A brief introduction to Conservation Listed places

A Brief Introduction to the Post Box

With over 85,000 post boxes across England, it is likely you pass one every day.

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.

Further Reading

20 comments on “A Brief Introduction to the Post Box

  1. Reblogged this on Karl Quinney.

  2. 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.

  3. Lovely job EH!. Well done.

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

  5. Ken Lloyd

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

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

  6. Carl Bendelow

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

  7. Janice Beech

    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.

  8. Mike Greatwood

    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.

  9. june dance

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

  10. 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

  11. John Agar

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

  12. Eileen Crew

    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.

  13. Lindsey Russell

    There are six post boxes in my village so 85,000 for the whole country doesn’t seem that many.

  14. Anne Damerell

    The item about bollards says some are repurposed cannons. I have long wondered this about pillar boxes, especially as so many were made by the Carron Iron Works in Stirling and Falkirk (read the inscriptions round the base). Carron made cannons – did they adapt the mould to make pillarboxes?

  15. On a lighter note The history of The reason Pillar boxes are Red :
    A man that owned a large paint factory at the time had a cancelled order from abroad for red paint of the right type that was to be used after an election in third world country but the right wing blue party won. A few MP’s in London were shareholders in his factory which would have gone bankrupt if paint was not sold. They all got together and with the help of other important government friends convinced the government that all London buses should be Red. It appears they got away with it but never will be proven and were able to sell the paint to them at better price than anyone else. This is also why all telephone boxes and pillar boxes are also red.
    A similar thing happened to the man’s great grandfather who was the owner of the factory at the time, his cousin that was in the admiralty purchasing department found they were looking to repaint all the ships in the British fleet before WW1 and managed to get rid of all the surplus grey paint they had at rock bottom price to British government with enough left over to be stored for repainting up to these days.

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