Heritage: Celebrated postal reformer Sir Rowland Hill lived on the Royal Free Hospital site

Statue of Sir Rowland Hill in Kidderminster. Picture: Richard Burke

Statue of Sir Rowland Hill in Kidderminster. Picture: Richard Burke - Credit: Archant

In the latest in our series commemorating people honoured with plaques, Adam Sonin explores the celebrated life of postal reformer Sir Rowland Hill, who lived in a house on the site of what is now the Royal Free Hospital

He was a social reformer, railway obsessive and saw the benefits of modernising the postal service.

Sir Rowland Hill’s ideas on postal reform were supported by the campaigner and first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Henry Cole, who also originated the idea of sending Christmas cards.

When he met the Italian politician and general, Giuseppe Garibaldi, at a banquet in 1864, the only topic he wished to pursue was the state of the Italian post office.

According to W. E. Gladstone, his great reform “had run like wildfire through the civilised world; never perhaps was a local invention (for such it was) and improvement applied in the lifetime of its author to the advantages of such vast multitudes of his fellow-creatures”.

He became a Victorian icon and statues of him were erected at Kidderminster, Birmingham, and at the Royal Exchange in London.

Sir Rowland Hill (1795–1879), postal reformer and civil servant, was born in Kidderminster on December 3. Rowland was the third of eight children and grew up in a tight-knit family. His father, Thomas Wright Hill (1763–1851), was a schoolmaster who saw progressive education as an answer to social reform and improvement.

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As a child Rowland suffered from scarlet fever and at the age of eight entered Hill Top, his father’s school in a Birmingham suburb.

While he was a pupil at the school he developed his skills as a budding mathematician and mechanical engineer. At the age of 12 he became an assistant to his father.

In 1819 he helped his family to establish Hazelwood, a new school in Edgbaston which boasted a science lab, a swimming pool, and forced air heating.

On September 27, 1827, Hill married Caroline, daughter of Joseph Pearson, a Wolverhampton manufacturer and county magistrate.

The couple had one son and three daughters. In the same year, and aided by three of his brothers, Hill extended the family’s experiments in education by opening the Bruce Castle School in Tottenham, Middlesex.

Later Hill became frustrated in his role as a schoolmaster. Since abandoning any religious beliefs he was troubled by the fact that he had to take his pupils to church services and lead them in prayers.

As a result Hill started looking for other avenues to achieve social progress and personal advancement. He worked on all sorts of ideas, inventions and innovations.

Worthy of mention are a rotary printing press, a scheme for pneumatic dispatch of messages, and road-building machinery.

Hill also campaigned for colonising South Australia. In 1832 he wrote a paper on the subject with the characteristic title Home colonies: a plan for the gradual extinction (by education) of pauperism and the diminution of crime.

By 1835, Hill was appointed as secretary to the South Australian colonisation commission.

The government post paid £500 a year and allowed Hill to turn over the management of the Bruce Castle School to his younger brother Arthur.

In January 1937, whilst living at 2 Burton Crescent (now Cartwright Gardens), Bloomsbury, Hill published the first edition of Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability.

The intentions behind the pamphlet were to attack the current postal system and propose a more efficient and streamlined manner in which people could communicate.

Back then, recipients of a letter paid for postage based on the number of sheets the letter contained and the distance it had travelled.

For example, a single page letter, sent from London to Birmingham, cost as much as 9d (approximately the price of a family sized loaf of bread and in today’s money about £2.60, calculated by using the Retail Price Index).

Also complicating matters were the multiple delivery systems – there were three – which serviced London. Consequently a Londoner might receive mail from numerous letter-carriers.

In other parts of the country it was usual that mail had to be collected from local post offices and posted not, as later, in roadside boxes, but at the same local post offices or in ‘receiving’ houses.

Hill insisted that this clumsy arrangement unfairly taxed the public and inhibited the expansion of trade and ideas.

Hill also proposed the idea of a system of a standard prepayment for letters conveyed between principal towns and cities, regardless of the specific distance involved. Hill would later modify and improve details of this scheme, most importantly suggesting the use of a ‘stamp’ or ‘a bit of paper covered at the back with a glutinous wash’ as one method of prepayment.

By January 10 1840 – the inauguration of penny post through which a letter of half an ounce might be sent anywhere in the country for 1d. – Hill had become a nationally celebrated figure.

In 1849, Hill moved to Bartram House, Pond Street, Hampstead. While in Hampstead he served as Secretary to the Postmaster-General (1846–54) and Secretary to the Post Office (1854–64). He was knighted in 1860 for his contribution to postal reform.

In 1852 Hill wrote: “The further improvement in the suburban deliveries commenced this morning. At my house [Hampstead] the general post letters were delivered just before nine o’clock, instead of, as heretofore, about half-past eleven.

“The hour of morning delivery has now, for many years, been as early as eight.

‘‘This acceleration by three hours and a-half in the principal delivery of the day, especially to the large class resident in the suburbs of London, whose occupations require that they shall leave home by nine or ten o’clock in the morning, is obviously very important.

‘‘In many cases it makes the difference of a day in their ability to reply.”

In 1864, Hill was forced to retire as a result of ill health, which had been exacerbated by stress induced by bitter policy disagreements over salary and promotion issues with Lord Stanley of Alderley, the Postmaster-General.

Regardless of this, honours continued to be piled onto Hill, including a £20,000 parliamentary grant and the freedom of the City of London in 1879.

After serving on the royal commission on railways in 1865–7, Hill spent much of his retirement working on a history of the penny post and his memoirs, the latter published posthumously in 1880 with the aid of G. Birkbeck Hill.

During his time in Hampstead Hill he became an ardent campaigner against the Hampstead Smallpox Hospital, located adjacent to his home.

Sir Rowland Hill died on August 27, 1879 at Bartram House and was buried in Westminster Abbey on September 4.

It was somewhat ironic that soon after Hill’s death, his house was incorporated into the North Western Fever Hospital which was replaced by the larger Hampstead General Hospital in 1905 and finally by the vast Royal Free Hospital, completed in 1975.

On a modern boundary wall of the present Royal Free Hospital complex, facing down Rowland Hill Street, NW3, a chocolate-brown coloured plaque commemorates the originator of the Penny Post.

As a small supplementary tablet records, this plaque was installed by the Society of Arts in 1893 and was moved to its present position by the GLC in 1978.