Earlier this month, A Stamp A Day examined the history and use of post boxes and letter boxes for sending and receiving mail. Today, we look at the type of free-standing post box known as the pillar box. They are found in the United Kingdom and in most former nations of the British Empire, members of the Commonwealth of Nations and British overseas territories, such as Australia, Cyprus, India, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, the Republic of Ireland, Malta, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Pillar boxes were provided in territories administered by the United Kingdom, such as Mandatory Palestine, and territories with agency postal services provided by the British Post Office such as Bahrain, Dubai, Kuwait and Morocco. The United Kingdom also exported pillar boxes to countries that ran their own postal services, such as Argentina, Portugal and Uruguay. They are even found here in Thailand, originally purchased from Singapore when it was part of the Straits Settlements (I don’t believe there was a physical box in use at the British Legation in Bangkok which operated a British Post Office pre-dating that of the Siamese government).
Mail is deposited in pillar boxes to be collected by the Royal Mail, An Post or the appropriate postal operator and forwarded to the addressee. The boxes have been in use since 1852, just twelve years after the introduction of the first adhesive postage stamps (Penny Black) and uniform penny post.
Mail may also be deposited in lamp boxes or wall boxes that serve the same purpose as pillar boxes but are attached to a post or set into a wall. According to the Letter Box Study Group, there are more than 400 recognized designs and varieties of pillar boxes and 160 of wall boxes, not all of which have known surviving examples. The red post box is regarded as a British cultural icon. Royal Mail estimates there are over 100,000 post boxes in the United Kingdom.
Most traditional British pillar boxes produced after 1905 are made of cast iron and are cylindrical. Other shapes have been used: the hexagonal Penfolds, rectangular boxes that have not proved to be popular, and an oval shape that is used mainly for the large “double aperture” boxes most often seen in large cities like London and Dublin. In recent years boxes manufactured in glass-fiber or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic have been produced that do not follow these general outlines. These are for use in secure indoor locations such as supermarkets.
Cast iron cap of a PB42/1 sits atop the box and is secured by bolts
Cast iron pillar box construction comprises three distinct main parts:
- The cap sits on top of the carcass and is usually bolted down from inside. Some designs after 1965 do not have a separate cap. Caps can also be fitted with a separate bracket, normally of cast iron, which supports a Post Office Direction sign (POD) indicating the nearest Post Office.
- The door contains the aperture or posting slot. It is hinged, should display the royal cypher of the reigning monarch and may also be fitted with a collection plate showing the times of collection from that location. It is fitted with a brass security lock on the inside. The contractor for these locks has been the Chubb Locks company for many years. They are five-lever locks and each one can exhibit more than 6,500 combinations. There is no skeleton key for these locks. Each post box has its own set of keys and postal workers have to carry large bunches with them when clearing the boxes.
- The carcass or body of the box that supports the door and cap, and may protrude substantially down below ground level. This provides security and stability to the pillar box. There is a wirework cage inside to prevent mail falling out when the door is opened, a hinged letter chute to allow mail to fall into the collecting bag or sack and a serrated hand-guard to prevent unauthorized tampering with the mail through the aperture.
Before the introduction of pillar boxes, in the UK, it was customary to take outgoing mail to the nearest letter-receiving house or post office. Such houses were usually coaching inns or turnpike houses where the Royal Mail coach would stop to pick up and set down mails and passengers. People took their letters, in person, to the receiver, or postmaster, purchased a stamp (after 1840) and handed over the letter.
The advent of the British wayside letter box can be traced to Sir Rowland Hill, Secretary of the Post Office, and his Surveyor for the Western District, and noted novelist, Anthony Trollope. Hill sent Trollope to the Channel Islands to ascertain what could be done about the problem of collecting the mail on a pair of islands. The problems identified in the Channel Islands were caused by the irregular sailing times of the Royal Mail packet boats serving the islands due to weather and tides.
Trollope subsequently arrived in Jersey in the early Spring of 1852 and proceeded to survey both islands. His recommendation back to Hill was to employ a device he may have seen in use in Paris: a “letter-receiving pillar”. It was to be made of cast iron, about 1.5 meters high, octagonal in design and painted olive green. Trollope estimated that four would be needed for Guernsey and five for Jersey. The foundry of Vaudin & Son in Jersey was commissioned to produce them and the first four were erected in David Place, New Street, Cheapside and St Clement’s Road in Saint Helier and brought into public use on November 23, 1852. Guernsey received its first three pillar boxes on February 8, 1853.
They were an instant success, despite some obvious problems with rainwater ingress. One Vaudin box still stands in Union Street, Saint Peter Port, Guernsey whilst another is in the British Postal Museum & Archive collection in London.
The very first boxes erected in the UK are not recorded, but the designs varied from area to area as each district surveyor issued their own specifications and tendered to their own chosen foundries. The earliest ones were essentially experimental, including octagonal pillars or fluted columns, vertical slits instead of horizontal ones, and other unusual features.
It is recorded in the Post Office archives that the first box in the UK was erected in Botchergate, Carlisle in 1853. This fact is commemorated today with a replica Penfold box, located between the Market Cross and the Old Town Hall, in Carlisle city center. The first six in London were installed on April 11, 1855. The earliest surviving UK designs are four Butt boxes made in Gloucester for the Western Area. These are at Barnes Cross, near Sherborne, Dorset, inside the former Royal Naval Hospital, Stonehouse in Plymouth, in the Haverfordwest town museum (formerly at Merlin’s Bridge) and in the British Postal Museum & Archive store at Debden (formerly at Ventnor railway station, Isle of Wight). All date from 1853–59, with Barnes Cross being one of the later batch.
The oldest pillar boxes still in use by the Royal Mail are at Framlingham in Suffolk; this pair were founded by Andrew Handyside and Company of Derby in 1856 and are at Double Street and College Road. A third octagonal pillar of this type was at Gosberton in Lincolnshire and is now in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life in Lincoln. Various designs were introduced in Scotland and the Midlands in 1856. The postbox believed to be the oldest in Scotland, is a wall box which sits on the front of the Golspie Inn (formerly the Sutherland Arms Hotel); it carries the royal cypher of Queen Victoria and dates back to 1861.
The first design for London, by Grissel & Son of Hoxton Ironworks was rather stubby and rectangular, although surmounted by a decorative ball. Erected in 1855, they were replaced because people complained that they were ugly. One survived and was earmarked for preservation in the early part of the 20th century. It was unfortunately stored in a contractor’s yard in London which was subject to a direct hit from a German bomb during the Blitz, thus destroying forever some important boxes. A photograph of this Grissel box together with a Giant Fluted box and a Penfold in the contractor’s yard appeared in The Letter Box by Jean Young Farrugia.
Standardization of sorts came in 1857 with the deliberations of the Committee for Science & Art of the House of Lords. The committee designed a very ornate box festooned with Grecian-style decoration but, in a major oversight, devoid of any posting aperture, which meant they were hewn out of the cast iron locally, destroying the aesthetic of the box. Fifty were made for London and the big cities and three survive. One is in Salford Museum, Greater Manchester and the other two are at the BPMA in London. A similar, much-simplified version has survived painted green by An Post at the Cork Kent railway station, Ireland. Also to be found only in Ireland is one of the early boxes, now at the An Post exhibit on the history of the Irish postal service in the General Post Office, O’Connell Street, Dublin. It is the sole surviving “Ashworth” box of 1855 for the Northern District, that included all of the island of Ireland.
Prior to 1859 there was no standard color, although there is evidence that the lettering and royal cypher were sometimes picked out in gold. In 1859, a bronze green color became standard until 1874. Initially, it was thought that the green color would be unobtrusive. Too unobtrusive, as it turned out — people kept walking into them. Red became the standard color in 1874, although ten more years elapsed before every box in the UK had been repainted.
The first real standard design came in 1859 with the First National Standard box. These were also cast in two sizes for the first time to allow for heavier usage in big metropolitan areas. A number have survived across the UK, including Aberdeen, Brighton, Stoke, Worthing, London, World’s End Hambledon, Bristol, Congresbury, and Newport, Isle of Wight. Similar boxes have also survived in Mauritius. In the busy city of Liverpool, even these boxes could not provide the capacity and security required, so a special design was commissioned from the foundry of Cochrane Grove & Co of Dudley. Known as “Liverpool Specials”, three survive from a batch of six. Two of these are in Liverpool and the other is in the BPMA collection in London. Cochrane became the foundry that made all the Penfold boxes from 1866 to 1879.
The most famous of the early designs is that named after the architect who designed it, John Penfold. Penfold boxes come in three sizes and altogether there are nine different types. They are very widespread, with the biggest accumulations in London and Cheltenham. Penfolds, which are distinguished by their hexagonal construction and acanthus bud surmounting the cap, were originally exclusively city-based, but later installed in rural areas as well. About 300 were made, of which 150 survive. Nearly 100 replicas, made at the end of the 1980s, have also been installed.
There are no original Penfolds in Scotland, but 1989-built replicas have been erected in these areas, as well as other deserving sites where they are suitable. The first replica Penfold was erected at Tower Bridge, in London, on the south embankment and carries a commemorative plaque. A rare large capacity original Penfold is in public use at the Pavilion Gardens in Buxton Derbyshire.
Penfolds are spread across England, Ireland, India (including locally made copies), British Guyana, Australia and New Zealand. An export order from the postal service of the Republic of Uruguay resulted in nine boxes of the Penfold design being exported there in 1879, of which six are believed extant, including one in the philatelic department of the central Post Office in Montevideo. In 1993 the Correo Uruguayo commemorated Penfold post boxes with a set of stamps of various denominations.
The New Zealand boxes are the only Penfolds to bear the cypher of King Edward VII; all others in the former British controlled territories have the cypher of Queen Victoria. Penfold boxes in Uruguay bear the national coat of arms of Uruguay and are painted either yellow or black with a yellow band. Boxes made in Madras, India for the kingdom of Travancore carry that kingdom’s emblem of a stylized Turbinella pyrum seashell. The acanthus bud and leaves decoration on the top of Penfold boxes was also emulated in a design of cylindrical post boxes for New Zealand and Australia.
A return to cylindrical boxes followed with the so-called Anonymous boxes of 1879. Andrew Handyside of Derby was the foundry, but omitted the royal cypher and the words “Post Office” leading to the Anonymous sobriquet. It took 13 years before this change was reversed, even though the box had undergone a major design change during that time. This involved lowering the position of the aperture relative to the top of the box. The original “High Aperture” design was prone to mail becoming caught under the rim of the cap. This was solved by lowering the aperture so that it falls centrally between the two raised beading lines. Consequently, the second style is known as “Low Aperture”.
The Portuguese post office adopted the original high-aperture design, which were made for it by Andrew Handyside & Co. Portugal later adopted its own modified design based on Types A and B. Numerous examples of each design remain in use.
New post box designs were ordered in 1887 for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. For the first time there was a lamp-post mounted letter box for use in London squares, but which soon established themselves in rural areas (see lamp boxes). For the big cities, a double-aperture oval-shaped pillar (designated Type C) was introduced, partly to increase capacity and certainly in London, to allow mail to be pre-sorted by region, normally with apertures marked separately for “London” and “Country”. All pillar and lamp boxes now had the distinctive Imperial cypher of Victoria Regina, whilst the wall-mounted boxes continued to show only a block cypher VR. The new pillar box design saw out the reign and remained little changed until 1905, when the basic design was refined.
The Edward VII boxes now had the posting aperture as part of the door, rather than the body of the box. That eliminated the chance for mail to get caught up in the top of the box. This basic design remains the same today, having served well throughout the reigns of George V, Edward VIII, George VI and Elizabeth II.
An experiment of 1932 was the addition of a stamp vending machine to the end of the post box. This necessitated an oval planform for the box even though it was only provided with a single posting aperture. At one end of the oval is the stamp machine and at the other is the posting aperture. The boxes have two doors; one for clearance of mail and one for emptying the cash and reloading the stamp machines. The machines were set to vend two halfpenny stamps in exchange for one old penny, the stamps being supplied in a long continuously wound roll known as a coil. Boxes were again made in two sizes, designated Type D and Type E, and carried raised lettering on the castings indicating the position of the stamp vending machine, as well as an array of small enamel plates warning users of the danger of bent coins and the need to wait for stamps to be issued before inserting more money. Several of each have survived in use in England and in the Isle of Man.
Commercial Air Mail service commenced in the United Kingdom in 1919. By the early 1930s Imperial Airways was operating regular airmail services to Europe and the British colonies and dominions. To facilitate easy collection of air mail and its speedy onward transmission, a fleet of special vehicles and dedicated postboxes were introduced. To distinguish them from regular post boxes, they were painted Air Force blue, with prominent royal blue signage. The blue pillar boxes were in use from 1930 until 1939. The service ran successfully until the outbreak of war in 1939, when it was suspended. Although Air Mail re-commenced after the War, the postboxes and vehicles were no longer identifiable, as Air Mail could now be posted anywhere.
Following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, existing UK pillar boxes were retained and painted green. Many of these are extant around the country, retaining the monogram of the monarch at the time of the box’s installation. The Department of Posts and Telegraphs continued installing similar pillar boxes and wall boxes, but with the initials SÉ (for Saorstát Éireann), a harp or the Department of Posts and Telegraphs P ⁊ T logo, instead of a monarch’s monogram. Since 1984 An Post, the current Irish postal administration, uses the An Post logo to adorn its posting boxes. Many counties, such as County Wicklow, have placed all existing British-era pillar boxes on the record of protected structures meaning they cannot be replaced without being granted special planning permission.
The next major design change came in 1968 with the introduction of the Type F pillar box. This was conceived by Vandyke Engineering and proposed to the Post Office as a cheaper alternative to the traditional cast box. It was fabricated in sheet steel with welded construction. Unfortunately, the British climate did not suit the use of galvanized steel (a problem often seen with the 1940 and 1988 pattern of lamp box) and the Vandyke pillars soon began to rust badly. The very last one was removed from service at Colmore Row in Birmingham in 2002.
In 1974, the Post Office experimented with a similar rectangular design known as Type G. This was made in traditional cast iron by the foundry of Carron Company in Stirling, Scotland. It was an operational success, but the public disliked the “square” designs and petitioned the Post Office for a return to cylindrical boxes.
The Post Office commissioned a new design of pillar box in 1980 from a panel of three competing designers. The competition was won by Tony Gibbs and his design, which was thought to be ultra-modern at the time, was designated Type K by the Post Office. Made in traditional cast iron, it stayed in production until 2000. Notable features included: replaceable lifting ring screwed into the dome of the box, body and roof of box cast as one piece, large easy-to-read collection time plate, all surface details and collection plate window recessed to give a perfect cylindrical outline, integral restrictor plate, know colloquially as a “Belfast Flap” to restrict posting to letters only and a flanged shallow base suitable for installation in modern buildings, shopping centers and other urban areas. These boxes were thus much easier to move and handle as they could be rolled over level ground or lifted by crane into position. The design had one major flaw in the area of the door hinge, which is prone to snap under stress and the K type pillar boxes are no longer being installed.
All new pillar boxes for use in the UK are Type A traditional pillars or Type C oval pillars from the foundry of Machan Engineering, Denny, Falkirk, Scotland. Exceptions to this are the Supermarket or “Inside” boxes supplied by Broadwater Mouldings Ltd of Eye, Suffolk and the sheet steel “Garage” boxes supplied directly by Romec Ltd.
In Scotland, there were protests when the first boxes made in the reign of Elizabeth II were produced. These bore the cypher “E II R” but there were objections because Queen Elizabeth is the first Queen of Scotland and of the United Kingdom to bear that name, Elizabeth I having been Queen of England only. After several E II R pillar boxes were blown up by improvised explosive devices, the General Post Office (as it was at that time) replaced them with ones which only bore the Crown of Scotland and no royal cypher. Red telephone boxes or kiosks of type K6 were also treated in the same way.
To mark the 2012 Summer Olympics, Royal Mail, Isle of Man Post and Guernsey Post painted a pillar box gold in the home town of each Great Britain team member who won a gold medal, as well as a demonstration model near Westminster Abbey. A website mapping the gold boxes was provided but is now inactive. The boxes, originally intended to be repainted to the traditional red in due course, will remain gold painted permanently.
To reflect the iconic nature of the British post box and the heritage attached to them; out-of-use post boxes (especially older models) are rarely removed and instead painted black and sealed to signify to members of the public the box is no longer in use. Examples of ‘black post boxes’ can be seen outside former post-offices and in conservation areas.
On October 8, 2002, Royal Mail issued a set of five stamps marking the 150th anniversary of the first pillar box (Scott #2076-2080). The vertically-oriented stamps were designed by Silk Pearce, engraved by Czeslaw Slania and printed by Joh. Enschedé Security Print in Haarlem, the Netherlands using lithography in sheets of 100, perforated 14 x 14½. The 2nd-class stamp (Scott #2076) features a highly-decorative pillar box with the VR insignia dating from 1857, designed for use in London, Dublin and Edinburgh; boxes in other areas used a plain “economy” version. The 1st class stamp (Scott #2077) features a mainland box designed in 1856 but with a horizontal aperture and in red livery, both of which were adopted in 1857. The E-value stamp (Scott #2078) portrays an air mail pillar box with dual places which were introduced in 1932. The oval dual-aperture design seen on the 47-pence stamp (Scott #2079) was introduced in 1879 but the version depicted on the stamp dates from 1939 featuring yellow gas-detecting paint on the top and white paint at the base for greater visibility during blackouts. The 68-pence stamp (Scott #2080) pictures the modern style in use between 1980 and 1991 based on the 1879 traditional cylindrical design including cap with a milled edge.