Wait a minute, Mr Postman
The jolly red British letterbox–it’s not a postbox, mind you–brightens many a snowy Christmas scene and can still be seen in town and country. But is it doomed to the same fate as the telephone box? Andrew Martin hopes not
IT does get a bit tiresome when you read, for the 19th time, that we’re the most boring society in Britain, but we wear our anoraks with pride,’ concedes Robert Cole of the Letter Box Study Group (LBSG). ‘Yes, we have a register of letterboxes—they’re lovable things. Castles are lovable things and everybody would think it very strange if there was no register of castles.’ Well, quite.
Now that Robert comes to mention it, the red-iron letterbox—never postbox, apparently—is as much a part of the British landscape as any castle, but does anyone give it much thought, once their envelope has passed through the smiling red mouth? Judging by the framed photograph on his study desk, where one would expect to see a wife and children, of a letterbox, it seems safe to say yes—the LBSG does.
Before setting off from Robert’s large Victorian house in Brockley, London Se4—where the engaging financial journalist enjoys family life, incidentally, although his wife has ‘no interest whatsoever’ in letterboxes—he briefs me on the aforementioned register. Since its foundation in 1976, the LBSG has accumulated a Register of Box Types, in which it identifies each of the 800 types of box occurring among the 115,000 that exist in Britain. To take one of the simpler entries, PB1038/1 refers to a ‘Cylindrical pillar box; type B; EIIR crown and cipher; 8in aperture; “POST OFFICE” below cipher’. This register cross corresponds with the Letter Box Directory, which shows the actual locations of the boxes.
We also discuss a few countryside examples—i recall seeing one set into the wall outside Gad’s Hill Place in Higham, Kent, the last residence of Charles Dickens. Robert was, unsurprisingly, familiar with it. He tells me that wall boxes such as this are one of the three main types, the others being lamp boxes (attached to telegraph poles or lamp posts) and pillar boxes (the cylindrical ones in the streets). The Gad’s Hill Place one ‘dates probably from 1859 and was specifically requested by Dickens, who wrote a lot of letters and previously had to walk a mile and a half to post them,’ Robert explains.
He then counters with another wall box that has particularly interested him, at Rous Lench, near Evesham, Worcestershire: set in a timber frame beneath a steeply pitched, tiled roof. ‘It’s bizarre, like a shrine or a lychgate,’ he enthuses. ‘It was constructed in the 1870s, with special permission from the Post Office, by the landlord, who was also the local vicar, the Rev W. K. W. Chafy.’ The reason, possibly, was that there was no convenient wall to receive the box, but Robert is mystified by the exuberance of the design.
As we finally step out of the house, I note that Robert’s own front door is painted letterbox red, which he calls ‘holly-berry red’, but were letterboxes always this vibrant hue?