Pillar box

Pillar box

A pillar box is a free-standing post box, in the United Kingdom, where mail is deposited to be collected by the Royal Mail and forwarded to the addressee. Similar designs exist as historical artefacts in certain Commonwealth of Nations countries. Pillar boxes have been in use since 1852, just 12 years after the introduction of the first adhesive postage stamps and uniform penny post.

Mail may also be deposited in lamp boxes or wall boxes that serve the same purpose as pillar boxes but are attached to a post or set into a wall. According to the Letter Box Study Group, there are more than 150 recognised designs and varieties of pillar boxes and wall boxes, not all of which have known surviving examples. Royal Mail estimates there are over 100,000 post boxes in the United Kingdom. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/2294797.stm BBC News: Campaign to preserve red post boxes] (retrieved 23 March 2007)]


Most traditional British Pillar boxes produced after 1905 are made of cast iron and are cylindrical in shape. Other shapes have been used; the hexagonal Penfolds, rectangular boxes that have not proved to be popular, and an oval shape that is used mainly for the large "double aperture" boxes most often seen in large cities like London [http://www.bathpostalmuseum.org/postbox.html Bath Postal Museum: History of the British Postbox] (retrieved 22 March 2007)] and Dublin. [ [http://www.lbsg.org/shapes-r.shtml LBSG: Shapes] (retrieved 22 March 2007)] In recent years boxes manufactured in glass-fibre or ABS plastic have been produced that do not follow these general outlines. These are for use in secure indoor locations such as supermarkets. [ [http://www.lbsg.org/materials-r.shtml LBSG: Materials] (retrieved 22 March 2007)]

Cast iron Pillar box construction comprises three distinct main parts:

The cap sits on top of the Carcass and is usually bolted down from inside. Some designs after 1965 do not have a separate cap. Caps can also be fitted with a separate bracket, normally of cast iron, which supports a Post Office Direction sign (POD) indicating the nearest Post Office.

The door contains the aperture or posting slot. It is hinged, should display the Royal Cypher of the reigning monarch and may also be fitted with a collection plate showing the times of collection from that location. It is fitted with a brass security lock on the inside. The contractor for these locks has been the Chubb Locks company of London for many years. They are 5 lever locks and each one can exhibit more than 6500 combinations. Contrary to popular myth, there are no skeleton keys for these locks. Each post box has its own set of keys and postal workers have to carry large bunches with them when clearing the boxes.

The carcass or body of the box that at supports the door and cap, and may protrude substantially down below ground level. This provides security and stability to the pillar box. There is a wirework cage inside to prevent mail falling out when the door is opened, a hinged letter chute to allow mail to fall into the collecting bag or sack and a serrated hand-guard to prevent unauthorised tampering with the mail through the aperture.



Before the introduction of Pillar boxes, on the UK mainland, it was customary to take outgoing mail to the nearest letter receiving house or post office. Such houses were usually coaching inns or turnpike houses where the Royal Mail coach would stop to pick up and set down mails and passengers. People took their letters, in person, to the receiver, or postmaster, purchased a stamp (after 1840) and handed over the letter.

The Channel Island problem

The advent of the British wayside letter box can be traced to Sir Rowland Hill, Secretary of the Post Office, and his Surveyor for the Western District,and noted novelist, Anthony Trollope. Hill sent Trollope to the Channel Islands to ascertain what could be done about the problem of collecting the mails on a pair of islands. The problems identified in the Channel Islands were caused by the irregular sailing times of the Royal Mail packet boats serving the islands due to weather and tides.

Trollope subsequently arrived in Jersey in the early Spring of 1852 and proceeded to survey both islands. His recommendation back to Hill was to employ a device he may have seen in use in Paris: a “letter-receiving pillar”. It was to be made of cast iron, about 1.50 metres high, octagonal in design and painted olive green. Trollope estimated that four would be needed for Guernsey and five for Jersey. The foundry of Vaudin & Son in Jersey was commissioned to produce them and the first four were erected in David Place, New Street, Cheapside and St Clement's Road Saint Helier and bought into public use on November 23 1852. Guernsey received its first three pillar boxes on February 8 1853.

They were an instant success, despite some obvious problems with rainwater ingress. One Vaudin box still stands in Union Street, Saint Peter Port, Guernsey whilst another is in the British Postal Museum & Archive collection in London.

The first mainland boxes

The very first boxes erected on the mainland are not recorded, but the designs varied from area to area as each District Surveyor issued their own specifications and tendered to their own chosen foundries. The earliest ones were essentially experimental, including octagonal pillars or fluted columns, vertical slits instead of horizontal ones, and other unusual features.

It is recorded in the Post Office archives that the first mainland box was erected in Botchergate, Carlisle in 1853. The spot is commemorated today with a replica Penfold box. The first six in London were installed on April 11 1855. The earliest surviving mainland designs are four Butt boxes made in Gloucester for the Western Area. These are located at Barnes Cross, near Sherborne, Dorset, inside the former Britannia Royal Naval Hospital in Plymouth, in the Haverfordwest town museum (formerly at Merlin's Bridge) and in the British Postal Museum & Archive store at Debden (formerly at Ventnor railway station, Isle of Wight). All date from 1853-9, with Barnes Cross being one of the later batch. The oldest pillar boxes still functioning in the Royal Mail network are sited at Framlingham in Suffolk. This pair were founded by Andrew Handyside & Co of Derby in 1856. They are situated at Double Street and College Road. A third octagonal pillar of this type was at Gobweston in Lincolnshire and is now in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life in Lincoln. 1856 also saw various designs introduced in Scotland and the Midlands.

Design problems

The first design for London, by Grissel & Son of Hoxton Ironworks was rather stubby and rectangular, although surmounted by a decorative ball. Erected in 1855, they were replaced because people complained that they were ugly. One survived and was earmarked for preservation in the early part of the 20th century. It was unfortunately stored in a contractor's yard in London which was subject to a direct hit from a German bomb during the Blitz, thus destroying forever some important boxes. A photograph of this Grissel box together with a Giant Fluted box and a Penfold in the Contractor's yard appeared in The Letter Box by Jean Young Farrugia (see bibliography).

Moving towards a standard design

Standardisation of sorts came in 1857 with the deliberations of the Committee for Science & Art of the House of Lords. The Committee designed a very ornate box festooned with Grecian style-decoration, but in a major oversight, devoid of any posting aperture, which meant they were hewn out of the cast iron locally, destroying the aesthetic of the box. Fifty were made for London and the big cities and three survive. One is in Salford Museum, Greater Manchester and the other two are at the BPMA in London. A similar, much simplified version has survived painted green by An Post at the Kent railway station Cork, Ireland. Also to be found only in Ireland is one of the early Mainland boxes at the National Museum of Ireland’s Collins Barracks site in Dublin. It is the sole surviving "Ashworth" box of 1855 for the Northern District, that included all of the island of Ireland.

Prior to 1859 there was no standard colour, although there is evidence that the lettering and Royal Cypher were sometimes picked out in gold. In 1859, a bronze green colour became standard until 1874. Initially it was thought that the green colour would be unobtrusive. Too unobtrusive, as it turned out - people kept walking into them. Red became the standard colour in 1874, although ten more years elapsed before every box in the UK had been repainted.

First National Standard boxes

The first real standard design came in 1861 with the First National Standard box. These were also cast in two sizes for the first time to allow for heavier usage in big metropolitan areas. A number have survived across the UK, including Aberdeen, Brighton, Liverpool, Stoke, Worthing, London, Havant, Bristol, Congresbury, and Newport, Isle of Wight. Similar boxes have also survived in Mauritius. In the busy city of Liverpool, even these boxes could not provide the capacity and security required, so a special design was commissioned from the foundry of Cochrane Grove & Co of Dudley. Known as "Liverpool Specials", three survive from a batch of six. Two of these are in Liverpool and the other is in the BPMA collection in London. Cochrane would subsequently go on to be the foundry that made all the Penfold boxes from 1866-1879.


The most famous of the early designs is that named after the architect who designed it, J W Penfold. The Penfold boxes come in three sizes and altogether there are nine different types. They are very widespread, with the biggest accumulations in London and Cheltenham. Others are spread across England, Ireland, India (Including locally-made copies), British Guyana, Australia and New Zealand. There are no original Penfolds in Scotland, but 1989-built replicas have been erected in these areas, as well as other deserving locations where they are suitable. The first replica Penfold was erected at Tower Bridge, in London, on the south embankment and carries a commemorative plaque. Genuine Penfolds can be seen at the National Railway Museum at York, Beamish Open Air Museum, the Black Country Museum, Crich Tramway Museum and Bygones Museum in Basingstoke, whilst the Severn Valley Railway and the Talyllyn Railway both have replica Penfolds. Penfolds, distinguished by their hexagonal construction and Acanthus bud surmounting the cap, were originally exclusively city-based, but have now found their way into rural areas as well. About 300 were made, of which 150 survive. Nearly 100 replicas have also been installed. The New Zealand boxes are the only Penfolds to bear the cipher of King Edward VII; all others have the cipher of Queen Victoria.

Anonymous boxes

A return to cylindrical boxes followed with the so-called Anonymous boxes of 1879. Andrew Handyside of Derby was the foundry, but omitted the Royal Cipher and the words "Post Office" leading to the Anonymous soubriquet. It took 13 years before this error was corrected, even though the box had undergone a major design change during that time. This involved lowering the position of the aperture relative to the top of the box. The original "High Aperture" design was prone to communications becoming caught under the rim of the cap. This was solved by lowering the aperture so that it falls centrally between the two raised beading lines. Consequently the second style is known as "Low Aperture".

Late 19th and early 20th century boxes

New post box designs were ordered in 1887 for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. For the first time there was a lamp-post mounted letter box for use in London squares, but which soon established themselves in rural areas (see lamp boxes). For the big cities, a double aperture oval shaped pillar (designated Type C) was introduced, partly to increase capacity and certainly in London, to allow mail to be pre-sorted by region, normally with apertures marked separately for "London" and "Country". All pillar and lamp boxes now had the distinctive imperial cipher of Victoria Regina, whilst the wall-mounted boxes continued to show only a block cipher VR. The new pillar box design saw out the reign and remained little changed until 1905, when the basic design was refined. The Edward VII boxes now had the posting aperture as part of the door, rather than the body of the box. That eliminated the chance for mail to get caught up in the top of the box. This basic design remains the same today, having served well throughout the reigns of George V, Edward VIII, George VI and Elizabeth II.

An experiment of 1932 was the addition of a Stamp Vending Machine to the end of the post box. This necessitated an oval planform for the box even though it was only provided with a single posting aperture. At one end of the oval is the stamp machine and at the other is the posting aperture. The boxes have two doors; one for clearance of mail and one for emptying the cash and reloading the stamp machines. The machines were set to vend two halfpenny stamps in exchange for one old penny, the stamps being supplied in a long continuously wound roll known as a coil. Boxes were again made in two sizes, designated Type D and Type E, and carried raised lettering on the castings indicating the position of the stamp vending machine, as well as an array of small enamel plates warning users of the danger of bent coins and the need to wait for stamps to be issued before inserting more money. Several of each have survived in use in England and in the Isle of Man.

Air mail

In 1932, the Air Mail service commenced in Great Britain with special services operated by
Imperial Airways. To facilitate easy collection of air mail and its speedy onward transmission, a fleet of special vehicles and dedicated postboxes were introduced. To distinguish them from regular post boxes, they were painted Air Force blue, with prominent royal blue signage. The service ran successfully until the outbreak of war in 1939, when it was suspended. Although Air Mail re-commenced after the War, the postboxes and vehicles were no longer identifiable, as Air Mail could now be posted anywhere.

Queen Elizabeth II

The next major design change came in 1968 with the introduction of the Type F pillar box. This was conceived by Vandyke Engineering and proposed to the Post Office as a cheaper alternative to the traditional cast box. It was fabricated in sheet steel with welded construction. Unfortunately, the British climate did not suit the use of galvanised steel (a problem often seen with the 1940 and 1988 pattern of lamp box) and the Vandyke pillars soon began to rust badly. The very last one was removed from service at Colmore Row in Birmingham in 2002.

In 1974 the Post Office experimented with a similar rectangular design known as Type G. This was made in traditional cast iron by the foundry of Carron Company in Stirling, Scotland. It was an operational success, but the public disliked the "square" designs and petitioned the Post Office for a return to cylindrical boxes.

The Post Office commissioned a new design of pillar box in 1980 from a panel of three competing designers. The competition was won by Tony Gibbs and his design, which was thought to be ultra-modern at the time, was designated Type K by the Post Office. Made in traditional cast iron, it stayed in production until 2000. Notable features included: replaceable lifting ring screwed in to the dome of the box, body and roof of box cast as one piece, large easy-to-read collection time plate, all surface details and collection plate window recessed to give a perfect cylindrical outline, integral restrictor plate, know colloquially as a "Belfast Flap" to restrict posting to letters only and a flanged shallow base suitable for installation in modern buildings, shopping centres and other urban areas. These boxes were thus much easier to move and handle as they could be rolled over level ground or lifted by crane into position. The design had one major flaw in the area of the door hinge, which is prone to snap under stress and the K type pillar boxes are no longer being installed.

All new pillar boxes for use in the UK are Type A traditional pillars or Type C oval pillars from the foundry of Machan Engineering, Denny, Scotland. Exceptions to this are the Supermarket or "Inside" boxes supplied by [http://www.broadwater.co.uk/?ref=664 Broadwater Mouldings Ltd] of Eye, Suffolk and the sheet steel "Garage" boxes supplied directly by RoMEC (Royal Mail Engineering Contracts Ltd).


In Scotland there were protests when the first boxes made in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II were produced. These bore the cypher "E II R" but Scottish nationalists objected because Queen Elizabeth is the first Queen of Scotland and of the United Kingdom to bear that name, Elizabeth I having been Queen of England only. This was surprising, because there are a number of earlier Edward VIII boxes in Scotland and yet that monarch was not the eighth King Edward in Scotland. After several EiiR pillar boxes were blown up by improvised explosive devices, The General Post Office (as it was at that time) replaced them with ones which only bore the Crown of Scotland and no Royal cypher. Red telephone boxes or kiosks of type K6 were also treated in the same way.


Post boxes are emptied ("cleared") at times usually listed on the box in a TOC, "Times of Collection", plate affixed to the box.

Since 2005, most British post boxes have had the time of only the last collection of the day listed on the box, with no indication of whether the box is cleared at other times earlier in the day. The reason given for this by the Royal Mail is that they needed to increase the font size of the wording on the "plate" listing the collection times to improve legibility for those with poor sight and that consequently there was insufficient room for listing all collection times throughout the day. The "Next Collection" tablet, where fitted, was usually retained in these cases, but tablets now merely show the day of the week, indicating whether or not the last collection has been cleared that day. [ [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/2249018.stm BBC News: Anger over post box changes] (Retrieved 23 March 2007)] [ [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/3174382.stm BBC News: What happened to the 'next collection' tabs in post boxes?] (Retrieved 23 March 2007)]


During 1939 a number of bombs were put in post boxes by the IRA as part of their S-Plan campaign. When the IRA bombed the Arndale shopping centre, during the
1996 Manchester City Centre bombing one of the only things to survive unscathed was a Victorian pillar box dating from 1887 (A type B Jubilee pillar).

Irish Independence


right|thumb|100px||Repaired_door_on_green_1887_VR Jubilee box in Kilkenny, Ireland] Following Irish independence in 1922, existing British pillar boxes were retained, and simply painted green. Many of these are extant around the country, retaining the monogram of the monarch who reigned at the time of the box's installation. The Department of Posts and Telegraphs continued installing similar pillar boxes and wall boxes, but with the initials SÉ (for Saorstát Éireann), a harp or the "P & T" logo, instead of a monarch's monogram. Since 1984 An Post, the current Irish postal administration, use the An Post logo to adorn their posting boxes.

Popular culture

The 1980s–1990s British cartoon DangerMouse featured the title character and his assistant living in a red pillar box in London. The sidekick's name was, likely by no coincidence, Penfold; however this pillar box did not resemble the Penfold hexagonal style.In 1999, McDonald's Restaurants issued a promotional toy featuring DC Thomson character Roger the Dodger hiding inside a red pillar box

UK comic strip "Desperate Dan" about fictional characters in the US "wild west" showed Dan posting a letter in a pillar box. These were not used in the US.

See also

*Lamp box
*Ludlow wall box
*Wall box




External links

* [http://www.postalheritage.org.uk/ British Postal Museum & Archive]
* [http://www.lbsg.org/ The Letter Box Study Group]
* [http://www.cvphm.org/ The Colne Valley Postal History Museum]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • pillar box — pillar boxes also pillar box N COUNT In Britain, a pillar box is a tall red box in the street in which you put letters that you are sending by post. [BRIT] (in AM, use mailbox) …   English dictionary

  • pillar box — n. Brit. a pillar shaped mailbox …   English World dictionary

  • pillar box — n BrE old fashioned a large red tube shaped box for posting letters that stands on streets in Britain = ↑postbox →↑letterbox …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • pillar box — ► NOUN ▪ (in the UK) a large red cylindrical public postbox …   English terms dictionary

  • pillar box — noun a red pillar shaped letter box • Regions: ↑United Kingdom, ↑UK, ↑U.K., ↑Britain, ↑United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, ↑Great Britain • Hypernyms: ↑postbox, ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

  • pillar box — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms pillar box : singular pillar box plural pillar boxes British old fashioned a large red container in the street for posting letters in …   English dictionary

  • pillar-box — see pillar box …   English dictionary

  • pillar box — noun A free standing item of street furniture in the form of a short, red pillar with a slot for posting letters. Syn: letter box, letterbox, mailbox, post box, postbox …   Wiktionary

  • pillar box — Brit. a pillarlike box in which letters are deposited for collection by mail carriers; mailbox. Also called pillar post. [1855 60] * * * …   Universalium

  • pillar-box — (British) mailbox, receptacle for depositing postal mail, tall red mail box shaped like a pillar …   English contemporary dictionary