my own chance of admission, since on the plan adopted, no amount of knowledge or power in other departments is regarded as making up for deficiency in certain prescribed subjects. Under such a system neither George Stephenson nor Brindley would have passed examination as an engineer, nor perhaps would Napoleon or Wellington have been admitted to any military command. The principle, if sound, must be equally applicable to manufacturing and commercial [Pg 261] establishments, but I have heard of none that have adopted it. Indeed, a wealthy merchant lately declared (and I believe most of his brethren would agree with him) that if he had no clerks but such as were chosen for him by others, his name would soon be in the Gazette. I have always been of opinion that the more the appointments to the Post Office, and indeed to other departments, are regulated on the principles ordinarily ruling in establishments conducted by private individuals, the better it will be for the public service. The question to be decided between candidates should be, I think, simply which is best fitted for the duties to be performed; and the decision should be left to the person immediately answerable for the right performance of the duty.”[210]

[Pg 262]

While tranquillity reigned at St Martin's-le-Grand from, and long after, 1854, not only among the heads of departments, but generally throughout the office, and while reports from all quarters, metropolitan and provincial, bore testimony to efficient work accomplished and good conduct maintained, it was inevitable that in a body so numerous as was that of the lower grade employees some amount of discontent should arise. Promotion by merit, in whatever class, has few charms in the eyes of those who are deficient in the very quality which insures promotion, and who, perhaps for many years, have drawn steady payment for ordinary duty so performed as to become scarcely more than nominal. In every large community there are certain to be some “bad bargains” who, though practically useless as workers, have often abundant capacity for giving trouble, especially, maybe, in the way of fomenting a spirit of mutiny.[211]

[Pg 263]

At the Post Office this spirit manifested itself even while every care was being taken to ameliorate the condition of this multitudinous class of employees, and to rectify individual cases of hardship, and while, even during the time of insubordination, many respectable men outside the postal walls were showing their appreciation of the advantage of a letter-carrier's position over that of men of like class in other callings, by applying for appointment to that corps. Misrepresentation is a principal factor in stimulating disaffection, and, for reasons other than sympathy with the alleged victims of supposed tyrannical employers, is sometimes, though, happily, rarely, employed by those who, as non-officials, are sheltered by anonymity as well as by extraneity from participation in such punishment as may befall the better-known disaffected.

From an early period of Rowland Hill's career at the Post Office he was subjected to almost constant personal attacks on the part of a certain weekly newspaper. Many were written with considerable plausibility, but all were void of substantial truth, while others were entire fabrications. All too were of the sort which no self-respecting man condescends to answer, yet which, perhaps all the more on account of that contemptuous silence, do infinite harm, and by an unthinking public are readily believed. Many of these attacks were traced to men who had left [Pg 264] the postal service—to the no small advantage of that service—and whose dismissal was supposed to be the work of the permanent postal head; and one such man at least, a scribe with a ready pen, and ink in which the ingredient gall was over-liberally mingled, vented his spleen during a long succession of years with a perseverance worthy a better cause. As the newspaper in question had rather a wide circulation—since when did harmful literature fail to meet ready sale?—and the postal employees were, in many cases, no wiser than their fellow-readers, it was perhaps not unnatural that the attacks, which were directed more frequently and angrily against the postal reformer than against his colleagues, should meet with credence. “It certainly was rather ill-timed,” says Rowland Hill, on hearing[212] of a particularly vicious libel, “for in the previous month (November 1858) I had induced the Treasury to abandon its intention of issuing an order forbidding the receipt of Christmas boxes, and also had obtained some improvement in their scale of wages, the Treasury granting even more than was applied for.”[213]

It was not long before the agitation assumed a still more serious form, no fewer than three anonymous letters threatening assassination being received at short intervals by the harassed reformer. The heads of the different postal departments, becoming alarmed [Pg 265] for the safety of the permanent chief's life, advised his temporary absence from the Office; and Mr Peacock, its solicitor, who knew that an expert had satisfied himself and others that the handwriting of the first of these letters ............
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