PILLARS OF THE COMMUNITYThe 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.
Carol Neville on why the humble pillarbox must be preserved as part of our heritage
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 nations 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.
The oldest surviving pillarbox on the British
mainland can be found in Dorset, bearing the nameplate John M Butt &
Co of Gloucester, 1853-6.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Litherland & Ford Digital © Ronnie Cusworth 2002-2005