Front Page Titles (by Subject) A STATE PARCEL POST.∗ - Methods of Social Reform and Other Papers
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A STATE PARCEL POST.∗ - William Stanley Jevons, Methods of Social Reform and Other Papers 
Methods of Social Reform and Other Papers (London: Macmillan, 1883).
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A STATE PARCEL POST.∗
At a season of the year when many persons are anxious about their Christmas hampers and their New Year's gifts, it is appropriate to consider whether our social arrangements for the conveyance of such-like small goods are as well devised as they might be. We all now feel how much we owe to Sir Rowland Hill for that daily pile of letters which brightens the breakfast table more than does the silver urn, and sweetens it more than the untaxed sugar basin. In these kinds of matters great effects follow from small causes, and a few pence more to pay, a few yards further to walk, or a few hours longer to wait, constantly decide whether or not it is worth while to send this little present, to order that little comfort, or exchange this parcel of library books. The amenities of life depend greatly upon the receipt of a due succession of little things, each appearing at the right moment. Wealth itself is but matter in its right place—happily disposed in quality and time and space. Hence it is possible that among the most insidious methods of social reform might be found a well organised State Parcel Post. That at least is the impression which leads me now to investigate the subject.
It may be said, indeed, that in a sense we already possess a State Parcel Post, because the Post Office authorities place no restriction upon what may be enclosed in a letter, provided that it be not injurious to other letters or dangerous in nature. An inland letter is limited to 18 inches in length, 9 inches in width, and 6 inches in depth, and this space may be packed with cast-iron or platinum if you like, and yet transmitted by post, so far as the regulations in the British Postal Guide show. But except for very small light things, few people use the privilege, because the letter rate for large letters is 1d. per oz., which makes 1s. 4d. per lb., a prohibitory charge upon articles of any considerable weight. If I recollect aright, it was allowable some years since to forward parcels at the book rate of postage, which is only 4d. per lb., but trouble arose between the Post Office and the railway companies, so that this comparatively moderate charge is now rigidly restricted to literary matter.
A number of writers have from time to time pointed out the very great advantages which would arise from a general, well arranged, and cheap parcel post. It is stated on the best authority,∗ that such a post formed part of the scheme which Sir Rowland Hill submitted to the public, and Mr. Lewins, in his interesting account of “Her Majesty's Mails” (p. 247), points out what an unspeakable boon this suggestion of the father of the penny post would be when properly carried out. I regret that I have not been able to discover any explicit statement of such a scheme in the original pamphlets of Sir Rowland Hill, which are among the most cherished contents of my library. The proposal must, then, be given in other documents which I have not seen.
In subsequent years the Society of Arts took up the idea, and appointed a committee, which in 1858 published an elaborate and careful report upon the subject. They recommended that parcels should be conveyed by the Post Office at a moderate uniform tariff of charges, irrespective of distance. That scheme, we are told, was carefully considered by the postal authorities; and in still later years, as we may infer from Mr. E. J. Page's Evidence before the Railway Commission of 1865, the Post Office has entertained the idea.
Again, that veteran social reformer, Mr. Edwin Chadwick, advocated a parcel post delivery, in connection with railway reform, and a cheap telegraphic post. His paper was read at the Belfast meeting of the Social Science Association, and is printed in the Journal of the Society of Arts for October, 1867 (vol. xv. p. 720). The subject was unfortunately mixed with the, to my mind, visionary proposal to purchase the whole railways of the kingdom, and, naturally enough, nothing practical has resulted from the discussions in that direction. My own study of the subject commenced about the same year, when I prepared for the Manchester Statistical Society a paper “On the Analogy between the Post Office, Telegraphs, and other systems of conveyance of the United Kingdom, as regards Government control.” After investigating in a somewhat general manner the conditions under which industrial functions can be properly undertaken by the State, I came strongly to the conclusion that a parcel post is most suitable for State management. But this part of the paper was, at the suggestion of the Society, very much abbreviated before being printed, so as to allow the arguments in favour of a Government telegraph system to be more fully developed.
In 1867, the Royal Commission on Railways published their Report, in which they strongly advocated the establishment of a parcel post. They remarked (p. lxiii.) that railway companies are not bound to carry parcels, nor is there in the railway Acts of Parliament any tariff for parcels, limiting the charges for collection and delivery. The public is, therefore, at their mercy. They consider that a separate tariff should be laid down and published to govern the conveyance as distinguished from the collection and delivery of parcels, so as to enable the rates of charge to be kept down by the free action of individuals acting as carriers by railway. Then they add:
“It is, however, apparent that the parcel service, so far as inter-change is concerned, can never be efficiently performed for the public until railway companies co-operate through the Clearing-house to improve their arrangements for parcel traffic. Looking at the extent to which the railway system has now reached, we consider that the time has arrived when railway companies should combine to devise some rapid and efficient system for the delivery of parcels. We do not feel called upon to suggest the precise manner in which this may be carried into effect; but the employment of a uniform system of adhesive labels for parcels, somewhat similar to that now in use on some of the northern lines for the conveyance of newspapers, is one of the most obvious methods for facilitating payment and accounting.
“If the railway companies do not combine voluntarily it may be necessary at some future time for Parliament to interfere to make the obligation to carry parcels compulsory, at a rate to be prescribed by law.”
Sir Rowland Hill, who was a member of this commission, prepared a separate Report, in which he advocated the carrying out of his original idea, saying (p. cxvii.):
“It appears highly desirable that, as fast as railways become national property, provision should be made in the leases for giving effect to these views; and in the meantime, fully believing that the plan would prove beneficial to railway interests as well as to the public, it is hoped that arrangements for the purpose may be made (as suggested by Mr. Edward Page) for attaining the same end with the concurrence of existing companies.”∗
It would be hardly possible to over-estimate the advantages which would be derived by the community from an all-extensive, well organised, and moderately cheap parcel post. People may say that it is already possible to send a hamper or parcel from any one place to any other place in the kingdom for charges which, all things considered, are not very heavy. But this is not enough; the cost, after all, is only one element of the question in cases of this kind. Trouble, worry, uncertainty, risk, are influences which always affect traffic in a degree insufficiently estimated. The Post Office authorities find that every new receptacle for letters which they set up increases correspondence by a certain amount; the trouble of going a hundred yards to post his letter stops many a letter-writer. So there are endless numbers of parcels which we should send and receive, if we knew that for a small calculable charge we could deposit them in a neighbouring shop, or hand them over to a cart passing daily at a fixed hour, with a feeling of certainty that such parcels would be dropped at the right doors in any part of the kingdom, almost with the celerity of the Post Office. The parcel traffic which might ultimately be created is such as one can only faintly conceive at present. Profound and always beneficial changes would be gradually produced in our social system. The Parcel Post would be discovered to be truly a method of social reform. Let us try to form some idea of the advantages to be expected from it.
In the first place, dealers and shopkeepers in every part of the kingdom would obtain their supplies of goods from the wholesale houses cheaply and promptly. Ordered by letter, goods might be returned within forty-eight hours; by telegraph the order might be executed, if necessary, in twenty-four hours. Thus the stock in hand might be kept down to the lowest point, and the largest profit might be earned upon the least investment of capital, with the least inconvenience to the consumer. In the second place, a vast increase would take place in the goods distributed directly to consumers in all parts of the country by large retail or even wholesale houses. Already it is quite common to obtain tea by parcel from some well-known large tea-dealer, calicoes and linens from a large draper, seeds and garden requisites from the London, Edinburgh, or Reading seedsmen; small-wares here, ironmongery there, biscuits and cakes somewhere else. To cultivate their distant customers, those large houses often promise to send the parcel carriage paid, but they carefully specify “to any railway station in the United Kingdom.” They are too well acquainted with the cost and uncertainties of delivery to take that burden on themselves. And as regards the railway charges, they seldom pay the extortionate tariff given further on, but, if in a large enough way, have a special contract with some railway.
For this mode of retail trade there is an immense future, only retarded by the want of the parcel post. By degrees all the more ordinary household supplies might be obtained in parcels direct from the ports or places of production. In many branches of trade the expenses of the middleman might be saved almost entirely. Weekly or even daily parcels of butter, bread, cakes, Devonshire cream, and all kinds of delicacies might be looked for. The rich would especially profit, as they usually manage to do. The vineries, hot-houses, and gardens of their country houses would be brought, as it were, close to their town houses. Already the railway traffic managers have displayed their usual cleverness by offering specially low terms for parcels of vegetables, game, etc., thus regularly transmitted to a rich man's house. Even a daily bottle of milk, hermetically sealed according to the new American invention, and thus perfectly preserved from fever germs, might be sent from the country to the town house at a cost distinctly below the prices of Belgravian dairies.
Literature would benefit immensely. The most remote country house might be as well supplied with Mudie's books as are the members of the London Book Society, or the dwellers near a Smith's bookstall. The utility of lending libraries, such as the London Library, the London Institution, the several music lending libraries, etc., would be developed to the utmost. Magazines, weekly papers, provincial papers, would more or less experience an increase of circulation; although it is true that the means of distribution by railway or post are in many cases highly perfected already.
Then, again, there is an immense variety of now unconsidered trifles which would assume a new importance when we had but to wish, as it were, and the parcel was come or gone. The new toy for some child, the bundle of old clothes for a poor distant dependent, the basket of game for the hospital, the wedding present, the Christmas hamper, the New Year's gift—these would be multiplied almost like Christmas cards, to the great increase of trade, and the constant delectation of the receivers. The circulation and utilisation of things in general would be quickened.
It may be said indeed, that there is at present no lack of carriers and parcel companies; and this is quite true in a sense. If anything there are too many, and the result is that they can only be supported by high and repeated charges. Let us consider what are the existing means for the conveyance and distribution of small goods. In the first place, almost all the railway companies receive parcels at their stations, which they convey either by passenger or goods trains to any other of their stations. In the great towns each company has its own service of delivery vans which, within certain limits of distance, deliver the parcels free of further charge. When the consignee lives beyond a certain distance, the parcel is often handed over to some local carrier, who makes a new charge for delivery, at his own discretion; or else the railway company send their van on a special journey, and charge an extravagant price for the favour conferred, not extravagant perhaps in regard to the cost incurred in sending a cart with a single small parcel, but extravagant in proportion to the service performed. The railway companies also have arrangements for the exchange of parcel traffic at through rates, and an infinite number of small debits and credits thus arise, which have to be liquidated through the Clearing-house. So oppressive did these innumerable minute accounts become, that the companies adopted a few years ago a summary mode of dividing any receipts at a station which do not amount to five shillings in a month.
Secondly, there exists a considerable number of parcel conveyance companies which organise systems of distribution on a more or less extensive scale. As examples of these may be mentioned the Globe Parcel Express, Crouch's Universal Parcel Conveyance, Mann's Parcel Despatch, Sutton and Co. These companies are in some degree analogous to the excellent American Express Companies. Some of them undertake to convey parcels to almost any spot on the habitable globe; but they must depend upon local conveyances for performing the contract. In the United Kingdom, they, of course, make use of the railways for conveyance over long distances. At one time the railway companies, if I recollect aright, waged a war of extermination against them, claiming a right to charge each parcel sent by a parcel express at the parcel rates, although they might be packed in bulk. But the courts of law did not uphold this extravagant demand of the railways, and the express companies seem to carry on a flourishing business.
In the third place there is a number of local parcel delivery companies, each of which owns many vans and horses, but restricts its operations within the area of a town or other populous district. As examples of such may be mentioned the London Parcels Delivery Company, Carter, Paterson & Co., Sutton & Co.'s London System, etc. These companies serve the whole metropolitan area. Other large towns generally have similar companies on a proportionate scale. Liverpool, Glasgow, and Edinburgh especially have extensive systems of distribution.
Lastly, there is an almost infinite number of small disconnected carriers, who serve particular villages and lines of road. They are usually men who own one, two, or at most only a few carts and horses, who travel daily into some country town, and put up at a favourite public-house. This house serves as a depôt for parcels and messages left for them, and the carrier calls at various places on and off his usual route, whether to pick up or deliver small goods, according to instructions. Their charges are very various, and governed by no rule; except in London, the only law on the subject seems to be to the effect that the charge must be reasonable, whatever that may mean. But they seldom charge less than 4d. or 6d. for any parcel. The men are usually illiterate and slow in all their proceedings. Their number is often very great. In the London Directory for 1876 there are specified about 216 such carriers; in Glasgow, some years ago, there were 147, and many large towns would each have 100 or more local carriers.
All this mass of conveyances, be it remembered, is in addition to the vast number of private delivery carts employed by tradesmen. Great establishments, such as Shoolbred's, Marshall and Snellgrove's, Whiteley's, Maple's, Burton's, etc., etc., have each their own parcel delivery company, so to say. Some houses even have two deliveries a day in the metropolitan districts. The immense cost of such delivery staffs would be, to a great extent, saved by a parcel post; but it is, of course, not to be supposed that the ordinary tradespeople's delivery of meat, vegetables, etc., would be much affected.
At first sight this mass of carrying arrangements seems to be chaotic, but necessity is the mother of invention, and necessity has obliged these disconnected and often antagonistic bodies to work together to a certain extent. When one carrier gets to the end of his tether he assumes a right to hand on his parcel to any other carrier he likes, who “pays out” the charges already incurred, adds his own charge at discretion, and recovers the sum-total from the helpless consignee. Whether this practice is legal, in the absence of any distinct prior contract, I am not able to say; but it is, at any rate, sanctioned by force of habit and necessity. The larger parcel companies, of course, have arrangements with each other, and they often undertake to deliver goods in distant towns at the lowest rates, passing the parcels on from one to another.
One result of this multiplicity of carriers is that it is usually impossible to ascertain what the conveyance of a parcel will cost. For traffic between the large towns, indeed, there are definite tariffs published by the express companies, but these documents are not easily to be obtained. Between Manchester and London, for instance, a parcel under 1 lb. may (or lately might) be sent by mail train for 4d.; under 12 lbs., for 2s. From Glasgow to London the rate was 8d. under 1 lb.; 2s. 6d. under 12 lbs. But these charges include delivery only within town limits, which limits are drawn at the discretion and convenience of the deliverers. The multitudes who now dwell in suburban parts are almost entirely at the mercy of the carriers, who will either send their carts specially, and make a large extra charge, or hand the parcel over to local carriers, who impose their own new toll. Not long since a book, weighing less than 2 lbs., was presented at my house at Hampstead with a demand for 1s. for delivery. It appeared to come out of Fleet Street, but, wherever it came from, might have reached me by post from any part of the United Kingdom for 7d. or 8d. On refusing to pay an apparently extortionate charge without explanation, the book was promptly carried off, and I have never seen it since. With the railway companies the case is almost worse; not only do they, as we shall see, maintain an extortionate general tariff, but they have narrow limits of free delivery, and can charge anything they like for delivery beyond those limits. When living in the suburbs of Manchester in a very populous district only four miles from the centre of the town, I often had experience of this fact. In one case a book package weighing ½ oz. less than 3 lbs., and carriage paid by the sender, was charged 1s. 2d. for delivery by the railway company. About the same time another book, weighing a little over 3 lbs., was received by post, carriage paid, for 1s. 0½d., this being the whole charge, and delivery being far more rapid than by parcel van. On another occasion a parcel of seven copies of a book, weighing in all 5½ lbs., although carriage paid to the extent of 1s. 6d. at London, was charged 1s. 2d. for delivery at Manchester, in all 2s. 8d.; whereas, had the books been made up into two or more parcels at London and sent by post, they would have reached me for a total cost of 1s. 10d. The climax, however, was reached in the case of a parcel of forty copies of a book, which were received by railway at such a cost that each copy might have been made up into a separate parcel, and despatched by post to forty different addresses in all parts of the United Kingdom for about the same aggregate cost. Nor can the consignee protect himself against such extreme charges. The consignor knows and cares nothing about the delivery charges, and in the usual course sends the parcels to the nearest receiving offices. Instructions which I have repeatedly given to consignors are usually disregarded, and any attempt to recover the overcharge would be regarded as absurd.
Of course the cases which I have quoted are only specimens of what must be happening daily with hundreds of thousands or even millions of parcels. A sixpence or a shilling may be a trifle in itself, but multiply it by millions, and the matter becomes one of national importance. All large sums are made up of little units, and the history of the Post Office before Sir Rowland Hill's reform shows how small oppressive overcharges strangle traffic.
Let us now look at the charges which are made by the principal railway companies for conveyance and delivery within the usual limits. These are by no means uniform, and each company usually has exceptional rates for certain districts. The following table, however, which is an extract from the tables of the London and North Western Railway, contains a uniform tariff which has been recently adopted by the principal companies—such as the North Western, Midland, Great Northern—carrying to the north of London. It will therefore serve as a good specimen:
With few exceptions, the Scale of Charges (exclusive of Booking Fee) to or from Stations on the London and North Western Railway is as under:
A Special Scale is in operation in the districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and to the lines south of the Thames.
This tariff is wonderfully constructed. As regards the columns towards the right hand, I give the puzzle up altogether. It passes my understanding why the limit of weight should be made to vary at different distances from 14 lbs. to 15 lbs., 16 lbs., and 18 lbs. I have studied inductive logic; but no logic seems likely to disclose reason or method here. As regards weights under 7 lbs. there is at least the appearance of reason, and that reason is the exacting the utmost that the unfortunate owner of the parcel can be induced to pay. It is true that for small distances the charge, exclusive of booking fee, is not altogether immoderate. For 6d. a 7 lb. parcel may be sent 30 miles, a 2 lb. parcel 100 miles, and so on; this no doubt is designed to prevent competition by road carriers; but at larger distances, when horse conveyance is out of the question, the public is made to smart. A 1 lb. parcel transmitted 500 to 600 miles costs ls. 3d., exclusive of booking fee; by post the book rate is 4d. per lb., or barely more than the fourth part. The postal rate for a letter weighing above 12 oz. is 1d. for every ounce. The parcel rate then is only a penny less than the postal rate of a letter! What is most extraordinary about this tariff is the importance attributed to distance. I suppose a 1 lb. parcel sent from London to Glasgow may be put into the van at Euston, and never stirred until it reaches Glasgow; yet the mere transit costs the sender 6d. more than for short distances. Now we must suppose that 6d. covers all the terminal charges, and costs of collection and delivery, for this is all that the companies ask for short distance parcels, exclusive of booking fees, whatever they may be. Hence at least 6d. goes for the cost of traction, wear and tear of van, interest on capital, etc.; but a ton consists of 2240 lb., and a ton weight of 1 lb. parcels would be no great load for a van. Thus the tolls collected on merely carrying that ton load for 400 or 500 miles would be £56, and including collection and delivery it would be £112. A ton load of third-class passengers would yield only £25 all told.
These very excessive charges apply, it is true, only to the smallest parcels; on examining the other columns it will be found that the higher weights are charged at much lower rates, possibly to underbid competition by road, canal, or steamboat. But taking it as a whole this tariff may be described as devoid of all method. It seems to be a purely arbitrary series of numbers, evolved perhaps from the brains of railway magnates arranging a compromise at some conference of the northern directors.
To show, however, how the parcel charges compare with the various other charges made by the railway companies, I have constructed the following table from authentic data furnished by the railway time tables, the reports of railway commissions, etc. The table refers to no railway in particular, and the data were selected almost at random.
This is an extraordinary table, and shows what latitude the traffic managers allow themselves in taxing or assisting various trades. Like protectionist statesmen, they think the traffic cannot go on unless their vigilance eases or multiplies the burden. Our ancient system of duties, and bounties, and drawbacks, is faithfully reproduced in our railway tariffs, with their classes, and exceptions, and exemptions, and special rates, and endless minute distinctions.
An examination of the table will render it quite evident that the railway companies have deliberately treated the small parcel traffic as a close monopoly which they can tax with any charge they like. No excuse for such excessive charges can possibly be given. It may be explained, indeed, that the newspaper parcels, being a regular daily uniform traffic, can be more easily provided for; but how are we to apply the same explanation to commercial travellers' luggage? For the charge stated, many of the companies allow a commercial traveller to bring as many heavy packages as he likes, and to take them in and out of the trains as many times in the day as he likes, without extra charge. Several porters are sometimes needed to manipulate this luggage, and the train is occasionally detained thereby. But though the companies urge that they do this to promote trade in their districts, why cannot they promote the trade in small parcels also? If properly developed, this traffic would include an immense mass of orders for small tradesmen, and the vast loss of labour and money involved in the commercial traveller system might be partially avoided by the copious use of sample packages. Really it sometimes strikes me as very questionable how far a small body of directors, sitting at Euston Square or Paddington, should be allowed to constitute themselves the judges of the way in which the commerce and the traffic of the country are to go on. They can promote this form of traffic, oppress another, extinguish a third, in a way which Parliament itself would not venture to do.
But let us now turn to another side of this subject, and attempt to decide whether the conveyance of parcels is a kind of industry which is likely to be well and economically conducted by a Government department. As I have pointed out in two previous publications,∗ we must not assume that a Government department will manage every kind of industry as badly as the Admiralty manage the boilers of their ironclads, nor, on the other hand, as apparently well as the Post Office manages the distribution of letters. The presumption is always against a State department; but in any particular kind of work there may be special conditions which render the unity and monopoly of Government control desirable and profitable. On this point I will take the liberty of quoting from my paper published by the Manchester Statistical Society, p. 91:
“Before we give our adhesion to systems of State telegraphs and State railways in this kingdom, we should closely inquire whether telegraphs and railways have more analogy to the Post Office or to the Dockyards. This argument from analogy is freely used by everyone. It is the argument of the so-called reformers, who urge that if we treat the telegraphs and the railways as Sir Rowland Hill treated the Post Office, reducing fares to a low and uniform rate, we shall reap the same gratifying results. But this will depend upon whether the analogy is correct—whether the telegraphs and railways resemble the Post Office in those conditions which render the latter highly successful in the hands of Government, and enable a low uniform rate to be adopted. To this point the following remarks are directed:
It seems to me that State management possesses advantages under the following conditions:
1. Where numberless wide-spread operations can only be efficiently connected, united, and co-ordinated, in a single, all-extensive government system.
2. Where the operations possess an invariable routine-like character.
3. Where they are performed under the public eye, or for the service of individuals, who will immediately detect and expose any failure or laxity.
4. Where there is but little capital expenditure, so that each year's revenue and expense account shall represent, with sufficient accuracy, the real commercial conditions of the department.”
There can be no doubt, I think, that in all the four points specified above parcel traffic is highly suited to State management. It is conducted at present, as we have seen, by almost numberless disconnected or antagonistic companies and private carriers, who, though not particularly inefficient each in his own sphere, are highly wasteful and inefficient as a system. The operations of the parcel post, again, would be almost as routine-like as those of the Post Office. There would be none of the delicate scientific and technical questions involved in the building of ironclads or the construction of torpedoes. There would be nothing more occult in the carrying of a parcel than in the stamping and sorting and delivery of letters. There would certainly be some variations of traffic to be provided against, especially about Christmas time; but it would not be comparatively worse than the pressure of Christmas cards or valentines upon the Post Office. If necessary, it might be met by a temporary increase of charges during Christmas week. In respect of the third point, the parcel post is as favourably situated as the letter post. Nobody knows nor cares what is done with the boilers of H.M.'s ship Pinafore when cruising in Turkish waters; but everybody would know and care, each in his own case, if Mudie's parcel of novels was unpunctual, or the new dress gone astray, or the pot of Devon-shire cream gone bad, or the author's life-long labour—his cherished manuscript—irretrievably lost. The officials of the Dead and Missing Parcel Department would need strong nerves and placid dispositions to stand the constant stream of indignation which would fall upon them. There could be no undetected laxity in the parcel department.
In respect, however, of the fourth point of State management there might be room for more doubt. The immense success of the Post Office is much dependent upon the fact that, in respect of letters, the Postmaster-General has little capital expenditure under his charge. The railway companies fortunately own and manage all the more elaborate instruments of carriage, and do the work of the Post Office by contract. The whole of the horse conveyance of the mails is also done by contract, or at least ought so to be done. All the minor post offices, too, are placed in private premises. Only the large buildings at St. Martin's-le-Grand, and the principal offices in the London districts and some of the larger provincial towns, are actually owned by the Government for postal purposes. Beyond this property they only own the letter bags, the stamps, the pillar boxes, and so forth—property in value quite inconsiderable. With the telegraph branch it is different; whether wisely or otherwise (and I incline to think otherwise), the Post Office actually own the posts and wires, instruments, and other fixed plant of the telegraphs. They construct and repair them; and, still worse, they find it necessary to call in the aid of the Royal Engineers to do this efficiently and economically. I have little doubt that all this work ought to have been put out to contract. But, however this may be, the difficulty would not much press in the case of the parcel post; for it would require no extensive and complicated series of scientific instruments for its conduct. The railway companies would of course do the long-distance conveyance; the collection and distribution would, equally of course, be done by hired carts; and, beyond a few weighing machines, porters' trucks, packing cases, and the like simple appliances, it is difficult to see what fixed capital the Parcel Department need own. Receiving and distributing offices would be needed, often on a rather large scale; but they might be leased or built, as was found most economical. Thus I feel sure that, in respect of capital expenditure, the parcel post would be far more favourably situated than the Telegraph Department, and would be closely analogous to the letter post.
Then, again, the parcel monopoly would in no appreciable degree interfere with the progress of invention, as the telegraph monopoly appears to do. In spite of Mr. W. H. Preece's vigorous attempt to show the opposite,∗ it is to be feared that the birthplace of the electric telegraph has ceased to be the foremost in the race of electrical inventions. Some half-dozen capital inventions, such as duplex and quadruplex telegraphy; the telephone, the carbon telephone, etc., have been made since the Government took the telegraphs. How many of them have been made on English soil? The telephone is, I believe, quite in familiar use in the United States: where is it yet made practically useful in England? The chill of red tape and circumlocution has fallen upon the zeal of invention, a zeal which fears nothing so much as the inertia of bureaucracy, and the cool indifference of My Lords of the Treasury. If ever future historians of a more advanced age inquire into the rise of a new civilisation in the nineteenth century, they will wonder at nothing so much as the treatment of inventors by the English Government. It is as bad and senseless in its way as the imprisonment of Roger Bacon, or the condemnation of Galileo. Neglect, contumely, confiscation, are the fate of the English inventor at the hands of the English Government.
I hold, therefore, that the conveyance of small goods is a kind of business which a Government department would carry on with a maximum of advantage and a minimum of financial risk or interference with the progress of science and industry. In some respects it would have been better to leave the work to the care of a combination of railway companies; but I fear they could never be induced to make the system complete. The whole movement of parcels up to 30 lbs. or 50 lbs. weight should therefore be carried on by a Government organisation closely analogous to that of the letter post, but yet distinct from it; parallel and co-operating when desirable, but not interfering or hampering the more rapid distribution of letters. This department would acquire the parcel business of the railway companies, and would also buy up the good-will of the parcel express companies. It would utilise the whole of the carriers' stock of carts, horses, offices, etc., by employing them on remunerative contracts; it would thus organise, rather than replace, the existing means of conveyance, but by introducing system where there was no system would much increase the efficiency of the present means. Instead of a multitude of carts traversing long distances often to deliver single parcels, each cart would serve one group of houses, to which it would proceed direct from the delivery office with a good load. When the traffic was properly developed, almost every house would have a daily parcel, or even several, and these would be delivered with a speed to which there is nothing comparable now except that of the penny post. As the shopkeepers would deliver almost exclusively through the parcel post, the streets would be freed from their multitude of vans, and customers would eventually be saved the enormous cost which some establishments must bear in maintaining a large staff of delivery carts. The consumers must, of course, bear all such expenses in the long run. As to the employés of the present companies, they would be “taken over” as part of the concerns, and would do doubt have their salaries advanced at once, as in the case of the telegraph companies.
One of the most important and difficult points to determine in connection with the scheme which I am advocating is the selection of a tariff for the future parcel system. The principles on which such a tariff must be founded require careful investigation. As we have seen, Mr. Edward J. Page, of the Post Office, adopts the idea of a uniform parcel rate, as it had been previously upheld by the Society of Arts; he would make the charge independent of distance, and vary it only with the weight of the parcel. The convenience of such a tariff, if it can be adopted, is obvious. With a pair of scales we can infallibly ascertain the weight of the parcel we are sending, and then calculate the fare to be paid. If distance enters, we have to ascertain also the position and distance of the place to which we are consigning the parcel. For this purpose we must consult tables which will seldom be at hand. The greater number of persons will be reduced to simply asking the receiving clerk what is to be paid; not only delay, but uncertainty and opportunity for fraud thus arise—all the disadvantages, in short, against which the fixed tariff of the Post Office insures us. There can be no doubt then about the excellence of a uniform charge irrespective of distance, if it can be adopted.
But on careful examination it will be found that Mr. Page's proposal must be intended by him to apply only to very small parcels, or else it betrays an imperfect comprehension of the subject with which he is dealing. I imagine he must have chosen a uniform tariff on the ground that it answers very well in the Post Office, and therefore must answer well with parcels. By such reasoning as this, one might infer that because a minute dose of prussic acid soothes and benefits the stomach, therefore a good large dose will be still more beneficial. Mr. Page, like many another hasty theorist, forgets that a whole mail-bag full of letters only makes a moderate parcel. Taking letters at an average of half an ounce each, there are 32 to the pound, or 960 in a 30 lb, parcel. Thus the element of weight enters into parcel traffic, say from a hundred to a thousand times as much as into letter traffic. Sir Rowland Hill's admirable scheme of a uniform postal charge was based upon the carefully demonstrated fact that the mere transit cost of a letter to a distant place did not exceed that to a near place by more than 1–36th part of a penny. There was no coin sufficiently small to represent the difference of cost due to distance, and therefore he was enabled to embrace the uniform charge system. But a little calculation shows how different is the case with parcels.
The mileage rates charged by the railway companies upon goods vary exceedingly, and in the most casual manner. The minimum is usually about 1d. per ton per mile, and the maximum is somewhere about 7d. Now, 1d. per ton per mile is equal to 4·464d. per 100 lbs. per 100 miles, so that, if we were to assume only a medium charge of 3d. per ton per mile, a 100 lb. parcel transmitted 500 miles would cost, merely for transit, about 5s. 7d. The idea of charging this sum for the carriage of a 100 lb. package for a few miles would be prohibitory and absurd. But the rates from which I have been calculating are only those for ordinary goods by goods trains. For parcel traffic we should require either special rapid parcel trains, or else accommodation in passenger trains, which must be costly. Looking to the table given above, we can scarcely expect the railway companies to accept less than 25d. per 100 lbs. per 100 miles (5·6d. per ton per mile)—that is, about a quarter of what they now charge for parcels. At this rate the cost of transmitting the following weights 500 miles, without any terminal charges, is worthy of notice:
It is evident that the analogy between the parcel and the letter post breaks down altogether. Even for a 1 lb. parcel the effect of distance is appreciable; for a 10 lb. parcel it could not be overlooked; for a 100 lb. parcel it would constitute almost the whole of the charge. We are thus reduced to three alternatives in case of adopting a uniform charge. Either (1) we must restrict the weight of parcels, so as to make the parcel post hardly more useful for sending goods than the present letter post; or (2) we must impose so high a charge as would be intolerably oppressive as regards small distances; or (3) we must impose so low a charge that the ordinary goods charges of the railway companies for long distances would be underbid by the parcel post. The result of the third alternative would evidently be that all goods would, as far as possible, be broken down into parcels, and transmitted at the cost of the State. This result would be quite intolerable.
All these alternatives, then, being inadmissible, it follows that a tariff irrespective of distance is impracticable, and we must revert to a mileage rate. The charge should consist of two components: (1) a fixed terminal charge of, say, 2d., to cover the costs of booking, delivery, etc.; (2) a mileage charge determined by the compound proportion of weight and distance. A very important point, however, would consist in fixing rightly the minimum charge for very light parcels. Now, parcel companies have been started to work at a minimum of 1d.; at one time there was a Penny Parcel Company in London, and similar companies have been established in Glasgow and elsewhere. I learn that the Glasgow Tramway Company now convey and deliver newspaper parcels up to 3 lbs. weight for 1d. each, but other parcels up to 7 lbs. are charged 2d. as a minimum. I do not happen to know of the present existence of any company working with common parcels so low as 1d. even for short distances. But even if so low a rate were practicable in particular districts, it could not possibly be recommended for adoption in a general parcel system. The lowest rate which is practically existent in England at present is 3d. or 4d., and it would not be wise to attempt at first a lower rate than 3d. Taking a mileage rate of 5·6d. per ton per mile, or 25d. per 100 lbs. per 100 miles; adding terminal charges in each case to the amount of 2d.; and then raising the result to the next higher integral number of pennies, we obtain the following standard tariff:∗
I give the charges up to 100 lbs. weight without implying that the parcel post should necessarily carry up to that weight.
I do not believe that there would be any serious difficulty in working such a tariff as this. The urban and suburban tariff, a very large part of the whole traffic, would fall entirely within the fifty mile limit, and the matter of distance need hardly be considered. I should propose to determine the charges for longer distances by reference to tariff maps, as was formerly the practice in the French post offices, when letters were charged at a distance rate. Minute differences are of no account in a general system of conveyance, so that we can readily substitute the distance as the crow flies for the actual distance travelled by road or rail. In the French post office the distances seem to have been measured by compasses applied to official maps; but a little device would save all trouble of measuring.
I would have tariff maps issued by the postal authorities, somewhat like the cheap useful map prefixed to Bradshaw's Guide, but rather larger and fuller, and showing places, instead of railways or other features. Upon the face of this map should be printed light-coloured concentric distance circles, with their centre upon any town or village for which the map was to indicate the tariff. All places within any one zone would have the same tariff as regards the central place; and it is possible that the tariff for the zone might be printed in colours actually within the space to which it applies. Such maps could be produced for every town and village in the country without extra cost; because, with a properly invented press, the colour stone or block could be shifted so as to print its centre over any spot, and the required number of copies would be printed off for the service of that particular place before shifting the circles for the next place.
In the establishment of a State parcel post a multitude of details would of course have to be considered, for the discussion of which there is no space and no need here. For instance, would the parcels be all registered and delivered only for receipts? I am inclined to think that this would be indispensable to prevent pilfering; but it is probable that the labour might be greatly facilitated by the use of some kind of numbered stamp, with perforated coupons. One part of the ticket being affixed to the parcel, serving also perhaps as an address label, the counterfoils might be used as receipts, or filed to save the trouble of booking. I have often amused myself with planning the details of such a scheme of ticket registration, to replace the cumbrous method of books and waybills; but it would be needless to suggest details here. I am sure that some such system will one day be adopted, and become as important and world-wide as the use of stamps and railway tickets. In some parts of Scotland it is already the practice to have duplicate penny and half-penny labels, one of which is pasted on any parcel sent to the left luggage office of any railway terminus, while the counterfoil is retained by the owner; thus when leaving town in the evening by train he can identify his parcel. The use of stamps on newspaper parcels is now quite general, and at least one company, the Bristol and Exeter, extended the use of stamps to their parcel traffic generally. The Glasgow Tramway Company too have adopted the parcel stamp with numbered coupon, to serve as a waybill, and to be torn off by the person delivering the parcel. An easy development of this system would soon replace the cumbrous booking method.
Any person seriously proposing the establishment of a general parcel post might no doubt be expected to produce some estimate of its probable cost. Much minute information, however, only to be obtained by the power of Parliament, would be needed to form a reliable estimate. I am encouraged indeed, to attempt some calculations by the fact that, in the case of the telegraphs, I was, in respect to one important item, twenty-five times more correct than Mr. Scudamore, with all his information,∗ though, of course, neither I nor any other reasonable person could have imagined beforehand how much he would have agreed to pay the telegraph companies for their rights. But in this case of parcel traffic, we have none of the accurate information which existed concerning the telegraph companies and their capitals and dividends. We have, of course, the official accounts of railway traffic, but the Act of Parliament under which these are collected allowed, or rather prescribed, a form of account in which the receipts from parcel traffic are merged with those from excess luggage, carriages, horses, and dogs! Nor are these items distinguished in any of the reports issued by the companies to their shareholders which I possess. Taking, however, Mr. Giffen's summary tables of railway traffic for 1876, we find that the totals of these items are given as follow:
This sum represents the total gross receipts from such traffic, and as the working and capital expenses can hardly be assigned in the case of such adventitious sources of revenue, it would no doubt be difficult for the railway companies to assign with any precision the net receipts from parcel traffic. Much information would have to be called forth by Parliamentary authority before it would be possible to frame any estimates of the sums of money involved in establishing a general parcel system. But there is the less need to produce any financial estimates at the outset, because I hold that if the tariff be rightly and cautiously framed, there must be a large margin of economy in the working of the department, which would insure a revenue sufficient to bear all probable charges. The business, as I have pointed out, is analogous to the letter post rather than the telegraph system; there is not the same risk of loss as there was in introducing the uniform shilling telegram, or the uniform sixpenny telegram, as sanguine people wished. The waste of horse-power, of men's time, and of railway carrying power is so immense under the present chaotic arrangements, that to the community as a whole there must be great profit, in reducing that chaos to systematic organisation. So far as I can venture to form any estimate of the financial magnitude of the proposed department, I should say that it will certainly not cost more than three or four times as much as the Postal Telegraph Department. This is no slight sum, indeed, but those who wince at it must remember that it is only about the twentieth part of what would be involved in the state purchase of the whole railway system. This favourite proposal I venture to regard as simply visionary, for reasons already given in the Owens College Essays; the advantages would be doubtful, the cost and risks enormous. But in buying up the parcel branch of traffic the cost and risk would be comparatively small, the advantages and profits immense and almost certain.
Practical men will no doubt have more belief in a parcel post when they learn that it is what has been long carried into effect in Prussia, as well as Switzerland, Denmark, and probably other Continental countries. It seems desirable that the details of these postal systems should be ascertained by our consular agencies, and described in their usual reports. But I am glad to be able to give the following minute account of the Government Parcel Post at Berlin, which I have translated from an interesting article on the postal service of Berlin, published in the Berne periodical called L'Union Postale, and reprinted in the Bulletin de Statistique et de Législation Comparée of the French Ministry of Finance, a copy of which I have the honour to receive from the Ministry.
“All the ordinary parcels (colis) destined for Berlin and its suburbs are sent to the parcel office (bureau des colis) which is situated in the Arrondissement N, or North, and which is charged with delivering the parcels directly to the houses of the consignees, provided that the latter inhabit the city proper, or one of the suburbs of Gesundbrunnen or Moabit. To give an idea of the importance of this service, and of the resources which it requires, it is sufficient to remark that during the year 1876, it has handled 3,003,131 parcels, and that the reduction of the charge to 50 pfennigs (about 6d.) per parcel, up to 5 kilogrammes (11 lbs.), independently of distance, has necessarily had the effect of increasing the traffic from day to day. And there has been appropriated to this service a whole series of contiguous buildings, in which are engaged 72 employés and 214 subordinate agents, without counting 19 boys employed to call over the parcels.
“Two special offices, installed in a separate building, are reserved for parcels addressed to persons or authorities (of which the number is actually 375) who have given instructions that their parcels should not be delivered at their residences; their exists another similar office for parcels destined for the garrison of Berlin. All the other parcels are transported to the residences by distributing vans, and are delivered to the consignees in return for the regulation porterage charge. The places in which the porters deposit and sort the packages are 75 metres (246 feet) long, and 11·60 metres (38 feet) wide, and are divided into 72 compartments. By well-considered organisation of the service, and an intelligent division of labour, it has been found possible to commence each distribution one hour after the arrival of the last consignment which is to form part of it.
“The deliveries take place, during the winter, three times each day (at 8, 12, and 3 o'clock), and in summer four times (at 8, 12, 3, and 5 o'clock); on Sundays the service is reduced to the two earlier deliveries. The number of carts (voitures) employed for each delivery is varied according to need; at present there are 62 employed in the first delivery, 36 in the second, 27 in the third, and 25 in the fourth. But during the winter months, when the traffic is very considerable, the first delivery requires 72 carts, without speaking of numerous hired carts which are required during Christmastide.
“As to parcels intended for the suburbs of Berlin (always with the exception of the suburbs Gesundbrunnen and Moabit), the parcel office forwards them by special waggons in care of its agents, to the local post offices respectively charged with their delivery.”
Here is an interesting picture of an extensive and successful Government Parcel Post, doing a large business of three million parcels a year. Being unaware whether the charge of 6d. for parcels under 11 lbs. applies to Berlin only, or to conveyance over longer distances, it is not possible to judge of its pressure; but it is a higher minimum charge than we should think of proposing for a British parcel post.
In some parts of Scandinavia, also, there is a well-arranged Government Parcel Post, and Mr. J. E. H. Skinner tells us that in Denmark parcels not exceeding 200 lbs. in weight can be forwarded through the feld-post at a charge of 1d. per lb. for sixteen miles. This charge is far above what we should contemplate in this country; but it applies mostly to road conveyance.
Bad as are our arrangements for the distribution of small goods within the kingdom, the case is still far worse as regards ansmission to foreign countries. Even between such great and comparatively near capitals as London and Paris, or London and Brussels, the smallest parcel, of less than 1 lb., cannot be sent for less than 2s. or 2s. 2d. Nevertheless, the postal convention enables us to send book matter weighing less than 21 bs. for 1d. per 2 oz. Thus a book parcel just under 1 lb. will go as far as Rome for 8d., whereas a parcel of any other kind, of the same weight, will cost three times as much to Paris. Such are the anomalies which our apathy allows to exist. As regards the United States, it is worse still. A year or two ago I heedlessly undertook to send a book weighing under 2 ½ lbs. to New York, being under the impression that I could post it thither. But at the post office my book parcel was promptly rejected as exceeding the limit of weight. I then took it to two different American mail packet offices, each of which asked 7s. or 8s. for transmitting this small package. With this extraordinary demand I was obliged to comply, as I knew no cheaper mode of transmission. Now, the original value of the book in England was 10s. 6d.
In the case of small parcels conveyed by steamboat, the mileage cost must be an almost incalculably small fraction. In fact, about 1d. per lb. would be ample for the mere freight to America; adding, say 4d., for collection and delivery on each side, my book should have been transmitted for about a shilling; or about one-eighth part of what it cost. In fact, all this kind of traffic, when not superintended by the State, is treated as a close monopoly, to the great injury of the public, and in the long run, I am convinced, to the detriment of the carrying companies themselves.
There is plainly, then, a world of improvement to be effected in this, as in many other directions. But where is the Rowland Hill to effect it? Few have, like him, the happiness of looking back on a great social reform accomplished by his single-handed energy. Men of the younger generation have little idea of the manner in which he had to fight step by step against the bureaucracy of the Post Office. That department, which now congratulates and eulogises itself upon its wonderful achievements, should never forget that these inestimable improvements were forced upon it, as it were, at the point of the sword. I may have some future opportunity of pointing out how obstructive is the Post Office, or, at least, the Treasury, in refusing to extend the benefits of the Berne Postal Union to the whole world, as the English Government alone might do it. But one thing is enough at a time. It is with the infinite blindness, and selfishness, and obstructiveness of the railway companies in the matter of small goods that we have here to deal. I can scarcely comprehend why they should combine to suppress and strangle this one branch of traffic, when they so ably develop other branches. When it is a question of collecting and conveying milk, or fish, or cockles, or watercresses, nothing can be more effective, and in general economical, than their arrangements. As to the manner in which the railways distribute the morning London newspapers over the length and breadth of the land, nothing can be more wonderful or more satisfactory. But in the matter of small goods conveyance I have shown that blindness, monopoly, waste of labour, chaotic want of system yet prevail. So, though parcels may seem a petty matter, I yet hold that there is in this direction a really great work of social reform to be achieved. There is no reason why we should be separated as we are, either in Britain or in Greater Britain. When we learn to utilise properly our wonderful railway system, and to take advantage of the recent enormous progress of steam navigation, there is no reason why we should not make the whole world kin. Friendship, literature, science, art, civilisation in all its phases, are promoted by nothing so surely as the interchange of ideas and of goods. A universal parcel post would be the harbinger of universal free trade.
[∗]“Contemporary Review,” January, 1879, vol. xxxiv. pp. 209–229.
[∗]Royal Commission on Railways, 1865. Minutes of Evidence, Question 15,010.
[∗]The only response, so far as I am aware, which has been made by the railway companies to the kind advice and somewhat feeble overtures of the Commissioners, has been a recent general increase on the already oppressive railway rates for parcels. In November, 1867, the imposition of this arbitrary tax created some indignation among tradesmen who were most likely to feel its immediate effects, and the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce convened a kind of representative indignation meeting. But I am not aware that their expostulations have had any effect, and I fear that even the Four Hundred, with Mr. Chamberlain, at their head, cannot shake a board of directors, with the Acts of Parliament in their favour. Thus, while the railway companies never cease to assail us with protests against the railway passenger duty, which at the worst is five per cent. of the gross revenue, they coolly add to their duty upon all the small traffic of the country, which duty may be variously estimated at from 100 to 300, 400, or 500 per cent. upon the fair cost of conveyance. It is only the supineness of the public which could allow so gross an anomaly to exist. Much as we may admire the general efficiency and usefulness of the English railway system, taking it as a whole, it seems difficult to understand how sensible practical men like the directors can expect to have every vestige of state taxation upon them remitted, while they are to retain almost unlimited power to tax us—the people—at their discretion. If the railway duty is to be remitted at all, it must necessarily be in the manner of a quid pro quo, in part compensation, for instance, for the acquisition of the right of parcel conveyance.
[∗]Transactions of the Manchester Statistical Society, April, 1867, pp. 89–104: On the Analogy between the Post Office, Telegraphs, and other Systems of Conveyance of the United Kingdom, as regards Government Control.—Essays and Addresses by Professors and Lecturers of Owens College, Manchester, 1874 (Macmillan), pp. 465–505: The Railways and the State.
[∗]British Association: Dublin Meeting. Journal of the Society of Arts, August 23rd, 1878, vol. xxvi. p. 862. See also p. 890.
[∗]After calculating this tariff, I find that it nearly corresponds with one which existed four years ago on the former Bristol and Exeter Railway, which charged 3s. for carrying 112 lbs. over a maximum of 100 miles. But I should propose the scale only as a first cautious one, and with the hope that slight reductions might be made after the system was in full working order.
[∗]Transactions of the Manchester Statistical Society, 1867, p. 98. “Fortnightly Review,” vol. xviii. N.S. p. 827.