To know the history of the Penny Black is to learn the story of Sir Rowland Hill. It’s no small exaggeration to claim the former schoolmaster revolutionised the way we send letters, inventing the Penny Post, the most landmark transformation of written correspondence on a par with the advent of email.
An ardent critic of the postal service when Hill’s pamphlet, Post Office Reform: its Importance and Practicability, circulated privately in 1837, criticism was rife in the houses of governance. Hill’s diagnosis of a rambunctious postal system and meticulously detailed proposals were dismissed as, ‘fallacious’, ‘preposterous’, and ‘wild’ by members of the House of Lords.
Not everyone agreed. The Spectator magazine and propaganda newspaper The Post Circular campaigned for Hill’s reforms. Petitions were signed and the corridors of power reverberated with echoes of Hill’s critique.
Soon thereafter a parliamentary Select Committee was formed under Robert Wallace MP, himself a long-time campaigner for postal reform. Wallace appointed Hill to the Treasury and granted him a two-year contract to trial his new system: one of pre-payment, facilitating the quicker and cheaper exchange of letters.
As the world’s most recognisable stamp, the Penny Black’s reputation exceeds philatelist circles.
The landmark stamp of this new Penny Post system was also the world’s first adhesive postage stamp to be used in a public postal system: the Penny Black. Featuring an engraving of the young Queen Victoria, the idiosyncratic stamp was issued on 1 May 1840 and changed the postal service for ever more.
Hill believed his new democratic system would stimulate a wider adoption of the postal service, particularly by the lower classes who were typically priced out of the system under the previous payment upon receipt model (a model that had actually led to people sending coded messages within address lines in order to get around the exchange of funds to open the envelope).
Hill posited that if something was cheaper, more people would do it. He was right. In the Penny Black’s inaugural year, the number of letters sent doubled and by 1860, Hill’s now monikered Penny Post system was commonplace in 90 countries, from Brazil to Switzerland.
As the world’s most recognisable stamp, the Penny Black’s reputation exceeds philatelist circles. On its 175th anniversary, in 2015, Google dedicated one of their famous ‘Doodles’ to the stamp; it has featured on British radio show 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy; and the late author Terry Pratchett even made several allusions to the Penny Black in his popular Discworld fantasy series of novels.