The humble post box

Who would have thought that one of the great British icons was first manufactured in a foundry in 1852? Anglotopia Magazine gives us some history.

The Pillar Box for collecting mail, known as a post box in most countries, made of cast-iron and painted a distinctive red colour, is a feature of virtually every British street. The design has remained basically unchanged for 150 years and is a touchstone of continuity in a changing world. Firmly protected from change by a loving public, these boxes affirm the ritual of communication, even as more and more people stop sending physical mail and rely on virtual communication.

Although a mail service for administrative purposes had already existed for more than 100 years, the first mail service open to the public in Britain was established in 1635 by Charles I. Postage was paid by the recipient of the mail and the royal monopoly was administered by Thomas Witherings, who had proposed the service to Charles I, since he was already ‘Postmaster of Foreign Mails’ and was informally carrying letters for City of London merchants to France and Holland. Although originally required only to provide a service between London and Edinburgh, Witherings quickly spread the Royal Mail service across the country and established the first post office at Bishopsgate Street in October of 1635. An extensive system of coaches developed across the country, and for centuries post offices and the coaching inns and turnpike houses (who collected road tolls) were where letters were taken to and collected from by the Royal Mail coaches. In 1840, the post offices also began to sell stamps, when the burden of payment shifted from recipient to sender.

The first pillar box (British English for post box) came about by a curious combination of events. In 1834, the novelist Anthony Trollope was 19 years old and through a friend obtained a clerkship at the General Post Office, which ran the Royal Mail. He hated the work and was soon known chiefly for lateness and insubordination, but he needed the job to repay debts he had acquired. However, things looked up when he took a position in Ireland, where he chiefly rode around the country inspecting post offices and soon became a model public servant. The job also gave him time to begin his career as a writer.

In 1852, Trollope was sent by the then Secretary of the Post Office, Sir Rowland Hill, to the Channel Islands to solve a difficult problem. Mail was collected from the islands by packet boats – a small craft that carried mail and a few passengers. Because of the tides, the sailing times of the boats from the islands was completely irregular, so that residents never knew when they needed to have mail handed in, leading to delays and frustration. Now Trollope was perhaps better traveled or more open-minded than his fellow Englishmen because he recalled having seen in France a system of letterboxes, which in fact had begun in 1653 in Paris and was country-wide by 1829. He proposed that such a box be installed on the Channel Islands. The first four boxes were installed in the town of Saint Helier on the island of Jersey in November 1852. Early the next year, 1853, three boxes were placed on the island of Guernsey. Described as ‘letter-receiving pillars,’ these boxes were five feet tall, made of cast iron and painted olive green. They were made by the foundry of Vaudin & Son, on Jersey.

The boxes were a great success, despite some problems with rainwater getting in, and the first box on the mainland was installed later in 1853 in Carlisle, Cumbria. In 1855, six were installed in London, with others added in various locations during the rest of that decade. These early boxes were in a variety of designs, including octagonal and fluted pillars, as well as wall boxes. Even the slot varied, being sometimes horizontal and sometimes vertical. These early boxes were made by local foundries and are named after their manufacturers.

Famous cast: Pillar post boxes wait to be assembled in the dressing shop of Machan Engineering in Denny, Scotland. Machan Engineering was the only foundry in the UK that made the traditional cast-iron pillar boxes. The company had supplied Royal Mail since the 1980s and used to get 150 orders a year. But in 2014, they only received 20 orders and in 2015 they had just one, the year the company closed its doors

The first attempt to produce a standardised box was made in 1857 by the Committee for Science & Art of the House of Lords. As could perhaps have been predicted, their choice was a heavily ornamented box covered in Greek garlands and festoons. What could also have perhaps been predicted was that they forgot to include a slot, so it was left to the individual foundries to place one somewhere of their own choosing, making the boxes quite un-standardized. The fifty boxes produced were painted a bronzy-green colour, with the idea that they would be less conspicuous, which worked so well that people kept walking into them.

In 1859, a truly standardised box was developed, called with startling originality the First National Standard box. These came in two sizes, depending on the volume of mail at a particular location. In the city of Liverpool even the larger size was insufficient, so a ‘Liverpool Special’ was designed, topped with a large crown.

The most famous box, and the one most widely distributed was designed in 1866 by the architect John Wornham Penfold and is known as a ‘Penfold Box’. This hexagonal design had a round finial on top and came in three sizes and three slightly different styles. At first, these boxes were also painted green, but in 1874 it was decided to paint all post boxes red, although it took a decade before all the boxes across the country were converted to that colour. Not only was this box widely used in London and elsewhere, but they were also exported to Ireland, India, British Guyana, Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay.

Although they are cast to shape, the boxes still needed to be ‘dressed’ and assembled

Boxes (unless they are replicas) can be aged by the Royal Cypher on them, which of course matches the reigning monarch at the time the box was made. Since Queen Victoria reigned for more than 63 years, most older boxes have her crest on them. However, in 1879 a new cylindrical box was produced by the foundry of Andrew Handyside, in Derby, who for reasons unknown chose to omit the cipher and even the name ‘Post Office’ from the boxes. As a result, these are known as ‘Anonymous boxes.’ The missing cipher and name were eventually added in the production of these ‘Type A’ boxes.

Postboxes in Scotland don’t say Elizabeth II because technically in Scotland she’s Elizabeth I since Elizabeth I did not rule over Scotland as her reign was before the Kingdoms were united under the crown of King James. Many argued the new Queen could not use Elizabeth II at all. The so-called “Pillar Box” wars led to incidences of vandalism from people who objected to the use of EIIR on Scottish Pillar Boxes. A compromise was reached and the Scottish Crown is used instead on Scotland’s Pillar Boxes.

The Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887 prompted several new designs, including boxes that could be mounted on lamp posts and oval boxes with two apertures. The oval box is called ‘Type C.’ When Edward VII took the throne in 1901, boxes made with his cipher had the slot moved onto the door, which eliminated the problem of mail jamming in the slot and being missed when collected. These designs became the staple design used throughout the 20th century and remain in use today.

Today all new pillar boxes are Type A or Type C, so the design is essentially unchanged from the time of Queen Victoria – clearly, newer is not always better! Despite enormous changes to the structure of the Post Office itself (it was recently privatised from government ownership), the pillar boxes endure, and 98% of the British population is within one mile of a pillar box.