Boxing clever: the key three Pillar box
❍ 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. lbsg.org)