Famous Londoners – Sir Rowland Hill…

Famous for his reform of the postal system, Sir Rowland Hill was a national celebrity during the Victorian era.

Born in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, on 3rd December, 1795, Rowland was the son of schoolmaster Thomas Wright Hill. Educated in his father’s school, Hill Top, in a Birmingham suburb, it was determined he would follow in his father’s footsteps at an early age and by the age of 12 had become a student teacher and in 1819 helped his family establish new model school, Hazelwood, in Edgbaston near Birmingham. In 1827, he was also involved with his family in establishing another new school, Bruce Castle School, in Tottenham, Middlesex.

Statue of Sir Rowland Hill in London. PICTURE: Julian Osley (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0/image cropped)

That same year, Hill married Caroline Pearson, who originally came from Wolverhampton, and together they had four children – three daughters Eleanor, Clara and Louisa and a son Pearson.

In the following years, Hill became involved in campaigns to colonise South Australia and in 1835 he joined the South Australian Colonisation Commission as Secretary, a role which he held until 1839 (interestingly and perhaps not surprisingly given his interest, Hill’s sister Caroline would later emigrate to South Australia with her family).

Hill was in his early 40s when he became interested in reforming the postal system – what to be his life’s great work. In 1837, he published his influential pamphlet, Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability, in which he argued for consistency in the system including pre-payment of standardised charges for sending mail.

Hill believed that if letters were cheap to send, more people – including the poorer classes – would send more and thus the profitability of the system would increase (a thought which proved true). It’s said, although whether it’s true or not is uncertain, that Hill became interested in reforming the postal system after he noticed a young woman who too poor to claim a letter sent to her by her fiancé (at the time it was usually the recipients who paid for the letter’s mailing).

Only three years later,  Parliament passed the Penny Postage Act which saw the world’s first official postage stamps – the penny black and the two-penny black – issued. Hill and his family had by then moved to Orme Square in Bayswater (there’s now an English Heritage Blue Plaque on the property).

After the new government of Sir Robert Peel took office in 1841, Hill was dismissed and, joining the London and Brighton Railway as a director in 1843, relocated to Brighton.

But Hill was able to resume his postal reform efforts in 1846 after another change of government saw him appointed Secretary to the Postmaster-General. In 1854, he was appointed Secretary to the Post Office, a job he held until his retirement in 1864 due to ill health.

Hill was knighted in 1860. He spent the last 30 years of his life at  Bartram House, Hampstead, and it was there he died 27th August, 1879 (a plaque now marks the house). He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

There are several public statues commemorating Hill include a bronze which, created in 1881, stands in King Edward Street in London (pictured).

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