Social Change and Postage

Postage and Social Changes in the 19th Century

Penny BlackA strenuous campaign for penny postage was begun in [1837] by Rowland Hill.  The existing practice was to charge for postage in proportion to the distance covered.  To send a letter from one part of London to another cost a penny; to send one from London to Edinburgh cost more than a shilling.  Daniel O’Connell complained that an Irish labourer in England, writing to and hearing from his family weekly, would spend more than one-fifth of his wages in postage.

Payment was usually made on delivery, and Rowland Hill has told us how his mother sometimes dreaded the arrival of a letter, lest she should not have the money to pay for it.  It sometimes happened that the poor, to get intelligence of each other’s welfare, would agree to send only an addressed sheet of paper; this the receiver would refuse to accept from the postman, who would carry it off, but its coming would show that the sender was well.  While the poor felt the heavy burden of postage, peers, members of the House of Commons, and high officials had the “franking” privilege, by which their own and their friends’ letters addressed by the holders of the privilege were carried free of charge.

Large areas of England were wholly without a postal service.  Cobden had his print-works in Sabden, a town with 12,000 inhabitants, but without a post-office.  And the existing inadequate system was cumbrous and expensive.   Elaborate accounts were kept with each postmaster for the unpaid letters sent to him, and upon routine, rather than upon the carriage of letters, the revenue was spent.  Hill proved, indeed, that the average cost of carrying letters was much less than a penny for each, and he urged that it was fair to make a uniform charge for all letters.  But the official world arrayed itself against him.  The authorities would not allow Hill into the London Post-Office to examine its workings, and they declared that the postal service could never deal with the immense mass of correspondence which cheap postage would invite.  But the business world supported the proposal, and in [1839] Lord Melbourne’s government established the penny post.  As Mr. Gladstone said, the improvement “ran like wildfire through the civilized world,” and it has become one of the most important factors in modern civilization.

Excerpt from The British Nation by George McKinnon Wrong – 1903


Further Reading and External Links

Rowland Hill – Postal Reformer on Wikipedia