Part one: there’s a lot of red stuff
Like the red double-decker bus and the iconic red telephone box, a red mailbox is ubiquitous in Great Britain. Americans call it a mailbox, while in the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, and former nations of the British Empire, it’s more often called a post box or a letter box. This story is about British post boxes and the huge rabbit hole I fell down once I began to pay attention to them.
It all began on a trip to England in 2010, when I started noticing variations in the decorative letters on those letter boxes. Intrigued, I began photographing them, and later I learned a bit of their history. Those decorative letters are royal ciphers, representing the monarch who was reigning at the time the box was manufactured and installed; there have been six monarchs since the first use of a post box in the United Kingdom.
Part two: there’s royalty
That first post box arrived during the reign of Queen Victoria, installed on the island of Jersey in 1852. Victoria’s long reign saw many different designs for the boxes, usually—but not always—involving improvements. The first post boxes were free-standing pillars, and were thus dubbed “pillar boxes.” Designs for wall-mounted boxes and lamp boxes arrived later in Victoria’s reign.
The ciphers tell their own interesting stories. Victoria was the first and only monarch with an initial “V,” and the earliest Victoria pillar boxes generally have the letters VR in simple block lettering, appearing with a crown and the words “Post Office.” Later a cipher was designed using the letters VR in a script form. (The “R” refers to regina, the latin word for queen, while rex is the word for king.) The Penfold pillar boxes, which you’ll read about later, included a more elaborate cipher design for Victoria.
The prize for the most elaborate cipher goes to Victoria’s son Edward VII, a larger-than-life and extravagant man. His son George V, a military man of simpler tastes, had a cipher that also used plain block lettering and, mysteriously, no “V.” Edward VIII, who abdicated after less than a year on the throne, has the fewest boxes, at around 170 total. The cipher for his brother, George VI, included the “VI” to differentiate from their father. Elizabeth’s cipher also uses simpler typographic letterforms.
The post boxes used in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth nations generally include the monarch’s cipher and some form of a crown, although there are two notable exceptions to this. One is that Scotland does not recognize Elizabeth as the second with that name because Elizabeth I was not the queen of Scotland. Therefore, the E2R cipher does not appear on post boxes in Scotland; there is simply a Scottish crown.
The other exception is the pillar boxes that are referred to as anonymous boxes, because the foundry that manufactured them somehow forgot to include the cipher, the crown, and the words “Post Office” when they cast the boxes. Remarkably, this was a problem that took many years to resolve, so there are plenty of anonymous pillar boxes to be seen. They all date to roughly 1879-87, thus they are all from Victoria’s reign.
When I first fell into this rabbit hole, I thought I was just trying to collect photographs of the six royal ciphers. Oh, no, dear. Read on: there’s much more to this story, but first I give you a short history of the British postal service.
Part three: a brief diversion into British postal history
The history of postal service in the British Isles is largely the history of postal service in the world, due to the dominance of the British Empire, a well-organized postal infrastructure, and some clever innovations. Let’s take a brief look.
1100 : Henry I hired couriers to carry government letters. Private individuals made their own arrangements, and typically, it was the receiver who paid (and paid well).
early 1300s : The first postal notation was made during the reign of Edward II. It read “Haste, post haste” to impart a sense of urgency. 200 years later, Shakespeare brought the phrase into common language.
1512 : Henry VIII named Brian Tuke “Master of the Posts” and knighted him in 1517.
1635 : Royal Mail was made available to the public.
1661 : The first postmaster general was appointed, Henry Bishop. To encourage trust in the service, he instituted the use of what we now call a postmark, to indicate the date an item was sent. (See photo above left.)
1680 : William Dockwra founded the London penny post, for sending envelopes and small parcels within the London area at a cost of one penny. (See photo above right.)
1784 : The first use of a coach to carry mail, for both greater speed and higher volume. Previously, letters traveled with couriers on horseback.
1830 : The first use of a train to carry mail.
1839 : Rowland Hill convinced Parliament to establish a flat rate for sending mail anywhere in the country.
1840 : The start of the uniform national penny post.
1840 : The first known adhesive postage stamp was issued, known today as the Penny Black. Immediately popular, 68 million Penny Black stamps were printed in less than a year. The stamp was intended for use only in the United Kingdom, thus was never printed with the name of the country, a practice that continued until 1951. “As the inventor of the postage stamp, the UK is the only country in the world that does not have its country name on the stamp.” *
1841 : It was difficult to see a postmark on a black stamp, so Penny Reds soon came into use; they were used for decades, and around 21 billion of them were printed.
1854 : Prior to this date, sheets of stamps were cut by hand with scissors (!), but 1854 saw the beginning of an automation process that eventually led to perforation, allowing the sheets to be torn without damaging the stamps.
1855 : The Penny Black and Penny Red were engravings, printed by a firm that printed money. Engraved stamps tend to be finely detailed and beautiful, and they’re also more expensive to produce. 1855 saw the arrival of stamps made by printing rather than engraving. The last engraved stamp with Victoria’s profile was made in 1870.
1861 : Pryce Pryce-Jones established the first mail-order catalog.
1874 : All letter boxes were painted red, for greater visibility.
1887 : The first postage stamp printed in two colors, to celebrate Victoria’s Jubilee.
1911 : The first airmail flight: Gustav Hamel flew from Hendon Aerodrome to Windsor to inaugurate the first United Kingdom aerial post. The flight was organized to carry special mail celebrating the coronation of King George V. (See photo and story below.)
1918 : The first motor vehicle was used for delivering mail. That first truck was used for 18 years and covered 300,000 miles.
1924 : The United Kingdom’s first commemorative stamps were issued, to celebrate the British Empire Exhibition.
1952 : Elizabeth was crowned. As before, with each new monarch, a new series of stamps was issued bearing the monarch’s likeness. It was nearly always a profile, although there was one design with a three-quarters view of George V. For the first 15 years of Elizabeth’s reign, the stamp designs were based on a portrait by photographer Dorothy Wilding.
1967 : The so-called Machin Issues, a simplified new design by Arnold Machin. Elizabeth’s profile is based on a sculpture. This continues today to be the design for a standard basic postage stamp in the United Kingdom, although there are many commemorative stamps issued as well.
1981 : The Post Office split into two entities, British Telecom and Royal Mail.
2013 : Royal Mail shares were sold on the London Stock Exchange. In 2015, the government sold its 30% stake, ending 499 years of state ownership.
Part four: finding Edward VIII
After my first discovery in 2010, I realized that I was a little short in my collection of photographs: I didn’t have a photograph of Edward VIII’s cipher. Edward’s reign lasted only 326 days, because he abdicated the throne. A short reign meant that there weren’t many boxes manufactured under his name, and in addition, some of his boxes were quietly rotated out of service due to the shame of his abdication. Thus an Edward VIII cipher became my holy grail of pillar box photographs.
Last year, I made my first trip back to England since learning all this, and one afternoon I decided to see if I could find an Edward VIII pillar box. I had one meager clue to where I might find one, but I wasn’t sure how to get there, so I turned to one of London’s greatest resources: a black cab. To receive a license to drive a black cab, one must master an enormous amount of information about London, well beyond the location of all the streets of this sprawling metropolis. In my experience, a London cabbie is basically a cheerful cross between a tour guide and a reference librarian, and the fellow who answered my wave was no exception. His name was Simon**, and when I explained my arcane scavenger hunt, he said he was up for a voyage of discovery.
Off we drove, following my one little clue, but when we arrived, there was no sign of an Edward VIII pillar box. That was when Simon earned his shillings. He did a little online searching, got a tip, and off we went. He drove right to an E8R pillar box! I leapt from the cab, snapped a few photos, and now Simon was well and truly into the game. He found another E8R box nearby, so suddenly I was rich: I had photographs of two rare Edward VIII letter boxes.
But Simon wasn’t finished. He began dredging up other info, this time from memory, and we drove to a rather derelict Edward VII box, and then a lovely Victoria Penfold box (more on Penfold below). The sun was setting, and I’d spent a pretty penny on this tour, but it had been well worth it. I had a fistful of photos, and Simon had been terrific fun as both driver and hunting companion. On our way back, we spotted a George V, my final photograph from a splendid tour in a black cab.
Part five: there is so much more to this story
I returned home thinking I had a full collection, but then I discovered that my earlier photographs weren’t that great, and in fact, I was missing George VI.
Since then, I have returned to the rabbit hole, doing much more research into these boxes and their various designs, and I realized several things. The first thing is that this is a project only a nerd could love. Two, considering there have only been six monarchs, there is a remarkable variety of boxes out there. And C, there are lots of other people, and in fact, a whole society, devoted to this subject. It’s a thing. The most recent plot twist is that in advance of the 2012 Olympics in London, some clever person had the brilliant idea of painting one pillar box gold for each gold medal won by a U.K. citizen, and that gold box would be located in the medalist’s home town. Needless to say, my scavenger hunt list grew well beyond the six ciphers.
I’ve now made another visit to London, and made more photographs. I spent the better part of several days on my scavenger hunt, taking trains and buses to parts of London I’d never before visited, and along the way, I met some wonderful people. In Chiswick, every person I spoke with was friendly, helpful, and happy to chat with me about my project. The fellow at the town hall had no idea what I was talking about, yet he dove right in to help me figure out which roads to take to find my prey, turning his tiny office upside-down and scattering papers in the process.
When I arrived at the Turnham Green Tube station, I encountered a group of men whose enthusiasm for these letter boxes nearly matched my own. That, and maybe they were enjoying having someone new to talk with. I was there to find a Victoria wall box, which is partially hidden behind a glorious flower stand that’s run by a friendly chap who wanted to speak French with me. After he left, I found myself talking with three other gents, one of whom was eager to show me how he’d tenderly and carefully cleaned all the unsightly stickers off the surface of Victoria’s very old letter box. He’d been trying for over a year to get the folks at Royal Mail to send him the red paint to repaint the box, but alas, no one was responding to his enquiries.
Part six: some particular designs
The pillar boxes were an instant success, which led to a jumble of different designs. One of the earliest standardized designs came from architect John W. Penfold. His lovely boxes are recognized by their hexagonal shape, a cap of acanthus leaves, and a rim of decorative balls. Known simply as Penfolds, they were produced from 1866 until about 1879 by the foundry Cochrane Grove & Company, of Dudley. In 1874, letter boxes were standardized to the red color we know today, making Penfolds the first pillar boxes to be manufactured in red. Around 300 Penfolds were originally produced, and of these, around 150 still exist. Additionally, Royal Mail has produced around 100 replica Penfolds since 1989; Penfolds are the only design that has replicas.
I went to Windsor to see a green Penfold pillar box, and arrived just before the changing of the guard at the palace. It was a grey day, with splashes of rain, but there were still clusters of people along the route to watch the guards march up the road and to hear the band play. One couple who were there with their grandson were happy to talk with me about the interesting variety of letter boxes, and after I made a few pictures of the green Penfold (which is a replica manufactured in 1989) they mentioned that I might want to walk up the road to see another special box. They left it to me to discover the surprise.
The blue George V commemorative pillar boxes were installed to promote the newly-introduced airmail services, as well as to commemorate the coronation of George V in 1910. The boxes fell into disuse due to the build-up to World War II, and because airmail became more readily available. I haven’t found much information about them, but I think there are not many left.
I also paid a visit to Eton, as I had read of a rare fluted pillar box. The Greek Doric column was the inspiration for the fluted design, which appeared around 1856. There are 12 still in existence in the U.K. Unfortunately, this one was surrounded by temporary construction material, so I hope to return one day to see it standing free in all its glory. The photo below left is a detail showing the vertical letter slot on that box.
Part seven: I had help
Throughout this visit to London, I encountered friendly, helpful people who were happy to talk with me, eager to help, and very curious about my project. Some had extra bits of information or other boxes to see. Others had no idea that this was a thing, but left our conversations thinking they had something new to discover for themselves. Everyone was generous with their time and their assistance, which turned my adventure into a most pleasurable outing.
I have no doubt that there are more interesting letter boxes to see in London, and I’ve already begun a list of boxes in communities far from London. I see a road trip around Great Britain in my future. Meanwhile, I hope you’ve enjoyed this long, meandering postal journey around London.
– The Letter Box Study Group, http://lbsg.org/
– The Londonist, “Mapped: London’s Post Office History”
– The Social Historian, “Royal Mail History”
– * Post&Parcel, “Royal Mail: 500 Years of History”
** Should you find yourself in London and looking for an extraordinary cab ride, Simon Dyer is your man. Here’s how to reach him:
Telephone: +44 (0) 78 90 53 62 68
Instagram: Go London Taxi Tours