Connecting shops and coffeehouses in an old neighborhood of London, a narrow alleyway (called Change Alley) served as a convenient shortcut between the Cornhill Royal Exchange and the Lombard Street Post Office.
Several of these alleys continue to exist even today.
Imagine it in the 1800s bustling with activity.
Shops sprouted along “Change Alley.” Vendors sold many items, navigational instruments like telescopes to traveling sailors to glittering trinkets and bangles created by Italian goldsmiths to decorate the ladies of high fashion.
Coffee and Tea houses came to host lively trading of shares and commodities.
The economy was expanding, business was booming and the population was growing.
Postal revenues in Britain remained flat…. indicating that widespread evasion and the depressing effect of high rates were major problems.
A two sheet letter from London to Edinburgh cost a shilling or nearly a day’s wages for the 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.
On this day, January 10, 1840, the One Penny postal rate throughout Great Britain was introduced in a petition proposed by Sir Rowland Hill, ideas that had broad popular support.
He calculated that most of the post cost was independent of distance, predicting that through a low uniform postage mail rate volume would increase with economics of scale quickly making the system self-supporting. In 1839 a postal bill was drafted.
After a long debate about the rates, it was finally resolved in 1840 to deliver books and printed matter through the post at the minimum rate of four ounces for a penny and amended further so as to carry two ounces for a halfpenny.
Letters, including book-packets, transmitted through the post increased tenfold. A few years later, the postcard could be delivered for one halfpenny which included the cost of the card.
The postage stamp, an innovation not anticipated in Sir Rowland’s petition pamphlet, proved a key element in the new postage 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 the cumbersome collection procedures. Stamps served as a convenient alternative currency in an era when most transactions involved hefty amounts of pocket change.
Initially, the penny post provided only carriage letters between post offices. In villages, shopkeepers often undertook the task to collect and deliver mail from the nearest post office, counting on increased traffic to their establishment to offset the cost which gradually instituted the door-to-door delivery mailman.
(BTW, July 1st is National Postal Worker Day –
remember to thank your mail carrier this summer. 🙂
Sir Rowland Hill’s penny post proposal, which created an affordable nationwide system of letter delivery, was originated by an outsider with no connection to Parliament, the old posting system or to major industrial enterprise.
The new system was initiated with little fanfare and it made a huge difference.
Just think about all the wonderful things we could propose to do today that might impact the world for years to come.
Stay cozy, inquisitive and creative my friends,
* I designed and dedicated this piece to my late,
wonderful father-in-law who I respected dearly.
He happened to be a mailman and delivered mail
everyday through all kinds of weather ~
including multiple blizzards, thunderstorms or
through the blistering heat of summer, sick or no.