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Rowland Hill's 1837 Proposal for Post Office Reform

Rowland Hill

On 20 December 1837 'The Times' newspaper contained the following report about Rowland Hill and his proposal for Post Office Reform.

   "The third edition has been put into our hands of a pamphlet on the Post-office, by Mr ROWLAND HILL, to which we called the attention of the public last spring, and of which the outlines were discussed on Monday evening in the House of Lords. The object of Mr HILL is twofold - first, to diminish the expense of epistolary communication; and, second, by that diminution to increase its frequency, and thus advance the general interests of business, of friendship, and of knowledge. The latter of these objects follows naturally from the accomplishment of the former; and how the former is to be accomplished without a loss to the revenue, is the first problem to be solved. Mr HILL is of opinion, and we believe very reasonably, that to lower the postage of letters in any very considerable degree would instantly increase their number. When a tax has been lowered on an article of general adoption, capable of increased use, the consequence has been, as in the well-known instances of the taxes on coffee and tobacco, and of the stage-coach duties, that the revenue, so far from losing, has actually gained, by the new stimulus given to consumption. This might be a questionable argument in a moral point of view, if it were proposed to lower such a duty as that upon spirits; but an increase in the correspondence of a country cannot fail to be in a moral and a political, as well as in a fiscal view, a great advantage to her people. That the present rates of postage are injurious to all these interests is proved, we think, by the mere fact, that while the outlay in almost every other kind of article, whether of luxury or of necessity, has increased with the growth of our population and improvements, the expenditure in the article of correspondence has been barely stationary. In 1815, when our population was estimated at less than 20 millions, the Post-office produced £1,657,291; in 1835, when our population exceeded 25 millions and a half, the Post-office produced but £1,540,300; while in France, where, the rates are lighter, there has been an increase in 14 years from 24,000,000 to 37,000,000 francs. These things should be sufficient, surely, to put us upon inquiring whether there be not somewhere something which requires correction.

   "Mr HILL's calculation is, that no letter, even to the most distant part of the empire, sent by a direct mail, (for the expense of cross-post letters is necessarily greater in proportion), costs more than a fraction of a penny. As this fraction could not be apportioned in collection, he proposes that, for simplicity's sake, and to avoid all the trouble of stampings, and checks, and examinations at the Post-office, every letter should be charged one penny, whatever the length of its journey. Under the present system of the General Post-office, there are the following complicated proceedings every night:-

   "First, there are the accounts to be settled with the receivers (71 in number) for the post-paid letters. Then there is to tax the letters, which, without counting the franks, are frequently as many as 40,000, and every one of which is to be examined with a candle, to see whether it is single or double. (This examination, by revealing the contents, creates temptations to theft, which have too often been irresistible.) Then the proper postage is to be determined, not only with reference to such inspection, but also with reference to the distance of the post-town to which it is addressed, and to be marked on the letter with pen and ink; and lastly, nearly 700 accounts of postage are to be made out against as many deputy postmasters.

   "All this complexity would be avoided by the equalition of the postage, subject only to a rate of one penny additional for every half ounce beyond the first. And thus far we are strongly inclined to concur with Mr HILL, at least in his main principle; for as to the exact quantum, we entertain a doubt, which the postscript to the third edition has very fairly recognized as a reasonable one, whether the price can suddenly be brought down to so low a point as that of a penny.

   "Mr HILL's other practical suggestion is one which we think much more questionable. It is quite true, that a great deal of time is lost in the present mode of delivery (the letter-carrier usually waiting on an average two minutes at each door he has knocked at before it is opened and the postage paid), but we do not believe that Mr HlLL's remedy would be an effectual one. His suggestion is that the postage be paid, not by the receiver, but by the sender of the letter, through the means of a stamped cover, to be bought by the sender. We do not believe that this contrivance would be acceptable, except to regular houses of business. Other people would not keep stamped covers by them; and at the last moment, when they were just sealing in time for the post, there would be a stamped cover to fetch.

   "The Postmaster-General appears, from the debate, to have given some attention to the ingenious recommendations of Mr HILL. But, true to the principles of the Government whereof he is a member, he has declined the more useful suggestion, and adopted the more questionable one; he does not equalize the postage, he proposes merely to stamp the covers. This experiment, however, has one advantage over most of those which his colleagues delight to try - that at least it can do no harm: and the judicious arrangements devised by Mr HILL for advancing it, if they do not insure its success in the specific form proposed, are yet very likely to lead to alterations which may amount to a great practical improvement upon the existing system."

The Times had also reported on Rowland Hill's  proposal in more detail on 25 March 1837.

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