Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hill, Rowland (1795-1879)

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HILL, Sir ROWLAND (1795–1879), the inventor of penny postage, third son of Thomas Wright Hill, by Sarah Lea his wife, was born at Kidderminster on 3 Dec. 1795. [For his ancestry and father's career see Hill, Thomas Wright.] About 1803 he entered his father's school at Hill Top, then on the outskirts of Birmingham, but being of delicate constitution he was often hindered in his studies by illness. Defective though his father was as a schoolmaster, he was admirable as a father. From him his son derived his fearless originality and largeness of view. It was his mother who gave him his perseverance and his caution. She imparted her pecuniary troubles, from which his family was never free, to her son even when he was a child. ‘I early saw,’ he said, ‘the terrible inconvenience of being poor.’ ‘From a very early age,’ wrote one of his brothers, ‘he felt responsibility in a way none of us did.’ He helped in the household work. ‘By this means I acquired,’ he said, ‘a feeling of responsibility and habits of business, dispatch, punctuality, and independence, which have proved invaluable to me through life.’ He had a strong taste for mechanical work, and became expert in the use of tools. Miss Edgeworth's stories had, he said, a great influence on his character, and inspired him with an ardent wish to do something for the world by which his name should be remembered. At the age of twelve he ceased to be a pupil and became a teacher, but his education was still carried on by his love of knowledge and his daily intercourse with his father. He was his assistant in a course of public lectures on natural philosophy. He made himself many ingenious machines. He learnt mathematics by teaching others, and became a good astronomer and an expert trigonometrical land-surveyor. In mental arithmetic he was wonderfully skilful, and he trained his pupils till they could rival ‘the Calculating Boy.’ His knowledge and ignorance were strangely mixed. The extent of his deficiencies he first learnt from Dr. John Johnstone, the editor of Dr. Parr's ‘Works,’ and he endangered his health in trying to remedy them. He made curious experiments in diet, living for many periods of three days each on not more than two articles, such as boiled green pease and salt, damson-pie and sugar. At the age of sixteen or seventeen he had undertaken the entire management of his father's money affairs, and at last cleared off all the debts. ‘It was,’ he recorded in his journal, ‘the height of my ambition to establish a school for the upper and middle classes wherein the science and practice of education might be improved to such a degree as to show that it is now in its infancy.’ He built a new school-house, to which the name of Hazelwood was given. He was his own architect and his own clerk of the works. For two or three weeks in succession he worked eighteen hours a day, with seven days to the week. He set about organising the discipline of the school. He established a system of rigid punctuality. He elaborated a curious system of government by the boys, with a constitution and a code of laws that filled more than a hundred closely printed pages. Corporal punishment was abolished. The laws were sanctioned by penalties which were strictly enforced. Bad marks could be cleared off by any kind of useful work done in play hours. A court of justice was established, with boys for magistrate, jury, and constables. A committee of boys was chosen who made laws and helped to govern the school. The whole system would have seemed impossible in Utopia, yet it succeeded in Birmingham. W. L. Sargant, in his ‘Essays by a Birmingham Manufacturer’ (ii. 187), thus describes the working of this strange system: ‘By juries and committees, by marks and by appeals to a sense of honour discipline was maintained. But this was done at too great a sacrifice. The thoughtlessness, the spring, the elation of childhood were taken from us; we were premature men.’ Six years before Dr. Arnold went to Rugby ‘the Hazelwood System’ was exciting a lively public interest. It can scarcely be doubted that it had an influence on his mind.

Rowland Hill's eldest brother, Matthew Davenport Hill [q. v.], described this system in 1822 in a volume entitled ‘Public Education: Plans for the Government and Liberal Instruction of Boys in Large Numbers, drawn from Experience.’ The book was reviewed in the ‘London Magazine’ in April and May 1824 by De Quincey, and in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ for January 1825 by Basil Hall. The school almost at one bound sprang into fame. Jeremy Bentham inspected it, and ‘threw aside,’ as he wrote to Dr. Parr, ‘all he had done himself’ in the way of educational reform. He, Grote, Joseph Hume, and many of the leading radicals sent pupils to it. Boys were sent over in large numbers from the newly founded republics of South America and from Greece. Matthew Hill's book was translated into Swedish, and a Hillska Skola was founded at Stockholm. Had the scholastic attainments of the founders of this new system been equal to their originality and enthusiasm, a great and permanent school might have been founded. Even as it was, general education was largely influenced.

In 1827 the main body of the school was transferred from Hazelwood to Bruce Castle, Tottenham, an ancient mansion which takes its name from Robert Bruce's father, the lord of the manor. Rowland Hill's health more than once broke down under the great strain of work, but he was by this time aided by three of his brothers: Edwin [q. v.], Arthur (1798–1885, head-master of Bruce Castle school), and Frederic. The parents and their children, eight in all, had had all things in common. Rowland Hill was thirty-two years old before the common property, then amounting to several thousands of pounds, was divided among them in perfect harmony by Edwin the second son, whom they appointed arbitrator. They formed later on a mutual insurance fund, under the name of ‘the family fund,’ and a family council, in which plans for private or public improvement were considered. By this close league their strength was greatly increased, each brother in his schemes receiving the support and assistance of all.

Soon after the removal to Bruce Castle Hill began to feel that his vocation was not that of a schoolmaster. Of his want of scholarship he was painfully aware. He longed, moreover, for freedom of speech and action as well as of thought. He suffered under the oppression of religious observances. He had to take his pupils to the established church and to read daily prayers in the schoolroom. Yet he had ceased even to be a unitarian. On religious matters he thought with Grote and the two Mills. Robert Owen offered to him the management of one of his communities, but he declined it on account of Owen's rashness. With some of his brothers he formed a scheme for ‘a social community.’ A farm was to be taken on which they were all to live in great simplicity and freedom, supporting themselves by the work of their own hands. ‘Here they could mature schemes for public good or private emolument, which could be prosecuted in the world at large by members liberated for a time for that purpose.’ A little later on, with Sir John Shaw-Lefevre and Professor Wheatstone, the inventor of the electric telegraph, he formed a small society for furthering inventions. Under the title of ‘Home Colonies’ he published in 1832 a ‘Plan for the Gradual Extinction of Pauperism and the Diminution of Crime,’ and in 1834 ‘A Letter to Lord Brougham on Pauper Education.’ He invented an instrument for accurately measuring time in connection with astronomical observations, and turned over in his mind a variety of schemes, such as ‘propelling steamboats by a screw’ and ‘assorting letters in mail-coaches.’ He spent months of hard work and a great deal of money on the invention of a rotatory printing-press. His invention was a complete success, but he was thwarted by the treasury. Each copy of a newspaper at this time was printed on a separate sheet of paper, on which a penny stamp had been previously impressed at the stamp office. For his continuous scroll such a process was impossible, and the treasury refused to allow the stamp to be affixed by machinery as the scroll passed through the press. The introduction of the present rotatory printing-press, which is a modification of his invention, was thereby delayed thirty-five years.

In 1833 he took part in an association which was formed for colonising South Australia, and in 1835 he was appointed secretary to the South Australian commission. It was while holding this appointment that in his out-of-office hours he planned his scheme of penny postage. During the previous century the rates for postage had been steadily raised, till on a letter from London to Edinburgh 1s. 4½d. was paid. Every enclosure was charged as a fresh letter. Had envelopes been invented at that time a letter enclosed in one would have been charged as two letters. By the right enjoyed by every member of both houses of parliament and every high official of sending letters free if the direction were in his own handwriting and attested by his signature, the wealthier classes were to a great extent freed from this burden, which pressed all the more heavily on the poor. The loss of time in ‘franking’ letters was great. Sir James Stephen, under-secretary of state for the colonies, complained that he spent as much time in the year in addressing letters as would have kept him at work six hours a day for the whole month of February. To the great mass of the people the post office was practically closed. For the thousands upon thousands of Irish who were in England to send a letter to Ireland and get an answer back would each time have cost (Daniel O'Connell complained) considerably more than one-fifth of their week's wages. There were districts in England as large as Middlesex in which the postman never set his foot. In Sabden, a town of twelve thousand souls, in which Cobden had his print-works, there was, he said, no post office nor anything that served for one. The high charges led to all kinds of illicit conveyance. Five-sixths of the letters from Manchester to London did not pass through the post office. The natural result was a steady falling off in the revenue. Hill from his childhood had seen the burden on the poor of the high charges, and had often been witness of his mother's dread lest a letter should come with heavy postage to pay—for very few letters were prepaid—at a time when she had not a shilling in the house. One day in such an alarm he had been sent out to sell a bag full of rags, and had brought back 3s. The statement in Miss Martineau's ‘History of England,’ ii. 425, that Hill was moved to action by Coleridge's story of the device by which a poor woman obtained news of her brother, is untrue. His father had often maintained that postage was too high even for the sake of the revenue. As early as 1826 Hill had devised, but had not published, a scheme for a travelling post office, by which the letters could be sorted on the road. In 1835 the large surplus in the revenue set him and his brothers speculating on the best way of applying it in the reduction of duties. It was then that his thoughts were first turned earnestly to the post office. He noticed that its revenue, whether gross or net, in the previous twenty years, instead of increasing with the increase of population and wealth, had diminished, whereas in France, where the rates were lower, there had been in the same period a large increase. Convinced that a great reduction could be made with advantage to the revenue, he next examined what changes in the rates it would be most expedient to make so as to secure the maximum of advantage to the public with the minimum of injury to the revenue. He tried in vain to get admission into the London post office, so as to study its working; in fact he never was inside any post office till his scheme was adopted. He had to seek his information in the blue-books, especially in the ‘Eighteenth Report of the Commissioners of Revenue Inquiry.’ ‘Provided with over half a hundredweight of this raw material, he began that systematic study, analysis, and comparison’ which after months of labour brought out the facts on which his scheme was based. He first found out that there were three great sources of expense: First, ‘taxing’ the letters, that is ascertaining and marking the postage on each, for there were upwards of forty rates on single inland letters alone; second, the complication of accounts arising from this system, postmasters having to be debited with unpaid postage on letters transmitted to their offices, and credited with their payments made in return; third, the collection of the postage on delivery. From these facts it was clear that a vast economy would be effected if prepayment, which was very rare, was made a custom. He next examined the cost of the actual conveyance and distribution of letters, and made his great discovery ‘that the practice of regulating the amount of postage by the distance over which an inland letter was conveyed, however plausible in appearance, had no foundation in practice, and that consequently the rates of postage should be irrespective of distance.’ This discovery was only arrived at after the most laborious calculations, and was as startling to himself as it was to the general public. The cost of conveying a letter from London to Edinburgh, for which 1s. 4½d. was charged, was only one thirty-sixth part of a penny. As the expenses for the receipt and delivery of all letters were the same, however long or however short a distance they travelled, it followed that a uniform rate would approach nearer to absolute justice than any other rate that could be fixed. The two chief parts of his plan, therefore, were a uniform low rate and prepayment. He embodied it in a small pamphlet, entitled ‘Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability,’ which he marked ‘private and confidential.’ The title of ‘uniform penny postage,’ which he had first thought of, he rejected, lest its apparent absurdity should ruin its chance of success. In January 1837 he submitted it privately to Lord Melbourne's government, in the hope that it would carry conviction and be adopted. He was sent for by the chancellor of the exchequer, Spring Rice, but no result followed. He thereupon published his pamphlet, with additions, under the title of ‘Post Office Reform, &c., second edit.’ This led to his examination before a commission of post office inquiry, which was then sitting. It was before this commission, on 13 Feb. 1837, that he described his invention of the adhesive postage stamp—‘a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash.’ He had borrowed the notion from Charles Knight's proposal in 1834 that the postage on newspapers should be collected by means of stamped wrappers. James Chalmers [q. v.], for whom this suggestion has been erroneously claimed, did not experiment with it till the November of 1837. The proposed reform quickly caught the public attention; it was ridiculed by the official world, but was supported by such men as Brougham, Hume, Grote, O'Connell, Cobden, and Warburton, and by the corporation of the city of London. On 23 Nov. 1837 a parliamentary committee was appointed to examine into the scheme. It worked through the session, and on 17 July 1838, by the casting vote of the chairman, recommended a uniform rate of postage at twopence the half ounce. The government would not yield. The popular demand for the measure grew stronger, till at last, in the words of the ‘Times’ (16 March 1839), ‘it was the cause of the whole people of the United Kingdom against the small coterie of place-holders in St. Martin's-le-Grand and its dependencies.’ To a deputation of 150 members of parliament, supporters of the government, the prime minister at last reluctantly gave way. Penny postage being included in the budget, was carried in the House of Commons on 12 July by 215 to 113. In the House of Lords, being supported by the Duke of Wellington, it was carried without a division.

The hostility of the government to the measure was shown by the insulting offer made to Hill. He held as secretary to the South Australian commission a permanent office of 500l. a year. He was asked to resign it, and to accept at the same salary an engagement for two years, in which he was to introduce his scheme. He was to begin the struggle against all the strength of a powerful and hostile department, with a mark of degradation thus put upon him. He met the insult by offering to work without salary, but this was declined. A letter written by his brother, M. D. Hill, to the chancellor of the exchequer, exposing the folly and the meanness of the proposal, had such a startling effect that the salary was raised to 1,500l.; but the engagement was still only for two years, though it was subsequently extended to three. This offer was accepted. Rowland Hill now for the first time saw the post office at work. It was not to it that he was attached, but to the treasury, which exercises a controlling power over the expenditure of all the government offices. Over the post office he was not to exercise any direct authority. The officials there were left with great powers, which they exerted to the utmost in order to ruin a plan whose success they had foretold was impossible. They threw every obstacle in Hill's path, and multiplied expenses, so that the scheme might prove a financial failure. On 10 Jan. 1840 penny postage was at last established. The difficulties Rowland Hill met with in getting the machinery of the department into working order were vast, but in the next two years a great deal was done. In September 1841 the whig ministry was overthrown, and Sir Robert Peel came into power. Peel, in September 1842, at the end of Hill's third year, dismissed him from office, without any reward for his great services, leaving his scheme to be worked by men who would delight in its ruin. The folly of the ministry roused a strong feeling of public indignation. On 10 April 1843 Hill petitioned the House of Commons for an inquiry into the state of the post office, and on 27 June a select committee of inquiry was granted. It was appointed too late in the session for a proper investigation to be made.

For the next three years Hill was first a director, and then chairman of the Brighton railway, and in this capacity had the chief merit of introducing the system of express and excursion trains which were first run on that line. In June 1846 he was presented with a testimonial amounting to 13,000l., raised by public subscription. In the following November, on the return of the whig ministry to power under Lord John Russell, he was offered the post of secretary to the postmaster-general, at a salary of 1,200l. a year, Colonel Maberley, who was hostile both to him and the penny postage, being retained as permanent secretary to the post office at a higher salary, and with full command of the staff. With great hesitation Hill accepted the inferior post. For more than seven years this arrangement was continued, by which postal improvement of every kind was delayed, and some millions of public money wasted. In 1854 Colonel Maberley was transferred to the board of audit, and Hill was appointed sole secretary. In 1851 his youngest brother, Frederic Hill, one of the inspectors of prisons, had been transferred to the post office as assistant secretary, where he rendered services of very great value.

In 1864 Rowland Hill's health broke down under the long strain of work, and on 4 March he sent in his resignation. By this time he had transformed the whole service, extending conveniences, cutting down expenses, shortening the hours of work, raising wages, reducing rates, and increasing the revenue. By establishing promotion by merit he had breathed fresh life into every branch of the service. The number of chargeable letters had risen since 1838 from 76 millions to 642 millions, the gross revenue from 2,346,000l. to 3,870,000l., and the net revenue from 1,660,000l. to 1,790,000l. The business of the money order office had been multiplied fifty-two fold, and post office savings banks had been opened on the plan suggested by Sir Charles Sikes. In the years 1887–8 the number of letters, postcards, book packets, circulars, newspapers, parcels, and telegrams amounted to 2,332 millions, the gross revenue to 11,064,000l., and the net revenue to 2,851,000l. His great reform, to use Mr. Gladstone's words, ‘had run like wildfire through the civilised world; never perhaps was a local invention (for such it was) and improvement applied in the lifetime of its author to the advantages of such vast multitudes of his fellow-creatures.’ Hill retired on full pension, and received in addition a parliamentary grant of 20,000l. In 1857 he had been made F.R.S., and in 1860 K.C.B.; in 1864 the honorary degree of D.C.L. was conferred on him by the university of Oxford, and in 1879 the freedom of the city of London. In his retirement he served on the royal commission on railways appointed in 1865. In a separate report, published in 1867, he recommended that the state should gradually purchase the railways by free covenant between the proprietors and the government, and that they should then be worked, not by the state, but by companies, to which they should be leased on such conditions as would most tend to public benefit. He drew up also a ‘History of Penny Postage,’ which was written under his direction, but was the actual composition of his brother, Arthur Hill. This, with an introductory memoir, was published in two vols. 8vo, London, 1880, by his nephew, Dr. G. Birkbeck Hill. He died on 27 Aug. 1879, at his residence in Hampstead, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Statues have been erected at Kidderminster, Birmingham, and at the Royal Exchange, London. The Rowland Hill Memorial and Benevolent Fund was raised shortly after his death to commemorate his memory, and to provide relief for distressed persons connected with the post office for whom no provision is made under the Superannuation Act. The invested property amounts to more than 16,000l., producing a yearly income of about 650l. By donations, &c., this was raised in 1888–9 to 1,673l., and relief was granted to 175 cases. He married, on 27 Sept. 1827, Caroline, the daughter of Joseph Pearson, a manufacturer of Wolverhampton, and a magistrate for the county. She died on 27 May 1881. By her he had one son and three daughters.

[Life of Sir Rowland Hill and Hist. of Penny Postage, by Sir Rowland Hill and G. Birkbeck Hill, 1880; Remains of Thomas Wright Hill, F.R.A.S., privately printed, 1859; Memoir of Matthew Davenport Hill, by his Daughters, 1878; obituary notice in the Times, 28 Aug. 1879; W. L. Sargant's Essays by a Birmingham Manufacturer, 1870, vol. ii.; Public Education; Plans for the Government and Liberal Instruction of Boys in Large Numbers, 1822; Laws of Hazelwood School, 1827; Home Colonies, by Rowland Hill, 1832; first four annual Reports of the Colonisation Commissioners for South Australia; Post Office Reform, its Importance and Practicability, 1837; Eighteenth Report of the Commissioners of Revenue Inquiry; Ninth Report of the Committee for Post Office Inquiry, 1837; Reports of the Select Committee on Postage, 1838–9; The Post Circular, Nos. 1–14, 1838–1839; Report of the Committee on Postage, 1843; State and Prospects of Penny Postage, by Rowland Hill, 1844; annual Reports of the Postmaster-general; The Post Office of Fifty Years ago, by Pearson Hill, 1887; A Paper on some newly discovered Essays and Proofs of Postage Stamps, by Pearson Hill, 1889; London Mag. April and May 1824; Edinburgh Review, Nos. 82 and 142; Quarterly Review, No. 128.]

G. B. H.