In addition to boxes of various hues, London has other items of street furniture that are common to the rest of the country. Chief amongst these is the ubiquitous pillar box, found on street corners the length and breadth of the land. So sturdy, so reassuring, so constant — they are a cultural icon, beacons of stability amid a changing world. The pillar box is quintessentially British.
The Origin of the Pillar Box
The British pillar box was the brainchild of author Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) who in 1852 was employed as Surveyor to the Western District of the Post Office. His boss was Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879), Secretary of the Post Office, who had already revolutionised the Royal Mail by inventing the prepaid postage stamp in 1840.
At that time, to post your letter you had to take it to your local Post Office or, more likely, to a local receiving house (usually a coaching inn or turnpike house) where the next mail coach through would pick it up. This system worked reasonably for anyone living near a coach route but was awful if you happened to live somewhere like the Channel Islands, where packet boats sailed at irregular times and mail could easily go astray. Trollope’s challenge was to do something to improve mail collection and his solution was simple — he copied the French.
Copying the French
The City of Paris had dreamt up the idea of a letter-receiving pillar as early as 1653 and, this being une bonne idée, they had spread across France by 1829. Poland, Belgium and the German states quickly followed suit. We didn’t, but it was hardly a leap — some British post offices already had wall-mounted equivalents for receiving letters when closed (the oldest surviving post box in Britain was one of these dating from 1809; it is now an exhibit in the Wakefield Museum) — the big difference was simply to put them in places that weren’t actually post offices.
Nine such pillars were built for Guernsey and Jersey and installed in late 1852/early 1853. They were such an immediate runaway success that they were quickly rolled out across Great Britain starting, for some reason, with Carlisle.
London’s first one was erected at the corner of Fleet Street and Farringdon Street in 1855 but has sadly long since vanished.
On Colour and Shape
Pillar Box Red (and Other Colours)
While many were delighted with this exciting new development, there were (as always) voices to the contrary. Strident, outraged, insistent voices belonging to naysaying NIMBY types who wanted no cast iron stalagmites intruding into their streetscape.
The Post Office sought to minimise this resistance by painting the pillars an unobtrusive shade of green but all that meant was that people didn’t spot them. At best, this meant that letters went unposted but, in the worst cases, it resulted in collisions with people and/or vehicles not expecting a great hunk of metal to have recently sprung up at the edge of the road. From 1874, they were repainted bright red for better visibility. “Pillar box red”, we’d call it today. Funny that.
Between 1930 and 1938, when air mail was a new and special, separate thing, the red ones were joined by special blue ones but those are long gone, a footnote in pillar box history.
Many Variations on One Theme
There has been a bewildering array of different designs of these things, depending on the date and the foundry that made them. Sufficiently so that to explore the minutiae of which one is which would be a further step into nerdery than I am willing to take. Regardless of the design, they’re all essentially a cast iron tube containing a wire basket that holds the letters. A door in the front gives access to the postman and on all but a few (in England at least) the royal cypher is shown on the front of it.
The Royal Cypher
The royal cypher gives us an instant way to establish a range of dates within which any particular pillar box was erected. I have long been in the habit of looking with idle curiosity to see if a post box is hesitant (ER) or angry (GR) and at least two of my friends have complained that “you’ve got me doing it too!” Yeah, well, that happens. Write your complaints in a letter and post them in your nearest pillar box.
Spotting the Set
Doing What, Sorry?
So, my question was, could I find the full set of monarchs from Victoria (who was queen in 1852) to our current sovereign, Elizabeth II?
Even somewhere as massive as London, which has steadily expanded throughout that time, it’s not as easy you’d think: different monarchs reigned for different lengths of time. Elizabeth II, for example, has done so for longer than any of her predecessors, while her uncle Edward VIII lasted less than a year. Still, I was game for a challenge. And thus, I wandered the streets of my part of the metropolis, the London Borough of Bexley’s southwest corner. But what would I find there?
We’ll start with the easiest and work backwards. An Elizabeth II pillar box is not at all difficult to locate…
Next, I needed one for her father, George VI. He reigned from 1936 to 1952 and was king during WW2.
Well that was easy. Now for the difficult one: George’s brother, Edward VIII. Their father, George V, famously predicted of his eldest son that “after I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within twelve months.” And he did, scandalising the court with his relationship with twice-divorced American social climber Wallis Simpson until he was pressured to abdicate.
His Nazi sympathies didn’t help either, and may or may not have been the real reason that establishment felt he had to go. Edward was monarch for just 327 days, which isn’t a great deal of time for erecting new pillar boxes. There were only about a hundred and fifty of them in the entire country and some of those may have been “re-badged”.
Edward’s despairing father, George V, was king from 1910 to 1936 and ruled Britain during WW1. Disparaged by HG Wells as “alien and uninspiring” he responded “I may be uninspiring but I’ll be damned if I’m alien” and promptly changed the name of his royal house from Saxe-Coburg & Gotha to Windsor.
George’s father was Edward VII, who had been an irresponsible playboy as Prince of Wales and was the despair of his mother, Queen Victoria. After her death in 1901, he surprised everyone by doing a reasonable job at kinging and proved to be a substantial diplomatic asset: his years of wild socialising had taught him to wield considerable personal charm. This helped lead to the Entente, an unprecedented amity and alliance with France, hitherto our greatest historic enemy. And between that and guaranteeing Belgium’s independence, we were sucked into the Great War, which wasn’t great for anybody, especially not Edward who’d been dead for four years when it started.
The above pillar box was in Eltham and ended my afternoon of adventure. I had found all the ciphers I was likely to within easy distance of my home. Still missing of course was Victoria, the first monarch to ever have the back of her head licked by the public and affixed to a letter. I’m not aware of any VR pillar boxes in my part of London but that’s okay, I had a plan. And that plan was to basically cheat.
The hexagonal Penfold pillar box is named for its designer, architect John Penfold (1828-1909). It is such an icon of Victoriana that in addition to the many genuine ones still dotted across London and the wider nation, some replicas were made in 1989 for installation at suitable sites. And by “suitable”, I mean “touristy” — Tower Bridge for example.
And that wraps up my hunt for red
October pillar boxes. This is where I temporarily abandon my post…