Letter boxes in Britain have become an iconic symbol of the nation. They are recognised the world over and are frequently featured in tourist brochures, postcards and greetings cards. They are sought after throughout the world to adorn gardens, office premises and even aboard ships.
Britain was not, however, the first country to introduce their use.
In 1840 Uniform Penny Post was launched marking a revolution in the way the postal system could be used. Rowland Hill's postal reforms opened up the postal system to almost every person in Britain.
Use of the system multiplied rapidly, as a result the earlier systems for collecting, sorting and delivering letters had to change. One such change was in the means of people posting letters.
Before Road-Side Letter Boxes
Prior to the introduction of letter boxes there was principally two ways of posting a letter. Senders would either have to take the letter in person to a Receiving House (effectively an early Post Office) or would have to await the Bellman. The Bellman wore a uniform and walked the streets collecting letters from the public, ringing a bell to attract attention.
Anthony Trollope, now more famed as a novelist, was, in the 1850s working as a Surveyor’s Clerk for the Post Office. Part of his duties involved him travelling to Europe where he saw road-side letter boxes in use in France and Belgium.
He proposed the introduction of such boxes to Britain and in 1852 a trial was agreed for the idea on the Channel Islands. Three cast-iron pillar boxes were cast and installed, as a trial, on the island of Jersey.
Later that year a further four were introduced on Guernsey. The boxes used on Jersey are not known to survive but two of the four from Guernsey do, one within our collection (pictured top left).
The first trial was considered a success and boxes began appearing on the British mainland from 1853. During this initial period, design, manufacture and erection of boxes was the responsibility of local surveyors. This meant that no standard pattern of box was issued and resulted in many, very differing, styles.
In basic form all boxes were vertical 'pillars' with a small slit to receive letters. There the similarities ended. By 1857 horizontal, rather than vertical, apertures were taken as a standard. Flaps were trialled over the apertures to prevent rain finding its way inside and the position of apertures were settled to below a slightly protruding cap. As developments progressed more and more lessons were learnt about the most effective type of boxes.
Today the colour of British letter boxes is as much part of the iconic nature of the box as any other feature. Everyone knows that letter boxes are pillar box red. The earliest boxes, however, were green so as not to appear too obtrusive in the landscape. So effective was this that complaints were received by people having difficulty finding them. The Post Office investigated alternative colours and initially settled on chocolate brown, this required an extra coat of varnish however so proved more expensive than an alternative suggestion of bright red. The new colour was introduced in 1874 and it took 10 years to complete the programme of re-painting. Red remained the standard colour for boxes from then on with few exceptions. In the 1930s special boxes were introduced for posting airmail letters, these were painted blue. In 2012 post boxes in the home towns of Great Britain's London 2012 Olympic Games gold medal winners were painted gold.
Standardisation in Design
By 1859 the Post Office realised having so many different designs of letter boxes across the country was proving expensive. They issued instruction that a new standard box was to be introduced.
It was to be available in two sizes, a larger, wider size for higher volume areas and a smaller narrower version for elsewhere. It took its lesson from the early experiments and was cylindrical with a horizontal aperture and a hood to help keep out the rain.
It failed to prove popular in all districts and in 1862 the District Surveyor for Liverpool commissioned his own, non-standard box, known today as the Liverpool Special.
This broke the standard pattern and so in 1866 the Post Office again produced a standard letter box. This time the box was designed by J W Penfold and came in three sizes. Problems were encountered with some of the early designs however and modifications were made, such as the inclusion of downward-pointing shoots to help prevent letters being caught up in the cap of the box. The 'Penfold' letter box while not particularly a success operationally was very popular with many people.
As a standard box however it was not to survive. In 1879 a further standard box was produced. This time more of the earlier lessons were taken on board. The new standard box at last resembled the letter box that is today the iconic image of Britain - cylindrical with round cap and horizontal aperture under a protruding cap with front opening door and black painted base.
From 1879 onwards this box continues to be one of Britain’s most recognisable symbols. Changes did occur to the box, and into the 20th century new styles of box were introduced. This box continues, however, to prove to be the most effective design for the job. It was initially produced, in two sizes, designated, and still recognised, as the type A (larger, wider box) and type B (smaller, narrower box).
The reign of Queen Elizabeth has seen the biggest variety of boxes since the early Victorian experiments. In 1968 square sheet steel boxes were introduced as a trial but were found to be ineffective, in 1974 a cast iron variant was launched and examples of this can still be seen in use.
The Square boxes were never as popular and cylindrical designs continued. In 1995 square boxes were once more re-visited with the introduction of business boxes. These were expressly for use by companies with bulk postings.
More recently there has been a growth in internal glass re-enforced plastic boxes, appearing in shopping centres and supermarkets.
Wall and Lamp Boxes
While pillar boxes remain the most numerous they are not the only type of letter box. In 1857 as a means of introducing cheaper, smaller capacity boxes for smaller towns and more rural areas, wall-mounted boxes were introduced.
Initially these were small rectangular boxes mounted either into existing walls or into purpose-built brick pillars. Once these began to prove successful larger varieties were cast, eventually up to three basic sizes.
Modified versions were also created for the walls of post offices where a door was fitted to the back to allow postal staff to empty the box from the inside. Manufacture of wall boxes ceased in the 1980s as removing boxes from use and repairing damaged ones began to become expensive with the cost of making good walls as well as maintaining the boxes themselves.
In 1897, to answer the demand for more convenient posting facilities for London squares (around which were the houses of some of London’s more influential residents), small boxes were designed. The boxes, made to attach to existing lamp posts, and big enough only to hold small letters, soon began appearing in low volume areas around the country (and disappeared from the London squares).
Lamp boxes are now a regular feature of villages across Britain, often fitted to telegraph or lamps posts, or mounted on their own pedestals. The design has changed a little over the years in an attempt to increase their capacity, and importantly the aperture size, to allow for the larger letters of the modern era.