Sir Rowland Hill, the Story of a Great Reform
his daughter. Eleanor Caroline Smyth
This is a rare book and not many collectors will have access to the book. Chapter VI is perhaps the most important from the point of view of philatelists. I have scanned the text of this chapter and reproduce it here in its entirity without any amendment or correction apart from layout. In the book this chapter took up just over 25 pages and the notes appeared as footnotes on the relevant pages. As this is not practical here all the notes appear at the end of the chapter.
Eleanor Smyth was born on 7 March 1831 and died on 31 December 1926.
CHAPTER VI - THE STAMPS
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 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 “Encyclopædia 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 ?] post1, 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 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.2 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 bollala) 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 of 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.”3 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.”3 The Sardinian experiment, like the earlier one of M. de Valayer in Paris, had but a brief existence, the cause 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.4
(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 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 Circular5 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, 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.6 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.7
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 “Encyclopædia Britannica” has no foundation in fact. The writer of the article on the Post Office in “Chambers’s Encyclopædia,” 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,”8 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 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.9
On the other hand, the conductors of “Chambers’s Encyclopædia” 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 to have been only too easily imposed upon have a wide circulation, and that until retractation 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 Tichbourne 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.10 What more natural than that, as years 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.11
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 authors 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.12
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 fain to confess his inability to deal. Stamps, it was declared, would be unsuitable to “half-ounce letters weighing an ounce or more.”13
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,”14 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 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.15
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 tracing differences in the human faces we meet with. It is this art or instinct which enables us to distinguish our friends from strangers; and it was, perhaps, recognition of this fact that long ago led to the placing on the coinage of the portrait of the reigning monarch because it was familiar to the public eye, and therefore less likely than any other face to be counterfeited. In an engraving of some well-known countenance, any thickening or misplacing of the facial lines makes so great an alteration in features and expression that forgery is far more easily detected than when the device is only a coat-of-arms or other fanciful ornament.16 For this reason, therefore, it was decided in 1839 to reproduce on the postage stamp the youthful Queen’s head in profile designed by Wyon for the money of the then new reign, daily use of which coinage was making her face familiar to all her people. The head is also identical with that on the medal—likewise by Wyon—which was struck to commemorate her first State visit to the city in November 1837.
The stamp then being difficult to counterfeit, and worth but little in itself, while the machinery employed to produce it was costly, the reason is obvious why, so far as is known, only two attempts, and those so clumsy that one wonders who could have wasted time in forging the things, were made to imitate the finely executed, earliest “Queen’s head.”17
The design was engraved by hand on a single steel matrix, the head, through the agency of this costly machinery, being encompassed by many fine, delicately - wrought lines. The matrix was then hardened, and used to produce impressions on a soft steel roller of sufficient circumference to receive twelve repetitions, the beautiful work of the original matrix being therefore repeated, line for line, in every stamp printed. The roller, being in turn hardened, reproduced, under very heavy pressure, its counterpart on a steel plate a score of times, thus making up the requisite 240 impressions which cause each sheet to be of the value of one sovereign.18
Absolute uniformity was thus secured at comparatively little cost. The ingenious process was invented by Mr Perkins,19 of the firm of Perkins, Bacon & Co. of Fleet Street, who, during the first forty years of the reformed postal system, printed some 95/100ths of our postage stamps, and in that space of time issued nearly 21,000,000,000 of penny adhesives alone.20 Later, the contract passed into the hands of Messrs De La Rue, who hitherto, but long after 1840, had merely printed stamps of a few higher values than the penny and twopenny issue. In at least one work of fiction, however, the impression is conveyed that the latter firm from the first enjoyed the monopoly of stamp production of all values.
About midway in the ‘fifties a serious fire broke out on Messrs Perkins & Co.’s premises, and much valuable material was destroyed. Investigation of the salvage showed that barely two days’ supply of stamps remained in stock; and some anxiety was felt lest these should become exhausted before fresh ones could be produced, as even a temporary return to prepayment by coin of the realm would by this time have been found irksome. But with characteristic zeal, the firm at once recommenced work, and only a few people were ever aware how perilously near to deadlock the modern postal machine had come. It was after this fire that the crimson hue of the penny adhesive was altered to a sort of brick - red. The change of colour—one of several such changes exhibited by the red stamp—is duly recorded in Messrs Stanley Gibbon & Co.’s catalogue, though the probably long - forgotten accident with which it would seem to be connected is not mentioned.
The reasons for the four months’ long delay in the issue of the stamps were twofold. They were, first, the more or less open hostility of the Post officials to both reform and reformer, which, as has been stated, caused all sorts of hindrances to be strewn in the path of progress; and, secondly, the apprehension still felt by the Government that the public would not take kindly to prepayment. The stamps ought, of course, to have been issued in time to be used by the 10th January 1840, when “the new system came into force. When they were at last forthcoming, none were forwarded to the receiving offices till complaint was made. The fault was then found to lie with the wording of the Treasury letter giving the requisite directions. Later, another difficulty arose. The Stamp Office persisted in issuing the stamped covers in entire sheets as they were printed, and the Post Office refused to supply them uncut to the receivers. Three days alone were wasted over this wrangle. A week later the Post Office, which had formally undertaken the distribution of the covers, discovered that such work was beyond its powers. For a month after the first issue of the stamps the receiving offices remained unsupplied.
While the Government and others still cherished the delusion that the recipient of a letter would feel insulted if denied the time - honoured privilege of paying for it, the delayed publication of the stamps was less to be regretted since it enabled the experiment to be first tried with money only.
The official forecast was at fault. From the very start, and with the best will in the world, the public, when posting letters, put down pennies and missives together, and when the stamps—called by would-be wits the “Government sticking - plasters “— at last appeared, the difficulty was not to persuade people to make use of them, but to get them supplied fast enough to meet the popular demand.
While the stamps were still new that large section of mankind which never reads public instructions was occasionally at a loss where to affix the adhesive. Any corner of the envelope but the right one would be chosen, or, not infrequently, the place at the back partly occupied by the old-fashioned seal or wafer. Even the most painstaking of people were sometimes puzzled, and a certain artist, accustomed, like all his brethren of the brush, to consider that portion of his canvas the right hand which faced his left, was so perplexed that he carried to the nearest post office his letter and stamp, knocked up the clerk, and when the latter’s face appeared at the little unglazed window of the ugly wooden screen which is now superseded everywhere, perhaps save at railway booking offices, by the more civilised open network, asked politely, “Which do you call the right hand of a letter?” “We’ve no time here for stupid jokes,” was the surly answer, and the window shut again directly.
A similar rebuff was administered to a man who, while travelling, called for letters at the post office of a provincial town. He was the unfortunate possessor of an “impossible” patronymic. “What name?” demanded the supercilious clerk. “Snooks,” replied the applicant; and down went the window panel with a bang, accompanied by a forcibly expressed injunction not to bother a busy man with idiotic jests.
To the post office of, at that time, tiny Ambleside, came one day a well-to-do man to buy a stamp to put on the letter he was about to post. “Is this new reform going to last?” he asked the postmaster. “Certainly,” was the reply; “it is quite established.” “Oh, well, then,” said the man, resolved to give the thing generous support, “give me three stamps!” Not much of a story to tell, perhaps, but significant of the small amount of letter-writing which in pre-penny postage days went on even among those well-to-do people who were not lucky enough to enjoy the franking privilege.
The postal employees also showed their strangeness to the new order of things by frequently forgetting to cancel the stamps when the letters bearing them passed through the post—thereby enabling dishonest people to defraud the Department by causing the unobliterated labels to perform another journey. Many correspondents, known and unknown, sent Rowland Hill, in proof of this carelessness, envelopes which bore such stamps. Once a packet bearing four uncancelled stamps reached him.
The Mulready envelope had met with the cordial approbation of the artist’s fellow Royal Academicians when it was exhibited in Council previous to its official acceptance; though one defect, palpable to any one of fairly discerning ability, had apparently escaped the eighty possibly somnolent eyes belonging to “the Forty “—that among the four winged messengers whom Britannia is sending forth in different directions seven legs only are apportioned. The envelope failed to please the public; it was mercilessly satirised and caricatured, and ridicule eventually drove it out of use. So vast a number of “Mulreadies” remained in stock, however, that, on their withdrawal, a machine had to be constructed to destroy them. There were no philatelists then to come to their rescue.
Forgery of the stamps being out of the question, fraudulent people devoted their energies to getting rid of the red ink used to obliterate the black “pennies” in order to affix these afresh to letters as new stamps. The frauds began soon after the first issue of the adhesives, for by the 21st of May my father was already writing in his diary of the many ingenious tricks which were practised. Cheating the Post Office had so long been an established rule, that even when postage became cheap, and the public shared its benefits impartially—peer and Parliamentarian now being favoured no more highly than any other class—the evil habit did not at once die out.
In some cases the fraud was palpable and unabashed. For example, Lord John Russell one day received a sheet of paper, the label on which had been washed so mercilessly that the Queen’s features were barely discernible. The difficulty of dealing with the trouble was, of course, intensified by the fact that whereas the stamps were impressed on the paper by powerful machinery, and had had time to dry, the obliterations were made by hand,21 and were fresh—a circumstance which, in view of the tenacity of thoroughly dried ink, gave a great advantage to the dishonest.
At this juncture an ink invented by a Mr .Parsons was favourably reported on as an obliterant, but it shortly yielded to the skill of Messrs Perkins & Co.; and the stamp - cleaning frauds continuing, several of our leading scientific men, including Faraday, were consulted. As a result, new obliterating inks, red and black, were successively produced, tested, and adopted, but only for a while. Some of the experiment-makers lived as far off as Dublin and Aberdeen; and Dr Clark, Professor of Chemistry at the University of the latter city, came forward on his own account, and showed his interest in the cause by making or suggesting a number of experiments. Many people, indeed, went to work voluntarily, for the interest taken in the matter was widespread, and letters offering suggestions poured in from many quarters. But apparently the chemically skilled among the rogues were abler than those employed by the officials, since the “infallible” recipes had an unlucky knack of turning out dismal failures. Therefore, after consultation with Faraday, it was resolved that, so soon as the stock of stamps on hand became exhausted, an aqueous ink should be used both for the stamps and for the obliteration, ordinary black printing ink being meanwhile employed for the latter process. Professor Phillips and Mr Bacon, of the firm of Perkins & Co., at the same time undertook to procure a destructive oleaginous ink to be used in the printing of the new stamp.
It was hoped that thoroughly good printer’s ink would be found efficacious for obliterating purposes; but ere long a chemist named Watson completely removed the obliteration. He then proposed for use an obliterative ink of his own invention, which was tried, but proved to be inconveniently successful, since it both injured the paper and effaced the writing near the stamp. Its use had therefore to be abandoned.
The trouble did not slacken, for while Mr Watson was laboriously removing the black printing ink from the black pennies, and making progress so slowly that, at a like rate, the work could not have repaid any one, honest or the reverse, for the time spent upon it, Mr Ledingham, my father’s clerk, who had throughout shown great enthusiasm in the cause, was cleaning stamps nine times as fast, or at the rate of one a minute—a process rapid enough to make the trick remunerative.
Ultimately, it occurred to Rowland Hill that “as the means which were successful in removing the printing ink obliterant were different from those which discharged Perkins’ ink, a secure ink might perhaps be obtained by simply mixing the two.”22 The device succeeded, the ink thus formed proving indestructible; and all seemed likely to go well,, when a fresh and very disagreeable difficulty made its unwelcome appearance. To enable this ink to dry with sufficient rapidity, a little volatile oil had been introduced, and its odour was speedily pronounced by the postal officials to be intolerable. Happily, means were found for removing the offence; and at length, a little before the close of the year, all requirements seemed to be met.23
It had been a time of almost incessant anxiety. For more than six months there had been the earlier trouble of securing a suitable design for the stamps, and then, when selected, the long delay in effecting their issue; and now, during another six months, this later trouble had perplexed the officials and their many sympathisers. In the end, the colour of the black penny was changed to red, the twopenny stamp remaining blue. Thenceforth, oleaginous inks were used both for printing and for obliterating; the ink for the latter purpose being made so much more tenacious than that used to print the stamp that any attempt to remove the one from the other, even if the destruction of both did not follow, must at least secure the disappearance of the Queen’s head. A simple enough remedy for the evil, and, like many another simple remedy, efficacious; yet some of the cleverest men in the United Kingdom took half a year to find it out.
Before trial it was impossible to tell which of the two kinds of stamps would be preferred: the one impressed upon the envelope and so forming a part of it, or the other, the handy little adhesive. Rowland Hill expected the former to be the favourite on account of its being already in place, and therefore less time-consuming. Moreover, as a man gifted with a delicate sense of touch, the tiny label which, when wet, is apt to adhere unpleasantly to the fingers, attracted him less than the cleanlier embossed stamp on the envelope; and perhaps he thought it not unlikely that other people would be of like mind. But from the first the public showed a preference for the adhesive; and to this day the more convenient cover with the embossed head has been far seldomer in demand. It is not impossible that if the present life of feverish hurry and high pressure continues, and even intensifies, the reformer’s expectations as regards the choice of stamps may yet be realised. It may have been the expression of this merely “pious opinion” on his part which gave rise to some absurd fables—as, for instance, that he recommended the adhesive stamp “very hesitatingly,” and only at the eleventh hour; that he sought to restrict the public to the use of the impressed stamp because he preferred it himself; and rubbish of like sort.
From the time that Rowland Hill first planned his reform till the day when his connection with the Post Office terminated, his aim ever was to make of that great Department a useful servant to the public; and all who knew what was his career there were well aware that when at length he had beaten down opposition, that object was attained. He was the last man likely to allow personal predilections or selfish or unworthy considerations of any kind to stand before the welfare of the service and of his country.
Note 1. - “Life,” i. 377. It is curious that neither in the article on the French Post Office in the “Encyclopædia Brittanica” nor in that in Larousse’s “Dictionnaire du XIX Siêcie” is mention made of M. de Valayer or M. Piron. Whether the real worthies are excluded from the articles in order’ to make room for the fustian bound to creep in, it would be difficult to say. But, while perusing these writings, a saying of my brother’s often returns to mind. “I have never,” he declared, “read any article upon the postal reform, friendly or the reverse, which was free from misstatements.”
Note 2. - No. 128, p. 555.)
Note 3. - “The Origin of Postage Stamps,” p. 7. By Pearson Hill. Here is a story of a “find” that is more interesting than that at Turin or that of M. Piron already alluded to, because it comes nearer home to us. About the middle of the nineteenth century, and during the demolition in London of some old houses which had long been appropriated to governmental use, and were now abandoned, the discovery was made of a large number of the paper-duty stamps, issued by George III’s Ministry in order to tax the “American Colonies.” When the obnoxious impost was cancelled, and the many years long revolt had become a successful revolution, the ex-colonies thenceforth assuming the title of “The United States,” the stamps became waste material, and were thrown into a cupboard, and forgotten. At the time of their reappearance, the then Chairman of the Board of Stamps and Taxes (Inland Revenue Office), Mr John Wood, gave half a dozen of them to Rowland Hill, as curiosities; and one is still in my possession. Another was given by my father to the American philanthropist, Mr Peabody, then visiting this country, who was greatly interested in the discovery. Now it would be just as correct to say that the tax had been imposed on the American Colonies—of course it never was imposed, since, as we know, payment was from the first refused — till the middle of the nineteenth century, simply because the stamps were only found some eighty years after their supersession, as it is to say that the Sardinian “stamped postal letter paper” and “stamped postal envelopes” were employed till 1836, in which year, after long disuse, they were formally abolished. But the manner and matter of the “Encyclopædia Britannica’s” article on the Post Office and the stamps are not what they should be, and much of them would reflect discredit on the average school-boy.
Note 4. - Prepayment, as has been stated, was not actually unknown, but was so rare as to be practically non-existent.
Note 5. - The Post Circular was a paper set up temporarily by the “Mercantile Committee” to advocate the reform. It was ably edited by Mr Cole, and had a wide circulation.
Note 6. - The stamps were probably exhibited at the Dundee printing office, any time between November 1837 and September 1839— at which later date they were sent to London.
Note 7. - Published in February of that year.
Note 8. - Published in February of that year.
Note 9. - Dr Birkbeck Hill, on one occasion, told me that in the article on my father which he was asked to write for the D.N.B. he said of the adhesive stamp that its invention had been “wrongfully attributed to Mr James Chalmers “—words which nowhere appear in the article as it now stands. “The proprietors of the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica,”’ wrote my brother in “The Origin of Postage Stamps,” pp. 14, 15 (note), “did not avail themselves of the offer I had made to place them in communication with those from whom official information could be best obtained—indeed, they appear to have made no application to the Post Office for information of any kind."
Meanwhile, as it afterwards turned out, they were abundantly supplied with Mr P. Chalmers’ ex parte, and, to say the least, singularly inaccurate statements. With the editor of the ‘Dictionary of National Biography’ I had no communication whatever.” Is it after this careless fashion that much of our “island story” is compiled? If so, what wonder that long before the present day wise men should have declared that all history needed to be rewritten?
Note 10. - One of these claimants was a man connected with a well known national museum; and his pretensions were to us a never-failing source of amusement. He was distinguished for two peculiarities: one being a passion for slaughtering the reputations of his friends; the other, the misappropriation to his own credit of all originality in any reforms or inventions projected by them. So far as I am aware, only one claimant was of my own sex; and she, at least, had the courage of her opinions, for, instead of biding her time till the postal reformer was no more, the poor insane creature wrote direct to him, saying she was the originator of the entire plan, and begging him to use his influence with the Government to obtain for her an adequate pension. The stories connected with some of the other claims are quite as curious as the foregoing.
Note 11. - Inaccuracy of memory applies to other things than invention of postage stamps. Here is a curious instance. “Sir John Kaye, in writing his history of the Sepoy War, said he was often obliged to reject as convincing proof even the overwhelming assertion, ‘But I was there.’ ‘It is hard,’ he continues, ‘to disbelieve a man of honour when he tells you what he himself did; but every writer long engaged in historical enquiry has had before him instances in which men, even after a brief lapse of time, have confounded in their minds the thought of doing, or the intent to do, a certain thing with the fact of actually having done it. Indeed, in the commonest affairs of daily life we often find the intent mistaken for the act, in retrospect.’ Kaye was writing at a period of not more than ten to twelve years after the events which he was narrating. When you extend ten years to twenty or twenty-four, memories grow still more impaired, and the difficulty of ensuring accuracy becomes increasingly greater.” (Thus “The Reformer,” A. and H. B. Bonner, vii. 36, 37.) Most of the claims to invention of the postage stamp seem to have been made considerably more than ten, twelve, twenty, or twenty-four years after its introduction—some of them curiously, or, at any rate, opportunely enough, forty years or so after; that is about the time of Rowland Hill’s death, or but little later.
Note 12. - For the adhesive stamp, see “Post Office Reform,” p. 45, and “Ninth Report of the Commissioners of Post Office Inquiry,” p. 38. The impressed stamp is mentioned in “Post Office Reform” at p. 42, and also in that “Ninth Report.” The writer of the “Encyclopædia Britannica's," article (xix. 585), while quoting Rowland Hill’s description of the adhesive stamp, adds: “It is quite a fair inference that this alternative had been suggested from without,” but gives no reason for hazarding so entirely baseless an assertion. The article, indeed, bears not a few traces of what looks like personal malice; and it is a pity that the editorial revising pen, whether from indolence or from misunderstanding of the subject on its wielder’s part, was suffered to lie idle.Note 13. - These are the actual words made use of. See “Second Report of the Commissioners of Post Office Inquiry,” Question II,III
Note 14. - Thus the Treasury Minute.
Note 15. - “In the end there were selected from the whole number of competitors four whose suggestions appeared to evince most ingenuity,” wrote my father. “The reward that had been offered was divided amongst them in equal shares, each receiving £100” (“ Life,” i. 388). Sir Henry Cole gives their names as follows “Mr Cheverton, Mr C. Whiting, myself, and, I believe, Messrs Perkins, Bacon & Co. After the labour,” he adds, “of reading the two thousand five” (?six) “hundred proposals sent to the Treasury, ‘My Lords’ obtained from them no other modes of applying the postage stamp than those suggested by Mr Hill himself—stamped covers or half sheets of paper, stamped envelopes, labels or adhesive stamps, and stamps struck on letter-paper itself.”—(” Fifty Years of Public Life,” i. 62, 65, 66.)
Note 16. - So profoundly did Rowland Hill feel the importance of this fact that he invariably scouted a suggestion occasionally made in the early days of the postal reform that his own head should appear on at least one of the stamps. The some-time postmaster of New Brunswick, who caused his portrait to adorn a colonial stamp now much sought after by philatelists on account, perhaps, of its rarity, for it was speedily abolished, seems to have been of quite a different frame of mind.
Note 17. - This earliest stamp was a far finer and more artistic piece of workmanship than any of its successors; and has only to be compared with the later specimens—say, for example, with King Edward’s head on the halfpenny postcards and newspaper bands— to see how sadly we have fallen behind some other nations and our own older methods, at any rate in the art of engraving, or, at least, of engraving as applied to the postage stamp.
Note 18. - In the paper drawn up by Rowland Hill, “On the Collection of Postage by Means of Stamps,” and issued by the Mercantile Committee in June 1839, he had recommended that, for convenience sake, the stamp should be printed on sheets each containing 240, arranged in twenty rows of twelve apiece; and they are so printed to this day. It has been asserted that at first the sheets were printed in strips of twelve stamps each; but there is no truth in the statement. Archer’s perforation patent, which makes separation of the adhesives easy, and is therefore a boon to the many of us who are often in a hurry, was not adopted before the mid-’fifties.
Note 19. - His father, an American, was the inventor of the once famous air-gun.
Note 20. - Fifteen years after the issue of the first stamps, during which time more than 3,000,000,000 had been printed, it was deemed advisable to make a second matrix by transfer from the first. It had become necessary to deepen the graven lines by hand, but the work was so carefully done that the deviation in portraiture was very slight.
Note 21. - And a hasty hand, too, for in those days of manual labour there was a keen race among the stampers as to who, in a given time, should make the greatest number of obliterations. The man whose record stood habitually highest was usually called on to exhibit his prowess to visitors who were being escorted over the Department.
Note 22. - Rowland Hill’s Journal, 9th November 1840.
Note 23. - “Life,” i. 399-407