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So much a part of our streets that we tend to take them for granted, the bright red free-standing pillar box is still a unique feature of Britain. Introduced in 1853 – in green but painted crimson from 1874 – the ruling monarch’s cypher is the best guide to their age. London’s first was at the corner of Fleet Street and Farringdon Street.

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Post Boxes

Anonymous 1879-1887

In 1879, Derby’s Handyside foundry cast a new set of round boxes but left off the royal cipher. This so-called ‘Anonymous’ box was replaced with a new design in 1887 when the words ‘Post Office’ were added with a lowered postal slot, as they were also notorious for letters getting stuck under the rim.

Brompton Road SW3
Tube: Knightsbridge

Victoria: Two Slots

Look carefully at this box set into the railings by the entrance to the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, and you will notice it has a slot on each side - you can see all the way through. This unique design lets Chelsea Pensioners post their letters even if the Hospital’s gates are locked for the night.

Royal Hospital Road SW3
Tube: Sloane Square

Victoria: Vertical Slot

This 1856 design - 15 years after the first postage stamps - illustrates where the name ‘pillar’ came from with its fluted Doric style. One of only ten survivors with this notable vertical slot, sadly, there are none in London itself. Early boxes were painted green to blend in but people kept walking into them.

High Street, Eton
Rail: Windsor & Eton

Victoria: 1837-1901

Anthony Trollope (later a noted author) came up with the idea of a pillar box but the most famous early design is this hexagonal Penfold, named after the architect who designed it in 1866. There are 150 originals still in use and 100 replicas. The VR cypher - Victoria Regina – was introduced for the first time.

Cornwall Gardens W8
Tube: High Street Kensington

George V: 1910-1936

The mystery of George V is why there is no ‘V” in his cypher. In 1924 oval enamel signs were added to some boxes pointing to the nearest post office. Much subject to vandalism and now valuable collectors items, there are few such signs left in the wild. In 1930, King Edward Street saw the first blue airmail box.

Prince Of Wales Road NW5
Tube: Kentish Town

Edward VIII: 1936

The abdication of  Edward VIII left few pillar boxes in his name as, although 161 were made, most were vandalised or had the cypher ground off. There are perhaps 15 left  in London. Every pillar box made has a unique key, meaning a postman has to carry a large bunch - note how it scores older boxes.

Great North Road N2
Tube: East Finchley

George VI: 1936-1952

George VI’s time is notable only for some changes to the design of lampboxes. Lamp boxes are attached to lampposts or even embedded in a wall, though there are different wall box designs specifically for that. A pillar box is a freestanding box. A letter box is properly a slot for mail, as in our front doors.

Vauxhall Street SE11
Tube: Vauxhall

Edward VII: 1901-1910

About 6 per cent of UK boxes have the ER VII cypher, which also introduced the crown. The main change is the posting slot in the door to stop mail getting caught up in the top. The aperture was now rainproof, and this same design has continued through the reigns of George V and George VI to the present day.

Kennington Lane SE11
Tube: Vauxhall

Elizabeth II: 1978-present

The ‘National Standard K’ box was designed in 1978 by Tony Gibbs. Modern materials were studied but cast iron remains the best choice for durability. With no cap, the cipher is also recessed, so the boxes can be rolled without damage. This first one was put outside the Royal Albert Hall in 1979.

Prince Consort Road SW7
Tube: South Kensington

Elizabeth II: 1952-present

The 50 year reign of Queen Elizabeth means that more than half the UK’s 115,000 boxes bear the ER cypher and there are many different styles. The division into ‘First’ and ‘Second Class’ mail dates this one after 1968, though it is well before the rebranding from ‘Post Office’ to ‘Royal Mail’ in 1991.

Hyde Park W8
Tube: South Kensington

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