A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps

Chris West


THE PENNY BLACK is the world’s first postage stamp. Fittingly it bears the image of a new, young monarch: this chapter is about beginnings.
The young woman on the Penny Black inherited the crown of a brilliant but troubled nation. Brilliant in its technology and industry – thanks to engineers and entrepreneurs like Matthew Boulton and Josiah Wedgwood, this damp and not very big island off the coast of Europe had become the world’s fastest-growing economy. Troubled because of the social problems this Industrial Revolution brought with it: slums, child labour, appalling working conditions and hours. Brilliant in our trading skills and naval power, and the influence these gave us in foreign lands. Troubled because of the responsibilities this brought, and our lack of understanding of how to carry these out. Brilliant in a culture of aristocratic elegance. Troubled in the corruption that can fester in closed elites.
Making sense of this dual legacy would call for creativity, courage and energy. Fortunately, the subjects of the new queen possessed these very qualities. The story of this stamp provides a perfect example.
The penny post was not a Victorian invention. Back in 1680, when London was already a big place with a population of half a million, William Dockwra had guaranteed, for that amount, delivery of a letter within four hours anywhere in the city. This proved such a success that the government quickly nationalized the system, meaning that the profits could be redirected into the pocket of the Duke of York. Fortunately for Dockwra, the Duke became king and soon after that was deposed in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, having to flee the country; Dockwra found himself once again running the postal system, this time on a government salary.
Other entrepreneurs followed Dockwra’s example and set up successful penny post systems in other cities. However, on a national scale the Hanoverian post was a mess. Mail between urban centres was slow; try sending something to the country and it was even worse. The arrival of mail coaches in the late eighteenth century added a dash of glamour, but the system remained clunky. A bewildering list of tariffs and surcharges made the process laborious and prices prohibitive: the average cost of mailing a single written page across Britain was about 8½d (old pence), or about 3½p in today’s money, which doesn’t sound much until you consider that a workman’s weekly wage was about seven shillings (35p). In modern terms, this is equivalent to paying £40 to send a one-page letter.
The only benefit to the sender was that they wouldn’t have to pay this. The addressee would do that. This was hugely inefficient: recipients weren’t always at home, and when they were at home sometimes refused to pay – hardly surprising at £40 per letter – or simply didn’t have enough money to hand. On top of these day-to-day issues, the system was corrupt. MPs and Peers of the Realm could send post for free, and as a result businesses offered them directorships so that they could utilize this perk.
The usual cries of ‘something must be done’ had been echoing around for a while. But the Victorians didn’t just echo, they did things.
Rowland Hill was an exceptional man. He came from one of those marvellous late eighteenth/early nineteenth-century families with a passion for education and reform. His father, Thomas Hill, ran a progressive school on the principles of ‘kindness and patience’, where the rules were agreed by an elected committee of boys (Thomas Hill is said to have invented the Single Transferable Vote for this purpose). Science was a core part of the curriculum, as was ‘practical Mathematics’, a technology class. English, history, living languages and elocution were also taught to ensure a rounded education, whereas Latin and Greek, which were endlessly flogged into pupils at Eton and Harrow, were optional.
Hill followed in his father’s footsteps and was running the school by the age of 25. He didn’t just run it – he designed new premises for it, which included such innovations as gas central heating, a swimming pool, an observatory and craft rooms. The new school attracted international attention and pupils from Europe as well as the UK. Alongside his educational work, Hill developed a rotary printing press, a speedometer for stagecoaches and a propeller for ships, and co-founded the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, an inventors’ club, another of whose members was Charles Wheatstone, whom we will meet again later in this story.
Hill also interested himself in public matters, writing a tract on poverty relief in the UK, suggesting ways in which poor but enterprising people could emigrate safely to Australia. Up to that point, emigration had been a disorganized business, with unscrupulous shipowners overloading ships and underfeeding passengers. Hill recommended checks on the suitability of both migrants and carriers, and a new system whereby carriers were paid for the number of passengers who arrived safe and well in Australia. As a result of his work, he was made Secretary of the South Australian Colonization Commission. Thanks to Hill’s influence, the new colony was set up with a charter ensuring religious freedom and civil liberties.
In his spare time – not that he had much – he was a distinguished amateur artist.
According to legend, Hill first became interested in Post Office reform as a boy, when the postman turned up at his family home wanting three shillings for a bundle of letters. Young Rowland had been sent into Birmingham to sell some old clothes to raise the cash. Now, as an adult with a track record in social improvement, Hill turned his attention to the topic once again, and wrote his famous pamphlet, Post Office Reform, its Importance and Practicability. When attempts to interest the Post Office in this failed, Hill had it published privately. It soon came to public notice, and the authorities were forced to pay attention.
Hill’s vision was bold. The old system of complicated tariffs would be swept away and replaced by a simple national rate: send a letter anywhere in the UK and it would cost a penny. Rather than one sheet, which is all you could afford in the old days, you could send a letter weighing up to half an ounce (about the weight of two sheets of modern A4); any more and you only had to pay an extra penny. The system would be based on payment in advance and the old system of free postage for select groups was to be abolished.
Hill backed his vision up with clear, logical argument. First, the question of paying extra for distance. Hill looked at what economists call the marginal cost of sending a letter a long way, and found it was very low. Most of the cost lay in the overheads of the postal system, which were the same if you sent the letter from Holborn to the City or from London to Edinburgh. Then he looked at the inefficiency of payment on receipt. Finally, he argued for a low-cost service, on three grounds. One was that the Post Office would lose money initially, but soon make it up as more and more people used the post. The second was that the new system would lower the costs for British business. The third, and dearest to Hill’s heart, was social. Penny post would enable families, split apart by the drift to the cities of working men and women, to stay in touch. It would also encourage literacy.
Hill was summoned to an interview with the Postmaster General, Lord Lichfield. Legend has it that the idea of a small adhesive label that could be stuck on an envelope to indicate pre-payment came to Hill during this interview. If so, then the true birthday of the modern stamp, or at least the date of its conception, is 13 February 1837, which dovetails neatly with the reign of Queen Victoria. Her diary for 20 June of that year reads:
I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen.
The experts damned Hill’s brilliant idea at once. Lord Lichfield said, ‘Of all the wild and visionary schemes I have ever heard of, this is most extraordinary’, while Colonel W.L. Maberley, Secretary to the Post Office, harrumphed, ‘The plan is a preposterous one, utterly unsupported by facts, and resting entirely on assumption.’ The Colonel was to become a regular thorn in Hill’s side, creating difficulties for the new scheme wherever he could. Luckily Hill had another skill: the ability to handle such people.
Luckily, too, this was the 1830s, not the 1730s. A Lord and a Colonel had damned Hill’s idea, but the new queen’s realm had other powerful voices. Henry Cole was another of those energetic, entrepreneurial, public-spirited Victorians: amongst other things, he invented and marketed the first Christmas card, managed the Great Exhibition of 1851 and was the first director of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. Cole became an enthusiast for Hill’s reforms and assembled the Mercantile Committee, a group of City businessmen, to lobby for them. The committee also sent petitions to parliament and drummed up support in Britain’s other industrial cities via Mechanics’ Institutes. These institutes had been set up by philanthropic, or at least semi-philanthropic, industrialists as libraries and places where working men could attend courses, especially in the sciences. Many thousands of people ‘bettered themselves’ at such places in the first half of the nineteenth century: two of the institutes became Birkbeck College in London and UMIST in Manchester.
By 1839, Hill, Cole, the Mercantile Committee and the bright, serious young men of the Mechanics’ Institutes had won the day. Parliament ordered the new postal system to be set up according to Hill’s guidelines and Hill himself was put in charge of the process. He was appointed to a senior job at the Treasury, which gave him a certain amount of power and temporarily kept him out of the direct line of Colonel Maberley’s fire.
A competition to design materials for prepaid penny post was announced and over 2,600 entries were received. Most were for envelopes or letter sheets: only around fifty were for stamps, which were still something of an afterthought and not expected to be used very much. The winning envelope, designed by William Mulready RA, was put into production. When it came out, it was subject to a satirical onslaught – partially by political opponents of the whole penny post project, and partially because it did look rather odd: Britannia stands in front of a weary-looking lion, and one of the angels winging post to all corners of the globe is missing a leg. It was quickly taken out of use and almost all examples burnt in envelope-destroying machines designed especially for the task.
One of the stamp entries, meanwhile, came from William Wyon RA. Based on a medal he had designed earlier in the year to celebrate her first visit to the City of London, it featured a sketchy profile of the new, young queen, Victoria.
Hill was impressed. He began at once to examine the rival technologies for printing stamps. He did this with his usual thoroughness, eventually deciding on line engraving, a system where sheets of 240 stamps are printed from an engraved plate. This was the speciality of a small company called Perkins Bacon. He also set about improving Wyon’s basic design. He employed an artist, Henry Corbould, to turn Wyon’s original sketch into a better drawing, and worked himself on the overall layout and the intricate background of the stamp. Skilled engravers at Perkins Bacon, such as George Rushall and Charles and Frederick Heath, also had a hand in the process: the end result was a true team effort.
The finished design was approved by the Queen on 20 February 1840. Stamps went on sale on 1 May, though oddly they were not supposed to be used until the 6th. (If you have an envelope with a Penny Black on it, postmarked 1 May 1840, congratulations: you’re sitting on a gold mine.)
The stamps were an immediate success. Perkins Bacon were soon working round the clock, and 68 million Penny Blacks were printed in the next ten months. Of course, there were criticisms, especially from rival printers and political opponents. Some people felt it was disrespectful and disgraceful to lick the back of the monarch’s head, while others found it rather amusing. As one wag wrote:
You may kiss our fair Queen, or her pictures, that’s clear
Or the gummy medallion will never adhere
You will not kiss her hand, you will readily find
But actually kiss little Vickey’s behind.
Over the next few years, the newly affordable postal service boomed. In 1839, 70 million letters had been sent. By 1841 the figure had gone up to 208 million, and by 1850 it was 350 million. The amount of simple human happiness created by this change is hard to imagine: families, divided by distance, were reunited; long engagements, common at the time, were made much less painful; thoughts were shared between friends – and businesses blossomed, too.
Other nations soon took up Hill’s idea. Many years later, Gladstone said of Rowland Hill’s penny post (with typical late Victorian floridness): ‘His great plan ran like wild-fire through the civilized world. Never, perhaps, was a local invention … applied in the lifetime of its author to the advantages of such vast multitudes of his fellow-creatures.’
Not bad, for a little rectangular bit of paper.

Copyright © 2013 by Chris West