News letter boxes

Published on December 9th, 2013 | by admin

From Pillar To Post: Documenting The History of Britain’s Most Famous Street Furniture

As soon as postage stamps have been attached to all those Christmas cards we’re sending to friends and family far and wide in time for Christmas we’ll be seeking out our nearest Postbox. And with around 115,000 throughout the UK, it won’t be hard to find one.

Indeed red letter boxes are one of those quintessentially British icons we perhaps take for granted which are scattered far and wide within easy reach of most of us and dominate our streetscape.

How many of us have actually thought to appreciate the feats of craftmanship that are evident on Britain’s letter boxes? Not many I think it is fair to day, yet they do also have many admirers. Jonathan Glancey, writer and author of ‘Pillar Boxes’, sees them as miniature works of architecture, as a ‘glorious piece of public design’, both functional and aesthetic, that have stood the test of time.

‘Functionality was key but they were part of the school of design when every-day objects were handsome, regular and standardised. They came from the same school of design as the old telephone boxes and red buses.’

Such admiration is shared by The Letter Box Study Group and goes some way to explain the huge interest that was created when Royal Mail painted more than 100 red post boxes gold to celebrate every Team GB and Paralympic GB gold medal won during the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games.


Danielle King's gold postbox in Hamble-le-Rice, Hampshire” by Barry Shimmon is licensed under CC A-S 2.0

Danielle King’s gold postbox in Hamble-le-Rice, Hampshire by Barry Shimmon is licensed under CC A-S 2.0

Gold post boxes became cherished landmarks in their own right. Entire communities intrigued by a simple change in colour saw people literally queuing to have their photo taken with what was before merely a red postal box.

Neighbourhoods even fought for the right to have their local post box turned gold when the origins of Triathlon Gold Medalist Alistair Brownlee were hotly contested by different areas of Leeds clambering to claim a prestigious gold post box. The row even resulted in one resident taking it upon himself to paint his local post box gold!

Emphasising the success of the gold post boxes campaign, Royal Mail subsequently announced that the post boxes painted gold would remain that colour on a permanent basis. Most of us probably thought that this change from red to gold was the first time post boxes had ever changed colour but delving into Royal Mail heritage we discover that this isn’t actually the case.

The first post boxes were introduced on the Channel Islands in 1852. On the recommendation of regional surveyor’s clerk Anthony Trollope who had been inspired by post boxes witnessed in France and Belgium at that time, the experiment saw three green cast-iron pillar boxes installed on the island of Jersey. As detailed on our timeline documenting the history of the postbox, following the initial success, another four were then introduced on Guernsey and then post boxes first started appearing on the British mainland from 1853.

The first pillar box on the British mainland was erected at Botchergate, Carlisle. Indeed one of the first postal boxes in Guernsey has actually been retained for display at The British Postal Museum & Archive.

As the responsibility of local surveyors, early post boxes featured many varying designs though all featured vertical ‘pillars’ with a small slit to receive letters. We have learnt that the rationale for green being the first colour of letter boxes was so that they would not appear too obtrusive in the landscape. However complaints soon followed that they were not visible enough with the Post Office inundated with people in dismay that they could not visibly locate their local drop off point.

Having initially considered brown as an alternative colour until the upkeep of added varnish required made them too expensive, red became the standard colour for post boxes from 1874 though it would take 10 years before the repainting project was complete.

Whilst red became the standard colour for post boxes, the 1930’s saw the introduction of special boxes for posting airmail letters which were a distinct blue colour – initially just in London but then also in other UK cities too.

The design and appearance of both the classic pillar box and also wall boxes placed into the side of buildings have barely changed in over 160 years. Interestingly a number of rare Victorian pillar boxes were created including a so called ‘Liverpool Special’ in the city’s Albert Dock which features a crown on the top of the box.

These iconic iron structures are still in production, cast and reshaped by Machan Engineering near Falkirk in Scotland.

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