Postal service (penny post) begins in Britain

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Postal service (penny post) begins in Britain

The 10th of January 1840 AD

There had been postal services of a sort for many years in Britain, Henry VIII having appointed a Master of the Posts in 1516, and Charles II setting up the General Post Office in the year of his restoration, 1660. But the service had always been relatively expensive and thus often out of the reach of ordinary people.

Rowland Hill , a schoolmaster from Kidderminster with a zeal for change, published a booklet ‘On Post Office Reform’ in 1837 suggesting how to improve the postal service, to get away from the complexities of payment per sheet and according to distance by the recipient rather than the sender. That system was costly, with many letters refused by the addressee, and with multiple visits often needed before the intended recipient could be found by the postman – they had to pay after all. Hill argued that a uniform penny postal rate would increase the volume of mail and benefit literacy and society in general. His revolutionary idea was that an adhesive label could be used to pre-pay the postage.

Parliament agreed to the new scheme, and Hill was appointed to supervise the reforms. The adhesive label was to become the Penny Black stamp, the first such official stamp in the world. As the originator of the system Britain is the only country in the world that does not have to put the country’s name on its stamps.

The penny rate came in before the stamp was introduced, operating from January 10th 1840 (reducing the charge from the fourpence used between December 1839 and the 9th January 1840). Over the year the postal volume was double that of 1839 and by 1850 almost five times the 1839 number was handled.

Rowland Hill was knighted for his services, and is buried in Westminster Abbey . The Penny Black which went on sale officially on 6th May 1840 (though some offices jumped the gun so the earliest franked copy is dated May 1st 1840), replacing handwritten marks and other poor quality methods, was itself replaced in 1841 by the Penny Red, which was easier to cancel out (much fraudulent re-use of the Penny black had occurred from the outset). As nearly 70 million Penny Blacks were issued they are far from rare, though an unused one is more so - one sold recently for a price of £1,600.

The whole postal system was changing in this era, the railways making deliveries faster and cheaper. The last London mail coach ran in 1846, the year Hill became Secretary to the Postmaster General.

While Hill is revered as an innovator and reformer, it is right to mention that the first penny post had been organised long before by entrepreneur William Dockwra, who in 1680 ran a penny service of great efficiency (and profitability) in London. Such was his success that the government took it over, running it with all the care and effectiveness for which politicians are renowned – raising prices to pay for other projects and ending up with a system vilified by its users.

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Comment

From PHIL SULLEY on 5th December 2011
Looking for information on details of start of penny post in 1840, found article - useful for background (some of which I knew) but particularly on its results, with the figures setting out the dramatic growth in post that occurred; Effectively it made the post available for the middle classes to communicate with family and friends across the country for the first time.

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