The poet Coleridge, on one of his long walks among the English lakes, stopped at a roadside inn for dinner, and while he was there the letter-carrier came in, bringing a letter for the girl who was waiting upon him. The postage was a shilling, nearly twenty-five cents. She looked long and lovingly at the letter, holding it in her hand, and then gave it back to the man, telling him that she could not afford to pay the postage. Coleridge at once offered the shilling, which the girl after much hesitation accepted. When the carrier was gone she told him that he had thrown his shilling away, for the pretended letter was only a blank sheet of paper. On the outside there were some small marks which she had carefully noted before giving the letter back to the carrier. Those marks were the letter, which was from her brother, with whom she had agreed upon a short-hand system by which to communicate news without expense. „We are so poor,” said she to the poet, „that we have invented this manner of corresponding and sending our letters free.”
The shilling which the postman demanded was, in fact, about a week’s wages to a girl in her condition fifty years ago. Nor was it poor girls only who then played tricks upon the post-office. Envelopes franked by honorable members of Parliament were a common article of merchandise, for it was the practice of their clerks and servants to procure and sell them. Indeed, the postal laws were so generally evaded that, in some large towns, the department was cheated of three quarters of its revenue. Who can wonder at it? It cost more then to send a letter from one end of London to the other, or from New York to Harlem, than it now does to send a letter from Egypt to San Francisco. The worst effect of dear postage was the obstacles it placed in the way of correspondence between poor families who were separated by distance. It made correspondence next to impossible between poor people in Europe and their relations in America. Think of an Irish laborer who earned sixpence a day paying seventy-five cents to get news from a daughter in Cincinnati! It required the savings of three or four months.
The man who changed all this, Sir Rowland Hill, died only three years ago at the age of eighty-three. I have often said that an American ought to have invented the new postal system; and Rowland Hill, though born and reared in England, and descended from a long line of English ancestors, was very much an American. He was educated on the American plan. His mind was American, and he had the American way of looking at things with a view to improving them.
His father was a Birmingham schoolmaster, a free trader, and more than half a republican. He brought up his six sons and two daughters to use their minds and their tongues. His eldest son, the recorder of Birmingham, once wrote of his father thus: –
„Perhaps the greatest obligation we owe our father is this: that, from infancy, he would reason with us, and so observe all the rules of fair play, that we put forth our little strength without fear. Arguments were taken at their just weight; the sword of authority was not thrown into the scale.”
Miss Edgeworth’s tales deeply impressed the boy, and he made up his mind in childhood to follow the path which she recommended, and do something which should greatly benefit mankind.
At the age of eleven he began to assist in teaching his father’s pupils. At twelve he was a pupil no more, and gave himself wholly up to teaching. Long before he was of age he had taken upon himself all the mere business of the school, and managed it so well as to pay off debts which had weighed heavily upon the family ever since he was born. At the same time he invented new methods of governing the school. He was one of the first to abolish corporal punishment. He converted his school into a republic governed by a constitution and code of laws, which filled a printed volume of more than a hundred pages, which is still in the possession of his family. His school, we are told, was governed by it for many years. If a boy was accused of a fault, he had the right of being tried by a jury of his school-fellows. Monitors were elected by the boys, and these monitors met to deliberate upon school matters as a little parliament.
Upon looking back in old age upon this wonderful school, he doubted very much whether the plan was altogether good. The democratic idea, he thought, was carried too far; it made the boys too positive and argumentative.
„I greatly doubt,” said he once, „if I should send my own son to a school conducted on such a complicated system.”
It had, nevertheless, admirable features, which he originated, and which are now generally adopted. Toward middle life he became tired of this laborious business, though he had the largest private school in that part of England. His health failed, and he felt the need of change and rest. Having now some leisure upon his hands he began to invent and project.
His attention was first called to the postal system merely by the high price of postage. It struck him as absurd that it should cost thirteen pence to convey half an ounce of paper from London to Birmingham, while several pounds of merchandise could be carried for sixpence. Upon studying the subject, he found that the mere carriage of a letter between two post-offices cost scarcely anything, the chief expense being incurred at the post-offices in starting and receiving it. He found that the actual cost of conveying a letter from London to Edinburgh, four hundred and four miles, was one eighteenth of a cent! This fact it was which led him to the admirable idea of the uniform rate of one penny – for all distances.
At that time a letter from London to Edinburgh was charged about twenty-eight cents; but if it contained the smallest inclosure, even half a banknote, or a strip of tissue paper, the postage was doubled. In short, the whole service was incumbered with absurdities, which no one noticed because they were old. In 1837, after an exhaustive study of the whole system, he published his pamphlet, entitled Post-Office Reforms, in which he suggested his improvements, and gave the reasons for them. The post-office department, of course, treated his suggestions with complete contempt. But the public took a different view of the matter. The press warmly advocated his reforms. The thunderer of the London „Times” favored them. Petitions poured into Parliament. Daniel O’Connell spoke in its favor.
„Consider, my lord,” said he to the premier, „that a letter to Ireland and the answer back would cost thousands upon thousands of my poor and affectionate countrymen more than a fifth of their week’s wages. If you shut the post-office to them, which you do now, you shut out warm hearts and generous affections from home, kindred, and friends.”
The ministry yielded, and on January 10, 1840, penny postage became the law of the British Empire. As the whole postal service had to be reorganized, the government offered Rowland Hill the task of introducing the new system, and proposed to give him five hundred pounds a year for two years. He spurned the proposal, and offered to do the work for nothing. He was then offered fifteen hundred pounds a year for two years, and this he accepted rather than see his plan mismanaged by persons who did not believe in it. After many difficulties, the new system was set in motion, and was a triumphant success from the first year.
A Tory ministry coming in, they had the incredible folly to dismiss the reformer, and he retired from the public service without reward. The English people are not accustomed to have their faithful servants treated in that manner, and there was a universal burst of indignation. A national testimonial was started. A public dinner was given him, at which he was presented with a check for sixty-five thousand dollars. He was afterwards placed in charge of the post-office department, although with a lord over his head as nominal chief. This lord was a Tory of the old school, and wished to use the post-office to reward political and personal friends. Rowland Hill said: –
„No, my lord; appointment and promotion for merit only.”
They quarreled upon this point, and Rowland Hill resigned. The queen sent a message to the House of Commons asking for twenty thousand pounds as a national gift to Sir Rowland Hill, which was granted, and he was also allowed to retire from office upon his full salary of two thousand pounds a year. That is the way to treat a public benefactor; and nations which treat their servants in that spirit are likely to be well served.
The consequences of this postal reform are marvelous to think of. The year before the new plan was adopted in Great Britain, one hundred and six millions of letters and papers were sent through the post-office. Year before last the number was one thousand four hundred and seventy-eight millions. In other words, the average number of letters per inhabitant has increased from three per annum to thirty-two. The United States, which ought to have taken the lead in this matter, was not slow to follow, and every civilized country has since adopted the system.
A few weeks before Sir Rowland Hill’s death, the freedom of the city of London was presented to him in a gold box. He died in August, 1881, full of years and honors.