You would be forgiven for thinking the ubiquitous red pillar box, symbolic of the Royal Mail, was not only idiosyncratic of all things English but was also ‘invented’ by the English. But you’d be wrong. The origin of this mainstay of both rural and urban England has its roots firmly set en France and what is more, the colour has not always been red.
It was in 1653 that the first post collection box appeared on a Parisian street but it was not until November 1852 that just four pillar boxes were installed on the island of Jersey supervised by Anthony Trollope, the famous author who was at that time a surveyor’s clerk.
The service of the Royal Mail itself goes back to Henry VIII who established a ‘Master of the Posts’ in 1516, but he limited it to royal use only. Then in 1635, Charles I allowed the general public to use the Royal Mail service with postage being paid by the recipient. In 1660, Charles II established the General Post Office.
The level of usage was quite low but with the introduction of Rowland Hill’s Uniform Penny Postage and the adhesive stamp in 1840, the volume of mail increased, which led to the need of a more efficient system than mail being taken to a local ‘post office’ which would have been a coaching inn or turnpike house, where a Royal Mail coach would collect the mail along with passengers.
The first mainland pillar box appeared in 1853 in Botchergate, Carlisle.
In 1856, Richard Redgrave designed an ornate box for London and other big cities. Then in 1866, J W Penfold a surveyor and architect from Surrey designed the hexagonal post box with an acorn on the cap. (Does anyone remember the children’s cartoon Dangermouse with his partner Penfold who lived underneath a London pillar box?)
In 1857, there was a move away from the costly stand alone pillar boxes to roadside wall boxes. Thirty years later another new design celebrated Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee along with the first lamp post mounted boxes.
There was a brief interlude of Anonymous boxes in 1879 when the foundry Andrew Handyside of Derby omitted the Royal Cipher along with the words ‘Post Office’. It was 13 years before this was corrected.
The design remained unaltered during the reign of George V; Edward VIII; George VI and some of Elizabeth II.
There was a 1932 addition of a stamp vending machine to some boxes that were known as a Vermillion Giant K4.
The next major development was in 1968 when Type F pillar box was produced by Vandyke Engineering, but due to the British climate, the cheaper sheet steel soon rusted and the last one of these boxes was removed from Birmingham in 2002.
1974 saw Type G with a rectangular shape that proved unpopular and in 1980 Type K designed by Tony Gibbs, stayed in production until 2000.
All new pillar boxes now are Type A traditional pillars or Type C oval pillars made in cast iron. The only exception to this are the large freestanding boxes found in supermarkets that are made of glass fibre or ABS plastic.
It may also surprise you to hear that until 1874 pillar boxes were painted green and to improve their visibility they were painted red, but it took around 10 years before all boxes were painted. There was a brief time during the 1930’s when special blue air mail pillar boxes were introduced, but following the outbreak of war in 1939, the separate system was stopped.
The Letter Box study group say there are over 150 designs of box in use with shapes varying from hexagonal Penfolds to rectangular and oval shapes and The Royal Mail estimate there are around 113,000 post boxes in the UK.
Britain’s oldest post boxes still in use are a Butt box at Barnes Cross, Bishop’s Caundle, Dorset, produced in around 1858 by John M Butt of Kingsholm Ironworks Gloucester; and a wall box at the entrance to Charles Dickens’ old home in Gads Hill, Kent.
So with an annual postage in excess of 21 billion items, whilst the ubiquitous red post box is not entirely rooted in this country, it has certainly become a useful icon of all things English.
The British Postal Museum & Archive www.postalheritage.org.uk.