Carol Neville on why the humble pillarbox must be preserved as part of our heritage

The cost of sending a letter recently increased by a penny, but as we pop our post in the letterbox, how many of us give a second thought to the reliable friend we regularly entrust with our confidential business and personal greetings. Moves are afoot, however, to retain and conserve that most traditional feature of our heritage — the humble pillarbox.

Towards the end of last year, the Royal Mail issued a set of five commemorative stamps showing examples of historic letterboxes to mark the 150th anniversary of our very first pillar box, amid plans to award more of them ‘listed’ status.

English Heritage says: “Traditional red letterboxes are a classic icon of British design and are inextricably linked to our national image. The nation’s 115,000 letterboxes are a much-loved part of the everyday street scene, making a positive contribution to the character and appearance of villages, towns and cities across the country.”

Baroness Tessa Blackstone, arts minister until last mont, commented: “Red letterboxes are an important part of our heritage — as British as bus stops and Belisha beacons. “It is entirely fitting that English Heritage should be working with the Royal Mail to help ensure that they remain so for a long time to come.”

But what is the story behind this little red number?

The Postal Reform of 1840 led to cheaper postal rates and the popularity of the Penny Black stamp meant demand for prepaid postage soared, hence the need for some means of sending them without having to visit a post office.

As an experiment, the novelist Anthony Trollope, then a Post Office Surveyor, erected the very first postboxes in the Channel Islands in November 1852 — and one such box is still in use today in St Peter Port, Guernsey.

The oldest surviving pillarbox on the British mainland can be found in Dorset, bearing the nameplate John M Butt & Co of Gloucester, 1853-6.
Each district surveyor was then responsible for designing and ordering their own pillarbox, which varied greatly in design across the country.
In 1856, a rather unusual pillarbox emerged in the Birmingham & Southern District. A miscalculation had resulted in the box being 8 feet (2.4m) high but, despite this, two of them were put into operation, with one still surviving today in the Post Office collection.

Some early Victorian letterboxes had a vertical aperture, but 1857 saw the introduction of the protruding horizontal aperture which all subsequent letterboxes were to use, as it proved more secure and dry.

Although letterboxes have varied in size, shape and design over time, their basic anatomy remains much the same.

The top or roof of the box has a cap to keep out the rain.
The indicator tablet shows when the next collection is due — usually via a number ‘1’ or ‘2’.
The aperture or mouth of the box can vary in height and width, while the notice plate gives collection times and may be made of enamelled plate, paper, cardboard or plastic.
The Crown, Royal Cipher and Post Office legend can differ greatly in style and size.

Postboxes were traditionally made of cast iron but, in 1968, 200 boxes emerged from Vandyke Engineers in Harlow. These were rectangular in shape and consisted of steel sheets which could be replaced as necessary, but alas this style was short-lived. Other modern materials used in the construction of letterboxes include glass-reinforced plastic and polypropylene.

The first public pillarboxes were green in colour, later changing to the famous ‘pillar box red’ in 1874, as it was more visible. During World War II, the tops of some boxes were painted with yellowish-green gas detection paint that would change colour if there was a gas attack. Also, to aid movement during the war blackouts, some plinths were painted white.

Some early boxes contained no royal cipher, and were known as ‘anonymous’ boxes. The words ‘Post Office’ were inserted in 1887, later replaced with ‘Royal Mail’, and the royal ciphers of sovereigns from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II have been included.
One of the most popular pillarboxes of the Victorian era was the Penfold, designed by architect J W Penfold. More than 100 were made between 1866 and 1879, taking the form of a hexagonal box with the top decorated with acanthus leaves and balls.

It came in five distinct types and three sizes, making a total of 15 different styles. Many Penfolds still survive today, with a large proportion of them found in London.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the problem of trapped letters was solved by increasing the height of the door and setting the posting aperture within it. In 1930, during the reign of King George V, the Post Office installed special airmail letter boxes in London. These were painted blue with clear Air Mail signs, and were later extended into the provinces. The last blue box went out of action by 1938, when ordinary correspondence to Europe and the British Empire no longer incurred air mail surcharges.

In Edward VIII’s short reign, 161 pillarboxes were made with his royal cipher. Many George VI boxes are still in use and, since 1952, the cipher of Queen Elizabeth II has been used, although there have been small changes in its size.

When pillarboxes containing the cipher EIIR were erected in Scotland, some found this unacceptable, arguing that as there had never been a Queen Elizabeth of Scotland, this cipher was inaccurate.

After some boxes were blown up in protest and others painted with tar, the Post Office relented and Scottish boxes bore the Scottish Crown but no royal cipher.

The early letterboxes served only highly populated areas such as towns and cities, but it soon became apparent that a smaller version was needed for rural areas.

The wall letterbox was born in 1857, initially in villages near Plymouth, and the following year saw a further 250 in use across the country.

One of the best surviving examples can be seen at the Old Post Office in Tintagel, Cornwall. Another type of wall box previously popular was the Ludlow, named after Birmingham manufacturer, James Ludlow, whose firm supplied letter boxes from 1885 until 1965.

They were made specifically for use at sub-post offices and post offices at the expense of the postmaster, usually taking the form of a slot in the post office door or window. One of the most familiar letterboxes in rural Britain is the lamp box, fixed to a lamp post or telegraph pole, or sometimes set into a wall.

A bracket box made of wood is another style, used at railway stations. It was even installed on trains in 1882 when letters could be posted directly into the sorting carriage of a mail train, reaching their destination more quickly.
Other more unusual postboxes include one with a lamp post on top, one with flowers on its cap, and another topped with spikes!

There are 198 rare examples of early pillarbox already listed in England. Oxfordshire is blessed with boxes in a multitude of styles, shapes and sizes, to fit the needs of its people and the environment.

English Heritage describe pillarboxes as national icons, adding that “they are wonderful things, universally and properly regarded with great affection. They have every quality of good design.”

The new initiative aims to give practical guidance on letterbox conservation, with plans to paint them every three years, repair damaged boxes, and remove any graffiti or flyposting.

In addition, the Government is planning to inject funds to help save 8,500 rural post offices, which may come under pressure with more benefits being paid directly into bank accounts.

Hopefully, these measures will not come too late to save the vital lifeline provided by our rural postal services.

© Newsquest (Oxfordshire) Ltd. 2005

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