He was not always popular but, as Chris Upton reports, Sir Rowland Hill changed the post forever.
They call him “the father of the modern postal system”. A few of his colleagues in the Treasury and the Post Office called him something less complimentary, but Rowland Hill learned to live with that. A brilliant inventor and visionary, when he didn’t put someone’s back up, he usually stood on their toes instead.
Born in Kidderminster in 1795, Rowland Hill was the son of a schoolmaster, Thomas Wright Hill. Mr Hill senior opened a school in Birmingham, appropriately called Hill Top, in 1803, which his son attended. Half-way through being a pupil in it, Rowland had become a teacher there too. Later the school, renamed Hazelwood, moved to the Hagley Road.
Under the Hills, Hazelwood became one of the most progresssive schools in England, with a curriculum that was generations ahead of its time. At a time when most grammar schools taught only Latin and Greek, Hill Top and Hazelwood had a syllabus that stretched from modern languages and music to metalwork and pneumatic chemistry.
It was probably the first school to be lit by gas and one of the first to have a science lab. And in the winter months, when most public schoolboys found that their ink had frozen in the ink-wells, Hazelwood boys basked in the warmth of a central-heating system.
Even discipline at Hazelwood was innovative. Corporal punishment was abolished, and a jury drawn from pupils and teachers alike handed out rewards in the form of tokens and punishment by the removal of privileges.
Hazelwood School tragically closed in 1833, by which time Rowland Hill had moved on to another life. First he was Secretary to the South Australian Commission, organizing the safe delivery of emigrants (no longer convicts) to a new life in Australia.
Then, as Director of the London and Brighton Railway, he was organizing the safe delivery of day-trippers to the joys of the Sussex seaside. Queen Victoria felt that Hill’s successful marketing of the line could only lower the tone of “Royal Brighton”, and would not speak to him when she dubbed Rowland a knight.
The royal toe would not be the last that Sir Rowland trod on.
By 1837 yet another bee was emerging from his bonnet. The pamphlet he published in that year – “Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability” – was considerably more exciting to read than its title might suggest. Very soon the front doors of Britain would never be the same again. But I jump ahead of myself.
First you need to see why the postal service was in serious need of reform. At a moment when postal reform is in the air once more, it’s worth reflecting on what preceded it.
Until the passing of the Penny Postage Bill of 1839, you didn’t pay to send a letter; you paid to receive one. And the cost of a letter did not depend on its weight, but on the distance it had travelled, and on the number of sheets.