It is not often that a historical figure gets a statue, so Sir Rowland Hill, who has two, one in King Edward’s Street London, and the other in Exchange Street Kidderminster, has been doubly honoured.

Born in Kidderminster in 1795, it was his early career, which began when he took on a job as a teacher in Erdington, which shaped how his life unfolded.

At the time, he was also fascinated by the work of the Ordnance Survey, and decided to teach himself surveying, logarithmic tables and trigonometry.

But he could never have imagined how these skills would come in useful.

On the morning of May 27 1817 21-year-old Mary Ashford was murdered after she had attended a local dance. Her body was found later that same day in a watery pond in one of the fields in Erdington, then a village a few miles from Birmingham.

The grisly story reached the Midland Chronicle and it was there that Sir Rowland spotted what he thought was a very “rude plan” – a poor sketch of the area of the murder, which he, and his pupils decided to improve.

Public interest was high and there was a morbid appetite for these details, demanded by growing rates of literacy in the population.

The defendant, Abraham Thornton, who had boasted of his female conquests in public, had been seen dancing with Mary and also accompanying her after the event.

He managed, somehow, possibly through a clever counsel and a convenient alibi, to claim innocence – the implication being that this “happy young girl of 20 years” had “committed suicide”.

He was also helped by another flawed diagram of the scene, drawn up for the prosecution by a local surveyor – William Fowler – which the court had used.

Mary Ashford.
Mary Ashford.
 

Mary’s brother William was furious with the jury, who had only taken a few minutes to reach a ‘not guilty’ verdict and, following a campaign which utilised public shock and outrage at the decision, successfully called for a retrial.

This time Mr Hill and his class submitted a map based on a more accurate set of measurements. The new pamphlet followed the alleged tracks of suspect and victim and the fatal field where she was murdered.

This seriously disputed the claims of Thornton, as it included evidential descriptions such as ‘the height of the water as here presented is as near as possible what it was when the murder took place’. The gothic type was effective too.

This map was so successful that Mr Hill and his class were presented with £15 by the press, about £2,500 in today’s money. But although he was quite a celebrity with the public after this contribution, the defendant was again acquitted.

Incredibly, as some medieval laws were still on the statute book, the burly Mr Thornton offered the opportunity for Mary’s brother of “trial by combat” to prove his innocence.

He did this with a pair of gauntlets, one of which he flung down at William’s feet, while wearing the other. A duel was what was on offer, and William refused to pick it up. Wisely – due to his diminutive size.

Thornton then fled to the United States before any more damning evidence arose.

He might have faced the rope or alternatively have been sent to Australia on a one-way ticket, an idea which Sir Rowland later took up as a solution to many social problems.

After this experience, Sir Rowland joined his father’s school Hill Top in the city and moved it to Edgbaston. Hill renamed the school Hazelwood and introduced a revolutionary concept which appealed to the newly emerging professional class in Birmingham.

His principle that kindness was a better form of control instead of caning was produced many years before Charles Kingsley and Charles Dickens put pen to paper.

On hearing about this ethos, Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher, persuaded Hill to take the school’s ideas to London where it opened as Bruce Castle in Tottenham, and he was headmaster there from 1833 to 1839.

On the basis of his fame, modern thinking and undoubted map making ability, Rowland Hill was approached by Robert Wallace MP with a view to addressing postal reforms.

So, writing another pamphlet on that basis Post Office Reform – its Importance and Practicability in 1839, he was offered a job with the Civil Service, being promoted into the Treasury that year. Until 1840 letters had been paid for by the recipient and, due to the cost of individual delivery, were very expensive.

Hill used to recount part of his motivation to change the system was due to his experience of finding a young girl too poor to pay for a letter from her betrothed.

So he introduced the “Penny Postage”, though strictly speaking the prototype was 4d. This introduced the concept where the sender of a letter was responsible for paying for it, and this would be a national service from John O’Groats to Lands End.

This brilliant idea was soon copied by the rest of the world, and the science of philately was born.

Twenty-three years spanned the time from teaching locally to world renown, and that is why, starting with his experiences in Birmingham and the fame thereby accruing, Sir Rowland Hill is buried in Westminster Abbey, but we seem to have forgotten his educational contribution both locally and nationally.

* Peter Douglas Osborn is a Birmingham City councillor