We See These Every Day
We pass them most days. We use them regularly. We don’t truly notice them. What are we talking about?
Pillar boxes. Or, to use their colloquial titles, post or letter boxes.
I promise that by the end of this article, you’ll look at our trusty ‘pillars’ of (usually) red a totally different way.
During my many half marathon training runs, I began to notice pillar boxes. They became friendly scarlet beacons during gruelling all-weather training sessions. It was always fun to discover new ones and guess their age.
I started to understand they all had a history, dating from the king or queen of the time and each one receiving thousands upon thousands of letters, postcards, celebration cards and small packages.
Kings and Queens
We’ve had six monarchs since and including Queen Victoria, if we include the short reign of Edward VIII.
Starting with Queen Victoria and the installation of pillar boxes, each monarch is given their own cipher in the form of the initials and numerals in raised relief detail on the front.
They include the first initial of the first name of the monarch, for example E, followed by R which stands for Rex or Regina, Latin terms for king or queen.
The most common are Queen Elizabeth II (1952 to present) whose cipher is emblazoned on about 60% of pillar boxes.
Then in my hometown of Scarborough, there are some rarer examples.
I haven’t discovered the cipher of Edward VIII, of which a total of 171 boxes are thought to survive today.
His reign was just shy of year and as such the pillar boxes bearing his insignia are rare indeed.
Beginning with the most prevalent, King George V has around 15% of post boxes bearing his cipher, closely followed by King George VI. Then it’s Queen Victoria, Edward VII and finally the most sought-after Edward VIII.
King Edward VII
In Scarborough, we have excellent examples of five of the six monarchs, including the relatively rare Edward VII.
The fascinating aspect of this rather off-beat interest is the ciphers, which vary from the highly ornate to the almost austere and go a long way in capturing the nature of that particular sovereign.
The Victorian pillar boxes and wall boxes often bear two VR’s … a very plain one and a romantic, stylised one.
Edwards VII’s cipher is exceptionally ornate; George V’s is plain, and he omitted the V so his reads GR.
King George VI
My personal favourite, George VI, has a more elaborate curlicue on the letters with the Roman numerals set delicately in-between.
The royal ciphers also appear on medals and many of them are surmounted by a crown, usually that of St Edward, whose crown is used during coronations, though it is carried rather than worn.
History of the Pillar Box
How did the post boxes come about? We have novelist Anthony Trollope to thank for the pillar box system.
He was a General Post Office official and was sent to Jersey in the Channel Islands to make his recommendations.
From 1852 pillar boxes were created and put into use in the Channel Islands and installed on the mainland from 1853, some 13 years after the postal reform which introduced universal, affordable postage.
During this period and into the Edwardian era the pillar boxes themselves could have ornate designs, including hexagons, fluted pillar boxes and lamp boxes to name a few.
In fact, it is thought there are about 800 different types of pillar or post box!
The top of a pillar box is called the cap, introduced to designs to prevent too much rainwater affecting Her or His Majesty’s mail.
Another fascinating fact is that when a new sovereign accedes the throne, existing pillar boxes are not usually removed or replaced. New ones are added which is why there is such a wide array of designs.
The Royal Mail has a policy of retaining all post boxes in operational service in their existing positions.
Some post boxes are now listed with Historic England and so will only be moved in exceptional circumstances.
Pillar Box Red
Post boxes are repainted on a rolling cycle and each box is fully re-daubed to a high spec.
In towns such as Scarborough, where the salty sea air can take its toll, repainting can be more frequent.
All post boxes are painted in lead-free paint and of the correct shade – Royal Mail red colour reference 538BS381C and black, colour reference 00E53, BS4800.
During Olympic year 2012, an exception was made with the painting of gold post boxes to celebrate the London hosting of the games.
So, these sometimes assuming ‘street furniture’ items have an important place in our history and really do help us keep track of our heritage.