The Penny Black
Rowland Hill is possibly the most famous name in British postal history, remembered today as the originator of the adhesive postage stamp. But his legacy of change is more wide ranging than this might suggest. The introduction of the Penny Black was one of a series of changes he made to the postal service in the 1840s, which in many ways formed the basis of the modern era of cheap communications. Hill's innovations opened up the service to the masses by reducing the cost of postage, leading to an explosion in public demand. He is therefore seen as a seminal figure in the history of Royal Mail and an icon of Victorian Britain.
This episode of The People's Post revealed how Hill and his supporters campaigned for a revolutionary change to the way the Post Office charged for its services. Prior to the 1840s, sending and receiving mail was expensive, with the cost of a letter being determined by the distance it had to travel. What Hill suggested was that only the sender should pay and that in all cases the price should be reduced to a single penny. His scheme was therefore termed the "universal penny post".
He faced strong opposition to his plans. Senior Post Office officials had for years supported the traditional pricing arrangements and believed Hill's ideas to be too radical, even foolish. Hill drew on his skills as an inventor and educator in persuading both the establishment and the public of his ideas. As the campaign for the penny post gathered momentum there was an effort not only to prove its economic viability but also its social worth, as journalists, politicians and social reformers joined the cause in arguing that the poor as well as the rich had the right to affordable postage.
The campaign was successful, Hill was appointed to the Post Office and, although he continued to face opposition from his opponents – falling in and out of favour at the Post Office throughout his career – many of his ideas were implemented to great effect. He believed by the end of his life he had been vindicated and the eulogies after his death all acknowledged the enormous benefits the universal penny post had brought to the social, commercial, scientific and cultural life of Britain by creating the conditions under which a modern, sophisticated and affordable mail service could thrive.
Further reading can be found in Douglas Muir, Postal Reform & the Penny Black (1990) and Colin G. Hey, Rowland Hill: Victorian Genius and Benefactor (1989). Also available at The British Postal Museum & Archive within the Royal Mail Archive is Hill's two-volume autobiography, The Life of Sir Rowland Hill and the History of Penny Postage (1880). Read Douglas Muir's blog Rowland Hill & the Penny Black for further background information.
Sir Rowland Hill
Old Original Die (Penny Black)
Penny Black - imprimatur
Penny Black first day cover