Rowland Hill & the Penny Black

Rowland Hill, the great postal reformer, was born in Kidderminster, near Birmingham, in 1795. Originally an educationalist, it was in 1837 that he published his seminal pamphlet Post Office Reform; Its Importance and Practicability.

As heard in today’s episode of The Peoples Post, before 1840 postage rates were very high, and they were normally paid by the recipient. Charges were by distance and by the number of pages in the letter, rather than by weight. To send one sheet from London to Edinburgh cost 1s 1½d, a considerable sum in those days. The cost to the Post Office, however, was calculated by Hill at a fraction of 1d. There were also a number of anomalies whereby MPs’ mail, for example, was carried free, a system which was widely abused.

'Sir Rowland Hill' – oil painting attributed to Mary M Pearson, 1836 (2004-0154)

'Sir Rowland Hill' – oil painting attributed to Mary M Pearson, 1836 (2004-0154)

Hill’s proposal was three-fold: that postage should be prepaid; that it should be based upon weight, not distance or the number of sheets; and that the basic cost should be drastically reduced to a uniform 1d, making it affordable to all. The first mention of a label for prepayment – later the adhesive postage stamp – came in a reply to an official enquiry:

a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash.

In fact, Hill suggested four types of prepayment, all confusingly referred to as “stamps” – lettersheet, envelope, label and stamped sheets of paper.

Penny Black stamp used on the first day of issue, 6 May 1840 (POST 141/04, Phillips Collection - Volume IV)

Penny Black stamp used on the first day of issue, 6 May 1840 (POST 141/04, Phillips Collection - Volume IV)

Afraid of fraudulent imitation of the labels Hill said

there is nothing in which minute differences of execution are so readily detected as in a representation of the human face…I would therefore advise that…a head of the Queen by one of our first artists should be introduced.

That portrait of Queen Victoria was based upon a medal by William Wyon and was engraved by Frederick Heath, with the labels being printed by Perkins, Bacon & Petch. The Penny Black was put on sale in London on 1 May 1840, becoming valid for postage on 6 May. The experiment was a great success and was eventually imitated throughout the world.

In our collections at The British Postal Museum & Archive we hold unique treasures illustrating the history of postal reform and the design and production of the stamps. These include proofs, the Old Original die from which all the printing plates were made, and the only sheets of Penny Blacks in existence.

Old Original Die (Penny Black)

Old Original Die (Penny Black)

For his services Hill received many accolades and was knighted in 1860. When he died in 1879 he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

- Douglas Muir, Curator of Philately

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Penny Black. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

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