Tag Archives: Member of Parliament

Free post

From the early part of the 17th century through until 1840 when Rowland Hill’s new reforms turned the postal world on its head with cheap Universal Penny Postage, the Post Office had been blighted by a constant battle against people that strove to find ways and means by which they could send their mail “free of charge”.

As we heard in today’s episode of The Peoples Post, the root of the problem lay in the fact that in 1652, Members of Parliament granted themselves the right to send and receive their letters free.

Cigarette card showing parcels on a mail coach with labels saying whether they are free or subject to payment

Cigarette card showing parcels on a mail coach with labels saying whether they are free or subject to payment, 1911-36 (2010-0383/19)

The abuse of this privilege grew at such an enormous pace it was soon totally out of control. By the early 1830’s it was estimated to cost the Post Office over £36,000 per annum but 30 years later the Surveyor’s report shows the annual cost of the frank to have risen to £140,000 per annum.

Many Acts of Parliament and proclamations were issued over the years to try and stem the abuse of the franking system but no sooner that one loophole was blocked, a way would be found around it. There were 4 main weaknesses:-

1) The need of an M.P.’s signature on the front of free letters, encouraged unscrupulous people to forge the signature if a genuine one was unobtainable.

This situation was allowed to continue until 1764 when the first Act of Parliament was issued to penalise those who carried out this offence. From now on, those found guilty were transported for a term of 7 years.

One such case is well documented in the BPMA Archives when in 1818, the Rev. Laurence Halloran D.D. was found guilty of forging the signature of William Garrow M.P. and was duly sentenced to 7 years transportation. William Garrow of course is the principal character in BBC 1’s current T.V. programme Garrow’s Law which features this brilliant Lawyer, Judge and M.P. of the 18th/19th century.

Whilst awaiting transportation in Newgate prison, Halloran wrote a book of poems claiming his innocence and in which he published memorials that he claimed were received from many illustrious persons who supported him in his distress.

Mr. Parkin, the Post Office Solicitor’s case papers are held in the Royal Mail Archive and make fascinating reading. They include copies taken from several dies that Halloran had forged of ordination certificates including his own. Halloran was obviously a clever and well-educated man but also a man that was capable of forging a signature to avoid the postage on a letter.

Propaganda envelope sent through the post by Robert Wallace MP explaining the need for postal reform, 1838. (Postal History Series)

Propaganda envelope sent through the post by Robert Wallace MP explaining the need for postal reform, 1838. (Postal History Series)

2) M.P.’s sold on their privilege to Companies that paid them handsomely for their postage rights.

They also handed out huge quantities of franked (signed) letter sheets to family and friends or to anyone from whom they needed a favour such as a vote. Instances are recorded where servant’s wages had been part-paid in franked letter-sheets, which when the recipient was unable to write, would be sold-on in the local tavern. It is known that some of these finished up in the hands of criminals and were converted into I.O.U.’s.

Letter sent free by Lord Byron (member of the House of Lords) with Free handstamp marking, 1835. (Postal History Series)

Letter sent free by Lord Byron (member of the House of Lords) with Free handstamp marking, 1835. (Postal History Series)

3) In 1712 Newspapers were taxed and later were allowed to travel free in the post, providing they bore the newspaper tax stamp.

This was a massive burden to the Post Office – newspapers were bulky and heavy and by the late 1830’s it was estimated that some 70% by weight of all mail was going “free”.

For many ordinary folk (maybe illiterate), just to receive a newspaper in a familiar hand was comforting and sufficient. It told them that loved ones were alive and thinking of them. Others (those that could read), would perhaps require a bit more news and might be disposed to conceal their letter within the newsprint. This was generally done by “ringing the letters” in pencil or “pricking out the letters” with a pin. The recipient, by writing down the letters as they appeared in sequence in the newsprint, could easily decipher the message. To write a letter within a newspaper was an unforgivable crime subject to the most severe penalty, but did a series of pin-pricks made in a newspaper, constitute writing a letter? A tricky job for the legal profession.

, 1839. (Postal History Series)”]Letter sent free to the Commander in Chief of the forces [he was allowed to receive all letters free], 1839. (Postal History Series)4). As with a newspaper, receipt of a letter was welcomed whether it could be afforded or not.

Some families that were parted had simple pre-arranged codes that they would build into the address panels of their letters. Perhaps a “doubled-crossed” tee would mean that all the family were well; perhaps an “under-lined” word or an extra name slipped into the address would impart some meaningful piece of news to the person reading the address panel. Having gleaned those little scraps of news about their loved ones, the recipient would simply hand back the letter to the carrier saying “Sorry, but I can’t afford it” and the long process of another “dead-letter” would begin. Dead-letters were both cumbersome and expensive to the Post Office.

– Mike Bament, Postal Historian

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

Rowland Hill’s Postal Reforms

If there is one man who can be said to have changed the face of the postal service forever it is Rowland Hill. Hill was a noted reformer in the Victorian era, pioneering pupil-focused mass education and working for the South Australian Colonisation Commission, but he also had an interest in the postal service. In 1837 he published and circulated the pamphlet Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability. During the 1830’s there were growing calls for postal reform and Hill’s pamphlet proved influential, ultimately leading to the introduction of the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black, in 1840.

A cross-written letter

A cross-written letter

Prior to 1840 the postal system was expensive, confusing and seen as corrupt. Letters were paid for by the recipient rather than the sender, and were charged according to the distance the letter had travelled and the number of sheets of paper it contained. As a result cross-writing, the practice of writing in different directions, was a common method of saving paper and money, and envelopes were rarely used.

For ordinary people the cost of receiving a letter was a significant part of the weekly wage. If you lived in London and your relatives had written to you from Edinburgh you would have to pay one shilling and one pence per page – more than the average worker earned in a day. Many letters were never delivered because their recipients could not afford them, losing the Post Office a great deal of money.

But while ordinary people scrimped and saved to use the postal system, many items, such as newspapers, were not subject to charge, and Members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords had the right to frank and receive letters for free. Well-connected individuals could thus ask their MP to frank their mail for them, further reducing Post Office revenue.

After the Napoleonic Wars postage rates were high – a sly method of taxation – and there were many other anomalies and a number of local services with different charges. The system was ripe for reform.

Rowland Hill

Rowland Hill

Rowland Hill’s solution was prepayment, and a uniform rate of one pence for all letters weighing up to one ounce. Hill made no mention of the method of prepayment but later proposed the use of stamped covers (an idea previously suggested by Charles Knight). At an official inquiry into the Post Office, Hill outlined his ideas further and suggested that “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash” be used. When the inquiry reported it recommended Hill’s plan to reduce postal charges and appended samples of stamped covers to the report.

The establishment of a parliamentary Select Committee chaired by fellow postal reform campaigner Robert Wallace followed, and at the same time a Mercantile Committee on postage was set up by merchants to campaign for lower postal rates. Rowland Hill was a member of the Mercantile Committee.

The Select Committee recommended Hill’s ideas in early 1839, but favoured a uniform rate of 2d. After public pressure was put on the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, the uniform rate was reduced to 1d, and on 15th August 1839 a bill was passed in favour of a universal penny post. The same bill abolished free franking and introduced prepayment in the form of stamped paper, stamped envelopes and labels.

Penny Black and Twopence Blue

Penny Black and Twopence Blue

Rowland Hill was appointed to the Treasury to oversee the implementation of the bill and the uniform penny post was introduced on 10th January 1840. Covers, envelopes and the world’s first adhesive stamps, the Penny Black and Twopence Blue, were introduced in May 1840. The stamps quickly proved themselves to be most popular method of prepayment.

Rowland Hill’s idea for a universal penny post was quickly vindicated. The number of chargeable letters in 1839 had been only about 76 million. By 1850 this had increased to almost 350 million and continued to grow dramatically. The Post Office’s revenue was initially cut but with the increase in the number of letters it soon recovered.

Adhesive postage stamps were gradually introduced throughout the world and with the change to charging by weight, envelopes became normal for the first time. Hill’s brother Edwin invented a prototype envelope folding machine, enabling increased production to fulfil the growing demand.

The rapid increase in the use of the postal service is also partly credited with the development of the transport system, particularly the railways, and improved opportunities for businesses in the Victorian era and beyond. The lower charges also had wide social benefits and the increasingly literate working classes took full advantage of the now affordable postal system.

Death Centenary of Rowland Hill stamp, 1979

Death Centenary of Rowland Hill stamp, 1979

Rowland Hill continued to influence the Post Office, becoming Secretary to the Postmaster General in 1846 and Secretary to the Post Office in 1854. During this period Hill established the Post Office Savings Bank, which encouraged more people to save, and introduced postcodes to London – essential in a city made up of lots of little villages all growing into each other, where streets in different parts of the city often had the same name.

Fittingly, Rowland Hill and his reforms have been celebrated on several postage stamps, including four stamps released to mark his death centenary in 1979, and the 1995 Communications stamps which commemorate the campaign for a universal penny post and the introduction of the Penny Black. Rowland Hill has also been honoured by three public statues and is buried in Westminster Abbey, a mark of how important his work was. There is also an awards scheme named after Hill for innovation, initiative and enterprise in the field of philately, and the Rowland Hill Fund, established in 1882, offers financial aid to past and present Royal Mail workers in times of need.

Pioneers of Communication: Rowland Hill stamps, 1995

Pioneers of Communication: Rowland Hill stamps, 1995

For more on postal history during the Victorian era please see our online exhibition Victorian Innovation.