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Rowland HillRowland Hill

creator of the world's first postage stamp

Rowland Hill was born in Worcestershire, England, on December 3, 1795, the third of eight children born to Thomas Wright and Sarah Lea Hill. In 1807, he became a teacher-pupil at Hill Top Birmingham, where his father was headmaster, lecturing in astronomy while also taking courses in other subjects. He had an artistic ability, winning a national first prize for painting a landscape. At the age of 15 he went to work in the assay office in Birmingham, where he inspected and stamped silver items with an assay mark.

In 1818 the Hill family moved to Edgbaston near Birmingham, where in 1819 they established a new school designed by Rowland, called Hazelwood. In terms of physical conditions it was ahead of its time, possessing a science laboratory, swimming pool, stage, library, museum, craft room, gas powered lighting, and air ducted central heating. In 1822 Rowland and his brother Matthew published Public Education, explaining the novel ideas used at Hazelwood, including the introduction of science as a compulsory subject , abolition of corporal punishment, one afternoon a week allocated to sport, and pupil self government. The book brought the school international fame and, as a result, boys from many nations began to attend the school. The school was moved to Bruce Castle in Tottenham, North London, in 1827.

On September 27, 1827, Hill married Caroline Pearson, with whom he had one son and three daughters.

In 1833 Hill became involved with a group formed to investigate the colonization of South Australia, which at this time was unoccupied territory. As a result of this involvment he became Secretary for the South Australian Commission, a position he held from 1834 to 1839. During the mid 1830's Hill invested time and money in developing a rotary printing press to speed the production of newsprint. He was ahead of his time, however, for the treasury still insisted that rolls of newsprint were not to be used, only single sheets.

According to folklore, Hill began pondering postal reform after a conversation with a young woman, in tears because a postman had brought a letter from her fiancÚ but refused to deliver it when she was unable to pay the postage due. At this time the cost of postage was generally paid by the recipient, and rates were so expensive that mailed correspondence was a luxury beyond the means of ordinary working people. Furthermore, rates were complex, calculated by the distance and the number of pages, among other factors. Envelopes were rarely used, since the envelope counted as a page and added to the cost. In 1837 Hill published Post Office Reform -- Its Importance and Practicability, which quickly went through several re-publications, making postal reform a leading issue of public debate. He proposed the sale of postage stamps, a novel idea described by Hill as "a small stamped detached label -- say about an inch square -- which, if prepared with a glutinous wash on the back, may be affixed." Hill argued that the rate should be low -- he suggested the "penny post" -- and offered calculations showing that postal rates could be greatly decreased and frequency of delivery increased, if all deliveries within England were charged at a single rate based on weight. He proposed that the sender should pay, which would reduce the "dead letter" problem of mail that could not be delivered, and he pointed out that this would lower costs and improve efficiency, since it was not uncommon for postal carriers to spend up to two-thirds of their time waiting for recipients to come to the door, and often waiting several minutes more as residents tried to find payment.

a Mulready postmarked May 4, 1840the 'Penny Black'Five petitions were presented to Parliament in 1837 asking for Hill's reforms to be enacted, and more than 300 petitions were presented the following year, including dozens from local town councils and chambers of commerce. In 1839, as more than two thousand petitions were received, the Postmaster General finally endorsed Hill's proposals, which were passed into law on December 5, 1839, and took effect on May 6, 1840. Hill was appointed to a newly-created position in the Treasury (not the Post Office), where he oversaw the implementation of his ideas. To signal prepayment, Hill invented prepaid stationery (called Mulreadies after William Mulready, who designed them) and the first postage stamp. Mulreadies never gained public favor, but the stamp Hill designed is now an integral part of postal history. It is known as a "Penny Black" because it featured a portrait of Queen Victoria printed in black ink and cost one penny. Because it was the first postage stamp, the Penny Black did not show a country of origin, and British stamps are still the only postage stamps not to do so. The use of postage stamps proved so popular and successful in Britain that similar systems were in use worldwide by the end of the 1840's.

Hill's service to the Treasury ended in 1842, with the election of the Conservative party. In 1846 Hill returned to the Post Office as secretary to the Postmaster General and, in 1854, became secretary to the Post Office, a position he held until his retirement in 1864.

Hill was rewarded for his work with a knighthood in 1860, as well as with an honorary degree from Oxford University and designation as a Freeman from the City of London. His final reward came after his death on August 27, 1879, when he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

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Smithsonian National Postal Museum

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This page was last updated on February 14, 2015.

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