Box­ing clever: the key three Pil­lar box

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

❍ Usu­ally cylin­dri­cal and red, a series was in­tro­duced in the early 1930s in Air Force Blue, for the post­ing of air­mail letters. Af­ter the 2012 Lon­don Olympics, pil­lar boxes near the homes of gold-medal win­ners were painted gold. There is of­ten a hor­i­zon­tal

Ac­cord­ing to the ex­pert be­side me, af­ter the Penny Post was in­tro­duced in 1840, let­ter writ­ing soon be­came a craze. The nov­el­ist An­thony Trol­lope, em­ployed as a Sur­veyor’s Clerk at the Post Of­fice, rec­om­mended the in­tro­duc­tion of let­ter­boxes—which he had prob­a­bly seen in road­side lo­ca­tions in France—so that peo­ple would no longer have to walk to a ‘post­ing of­fice’ to send their mail. The first box was in­tro­duced at St He­lier, Jersey, in Novem­ber 1852.

The ear­li­est types, built on an ad hoc ba­sis by lo­cal post­mas­ters, were red, but they be­came green due to chang­ing fash­ion trends. The trou­ble with this was that the boxes didn’t stand out and, on dark evenings in the coun­try­side, peo­ple would walk into them.

The first at­tempt to cre­ate a stan­dard cylin­dri­cal pil­lar box came in 1859, but, in Liver­pool, they wanted some­thing big­ger, hence the slightly pompous Liver­pool Spe­cial, which had a crown on top (there’s still a work­ing one in Al­bert Dock). Then, in 1866, came the hexag­o­nal Pen­fold, de­signed by the ar­chi­tect John Pen­fold, which is sur­mounted by an acan­thus bud and re­garded as the pret­ti­est of let­ter­boxes. This year marks the 150th an­niver­sary of the de­sign and, ac­cord­ingly, the LBSG held its AGM in Chel­tenham, where eight work­ing Pen­folds sur­vive.

By the 1880s, the pil­lar box had set­tled down. ‘They’d messed around with ver­ti­cal slots, green­ness and a hexag­o­nal shape,’ laments Robert. ‘From then on, they were red and cylin­dri­cal, al­though the aper­tures have got steadily big­ger, to take parcels.’

The first box he stops to show me is on Brock­ley Road and bears a cipher read­ing ‘GR’, de­not­ing Ge­orge V— un­like Ge­orge VI’S boxes, Ge­orge V’s don’t fea­ture any Ro­man nu­mer­als. This struc­ture is, ac­cord­ing to a cat­e­gori­sa­tion of 1904, a rel­a­tively large Type A box, as op­posed to the smaller Type B, as Robert demon­strates by try­ing— and fail­ing—to wrap his arms around it.

A sign on top in­di­cates the Post Of­fice, di­rectly ad­ja­cent. This is a POD or Post Of­fice Direc­tion sign—use­ful, as Robert points out, if you were ap­proach­ing at right an­gles to the sign, in which case, you could read it. If you were di­rectly over the road, you wouldn’t be able to read the sign, but you would be able to see the post of­fice it­self. Today, only a few dozen PODS sur­vive, but, in a few hun­dred cases, the fix­tures of the sign re­main, of­ten poignantly in­di­cat­ing the site where a post of­fice once stood.

Our next stop is St As­aph Road, where we find a Type B box—small enough to em­brace, should any­one be so in­clined—car­ry­ing the cipher of Ed­ward VII. At­tached to it is a sort of square cup­board, an in­no­va­tion of the 1970s called a pouch, in which the post­man could—and still can— tem­po­rar­ily stow some letters to lighten his load. ‘If you ask our opin­ion as a so­ci­ety,’ con­fides Robert, ‘and we try not to have an opin­ion, we don’t like them.’

My guide is keen to stress what the LBSG is not: ‘We’re not an ap­pre­ci­a­tion so­ci­ety and we’re not a cam­paign­ing group. Our main func­tion is to main­tain the data­base.’ How­ever, this knowl­edge is put to good use. The LBSG was in­volved, along with Royal Mail, English Her­itage and the Postal Mu­seum, in draft­ing a Joint Pol­icy State­ment of 2013, a sort of care man­ual for let­ter­boxes. ‘One of the stip­u­la­tions,’ Robert ex­plains, ‘is that ev­ery box must be re­painted ev­ery five years and, within that five-year cy­cle, 20% of boxes must have a full strip back.’

The next box on our route— an­other GR Type B, on Manor Av­enue—seems rather in need of such a makeover. Rusted and peel­ing, like a sunken ship, it sits some­what askew, as many pil­lar boxes do, even though they’re rooted at least 2ft into the ground. Ac­cord­ing to Robert, lor­ries of­ten back into them. They are also, oc­ca­sion­ally, stolen, but not as of­ten as lamp boxes, which are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble if ‘some­one comes along with a dig­ger’.

The aper­ture of this box faces away from the road, which has be­come com­mon in re­cent decades, as traf­fic has in­creased, ‘to pro­tect em­ploy­ees as they empty the box’. The framed ex­am­ple on Robert’s desk, which is lo­cated near to his house, faces away from the road and is one of only 161 car­ry­ing an Ed­ward VIII cipher, as op­posed to the 75,932 bear­ing that of the present monarch.

The send­ing of letters, as we all know, is in steep de­cline, but, hope­fully, the boxes will sur­vive—al­beit with com­i­cally large post­ing aper­tures—as re­cip­i­ents of parcels, which we now send more of than mis­sives. ‘Or per­haps,’ sug­gests Robert, ‘they can be­come wi-fi hotspots. What­ever their role in the fu­ture, they re­main the great ad­vert for the Royal Mail.’

Ad­vert, sign­post or red mush­room sprout­ing from the mulch of his­tory, one thing’s for sure: I can no longer pass one with­out stop­ping for an in­spec­tion. And, per­haps, to at­tempt a quick em­brace. The Let­ter Box Study Group (www.

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