Rowland Hill

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Rowland Hill

The ideas of the great 19th century British reformer, Rowland Hill (1795-1879) not only changed the postal service around the world, but also made commerce more efficient and profitable.

Hill was primarily noted for his postal reforms that enabled the poor to use the postal service without the financial sacrifices that had been necessary previously. He also contributed to humanity and commerce through his work in education, the British colonization of Australia, and his service for a British railway.

Impact on Education

Hill was born on December 3, 1795 in Kidderminster, England. He was the third son born to Thomas Wright Hill, the father who fostered a tight-knit family. Family members actively contributed to one another's endeavors by their advice, support and hard work. Perhaps this family cohesiveness was a natural result of the environment created by Thomas Hill in the school that he opened in 1802, at the age of 39. All his sons began studying at the school at an early age. By age 12, Rowland Hill had become a student teacher at the school.

When the school opened, corporal punishment was the norm and Greek and Latin were the mainstays. However, Thomas Hill's Prospectus of Hill Top School states that the goals were to instill moral training by kindness instead of fear of authority. Rowland Hill and his brothers carried this system even further when the family opened Hazelwood School in Birmingham in 1819-a school which was designed by Rowland Hill.

Colin G. Hey tells us in his book Rowland Hill, Victorian Genius and Benefactor that the amenities of the school were vast and quite different from what was available elsewhere. Rowland Hill designed perhaps the first school to be heated by gas that went through a central air-duct system. There were six classrooms and a large assembly hall with stage, as well as craft rooms, laboratory, gymnasium, study rooms, a canteen, observatory, swimming pool, and sports field.

The curriculum itself was a testament to the family's approach to applied learning, with a wide range of practical subjects being offered: Penmanship, English (which included speech and drama), Elocution, Geography, History, Mathematics, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin or Greek as an optional class, Gymnastics, Art, Music, Woodwork, Metalwork, Science, and practical Mathematics which included Astronomy and Surveying. Excursions away from campus were part of the activities.

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the school was its democratic procedures and the rewarding of the whole contribution of the student. Discipline was maintained by a system that included an elected body of students to draw up school rules, while infractions were heard by the judges and the courts, which were also mainly composed of students. Students were given metal coins within the school to use for privileges. These coins could be earned by excellent class work, participating in the court system or other voluntary work such as special projects.

By 1820, when still a young man of 25, Rowland Hill became in charge of the day-to-day running of the school. He used his extraordinary administrative abilities to run the school efficiently and in an organized manner. In 1822, with his older brother Matthew, Rowland Hill published a book about the school and its accomplishments, called Plans for the Government and Liberal Instruction of Boys in Large Numbers, Drawn from Experience. Immediately, the school began to gather publicity by receiving favorable reviews in journals of the day. International visitors toured the school and enrolled their sons. Part of the international renown was due to the fact that French education leader and editor Marc Antoine Jullien, former secretary to Robes-pierre, visited and wrote about Hazelwood in the June 1823 issue of his journal Revue. He even transferred his son there. Hazelwood's popularity was such that 150 boys were attending the school in 1826.

Rowland Hill taught university level mathematics and science to his students, both at Hazelwood and Bruce Castle, a London branch opened in 1827. He intended to make science compulsory for all grades because of his belief that Britain needed to forge ahead in science and technology in order to maintain its economic status. He was to train the 13 year-old students on the basic background and then train them on more specialized aspects of science as they advanced. About 12 hours per week were devoted to the science study.

However, the middle-class parents of the students disliked this approach and called for an end to the science curriculum. It is speculated that this resistance caused the breakdown in Hill's health. In 1833 he decided to give up his schoolmaster's position.

Settlers in Australia

In 1832 Rowland Hill published a pamphlet entitled Home Colonies: a Plan for the Gradual Extinction of Pauperism and the Diminution of Crime, which was based on a project carried out in Holland. At this time, Britain had sent many emigrants on a 16,000-mile boat trip to Australia that had ended in disaster for many. Hopeful emigrants were crammed into crowded boats with poor conditions, taken advantage of during the voyage as well as being poorly fed so that many died en route or shortly after arriving from various diseases.

On a trip, Rowland Hill happened to run into Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who suggested that he become involved in the colonization of southern Australia, as someone was needed to organize the venture. Hill was appointed secretary to the South Australian Commission and set about organizing the details of the emigration program. This type of work was precisely suited for Hill's administrative skills.

Emigrants were limited to those who could make a contribution to the new community: craftspersons and laborers with special skills. It was necessary to have character references, and be of good health. In addition, the men had to be married. Hill used small ships over which he would have more control and paid the ship-owners, captains, and other ship employees by the number of emigrants who actually landed rather than the usual pay which was based on the number of emigrants who embarked on the voyage.

He also insisted on rigorous specifications for the ships themselves, as well as strict specifications for provisions of food, water, health-care and accommodations. He chartered 38 vessels that carried over 5,000 immigrants to South Australia without a single serious accident.


During the time that he worked for the South Australian Commission from 1835 until 1939, Hill also worked with his brother Edwin, who was an engineer. Together the two patented a rotary printing press in 1835. This press was able to use rolls of paper rather than having to be fed sheets.

Post Office Reformer

Some sources say that Hill's interest in the Post Office began at an early age when the postman brought a letter to his family. At that time, the Post Office rates were based on the distance the letter traveled, the number of pages in a letter, and the recipient was responsible for the charge. The family could not afford to pay for the delivery of the letter, so eight-year-old Rowland Hill was sent to town with old clothes to sell in order to raise the necessary money. Perhaps it was this event that led him to think about how the Post Office could be reformed.

He studied a cab-load of government documents containing Post Office information that were sent to him by Robert Wallace, a Member of Parliament interested in Post Office reform. Hill found factual evidence that when excise and duty taxes were lowered, the prices of the items taxed also fell. He compiled statistics that led him to believe that this would occur for the Post Office as well and wrote a pamphlet proposing his ideas called Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability . The pamphlet was published in four editions between 1837 and 1838.

One astonishing fact that Hill discovered was that the cost of sending a letter had nothing to do with distance and that one of the unnecessary expenses of the Post Office was that the postman had to wait at least five minutes for payment at a household. In one test case, it took a postman one and a half hours to deliver 67 letters that had to be paid by the recipient on delivery, and one half hour to deliver 570 letters when he did not wait for payment. Plus, there was the expense of the clerks figuring the 40 different rates for letters, and the time spent keeping accounts to keep track of deliveries and payment by recipients.

The pamphlet proposed his idea of one prepaid postage rate for all letters regardless of distance. The carrying cost of sending a letter from London to Edinburgh was about 1/36 of a penny at that time. The proposal was that the rate for prepaid letters be a low one-possibly a penny. The revenue of the Post Office would initially fall but would grow in the future because the number of people using the postal service would increase due to the low postage rate. Before publishing his pamphlet, he contacted the Chancellor of the Exchequer who granted him an interview in December 1836. Hill was always one to promote his ideas to the highest authority, though in this case nothing was done.

The newspapers were instantly interested and took up Hill's cause, publicizing his novel ideas and catching the public interest. At the time of publication, a Parliamentary Commission of Enquiry into the Post Office was sitting and they invited the author of the pamphlet to give oral evidence. Viscount Wolmer tells us in his book Post Office Reform that when asked how he would manage the prepayment, Hill offered a suggestion. Persons could buy stamped covers (similar to envelopes) and sheets, or perhaps those persons who brought letters to the post office on their own unstamped paper might apply: "a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash, which the bringer might, by applying a little moisture, attach to the back of the letter, so as to avoid the necessity of re-directing it" into a stamped cover.

And so the idea of the postage stamp was put forth. The Postmaster General, Lord Lichfield, was not enthusiastic. Again, Viscount Wolmer's book Post Office Reform quotes the Postmaster as saying "with respect to the plan set forth by Mr. Hill, of all the wild and visionary schemes I have ever heard or read of, it is the most extraordinary." However, due to public pressure, much publicity, and many signatures on petitions, on August 27, 1839, the Penny Postage Act received the Royal Assent. Hill resigned from his position with the South Australia Commission and in September was given a two-year appointment to the Treasury to help implement the act. Unfortunately this appointment came without any real authority.

On May 6, 1840, the Penny Black stamp and the stationery were available for sale. Despite all he had accomplished, the Post Office administration thwarted his attempts to achieve other efficiencies. Though extended one year past the initial two-year appointment, his temporary appointment was ended in September 1842 when the government changed.

The London and Brighton Railway

Fortunately, the London and Brighton Railway immediately offered Hill a job as a director and later as chairman of the board. He effected many improvements in his time there from 1843 through 1846. He lowered the rates from London to Brighton, offered special excursion trains, made them comfortable, more efficient and popularized the idea of commuting to London while living by the sea in fashionable Brighton.

But his heart was still at the post office and he had told his employers that if he were called back, he would certainly go. This did happen in November 1846 as he was appointed secretary to the postmaster general. However, his foe Colonel Maberly was still secretary to the post office, and thus his superior. Hill finally achieved the coveted post of secretary to the post office in 1854 and was able to implement numerous post office improvements until his retirement due to ill health in 1864. He died in Hampstead, England on August 27, 1879.


Hey, Colin G., Rowland Hill, Victorian Genius and Benefactor, Quiller Press, 1989.

Hill, Colonel H.W., Rowland Hill and the Fight for Penny Post, Frederick Warne and Co., Ltd., 1940.

Smyth, Eleanor C., Sir Rowland Hill, The Story of a Great Reform Told by His Daughter, T. Fisher Unwin, 1907.

Wolmer, Viscount, Post Office Reform, Its Importance and Practicability, Ivor Nicholson and Watson Ltd., 1932. □