04 Dec Post Boxes
When we came to design our Very English Christmas Cards we wanted festive images that were iconic of our small island. It is no surprise then, that one of the designs features a bright red post box.
With only twenty days to go before Christmas, many of us will shortly visit these unsung neighbourhood heroes to deposit our stack of Christmas cards. Post boxes have become commonplace. Features of our environment for over 160 years, with over 85,000 in England and 115,000 spread throughout the UK, and an astonishing 98% of us living within half a mile of one, it is unsurprising that so many of us pass them by without a second thought. And yet, they are truly loved. Imagine the furore that would be raised if the Post Office were to decide to replace them with a modern grey plastic alternative? It fuss would probably surpass that created by the Brexit vote! Thankfully this is an extremely unlikely scenario. In 2002, the Royal Mail and English Heritage agreed a joint policy for the retention and conservation of our post boxes. Many post boxes are considered as undesignated heritage assets and Government planning guidelines are to retain these wherever possible. And they will stay “pillar box red” – only to be decorated in the designated paints (colour ref no. 538BS381C) for anyone who wants to know!)
That is they will be red unless they were originally painted differently or were painted gold to celebrate the athletes of a particular town who gained gold medals in the London 2012 Olympic Games. It says something for their status in our culture that the painting of these boxes was such an additional mark of respect and honour to our medalists. The one in the image below can be found in Sheffield city centre and honours Jessica Ennis.
There are an astonishing variety of styles of post box around the country. When they were first introduced there was no national standard design and the local postmaster had discretion over the aesthetics and ergonomics of the boxes in his locality. Obviously, the postboxes needed to be sturdy and well made. They needed not to allow ingress of water and a horizontal slot with a lip on top, covered by a lid or hat on the box, kept most water out of the box. The pillar boxes also needed to be tall enough to allow a man adorned with the then standard postman’s top hat to empty them without bashing his head (or his hat).
The Letter Box Study Group ( yes – really!) have added greatly to our knowledge about the variety of styles of post boxes throughout the land. Prior to their establishment in 1976, the Royal Mail knew where all of their post boxes were but had no idea about the provenance or design of them. Now an astonishing variety of designs of post boxes- just under 800 of them – have been identified by the Study Group.
Most post boxes ( approximately 60%) are from the reign of our queen, bearing the initials E11R. 15% of the boxes were from her father’s reign and are marked GV for George the fifth. In the image below they stand side by side.Some beauties remain from Queen Victoria’s time upon the throneI have yet to see an Edward VIII box although there were a small number erected in his eleven month reign before his abdication and The Letter Box Study Group have identified 171 of them.
In 1859 the post box design was standardised across the country but even then some areas refused to comply with this edict. In Liverpool, one of the “Liverpool Specials” can still be seen in all its 1863 defiant glory at Albert Dock. Its grandeur, bearing the blue and gold crown are evidence of the city’s prosperity and importance at that time.
So when you carry your ponderous load of Christmas cards, filled with love and festive wishes to your nearest post box, take a moment to enjoy its beauty, history and iconic status. After all, it wouldn’t quite be Christmas in England without them!