Great Britain Establishes Penny Postage

An act of Parliament establishing a uniform letter rate of one penny throughout the British Isles transformed the postal system from being primarily a source of state revenue to a facilitator of commerce and communication. The British system provided a model for other postal systems around the world.

Summary of Event

The passage of the Reform Act of 1832 Reform Act of 1832 produced an immediate shift in the balance of power in the House of Commons. Power moved from its traditional rural and agricultural base to industrial areas in the north of England. At the same time, the adoption of steam power for transportation, beginning with shipping about 1820 and railroads in 1828, meant that travel between major urban centers was cheaper, faster, and more reliable than it had been a decade earlier. Reform of all social institutions, long overdue, became the order of the day in Great Britain in the 1830’s, while laws restricting the voting Voting rights;in Great Britain[Great Britain] franchise to property owners ensured that reformers in Parliament primarily represented the interests of the middle class. Great Britain;postal system
Penny postage
Postal systems;British
Hill, Sir Rowland
[kw]Great Britain Establishes Penny Postage (Jan. 10, 1840)
[kw]Britain Establishes Penny Postage, Great (Jan. 10, 1840)
[kw]Establishes Penny Postage, Great Britain (Jan. 10, 1840)
[kw]Penny Postage, Great Britain Establishes (Jan. 10, 1840)
[kw]Postage, Great Britain Establishes Penny (Jan. 10, 1840)
Great Britain;postal system
Penny postage
Postal systems;British
Hill, Sir Rowland
[g]Great Britain;Jan. 10, 1840: Great Britain Establishes Penny Postage[2170]
[c]Government and politics;Jan. 10, 1840: Great Britain Establishes Penny Postage[2170]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Jan. 10, 1840: Great Britain Establishes Penny Postage[2170]
[c]Communications;Jan. 10, 1840: Great Britain Establishes Penny Postage[2170]
[c]Trade and commerce;Jan. 10, 1840: Great Britain Establishes Penny Postage[2170]
Wallace, Robert
Maberly, William Leader

The British postal system still operated according to regulations and methodology instituted a century earlier, when commerce was centered overwhelmingly in London and mail traveled by post coach over abysmal unpaved roads. Like the stamp tax on newspapers, the fees paid for posting first-class mail produced significant revenue for the government, but in the process discouraged communication while tempting people to circumvent the system. To avoid the tax, large commercial firms shipped their correspondence in parcels and paid a private party to deliver it.

Newspapers and franking privileges created another drain on postal revenue. Prior to 1826, a newspaper tax of four pence (4d) covered postage when Parliament lowered the tax to one penny (1d) without revoking the posting privilege; newspaper carriage was effectively subsidized. Commercial firms with very large mail volumes were known to support campaigns for Parliamentary seats mainly in return for having the Member use his frank on the firm’s business correspondence.

Although postal revenues should have increased while the economy was expanding and the population was growing, postal revenues in Britain remained flat between 1815 and 1840, an indication that widespread evasion and the depressing effect of high rates were major problems. Postage rates varied with distance and the number of sheets, and they usually were paid by the recipient. In 1830, a two-sheet letter from London to Edinburgh cost a shilling to mail, nearly a day’s wages for a common laborer. Moreover, almost one-quarter of letters mailed ended up in the dead letter box because recipients could not or would not pay to receive them.

In 1833, Robert Wallace Wallace, Robert , representing the Scottish industrial city of Greenock, began campaigning in Parliament for a more streamlined, cheaper, and more uniform postal system. His efforts received a boost with the publication of Sir Rowland Hill’s 1837 pamphlet outlining a system of postal reform. Hill argued that the principal function of a postal system is to serve the public by encouraging communication, and that the cost of mailing letters should reflect only the cost of delivering them. He calculated that most of that cost was independent of distance and predicted that if a low uniform postage rate were adopted, increase in mail volume combined with economies of scale would quickly make the system again self-supporting.

Hill’s ideas had broad popular support. In 1837 and 1838, Parliament received more than three hundred petitions in favor of Hill’s reforms. A select committee, headed by Wallace, drafted a bill embodying them. The bill passed the House of Commons in 1839 as a ministerial measure backed by Lord Melbourne’s Whig Party (British);and penny postage[Penny postage] Whig government. Few members on either side of the House opposed it in principle, although there was much debate about rates. In the end they settled on a uniform rate of one penny to mail a half-ounce letter between post offices anywhere in Britain, effective on January 10, 1840. The action also established postal savings accounts, giving working-class people a secure place to set aside small amounts of money.

Postage stamps, an innovation not anticipated in Hill’s pamphlet, proved a key feature of this first modern postal system. Gummed stamps—the famous penny black—bearing Queen Victoria’s youthful profile could be purchased at any post office. After 1840, most letters in Britain were prepaid, eliminating cumbersome collection procedures. Stamps served as a convenient alternative currency Currency;British in an era when most transactions involved hefty amounts of pocket change.

Great Britain’s first penny postage stamp, like all British stamps, features a portrait of the reigning monarch, Queen Victoria.

Postage stamps also became an important part of national iconography. For the British Empire British Empire;and postage stamps[Postage stamps] , the image of the reigning monarch was and still is the unifying feature of all postage stamps. When other countries followed suit, they chose their own images: monarchs, national heroes, notable events, landmarks, and a host of other topics. In line with a policy of avoiding anything tinged with monarchy, United States law forbids depicting the president or any other living person on postage stamps. This one innovation, stamp iconography, multiplied thousands of times and spawned a whole culture.

Initially, the penny post provided only carriage of letters between post offices. In villages, shopkeepers often undertook to collect and deliver mail to the nearest post office, counting on increased traffic to offset the cost. Larger towns instituted private or municipal delivery services. In Birmingham, for example, one could obtain door-to-door pickup and delivery for one-half d (or cent) per letter. The corner pillar box, a secure dropping-off point for letters, first used in Jersey in 1850, was reportedly invented by English novelist Anthony Trollope.

Parliament appointed Hill to oversee conversion of the main post office in London to the new system. This created a protracted conflict between Hill and William Leader Maberly Maberly, William Leader , the senior civil servant in the office. The conflict was not entirely Maberly’s fault. Like many reformers, Hill had no practical experience in the department that he proposed to manage, and he had miscalculated many of the details. He failed to anticipate the cost of adding extra employees to handle the increased volume of mail and blamed the resulting deficit on Maberly. Partisan politics also intruded. When Sir Robert Peel’s Tory government took office in 1842, it fired Hill. A Whig Whig Party (British);and penny postage[Penny postage] government reinstated him in 1847. When Maberly finally resigned in 1856, Hill took over running the British postal system.

The institution of penny postage succeeded spectacularly in raising the volume of mail and putting private delivery services out of business. The number of letters mailed in Britain rose from 76 million annually in 1839 to 169 million in 1840 and 322 million in 1847. Gross revenues declined initially, but they had nearly regained the 1837 level by 1847. Because of the increased costs of running the expanded postal system, net revenues for the country as a whole did not show a positive balance until the middle of the next decade. The British postal system exists as it does mainly because of gradually instituted door-to-door delivery, the addition of parcel post in 1890, and the acceptance of the principle that a net profit in densely populated areas should be used to subsidize delivery to remote locations.


The institution of an affordable nationwide system of letter delivery in Britain in 1840 marks the ascendancy of common sense in the public sphere. The penny post was proposed by an outsider with no connection to Parliament, to the old posting system, or to major industrial enterprise. The new system was initiated with little fanfare and implemented at minimal cost, and it rapidly became a fixture of everyday life in Britain. Long-distance written communication, something of a luxury at the beginning of the century, would travel further down the social scale. Coupled with increasing literacy and affordable rail travel, communication kept a mobile workforce in touch with its roots.

Sir Rowland Hill’s strategy for keeping first class mail in the public sector, forestalling private competition by providing service so inexpensively that any alternative would be economically unviable worked far better than aggressive coercion. The idea that a universally accessible postal service is a vital part of a nation’s economy and social life can be dated to British postal reform in 1840.

Further Reading

  • Daunton, Martin J. Royal Mail: The Post Office Since 1840. Dover, N.H.: Athlone Press, 1985. Contains detailed treatments of the old postal system, the various economic arguments, and the conflicts between Maberly and Hill.
  • Leavitt, Joshua. Cheap Postage: Remarks and Statistics on the Subject of Cheap Postage and Postal Reform in Great Britain and the United States. Boston: Cheap Postage Association, 1848. This contemporary pamphlet includes postal statistics for Britain and the United States (1840 to 1848), the complete parliamentary debates on the postal act of 1840, and a wealth of anecdotal material.
  • Matthew, H. C. G., and Brian Harrison, eds. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. This reference book includes biographies of Hill, Maberly, Wallace, and Trollope.
  • Reinhart, Carsten, and Anthony S. Travis. “The Introduction of Aniline Dyes to Paper Printing and Queen Victoria’s Postage Stamp.” Ambix 44, no. 1 (1997): 11-18. A British journal explores how the introduction of postage stamps impacted the printing industry.
  • Siegert, Bernhard. Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System. Translated by Kevin Repp. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999. A cultural and social history for advanced students that examines how the postal system helped determine what kind of literature was written and how it was written. Includes the chapter “Postage One Penny: Rowland Hill’s Post Office Reform.”

Morse Sends First Telegraph Message

First Transatlantic Cable Is Completed

Bell Demonstrates the Telephone

Marconi Patents the Wireless Telegraph

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Samuel F. B. Morse; Sir Robert Peel; Anthony Trollope; Queen Victoria. Great Britain;postal system
Penny postage
Postal systems;British
Hill, Sir Rowland