The revenues of the Post Office began to fall off steadily, while the country was everywhere increasing in population and in wealth. The abuse lasted, as all abuses do, until the man predestined to be a great reformer came up to abolish it. The reformer in this instance was the late Sir Rowland Hill. Mr. Hill, as he then was, belonged to a family of philanthropists and reformers. He had even when a child a genius for arithmetical figures; and his delight from his boyish days in arranging and dealing with masses of figures first turned his attention to the number of letters passing daily through the Post Office, to a comparison between the number of letters and the number of the population, and to what ought to have been the actual cost of conveying them, as compared with that charged by the authorities of the Post Office. Miss Martineau tells the story of an incident which came to the knowledge of Rowland Hill and which gave his mind a direction in the way of Post Office reform. "Coleridge," says Miss Martineau, "when a young man was walking through the Lake District, when he one day saw the postman deliver a letter to a woman at a cottage door. The woman turned it over and examined it, and then returned it, saying she could not pay the postages which was a shilling. Hearing that the letter was from her brother, Coleridge paid the postage in spite of the manifest unwillingness of the. woman As soon as the postman was out of sight, she showed Coleridge how his money had been wasted as far as she was concerned. The sheet was blank. There was an agreement between her brother and herself that as long as all went well with him, he should send a blank sheet in this way once a quarter; and she thus had tidings of him without expense of postage." Rowland Hill went to work on the hint given by this pathetic little story; and he worked out in his own mind a plan of postal reform which has since captured the whole civilised world. The key-note of his system was found in the fact which his calculations had made clear to him, that the actual cost of sending letters through the post was very small; and that the distance over which letters had to be carried counted for comparatively little when once a regular postal system was in existence. Rowland Hill issued a pamphlet entitled " Post Office Reform, its Importance and Practicability," in which he laid down the principle of his scheme, and thoroughly worked out its details. His idea was that the price of the conveyance of letters should be reduced to its lowest possible scale; that the speed of communication should be increased; and that the periods of dispatch should be greatly multiplied - in fact that the object of the Post Office authorities ought to be to encourage and develop to the very utmost the public desire for intercommunication by letter. Here, in the very principle of his reform, he found himself greatly in antagonism with the principle on which the Post Office authorities had always, up to that time, been acting.
We have mentioned already, that even in the later years of Canning and of Huskisson, there were Finance Ministers whose only idea of how to increase the revenue from some public impost was to double the amount of the impost itself. The Postal authorities were following the same track. Their notion was that the higher the charge for the delivery of a letter, the greater would be the return to the Post Office revenue. Rowland Hill began with the assumption that the cheaper you make the postal delivery, the greater in the long run will be the profit to the Post Office. It does not seem to have occurred to many people before Rowland Hill's time, that while after all there are few luxuries more precious than the luxury of interchanging ideas and news between far divided friends by letter, there is nothing that compels the majority of men to write any letters that are not wrung from them by actual necessity. Men must pay for their food or starve, no matter how high the cost of the food may be; but no man is compelled to write letters, if the cost of postage seems to him too heavy for his means. Rowland Hill was convinced that if the transmission of letters were arranged for at a cheap and uniform rate, thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even millions of people would write frequent letters, who had written very few letters indeed, or no letters at all, while the high rate of charge was maintained. He advised the Postal authorities to adopt one uniform charge of one penny the half-ounce for all letters sent anywhere within the limits of Great Britain and Ireland. The Post Office authorities, it is needless to say, met the proposal at first with indignant and resolute opposition. The Postmaster General of the time denounced the scheme as the wildest and most extravagant he had ever heard. Still one might have expected opposition from the head of the Post Office Department in those days; but one is surprised to find that so bright an intellect as that of Sydney Smith should have seen no hope whatever for the success of Rowland Hill's proposal. Sydney Smith not only spoke with contempt of the scheme, but with wrath and sorrow of the Whig Ministry, who showed themselves on the whole disposed to favour it, or at least to risk a little money in giving it a fair trial. A Committee of the House of Commons was appointed which examined the whole subject most carefully, and finally made a report adopting Mr. Hill's scheme altogether, so far as it recommended a uniform rate of charge according to weight and prepayment by postage stamps.
Rowland Hill. 1795-1879.
The Government took up the scheme with energy and courage. Although the revenue that year had shown some falling off, yet it was wisely determined by the statesmen in office that it would be well to run any risk of a further deficiency which the proposed reform might involve. In the meantime, the commercial community caught at Mr. Hill's scheme with almost unanimous approval and delight. Petitions poured in from all the great cities and towns in support of the plan and urging the Government to give it at least a fair trial. Emboldened by this encouragement, the Government made up their minds to bring in a Bill which should accept the principle of Mr. Hill's scheme and the recommendation of the Committee; both as regards the uniform rate of postage, and the prepayment by stamps; and also providing for the abolition of the franking system, except in the case of official letters sent out on business directly belonging to Her Majesty's service, just the order of exception which prevails in the present day. The Government went to work cautiously and gradually, as regarded the postal charge, although their cautious and gradual movement created a wild consternation in all good old Tory circles, and indeed amongst men who were not Tories in any political sense of the word. The Bill introduced by the Government was described as merely an introductory measure; and it proposed that the charge for postage should be at the rate of fourpence for each letter under half an ounce in weight, delivered anywhere within Great Britain and Ireland. This introductory measure was carried through both Houses of Parliament, though not in either House without some strenuous opposition.