A Curator Explores: Part 1

05 August 2016

Do you ever stop to look at the things you brush past in the street? Our Senior Curator, Julian, does. Explore the peculiarities of post boxes as he loops around London…

The Postal Museum's Senior Curator, Julian Stray

Much of this particular Curator’s daily job is deskbound, however at every opportunity I will escape to engage with our collection of postal related objects. I have my favourites amongst these – anything to do with the movement of mail by rail, 1930s design, the recorded recollections of staff themselves and many others.

A continued subject of fascination however, is the history of post boxes. The Postal Museum has a fantastic collection yet I still throw a glance over my shoulder if passing one in the street.

Just some of The Postal Museum's pillar box collection

Just some of The Postal Museum’s pillar box collection

Another interest of mine, outside of work, is long distance walking. Over the winter of 2015/16, I walked the 150 mile London LOOP (London Outer Orbital Path) National Trail. Instead of walking it as one continuous trail, I completed it over 12 days, invariably on Sundays.

This sign-posted trail encircles London, passing through urban and rural communities, it crosses marshland, parkland, follows canals and roads and even passes through areas I was pleased to quickly exit.

Travelling to and from each day’s excursion by public transport, needless to say I passed a number of post boxes en route, and on many occasions the camera was pulled out to record these. It is interesting to look back at how much variety in such street furniture there was to be seen on the LOOP.

Signpost on the LOOP

The oldest post box I saw was in December 2015: a large A type Victorian pillar at Berrylands. Made by Handyside, this is an example of just how long-lived these cast iron boxes can be, still giving good service after well over a century.

This pillar box is one of the first of a cylindrical design (reverted to in 1879) that only underwent subtle changes in the decades that followed. Notice that the aperture is situated above the door; this could prove problematic to postal staff when emptying the box of mail, as letters could occasionally become stuck at the top and a hand reaching up could be caught on the sharp ‘Dragons teeth’ just inside the aperture.

Apertures had also been lowered from immediately below the cap, as shown on this box, but still proved problematic. The ornate, yet simple, cipher on the door and official ‘Post Office’ designation state both a Royal connection and instruct the public as to its purpose.

VR A Type pillar box

VR A Type pillar box

A EviiR B type pillar – so known because it was built during the reign of Edward VII – was seen in Barnet. The quiet street with a reduced footfall means that a box of more modest dimensions is required, hence this smaller pillar box. The ornate cipher is huge upon the door; these particular ciphers have subtle differences in design: is it blob ended or sharp ended? is it in or out?

Too much detail for some, perhaps, but even the most unobservant will notice how the design on this McDowall Steven manufactured box has been altered so that the door has been increased in height, to include the posting aperture, thereby reducing the risk of injury to postal staff on collection duty. This change was made in 1904, at the same time that the words ‘Next collection’ were added to the design, alongside the collection tablet.

An EviiR B type pillar box

EviiR B type pillar box

The large A type seen at Kingston reflects George V’s expressed wish for a simpler ‘block’ type cipher, omitting his regnal number (V). He was presented with drawings showing more fanciful designs but rejected all.

Again, this large box can handle large volumes of mail. Again, this box was cast by McDowall Steven, but the foundry lost the contract for manufacturing the smaller B type pillar boxes in 1922.

A GR A type pillar box

GR A type pillar box

The B type boxes cast by McDowall Steven differ slightly from those produced by Carron. Looking at the door handle of the GR B type I saw at Coulsdon, I could see that the Crown more or less lined up with it. Those GR B types made by Carron had the Crown on the door lowered by around 50mm. This was all too clear on the box I photographed as I walked through the Borough of Epson and Ewell.

A GR B type pillar box

GR B type pillar box

The long roads emanating from the town centre in the ‘Home of the Derby’ are typical of so many of the towns across the UK that expanded during the reign of George V. Many of these roads will have box after box, sited only a couple of hundred metres from each other, invariably B type pillar boxes like the one I photographed.

This is probably the second most common box I see on my travels and a fine example of a pillar box, though I do have a preference for the more ornate cipher of EviiR. Sadly, on my London LOOP, I encountered none of the far rarer pillar boxes surviving from EviiiR.

EviiiR pillar box

EviiiR pillar box, sadly not from my LOOP journey

The Carron GR B type I saw also sported one of the unsightly pouch boxes on its rear. The installation of these circumvented the need for planning applications and pleased few beyond the postman on his round who relied on these for his second, third, or even fourth, pouch of mail whilst out on delivery.

The need for these boxes has grossly declined following the introduction of mail vans being taken out on delivery. I will be glad to see the last of these pouch boxes removed as they do nothing to add to the aesthetics of pillar boxes.

A GR B type pillar box

GR B type pillar box

If GR B type boxes are a frequently seen pillar box, the GviR boxes are certainly not. While not rare, I do find them uncommon, so I was pleased to come across an example at Kingston.

George VI reigned 1936-52, right through the Second World War, a time when iron was required for different purposes. The box shown here is another box made by Carron and is one of those that suffers from an early collection – 09.30 in the morning.

A GviR B type pillar box, with close-up on collection plate

A GviR B type pillar box, with close-up on collection plate

2016 has seen EiiR become the longest reigning British Monarch and it is probably not surprising that I came across so many different boxes from her reign on my 150 mile walk. I found one of the large A type pillars carrying her cipher outside the post office at Harold Wood.

An EiiR A type pillar box

EiiR A type pillar box

This also had a remarkable survivor on its cap, a frame that originally supported a Post Office Direction sign (POD). Now gone, this would have been a cream coloured, enamel oval sign with a red arrow, pointing toward the nearest post office.

Post Office Direction Sign

Post Office Direction Sign

Are you enjoying Julian’s insights into the finer points of street furniture? Join us next week for more curiosities as he completes his journey!