The original Good Rebel

Mark Ralphs

12 February 2016

I was asked who inspired me to be a Good Rebel. There are a number of people, but one stands out.

A conversation with a distant relative reminded me that our Great x4 Uncle was Sir Rowland Hill. He had a vision of a world that could read and write, no matter their background or education.

For those who don’t know him (or haven’t clicked the link to Wikipedia) Sir Rowland was famed for inventing the Penny Black, the first postage stamp, in the 1840s.

Up until then letters were priced according to their weight and distance travelled, and they were always paid for by the recipient. Makes sense when you think about it.

Except Sir Rowland figured out that some folk would send empty envelopes to their families. The idea was that they would let their loved ones know they were OK and that their families wouldn’t have to sign for the letter. From this, he mused, the system becomes inefficient.

Furthermore, he saw that the art of letter writing had become a rich-person’s pastime. There was no reason for the vast majority of people to write to one another, save for the envelope trick.

My Great Uncle had an idea. What if every letter cost only 1 penny, no matter where it went in Britain? With a stamp, bought in advance and stuck on. He believed that 2 things would happen:

  1. The volume of mail would expand hugely, more than compensating for any loss on longer deliveries and crucially…
  2. Everyone would be able to send letters to each other.

The latter, as Sir Rowland saw, would bring the country together through communication. As a result everyone had a reason to read and write, distance was no longer a barrier.

The trouble was, Sir Rowland didn’t work for the postal service. Although he worked in the civil service, it wasn’t in Britain but South Australia.

As you can imagine, trying to convince the British government took some persuading. After some years of building influence his thoughts were listened to and, with a favourable reformist parliament, implemented. The 1839 Postage Act was passed and the postal service as we know – it with pre-paid postage stamps – took off.

In just under 10 years, 50 countries had adopted the idea of pre-bought stamps over charging the recipient for distance delivered.

Letter writing and communication over distance became open to all. Ideas travelled faster, people had reason to read and write, and families stayed connected.

Sir Rowland’s vision of a world that could read of write was realised.

My Great Uncle’s disruption of the postal service personified him as a Good Rebel. No doubt the world have found a reason to read and write, but a Good Rebel doesn’t leave it to chance.