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Chapter XLV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 2


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On the 5th of July the subject of education was introduced to the notice of the Lords by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who defended the Church, and objected to the giving of Government grants in a manner calculated to promote religious dissent. He was answered by the Marquis of Lansdowne. The Bishop of Exeter, the Bishop of London, and several other prelates addressed the House, and gave their views on this great question. The Archbishop of Canterbury had brought forward a series of resolutions embodying the Church views of the subject. These Lord Brougham vigorously opposed. The House divided on the previous question, when the first resolution, the only one put to the vote, was carried by a majority of 111.

This resolution condemned the order in council, and in consequence of it, the Lords went in a body to the Queen to offer their remonstrance against the proposed change in the mode of distributing the grant. Her Majesty was pleased to reply in the following terms: - "I duly appreciate your zeal for the interests of religion, and your care for the Established Church. I am ever ready to receive the advice and assistance of the House of Lords, and to give to their recommendations the attention which their authority justly deserves. At the same time, I cannot help expressing my regret that you should have thought it necessary to take such a step on the present occasion. You may be assured that, deeply sensible of the duties imposed upon me, and more especially of that which binds me to the support of the Established Church, I shall always use the powers vested in me by the constitution for the- fulfilment of that sacred obligation. It is with a sense of that duty that I have thought it right to appoint a committee of my Privy Council to superintend the distribution of the grants voted by the House of Commons for public education. Of the proceedings of this committee annual reports will be laid before Parliament, so that the House of Lords will be enabled to exercise its judgment upon them; and I trust that the sums placed at my disposal will be found to have been strictly applied to the objects for which they were granted, with due respect to the rights of conscience, and with a faithful attention to the security of the Established Church."

The year 1839 will be always memorable for the establishment of the system of a uniform penny postage, one of those great reforms distinguishing the age in which we live, which are fraught with vast social changes, and are destined to fructify throughout all time with social benefits to the human race. To one mind pre-eminently the British empire is indebted for the penny postage. We are now so familiar with its advantages, and its reasonableness seems so obvious, that it is not easy to comprehend the difficulties with which Sir Rowland Hill had to contend in convincing the authorities and the public of the wisdom and feasibility of his plan.

Mr. Rowland Hill had written a pamphlet on Post Office Reform in 1837. It took for its starting point the fact that whereas the postal revenue showed for the past twenty years a positive though slight diminution, it ought to have showed an increase of 507,700 a year, in order to have simply kept pace with the growth of population, and an increase of nearly four times that amount in order to have kept pace with the growth of the analogous though far less exorbitant duties imposed on stage coaches. The population in 1815 was 19,552,000; in 1835 it had increased to 25,605,000. The stage coach duties had produced in 1815, 217,671; in 1835 they produced 498,497. The net revenue arising from the Post Office in 1815 was 1,557,291; in 1835 it had decreased to 1,540,300. In 1837 there did not exist any accurate account of the number of the letters transmitted through the General Post Office. Mr. Hill, however, was able to prepare a sufficiently approximative estimate from the data of the London district post, and from the sums collected for postage. He thus calculated the number of chargeable letters at about 88,600,000; that of franked letters at 7,400,000; and that of newspapers at 30,000,000 - giving a gross total of about 126,000,000. At this period the total cost of management and distribution was 696,569. An analysis of the component parts of this expenditure assigned 426,517 to cost of primary distribution, and 270,052 to cost of secondary distribution and miscellaneous charges. A further analysis of the primary distribution expenditure gave 282,308, as the probable outgoings for receipt and delivery, and 144,209 as the probable outgoings for transit. In other words, the expenditure that hinged upon the distance the letters had to be conveyed was 144,000; and that which had nothing to do with distance was 282,000. Applying to these figures the estimated number of letters and newspapers - 126,000,000 - passing through the office, there resulted a probable average cost of 84/100 penny for each, of which 28/100d. was cost of transit, and 56/100d. the cost of receipt, delivery, &c. Taking into account, however, the much greater weight of newspapers and franked letters as compared with chargeable letters, the apparent average cost of transit became by this estimate about 9/100d. or less than the tenth of a penny. A detailed estimate of the cost of conveying a letter from London to Edinburgh, founded upon the average weight of the Edinburgh mail, gave a lower proportion still, since it reduced the apparent cost of transit on the average to the thirty-sixth part of a penny.

Mr. Hill inferred that if the charge for postage be made proportionate to the whole expense incurred in the receipt, transit, and delivery of the letters, and in the collection of its postage, it must be made uniformly the same from every post town to every other post town in the United Kingdom, unless it could be shown how we are to collect so small a sum as the thirty-sixth part of a penny. And inasmuch as it would take a nine-fold weight to make the expense of transit amount to one farthing, he further inferred that, taxation apart, the charge ought to be precisely the same for every packet of moderate weight, without reference to the number of its inclosures.

At this period the rate of postage actually imposed (beyond the limits of the London District Office) varied from fourpence to one and eightpence for a single letter, which was interpreted to mean a single piece of paper, not exceeding an ounce in weight. A second piece of paper or any other inclosure, however small, constituted a double letter. A single sheet of paper, if it at all exceeded an ounce in weight, was charged with fourfold postage. The average charge on inland general post letters was nearly ninepence for each letter.

Apart from the evils of an excessive taxation, with its multifarious results in checking communication, hampering trade, and creating an illicit traffic in letters which involved systematic deception, the effects upon the postal service itself were most injurious. On the one hand there was a complicated system of accounts, involving both great waste of time and great temptation to fraud in their settlement; on the other, a constant invitation to the violation of that first duty of postal officers - respect for the sacred- ness of correspondence, by making it part of their daily work to expose letters to a strong light, expressly to ascertain their contents.

These mischiefs it was proposed wholly to remove by enacting that "the charge for primary distribution - that is to say, the postage on all letters received in a post town, and delivered in the same or in any other post town in the British Isles - shall be at the uniform rate of one penny for each half-ounce; all letters and other papers, whether single or multiple, forming one packet, and not weighing more than half an ounce, being charged one penny, and heavier packets to any convenient limit being charged an additional penny for each additional half-ounce." And it was further proposed that stamped covers should be sold to the public at such a price as to include the postage, which would thus be collected in advance.

By the public generally, and pre-eminently by the trading public, the plan was received with great favour. By the functionaries of the Post Office it was at once denounced as ruinous, and ridiculed as visionary. Lord Lichfield, then Postmaster-General, said of it in the House of Lords, "Of all the wild and visionary schemes I ever heard, it is the most extravagant." On another occasion, he assured the House that if the anticipated increase of letters should be realised, "the mails will have to carry twelve times as much in weight, and therefore the charge for transmission, instead of 100,000, as now, must be twelve times that amount. The walls of the Post Office would burst; the whole area in which the building stands would not be large enough to receive the clerks and the letters." In the course o the following year (1838) petitions were poured into the House of Commons. A select committee was appointed, which held nearly seventy sittings, and examined nearly eighty-three witnesses in addition to the officers of the department. Its report (one of the most instructive and best arranged works of its class, as the report of the Revenue Commissioners was one of the worst), after carefully stating the questions which had to be considered, and the course of inquiry which had to be pursued, thus proceeded: -

"The principal points which appeared to your committee to have been established in evidence are the following: - First, the exceedingly slow advance, and occasionally retrograde movement, of the Post Office revenue during the last twenty years; second, the fact of the charge of postage exceeding the cost in a manifold proportion; third, the fact of postage being evaded most extensively by all classes of society, and of correspondence being suppressed, more espe- ally among the middle and working classes of the people - and this in consequence, as all the witnesses, including many of the Post Office authorities, think, of the excessively high scale of taxation; fourth, the fact of very injurious effects resulting from this state of things to the commerce and industry of the country, and to the social habits and moral condition of the people; and, fifth, the fact, as far as conclusions can be drawn from very imperfect data, that whenever on former occasions larger reductions have been made in the rates, these reductions have been followed in short periods of time by an extension of correspondence, proportionate to the contraction of the rates. And as matters of inference from fact and of opinion: first, that the only remedy for the evils above stated is a reduction of the rates, and the establishment of additional deliveries and more frequent dispatches of letters; secondly, that owing to the rapid extension of railroads, there is an urgent and daily increasing necessity for making such changes; thirdly, that any moderate reduction in the rates would occasion loss to the revenue, without in any material degree diminishing the present amount of letters irregularly conveyed, or giving rise to the growth of new correspondence; fourthly, that the principle of a low uniform rate is just in itself, and when combined with prepayment and collection by means of a stamp, would be exceedingly convenient and highly satisfactory to the public."

During the session of Parliament that followed the presentation of this report, about 2,000 petitions in favour of penny postage were presented to both Houses, and at length the Chancellor of the Exchequer brought in a bill to enable the Treasury to carry it into effect. The measure was carried in the House of Commons by a majority of 100, and became law on the 17th of August, 1839. A new but only temporary office under the Treasury was created, to enable Mr. Hill to superintend (although, as it proved, under very inadequate arrangement) the working out of his plan. The first step taken was to reduce, on the 5th of December, 1839, the London district postage to one penny, and the general inland postage to fourpence, the half ounce, except as respected places to which letters were previously carried at lower rates, those rates being continued. On the 10th of January, 1840, the uniform penny rate came into operation throughout the United Kingdom; the scale of weight advancing from one penny for each of the first two half-ounces, by gradations of twopence for each additional ounce or fraction of an ounce, up to sixteen ounces. The postage was to be prepaid, or charged at double rates, and Parliamentary franking was abolished. Postage stamps were introduced on the 6th of May following. The facilities of dispatch were soon afterwards increased, especially by the establishment of day mails. But on the important points of simplification in the internal economy of the Post Office, with the object of reducing its cost, without diminishing its working power, very little was done.

In carrying out the new measures, the officers were, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Baring) expressed it on one occasion, ii unwilling horses." Nor need a word more be said in proof of the assertion than is contained in a passage of Colonel Maberly's evidence before the Postage Committee of 1843: - " My constant language to the heads of the departments was, This plan we know will fail. It is your duty to take care that no obstruction is placed in the way of it by the heads of the departments and by the Post Office. The allegation, I have not the least doubt, will be made at a subsequent period, that this plan has failed in consequence of the unwillingness of the Government to carry it into fair execution. It is our duty, as servants of the Government, to take care that no blame eventually shall fall on the Government through any unwillingness of ours to carry it into proper effect." And again: - "After the first week, it was evident, from the number of letters being so much below Mr. Hill's anticipations, that it must fail, inasmuch as it wholly rested on the number of letters, for without that you could not possibly collect the revenue anticipated. Yery formidable are the prophets, who can scarcely, under the limitations of average humanity, avoid promoting in their daily avocations the fulfilments of their own prophecies. The plan, then, had to work in the face of rooted mistrust on the part of the workers. Its author was (for the term of two years, afterwards prolonged to three) the officer, not of the Post Office, but of the Treasury. He could only recommend measures the most indispensable through the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and when Mr. Goulburn succeeded Mr. Baring, the Chancellor was very much of Colonel Maberly's way of thinking. It happened, too, that Mr. Hill's scheme had to be carried through at a period of severe commercial depression."

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Pictures for Chapter XLV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 2

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