HILL, Sir Rowland, K.C.B. (1795-1879)
Plaque erected in 1907 by London County Council at 1 Orme Square, Bayswater, London, W2 4RS, City of Westminster
Philanthropy and Reform, Politics and Administration
SIR ROWLAND HILL 1795-1879 Postal Reformer Lived Here
Sir Rowland Hill is best known for instigating postal reform, for which he became a national celebrity in the Victorian era. He is commemorated with a blue plaque at 1 Orme Square, where he was living when the world’s first official postage stamp was released.
Rowland Hill was born in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, to the education innovator Thomas Wright Hill. He began his career following in his father’s footsteps, by becoming a student teacher at age 12. By 1819, he had helped to establish a new school in Edgbaston, near Birmingham. The school, Hazelwood, became a model of education for the emerging middle classes. He was later involved in expanding his family’s education facilities further afield, by opening the Bruce Castle School in Tottenham, Middlesex.
Growing tired of the family business, Hill turned his attention to other pursuits. In 1832, he produced a paper concerning the colonisation of South Australia titled Home colonies: a plan for the gradual extinction (by education) of pauperism and the diminution of crime. Three years later, Hill joined the South Australian Colonisation Commission as Secretary.
Hill was in his forties when he became interested in postal reform. At that time, England’s postal system was cumbersome and expensive, with postage costs being charged to the recipient. The amount charged was determined by a complex calculation based on the letter’s length and the distance it was posted. Hill’s influential work Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability, published in 1837, argued for the principles of our modern postage systems: pre-payment and standardised pricing. Key to Hill’s recommendations was the assumption that if it were cheaper to send letters, more people would do so, including the poorer classes. He believed that this would bolster communication and trade.
Hill’s vision was realised in 1840, when the Penny Postage Act passed into law. The act saw the world’s first official postage stamps issued: the penny black and the two-penny black. Hill was living at Orme Square at this point, having moved there with his wife Caroline, née Pearson, the year before. The house is one of a pair of stucco-fronted houses and had been built not long before the Hills moved in.
The incoming government of Sir Robert Peel dispensed with Hill’s services in 1842. He relocated to Brighton, after being taken on by the London and Brighton Railway in 1843. Three years later, he was able to resume his great cause of Post Office reform, after another change of government saw him appointed Secretary to the Postmaster-General. Then, between 1854 and his retirement ten years later, Hill served as Secretary to the Post Office.
Hill was knighted for his contributions to postal reform in 1860. A major public figure, he is commemorated with statues in London, Kidderminster and Birmingham. Hill died on 27 August 1879 at Bartram House, Hampstead, where there is also a plaque to him. He was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.