January 10

1840 Birth of the Penny Post

Here are images of stamps from Canada, the USA, and France.

Here are images of British stamps.

Notice any difference? Of course, you do. British stamps, uniquely in the world, do not carry the name of the country that issues them. Only the portrait of the current monarch is needed to denote them as a product of Great Britain, the country that invented the modern postal system. A 19th-century account explains:


The 10th of January 1840 will be a memorable day in the history of civilization, as that on which the idea of a Penny Postage was first exemplified. The practical benefits derived from this reform, are so well known that it is needless to dwell upon them. Let us rather turn attention for a few moments to the remarkable, yet most modest man, whom his species have to thank for this noble invention.


Rowland Hill, born in 1795, was devoted through all his early years, even from boyhood, to the business of a teacher. At the age of forty, we find him engaged in conducting the colonization of South Australia upon the plan of Mr. Edward
Gibbon. Wakefield, for which his powers of organization gave him a great advantage, and in which his labours were attended with a high degree of success. It was about the year 1835, that he turned his attention to the postal system of the country, with the conviction that it was susceptible of reform. Under enormous difficulties he contrived to collect information upon the subject, so as to satisfy himself, and enable him to satisfy others, that the public might be benefited by a cheaper postage, and yet the revenue remain ultimately undiminished. The leading facts on which he based his conclusions have been detailed in an authoritative document. ‘The cost of a letter to the Post-Office he saw was divisible into three branches.

First, that of receiving the letter and preparing it for its journey, which, under the old regime, was troublesome enough, as the postage varied first in proportion to the distance it had to travel; and again, according as it was composed of one, two, or three sheets of paper, each item of charge being exorbitant. For instance, a letter from London to Edinburgh, if single, was rated at 1s. 1½d.; if double, at 2s. 3d.; and if treble, at 3s. 4½d.; any-the minutest-inclosure being treated as an additional sheet. The duty of taxing letters, or writing upon each of them its postage, thus became a complicated transaction, occupying much time and employing the labour of many clerks. This, and other duties, which we will not stop to specify, comprised the first of the three branches of expense which each letter imposed on the office. The second was the cost of transit from post-office to post-office. And this expense, even for so great a distance as from London to Edinburgh, proved, upon careful examination, to be no more than the ninth part of a farthing!


The third branch was that of delivering the letter and receiving the postage-letters being for the most part sent away unpaid. Rowland Hill saw that, although a considerable reduction of postage might and ought to be made, even if the change rested there, yet that, if he could cheapen the cost to the Post office, the reduction to the public could be carried very much further, without entailing on the revenue any ultimate loss of serious amount. He therefore addressed himself to the simplification of the various processes. If, instead of charging according to the number of sheets or scraps of paper, a weight should be fixed, below which a letter, whatever might be its contents, should only bear a single charge, much trouble to the office would be spared, while an unjust mode of taxation would be abolished.

This led to the proposal for pre-payment by stamped labels, whereby the Post-office is altogether relieved from the duty of collecting post-age. Thus, one by one, were the impediments all removed to the accomplishment of a grand object—uniformity of postage throughout the British Isles.’

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