“An object full of civic dignity, the treasure house of a thousand secrets, the fortress of a thousand souls… there it stands at all our street corners, disguising one of the most beautiful of ideas under one of the most preposterous of forms.”
Walk through the archway at Old Richmond Palace towards the Green and you will see in front of you a historical rarity. It looks so commonplace that most people walk by without even noticing. It is a red, cast iron, pillar-box, just like any of thousands to be found all over the country, but it differs from them in one unusual way. It carries no royal cipher. The box is blank and anonymous. In 1880 the Post Office, facing the same kind of cutbacks as we are today decided that it could not longer afford the £3 it cost to make a pillar-box. To economise it produced the “Anonymous Cylindrical” box, with an uncomplicated barrel shape, a smaller slot than earlier boxes and no royal cipher. This did not go down well with the public. They complained that the box carried no indication of whom it belonged, the slot was too small for most envelopes and so close to the roof of the box that letters got stuck. They also didn’t go for the ‘no-cipher’ idea. If the pillar-box contained the Royal Mail, they argued, the very least it should do was carry the royal cipher. So in 1887 the Victoria Cipher box appeared, with a larger and lower slot, the words “Post Office” on the front and more importantly Queen Victoria’s monogram. 1887 was a good year for Britain. The first earmuffs were patented, work started on the Eiffel Tower, Balochistan joined the British Empire and Britain celebrated Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee by slapping the royal moniker on the front of our pillar boxes – a tradition that continues to this day.
Before the introduction of pillar boxes in the early 1850’s all mail had to be either taken directly to the post office for postage or given to a Bellman who would walk the streets ringing a bell to let people know that he was collecting in the area. The cost of postage in those days depended upon how far the letter had to go. For this reason postal correspondence was only available to the rich.
In 1840 Sir Rowland Hill was brought in to reform the Post Office. His first move was to introduce the now famous Penny Black Stamp that fixed the standard rate for posting a letter at 1d, not matter what distance was involved. Suddenly everybody could afford to use the postal service. Such was the demand that in 1852 the first pillar-boxes appeared on UK streets as collection points for the new mail.
One of the earliest designs was the Hexagonal Penfold, designed by J.W Penfold in the early 1860s. Examples of this six-sided box with its elegant pagoda style cap can still be seen around the country. There is one on Haverstock Hill in Hampstead, North London. All these early boxes were painted green but in 1874 a few London boxes were painted the familiar ‘pillar box’ red to make them easier to recognise. People liked the new colour and red was adopted throughout Britain although it took 10 years to complete the changeover.
In 1900 the Post Office introduced a new type of pillar-box that would help speed up deliveries. This was the double width box, with two compartments, one for ‘Town Mail’ and the other for mail to be delivered outside the immediate area, the ‘Country Mail.’ There is a double width box standing on the Quadrant in Richmond.
In 1968 the Post Office unveiled a new type of pillar-box – the double rectangular, made of pressed steel rather than the familiar cast iron. Over 200 of them went into service, with the promise from the Post Office that if they were popular with the public they would eventually replace all the familiar cylindrical ones. Any popularity that they might have enjoyed was short lived because soon new forms of communication were appearing – first the fax and then E Mailing and texting. These were to radically change not just the means by which people communicate with each other but also the language they use to frame their messages. Text speak and Twitter may be fast and wildly informal but to my “Dear Sir” and “Respectfully Yours” mind they lack the sense of anticipation that comes from seeing a hand written envelope resting on the door mat and the satisfaction that comes with posting a well crafted letter into that bright red pillar box.
Those tears flow over, wonder not,
For by the inscription, see
In what a strange and distant spot
Her heart of hearts must be !
Three seas and many a league of land
That letter must pass o’er,
E’er read by him to whose loved hand
‘Tis sent from England’s shore.
Remote colonial wilds detain
Her husband, loved though stern;
She, ’mid that smiling English scene,
Weeps for his wished return.
“The Letter” by CHARLOTTE BRONTE
— from Martyn Day