A Brief Introduction to the Post Box

As culturally significant as they are practical, the Royal Mail post box is a cherished feature of our streets. With over 85,000 boxes across England, it is likely you pass one every day.

The story of these iconic British beacons begins in the Channel Islands, via Europe.

Walking Miles for Mail

Holwell post box
Holwell pillar post box, West Dorset. Dated 1853, it’s believed to be the oldest in public service, and so is listed Grade II* © Chris Downer, Creative Commons Licence

The 1840 Postal Reform act introduced affordable postage and easy-to-use adhesive stamps. Yet the nearest letter-receiving office was miles away from many communities. It took Anthony Trollope (the Victorian author, then a General Post Office official) to notice that in Europe, locked cast-iron pillar boxes were placed in convenient locations with regular collection times.

Trollope first introduced this efficient scheme to the Channel Islands in 1852, and pillar boxes emerged on the mainland the following year. By 1860, over 2,000 ‘standard’ design roadside boxes were established: by the 1890s, this had increased to 33,500.

The Stamp of Authority

A close up of the 'GR VI' insignia on a pillar box, which dates the box from 1936 to 1947.
A close up of the ‘GR VI’ insignia on a pillar box, which dates the box from 1936 to 1947 © Historic England

Boxes from wall to pillar and lamp-shaped designs have found their way into our daily existence, but all share two obvious features. Firstly their colour: many of the UK’s earliest boxes were painted green to blend in with the landscape, but were repainted the famous ‘pillar box red’ by 1884 to increase visibility.

Their second shared feature is their insignia, or marking, of the monarch reigning when the box was placed. More than half of all British boxes carry Elizabeth II’s ‘EIIR’ stamp and Scottish crown, but around 15% date from the reign of George V (1910-1936) and a number survive from the reigns of George VI, Edward VII and Victoria. If you’re really lucky, your local post box could be one of the 168 identified as dating from Edward VIII’s very short reign in 1936.

Bespoke Boxes for Unique Locations

The outside of the ‘W. Smith’ Post Office in Maidenhead, around 1890. A small post box is attached to the window by the doorframe.
The ‘W. Smith’ Post Office in Maidenhead, c. 1890. A small post box is attached to the window by the doorframe © Historic England

The Letter Box Study Group has identified around 800 different types of post box, all adapted for different environments. Small lamp-post boxes were introduced in 1896 for use in London squares and rural locations; oval boxes with two letter slots emerged in larger towns and cities, and enamel-fronted boxes were inserted into the walls of Post Offices.

An example of a JW Penfold post box design standing at the entrance of King's College, Cambridge. It is a mid-19th century cast-iron hexagonal box with decorated cap and ‘VR’ insignia. It is listed at Grade II.
An 1860s J W Penfold post box, with decorated leaf-shape cap, at the entrance of King’s College in Cambridge. Listed at Grade II © Historic England

In the last 160-odd years, around two dozen contractors have been hired as post box designers. The results – from J W Penfold’s elegant 1866 hexagonal box, to the rectangular sheet steel designs of 1968, and the Olympic gold boxes – means we don’t have one criteria for listing boxes, but a number listed are based on their rarity, age, intactness, location near listed buildings (like the Cambridge Penfold box above) and design quality.

A more detailed history can be found on The Postal Museum’s website – our banner image, by Martin Deutsch, shows the museum’s ‘pillar box alley’. For information on other types of street furniture that we consider for assessment, from street lighting to signposts, read our Selection Guide.

Curious about arts and crafts, mystified by medieval settlements or intrigued by industrial heritage? Our “Brief Introduction to” series is for those who want to find out more about the historic environment. From buildings and monuments to art and landscapes, we summarise our knowledge using examples from the National Heritage List for England.

17 responses to A Brief Introduction to the Post Box

  1. Randy says:

    I have of course have noticed the post boxes about, and have noted some of the variations of style. Now I certainly understand the inscriptions better and will now pay a bit more attention to them as well as having a bit of trivia to share with others.

  2. Anne says:

    And the first one on mainland Britain was here in Carlisle cumbria!

  3. Ken Lloyd says:

    At Cheshunt, Herts the central pillar box is rectangular and painted gold in honour of Laura Trott.

    • John says:

      I have seen the traditional British letter box as far away as Northern Cyprus, now painted yellow, of course!

  4. Carl Bendelow says:

    Post boxes are an important part of our communities, pity they are not well maintained – many need repainting

  5. Janice Beech says:

    They have British pillar boxes in Portugal too. And there is one in Lucerne, a gift from the people of Bournemouth as they are twinned with Lucerne.

    • I have just received a letter from Royal Mail to say as an exception post boxes in Appleby in Westmorland are to be repainted following a request from our Chamber of Trade.

  6. Mike Greatwood says:

    I live in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa …you may be interested to know that a rare Edward V11 Post box still stands in the city today.

  7. june dance says:

    there is a Edward Vll post box in a wall on the corner of the esplanade/rockfield road in Woolacombe

  8. Pleased someone is taking our heritage seriously, in the blink of an eye, it could all be gone, if good people did nothing about it!

    • I want to suggest that the Post Office allow Parish Councils to maintain their local boxes as they are such a visual part of our countryside, rather like finger posts that many highway authorities seem to neglecting

  9. John Agar says:

    The letter box, as British as a nice cup of tea or ‘walking the dog’, an interesting brief summary of its history.

  10. Eileen Crew says:

    I have been photographing post boxes where I go in Britain for several years now. Although some aew in great need of renovation others are in very good order.

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