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CHAPTER IX THE SUNSET OF LIFE
In February 1864, Rowland Hill sent in his resignation to the Lords of the Treasury. Thenceforward, he retired from public life, though he continued to take a keen interest in all political and social questions, and especially in all that concerned the Post Office.[226] In drawing his pen-portrait, it is better that the judgment of a few of those who knew him well should be quoted, rather than that of one so nearly related to him as his present biographer.

In the concluding part to the “Life of Sir Rowland Hill and History of Penny Postage,” partly edited, partly written by Dr G. Birkbeck Hill, the latter, while reviewing the situation, justly holds that “In the Post Office certainly” his uncle “should have had no master over him at any time.” ... “Under the able chiefs whom he served from 1854 to 1860, he worked with full contentment.” When “this happy period came to an end, with the appointment of” the Postmaster-General under whom he found it impossible to work, “his force was once [Pg 287] more, and for the last time, squandered. How strangely and how sadly was this man thwarted in the high aim of his life! He longed for power; but it was for the power to carry through his great scheme. 'My plan' was often on his lips, and ever in his thoughts. His strong mind was made up that it should succeed.”... “There was in him a rare combination of enthusiasm and practical power. He clearly saw every difficulty that lay in his path, and yet he went on with unshaken firmness. In everything but in work he was the most temperate of men. His health was greatly shattered by his excessive toils and his long struggles. For the last few years of his life he never left his house, and never even left the floor on which his sleeping room was. But in the midst of this confinement, in all the weakness of old age and sickness, he wrote: 'I accept the evil with the good, and frankly regard the latter as by far the weightier of the two. Could I repeat my course, I should sacrifice as much as before, and regard myself as richly repaid by the result.' With these high qualities was united perfect integrity. He was the most upright and the most truthful of men. He was often careless of any gain to himself, but the good of the State never for one moment did he disregard. His rule was stern, yet never without consideration for the feelings of others. No one who was under him ever felt his self-respect wounded by his chief.[227] [Pg 288] He left behind him in all ranks of the service a strong sense of public duty which outlived even the evil days which came after him. One of the men who long served under him bore this high testimony to the character of his old chief: 'Sir Rowland Hill was very generous with his own money, and very close with public money. He would have been more popular had he been generous with the public money and close with his own.'”[228]

When Mr Gladstone was Chancellor of the Exchequer, my father often worked with him, their relations being most harmonious. Shortly before the postal reformer's resignation, the great statesman wrote that “he stands pre-eminent and alone among all the members of the Civil Service as a benefactor to the nation.” At another time Mr Gladstone assured his friend that “the support you have had from me has been the very best that I could give, but had it been much better and more effective, it would not have been equal to your deserts and claims.” And at a later season, when Rowland Hill was suffering from an especially virulent outbreak of the misrepresentation and petty insults which fall to the lot of all fearlessly honest, job-detesting men, the sympathising Chancellor wrote: “If you are at present under odium for the gallant stand you make on behalf of the public interests, at a period, too, [Pg 289] when chivalry of that sort by no means 'pays,' I believe that I have, and I hope still to have, the honour of sharing it with you.”[229] Writing soon after my father's death, the then leader of the Opposition used words which Rowland Hill's descendants have always prized. “In some respects his lot was one peculiarly happy even as among public benefactors, for his great plan ran like wildfire through the civilised world; and never, perhaps, was a local invention (for such it was) and improvement applied in the lifetime of its author to the advantage of such vast multitudes of his fellow-creatures.” Ten years later, the same kindly critic, in the course of a speech delivered at Saltney in October 1889, said: “In the days of my youth a labouring man, the father of a family, was practically prohibited from corresponding with the members of his household who might be away. By the skill and courage and genius of Sir Rowland Hill, correspondence is now within reach of all, and the circulation of intelligence is greatly facilitated.”[230]

A very busy man himself, my father was naturally full of admiration for Gladstone's marvellous capacity for work and for attending to a number of different things at once. One day, when the Secretary to [Pg 290] the Post Office went to Downing Street to transact some departmental business with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he found the latter engaged with his private secretaries, every one of whom was hard at work, a sculptor being meanwhile employed upon a bust for which the great man was too much occupied to give regular sittings. Every now and then during my father's interview, Mrs Gladstone, almost, if not quite, as hard-working as her husband, came in and out, each time on some errand of importance, and all the while letters and messengers and other people were arriving or departing. Yet the Chancellor of the Exchequer seemed able to keep that wonderful brain of his as clear as if his attention had been wholly concentrated on the business about which his postal visitor had come, and this was soon discussed and settled in Gladstone's own clear and concise manner, notwithstanding the should-have-been-bewildering surroundings, which would have driven my father all but distracted. A characteristic, everyday scene of that strenuous life.

On Rowland Hill's retirement, he received many letters of sympathy and of grateful recognition of his services from old friends and former colleagues, most of them being men of distinguished career. They form a valuable collection of autographs, which would have been far larger had not many of his early acquaintances, those especially who worked heartily and well during the late 'thirties to help forward the reform, passed over already to the majority. One letter was from Lord Monteagle, who, as Mr Spring Rice, Chancellor of the Exchequer in [Pg 291] the Melbourne Administration, had proposed Penny Postage in the Budget of 1839.

Prolonged rest gave back to Rowland Hill some of his old strength, and allowed him to serve on the Royal Commission on Railways, and to show while so employed that his mind had lost none of its clearness. He was also able on several occasions to attend the meetings of the Political Economy Club and other congenial functions, and he followed with keen interest the doings of the Royal Astronomical Society, to which he had belonged for more than half a century.[231] He also spent much time in preparing the lengthy autobiography on whose pages I have largely drawn in writing this story of his reform. He survived his retirement from the Post Office fifteen years; and time, with its happy tendency to obliterate memory of wrongs, [Pg 292] enabled him to look back on the old days of storm and stress with chastened feelings. Over several of his old opponents the grave had closed, and for the rest, many years had passed since they and he had played at move and counter-move. Thus, when the only son of one of his bitterest adversaries died under especially sad circumstances, the news called forth the aged recluse's ever ready sympathy, and prompted him to send the bereaved parent a genuinely heartfelt message of condolence. Increasing age and infirmities did not induce melancholy or pessimistic leanings, and although he never ceased to feel regret that his plan had not been carried out in its entirety—a regret with which every reformer, successful or otherwise, is likely to sympathise—he was able in one of the concluding passages of his Autobiography to write thus cheerfully of his own position and that of his forerunners in the same field: “When I compare my experience with that of other reformers or inventors, I ought to regard myself as supremely fortunate. Amongst those who have laboured to effect great improvements, how many have felt their success limited to the fact that by their efforts seed was sown which in another age would germinate and bear fruit! How many have by their innovations exposed themselves to obliquy, ridicule, perhaps even to the scorn and abhorrence of at least their own generation; and, alas, how few have lived to see their predictions more than verified, their success amply acknowledged, and their deeds formally and gracefully rewarded!”[232]

[Pg 293]

Owing to the still quieter life which, during his very latest years, he was obliged to lead through broken health, advancing age, and the partial loneliness caused by the passing hence of his two eldest brothers, one of his children, and nearly all his most intimate friends, he was nearly forgotten by the public, or at any rate by that vastly preponderating younger portion of it, which rarely studies “the history of our own times,” or is only dimly aware that Rowland Hill had “done something to the Post Office.” Many people believed him to be dead, others that he was living in a retirement not altogether voluntary. Thus one day he was greatly amused while reading his morning paper, to learn that at a spiritualist meeting his wraith had been summoned from the vasty deep, and asked to give its opinion on the then management of the Post Office. The helm at that time was in the hands of one of the bitterest of his old opponents, and sundry things had lately taken place—notably, if memory serves me aright, in the way of extravagant telegraphs purchase—of which he strongly disapproved. But that fact by no means prevented the spirit from expressing entire satisfaction with everything and everybody at St Martin's-le-Grand, or from singling out for particular commendation the then novel invention of halfpenny postcards. These the living man cordially detested as being, to his thinking, a mischievous departure from his principle of uniformity of rate.[233] Later, he so far conformed to the growing [Pg 294] partiality for postcards as to keep a packet or two on hand, but they diminished in number very slowly, and he was ever wont to find fault with the unfastidious taste of that large portion of mankind which writes descriptions of its maladies, details of its private affairs, and moral reflections on the foibles of its family or friends, so that all who run, or, at any rate, sort and deliver, may read.

During the quarter-century which elapsed between Rowland Hill's appointment to the Treasury and his resignation of the chief secretaryship to the Post Office, many generous tributes were paid him by the public in acknowledgment of the good accomplished by the postal reform.

The year after the establishment of penny postage, Wolverhampton, Liverpool, and Glasgow, each sent [Pg 295] him a handsome piece of plate, the Liverpool gift, a silver salver, being accompanied by a letter from Mr Egerton Smith, the editor of the local Mercury. Mr Smith told my father that the salver had been purchased with the pence contributed by several thousands of his fellow-townsmen, and that Mr Mayer, in whose works it had been made, and by whom it was delivered into the postal reformer's hands, had waived all considerations of profit, and worked out of pure gratitude. The other pieces of plate were also accompanied by addresses couched in the kindliest of terms.

From Cupar Fife came a beautiful edition of the complete works of Sir Walter Scott—ninety-eight volumes in all. In each is a fly-leaf stating for whom and for what services this unique edition was prepared, the inscription being as complimentary as were the inscriptions accompanying the other testimonials. My father was a lifelong admirer of Scott; and when the Cupar Fife Testimonial Committee wrote to ask what form their tribute should take, he was unfeignedly glad to please his Scots admirers by choosing the works of their most honoured author, and, at the same time, by possessing them, to realise a very many years long dream of his own. As young men, he and his brothers had always welcomed each successive work as it fell from pen and press, duly receiving their copy direct from the publishers, and straightway devouring it. Younger generations have decided that Scott is “dry.” Had they lived in those dark, early decades of the nineteenth century, when literature was perhaps at its poorest level, they [Pg 296] also might have greeted with enthusiasm the creations of “the Great Unknown,” and wondered who could be their auth............
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