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“A powerful engine of civilization”: Rowland Hill’s Post Office Reform

2012 December 15

In 1837, Rowland Hill set out to reform the way in which a nation communicated with the publication of the pamphlet Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability. It’s a document which I’m sure many Victorianists are familiar with, but I wanted to raise a couple of points that Hill’s pamphlet signals in terms of national belonging and connectedness, as well as its resonances in the British postal service today.

Hill set out to address the problem of the Post Office’s unsatisfactory revenue, suggesting that greater revenue could be obtained by the seemingly antithetical move of reducing the fee charged on postage. Prior to the introduction of Hill’s reform, postal charges were calculated by a fairly complicated system that depended both on the number of sheets of paper and the distance it was being posted. Hill’s proposal starts, however, by recognising that the amount charged bears little relation to either of these factors: the majority of expense is in administrative handling of the post, and attempting to break down a calculation in relation to distance or the size of the letter gives a fairly meaningless differentiation of cost between items.

Instead, Hill proposed a charge that was uniformly the same for all letters moving between post-towns across the country – although a secondary rate would still apply “to places of inferior importance”, i.e. beyond the main network of post-towns. The charge introduced was the reduced rate of a penny to be paid by the sender rather than the receiver, indicated by means of either a stamped cover or a small piece of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with glutinous wash which would allow it to be attached to back of the letter. And so in 1840 came the introduction of the penny postage and the penny black:

The Penny Black

The Penny Black

To Hill, the reform of the Post Office was not just a matter of increasing revenue but also a moral, social issue:

When it is considered how much the religious, moral and intellectual progress of the people, would be accelerated by the unobstructed circulation of letters and of the many cheap and excellent non-political publications of the present day, the Post Office assumes the new and important character of a powerful engine of civilization; capable of performing a distinguished part in the great work of National education, but rendered feeble and inefficient by erroneous financial arrangements. (Hill, p.6)

The reform had the desired effect in reducing obstacles to the steady circulation of letters,  substantially increasing the volume of post sent: within the first year of its introduction  there was a two-fold increase in post, which doubled again in the first decade, and a further 60% increase was seen in the subsequent ten years.[1] The importance of the postal service as a “powerful engine” of national significance is recognisable not only for the educatory effects that Hill foresaw, but also for the role it played in the developing national consciousness. Creating an expansive community of letter readers and writers throughout the nation, the new postal service functioned to facilitate a sense of a connected nation, inviting “each and every household and citizen, regardless of class, to imagine themselves as connected to each other and as part of a national discourse network” as Katie-Louise Thomas writes[2]. In this, the postal system is akin to Benedict Anderson’s discussion of the circulation of newspapers in forming the nation as an imaginatively connected community: reading a newspaper is not just an individual act of consuming knowledge about national events, but an “extraordinary mass ceremony” performed in the awareness that “it is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion” (p. 35).[3] While letters are communications between individuals, the new systematisation of the postal service as a networked institution recreated the process of sending and receiving mail as an act performed en masse, a moment of entering into a wider network of circulation.

In addition to this role in facilitating a sense of national community, the reformed postal system also signals a shift in the idea of national space. The previous scale of charges that differed depending on distance conceived of national space as a heterogenous space of postal zones in which multiple combinations of distances and prices were possible; in this system, distance mattered. By bringing all letters under a single charge, not only was all post treated in a uniform manner but so too were all places brought into a single postal zone; in this schema, the nation was conceived of as a single spatial unit, uniformly produced through the postal network as a coherent, homogenous zone – one in which distance ceased to matter. In this, Hill’s reformed system reiterates the contemporaneous effects of the railways on the idea of space: with the railways, it was perceived that “distances practically diminish”, space and time becoming “annihilated” through the capabilities of new technologies.[4] These technologies were of course essential to further enabling postal reform, as the railway gradually replaced the mail-coach for transporting post more rapidly around the country; but Hill’s reform didn’t just depend on these technologies, it produced a vision of the nation that encapsulated the effects of new technologies on the space of the nation, recognising the way in which the nation was being reshaped into a coherent spatial unit.

It’s been pertinent to write this piece as Christmas approaches, perhaps now the one time of year when the sending and receiving of mail and parcels still has some importance for many people. Much of Hill’s reform is still with us in the form of the postage stamp, but it’s interesting to note that in recent years we’ve gone back to a system in which postage is calculated on different sizes and weights of letter. So too have we seen the onset of “free delivery” with many large order-online companies, a move which reiterates the ethos of Hill’s token penny charge per item, but which further annihilates the relative price-distance ratio into nothing, in a way that is reflective of the primary means by which we now communicate: for free, instantly, at the click of a “send” button, and with no relation between time taken and distance travelled. With the onset of digital technologies post has ceased to be “a powerful engine of civilization”, but much of what Hill proposed with regards to the free, unobstructed movement of information through communication networks continues to bear its traces in our patterns of communication today.


[1] M. J. Daunton’s The Royal Mail: The Post Office since 1840 (Athlone Press, 1985) cites an increase of 122.4% in the year 1840; a rate of growth at 105.6% in the first decade, and 62.5% from 1850-60 (p. 79).

[2] Katie-Louise Thomas, “A Queer Job for a Girl: Women Postal Workers, Civic Duty and Sexuality 1870-80”, from In a Queer Place: Sexuality and belonging in British and European contexts, ed. Kate Chedgzoy, Emma Francis and Murray Pratt. Ashgate, 2002. Pp. 50-70.

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983).

[4]Wolfgang Schivelbush, The Railway Journey: the industrialization of time and space in the 19th Century (University of California Press, 1977).

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Leslie Katz permalink
    December 15, 2012

    A small quibble. I don’t think it was right to use the word “tax” in connection with the charge for delivering a letter. The charge was instead a fee for providing a particular service.

  2. Charlotte Mathieson permalink
    December 16, 2012

    I agree the wording was slightly misleading there and I’ve changed it now; it’s not wholly inaccurate to refer to taxation in this context, though, given that the pamphlet is in the first instance concerned with the “tax on the transmission of letters”. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=PJQIAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

  3. December 16, 2012

    Interesting stuff. Was there contemporary comment on this impact of postal reform, as there was re the impact of the railways on perceptions of space?

  4. December 19, 2012

    Nothing that I’ve come across (so far) states as much so explicitly but it feels implicit in some of the discussion, especially in Hill’s ideas around the reform’s implications.

  5. Charlotte Mathieson permalink
    December 20, 2012

    From what I’ve read so far, nothing so explicitly stated, but it seems to me implied in much of what Hill is proposing. I have more reading to do on contemporary responses though, and also wonder if there’s cross-over linking railways and the post.

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