A Curator Explores: Part 2
We continue a journey around the fringes of London with Julian Stray, Senior Curator, as he brings to life the curious world of everyday post boxes...
Day six of my walk around the London Outer Orbital Path saw me wandering past a small EiiR (built in in the reign of Elizabeth II) B type pillar at Hounslow.
This, like its larger sibling at Harold Wood, has a wide 10” aperture introduced to accept the large size business mail so prevalent in recent years. These large jutting apertures contrast dramatically with the narrow apertures of earlier boxes that catered for much smaller letters.
Huge, double aperture C type boxes were first introduced in 1899 in London. They are a common sight in the City but I encountered far fewer on the fringes. It was an EiiR example of a C type that I found a postman emptying mail from outside Ewell post office.
This box also revealed a change in brand. The words ‘Post Office’ had been replaced by ‘Royal Mail’. I would see other examples of this change elsewhere on the LOOP.
Another change made to the later C type boxes was to the double doors: instead of having the doors mounted on each end (left and right), the design was changed so that they opened outward from the centre. This cut down, just by a few seconds, the length of time taken to clear each box. Multiply that across the hundreds scattered across the nation and large savings are made in the time taken on collection duties.
I travelled to and from each day’s walk on the London LOOP by public transport, and outside Elstree and Borehamwood railway station I encountered a step change in pillar box design: the K type. Designed by Tony Gibbs, the K type was introduced in 1980 and was supposed to herald the introduction of new design.
These capless boxes have their detractors, and the ingenious swan neck hinges are beginning to wear, causing doors to drop. But I am appreciative of the attempts to update box design with improved weather guarding and better visibility of collection plates.
Another good design of box that failed to impress the public was the G type. This rectangular cast iron box, introduced in 1974, and made by Carron, was an improvement on an earlier sheet steel ‘F type’ design (all of which promptly rotted away), but they never usurped the traditional cylindrical design. Some areas had two EiiR G types placed side by side, sharing a cap.
It is one of these ‘double aperture’ boxes that I found tucked round the side of the Coulsdon Post Office. There was a difference between left and right boxes: the one on the right has a small door on the side for postmens’ second delivery pouches. The boxes placed on the left had no such door.
I was a little surprised not to find many wall boxes on my 150-mile walk. No doubt they were there, just not on my particular route. One of the few I came across was the large sized EiiR A type wall box at Monken Hadley near Barnet. It can be difficult for Royal Mail to find suitable locations for wall boxes and manufacture of cast wall boxes ceased in 1980.
The McDowall Steven cast box I passed looked as though it has another few decades of life in it. It is another example of a post box where later design included the aperture in the door, a design change made in 1904.
I passed a number of the small ‘Tinnie Lizzie’ lamp boxes over my winter walk. All of them looked pretty mouldy, the red paint covered in green. Lamp Boxes were first introduced in 1896. This third design of lamp box is the most long-lived of all types of post box, having undergone few changes since first introduced in 1949.
The box with its back to the view at Harrow Weald Common carries the cipher of EiiR. The lugs on the side reveal a method of construction change made in 1977 while the words ‘POST OFFICE’ above the aperture show that this box is pre-1994, when business changes meant that the words ‘ROYAL MAIL’ were cast on to all lamp boxes made after that date.
While I had expected to find a number of post boxes on my wanders, I was unprepared for encountering another piece of postal history. The first use of roadside pillar boxes by the British Post Office was proposed by the novelist Anthony Trollope. In Monken Hadley, I paused to read the blue plaque on a large house. The young Anthony had lived in this house with his mother Fanny Trollope between 1836-1838.
I completed my walk in late February. I had enjoyed it, especially coming across snippets of local history, natural history, more mud than I want to encounter again, alongside a few pleasant reminders of the day-job en route. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it, too.
– Julian Stray, Senior Curator