What is “cypher-spotting”? A renewed interest in Royal Cyphers is making more people stop and take a second look at post boxes.

Cypher-spotting is the act of searching for different royal cyphers on letterboxes, to discover which British monarch’s reign they are from. The new cypher of King Charles III has been unveiled, but how it will translate to letter box design remains to be seen.

In this article, you can discover a bit about the history of royal cyphers and the stories behind the designs. Did you know you can find a royal cypher on a toilet roll holder? Read on!

Royal Cyphers 1837-2022

Queen Victoria

The custom of including a royal cypher on letter boxes dates back to the very earliest roadside boxes from the reign of Queen Victoria. One of the earliest in existence is from the Channel Islands, The Postal Museum is home to one of only two such boxes.  The Channel Islands are a Crown Dependency and not part of the UK. However, in the Victorian period the UK postal service managed the mail on the Islands. This first box bore the initials of Queen Victoria – VR – which stands for Victoria Regina. Regina is Queen in Latin.

Victorian cypher
Victorian cypher
Victorian cypher
Victorian cypher
Posting a letter: City street scene (POST 118/18598)
Posting a letter: City street scene (POST 118/18598)
Photo of a Penfold letter box, taken in Buxton. (POST 118/0480)
Photo of a Penfold letter box, taken in Buxton. (POST 118/0480)

As post box design developed and expanded, the custom of including the monarch’s cypher was established.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, a variety of styles were developed as the Post Office sought the perfect design. They experimented with hexagonal, square and even a fluted design. The slots for letters, knows as postal apertures, went from horizontal to vertical and back to horizontal again!

There was no standard cypher used by the Post Office during the Victorian period. However, in the 1880s, a consistent cypher for Queen Victoria began to be seen. An example of this can be seen above. The letters VR are interwoven in a flourished typeface. You’ll note that unlike the cyphers of proceeding monarchs, Queens Victoria’s cypher usually did not include a crown. If you’re interested, read more on the Evolution of the Post Box.


King Edward VII

Edward VII cypher
Edward VII cypher
Mail van with postman collecting mail from Edward VII pillar box (POST 118/5160)
Mail van with postman collecting mail from Edward VII pillar box (POST 118/5160)

When Edward VII came to the throne, new cyphers were produced just as we are seeing today with King Charles III. The monarch has the right to choose their cypher and will work with the College of Arms on its design. King Edward VII chose a traditional cypher which was used widely during his reign on documents, buildings, by the military and by the Post Office. His cypher takes the classic approach of interwoven letters, ER for Edward Rex (Rex is Latin for King) with his regnal number for seven in Roman numerals VII. On post boxes, you can see this is topped by a crown, unlike Queen Victoria’s cypher.


King George V

George V cypher
George V cypher
1934 Air Mail pillar box in street. (POST 118/0001)
1934 Air Mail pillar box in street. (POST 118/0001)
Heater installation in stamp machine (Bexhill) (POST 118/17298)
Heater installation in stamp machine (Bexhill) (POST 118/17298)

Edward VII’s reign was short compared to his mother, Queen Victoria. His son George V became King in 1910 and along with him, a new cypher was developed.

This time, the cypher used on post boxes was different to that used elsewhere by King George V. He opted for a simpler, bolder cypher for use by the Post Office. The cypher has a simpler font and the letters GR are not interwoven as his father and grandmother had done. There was also no inclusion of the Roman numeral for five. Whilst he was the fifth King by the name of George, he was the first to have roadside letter boxes in his name, so arguably there was no need for the inclusion of the ‘V’. Although, as designs submitted to the King show, it was initially included but it was dropped for the final design.


King Edward VIII

Edward VIII cypher
Edward VIII cypher
Southgate pillar box made during Edward VIII's reign (POST 118/18092)
Southgate pillar box made during Edward VIII's reign (POST 118/18092)
King Edward VIII Pillar Box
King Edward VIII Pillar Box

A turbulent period for the monarchy followed the death of George V in 1936. His son, King Edward VIII, reigned for only 326 days. Despite this, a new cypher was designed and began to appear on post boxes and vehicles. Edward’s cypher took a different form to those of his predecessors. It featured an ornate font but kept the letters distinct and separate, perhaps combining some elements of all the previous cyphers.

Edward’s short reign meant the number of boxes produced in his name was less than 200, so these are a rare find for cypher-spotters. One of of them is on display at The Postal Museum.


King George VI

George VI cypher
George VI cypher
Illustration of a pillar box with a King George VI cypher, 1932 (POST 118/5115)
Illustration of a pillar box with a King George VI cypher, 1932 (POST 118/5115)
King George VI pillar box, 1938 (POST 118/878)
King George VI pillar box, 1938 (POST 118/878)
Toilet roll holder with George VI cypher (2002-0834)
Toilet roll holder with George VI cypher (2002-0834)

 

George VI cyphers are fairly rare compared with his father George V and great grandmother Queen Victoria. George VI was on the throne for 16 years and for six of those the country was in the midst of the Second World War. The war was the priority for iron production so the variety and number of iron boxes produced during his reign are less than others. Letter boxes and vehicles were not the only place the cypher could be seen however, within the museum’s collection we have an example of a toilet roll holder carrying the George VI cypher seen above!

George VI’s cypher is easily distinguishable from his father, George V’s, cypher because of the roman numerals and interlocking letters.


Queen Elizabeth II

Elizabeth II cypher
Elizabeth II cypher
Post box type 'B', Winkfield Road, N22. (POST 118/18421)
Post box type 'B', Winkfield Road, N22. (POST 118/18421)
Double aperture letter box by St Paul's (POST 118/5671)
Double aperture letter box by St Paul's (POST 118/5671)

George VI’s unexpected death in February 1952 saw his daughter, Elizabeth II, come to the throne. As per the now established tradition,  Queen Elizabeth was involved in the approval of her new cypher. She selected a bold design, reminiscent of George V’s cypher. The two letters ER are separated by the Roman numerals II. Given the length of her reign, designs featuring EIIR are the easiest to spot!


The Scottish Cypher

Scottish crown cypher
Scottish crown cypher
A Scottish lamp box in the museum's collections, 2017 (E15980)
A Scottish lamp box in the museum's collections, 2017 (E15980)

There is a cypher variation only found in Scotland. The inclusion of the Roman numerals in Queen Elizabeth’s cypher caused controversy. Elizabeth II was not the second Elizabeth to be Queen in Scotland. The Tudor queen, Elizabeth I, was queen of England and Wales only. When she died she expressed the wish for the Crown to pass to King James VI of Scotland. This was the first time England, Wales and Scotland had the same monarch.

The first EIIR letter box in Scotland met with significant opposition. Initially this took the form of graffiti and strongly worded letters. It  escalated to violence against postal buildings, threatening letters to the Postmaster General and even explosive devices being placed in the post box.

Note found in keyhole of a letter box (POST 72-105)
Note found in keyhole of a letter box (POST 72-105)
Threatening letter regarding destruction of pillar boxes (POST 72-105)
Threatening letter regarding destruction of pillar boxes (POST 72-105)
Letter calling for arrest of Postmaster General (POST 122-1090)
Letter calling for arrest of Postmaster General (POST 122-1090)

The government position was initially not to change the design. However, after further attacks and campaigning the Cabinet, led by the Prime Minister Winston Churchill, agreed to an alternative design for Scotland. It used only the image of the Crown of St Andrew, part of the regalia of the Honours of Scotland, otherwise known as the Scottish Crown Jewels.

Throughout the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the Scottish Crown remained on postal vehicles, letter boxes and even within the Royal Mail company logo in Scotland. The Crown of St Andrew was on the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II in Edinburgh in September 2022.


King Charles III

The new cypher for King Charles III has been unveiled. There appears to be inspiration drawn from past cyphers, but how it will be interpreted remains to be seen. There are practical considerations about how cyphers appear on letter boxes. Cast iron boxes have limitations on what can be cast. Some of the more modern boxes also use the cypher in a printed vinyl which allows for colour to be used. It is likely the final design will include the crown above the cypher, and we are interested to see if the Roman numerals for three will be included. Another question will be whether the Scottish crown alone will remain on boxes in Scotland, or if a version of the King’s cypher will appear on new boxes.


Sign up to our newsletter for stories of extraordinary communication and more.