The following article was published on pages 13-21 in the October-December 2021 issue of The Stamp Forum Newsletter (V6.1); that newsletter may be viewed at https://tsfimagehost.net/TSFNews/V6.1.pdf. To read other articles of distinction, click here. To learn more about The Stamp Forum, visit their website here.
It is perhaps time that I explained that I not only love stamps, but I also love to travel, so these articles I write under the banner of “Philatelic Travelogue” combine two of my passions into one experience. Along the way, I have learned that even when we, as collectors, are away from our stamps, we are never actually that far away from philately in some form. When I travel, I enjoy looking for examples of philately wherever I can find them.
With the decline of brick-and-mortar stamp stores, one now looks to post offices and postboxes to provide those philatelic reminders. Growing up in the U.S., I admit that I never really considered what we called mailboxes to be anything all that special. In my early memories, they were red over blue and inscribed “U.S. Mail”, but after a while, they were all blue and bore the emblem of the U.S. Postal Service, which they still do today. In my teens, I can remember seeing ornate brass mailboxes in the lobbies of some of the office buildings in downtown Cleveland, Ohio.
It wasn’t until I started to travel to Great Britain, that I realized that mailboxes, generally referred to as postboxes around here, really have a history all their own. Since the time that I have been living here, nearly 2 years at this writing, it has become a fascination for me now not only to find, but actually to seek out unusual postboxes, and to better understand their story. As a stamp collector for more than 50 years, I admit that I have until recently, taken the venerable postbox for granted—no longer.
A Very Brief History of Postboxes in Great Britain
There have been entire books written about the history of postboxes, and I will not attempt to rival those here. My goal is just to give a bit of context to the subject for stamp collectors, who are always acquainted with postboxes, thanks to their interest in stamps, but may never have looked upon them as the markers of history that they truly can be.
As stamp collectors, we all know the year 1840 as the introduction of the Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp. Based on that knowledge, I always assumed that the need for postboxes must have come after that time, imagining that it would have been the change to pre-paid postage that would have justified their use, but it is not so. While the origin of the very first postbox remains a mystery, it is known that boxes for public use were introduced in the environs of Paris as early as 1653, and that post offices in Great Britain were required to have them starting in 1819, and some already did before that time .
Figure 1. Oldest known British postbox, the 1809 example from Wakefield, England, remained in service well into the 20th Century but is now a museum piece. It was originally mounted in the wall of the post office.
Just a slight digression to include a point of interest from my recent trip to Scotland. The term “mercat cross” is the Scots name for a market cross, often found in historic Scottish towns. We saw several of these during our travels, and generally, they took the form of a column or obelisk topped with a statue of a unicorn, the national animal of Scotland.
Mercat crosses were originally erected to show that the local town had permission from its ruling authority to hold a market in that place, and it also served as a location where important public announcements were made, such as proclamations from a monarch. The mercat cross in Aberdeen, shown to us by Alex (vikingeck) during our visit, has the distinction of being perhaps the finest 17th Century such cross in all of Scotland, and its image has also been used as the logo for the Aberdeen Philatelic Society since the 1960s.
Figure 2. Left: The Aberdeen Mercat Cross was built in 1686, and unlike the other crosses we saw, included a large stone structure at its base, which interestingly served as a post office from 1821-1824. Right: Cinderella label produced by Alex in 2010 for the Aberdeen Philatelic Society, which uses an image of the local cross.
So, the original postboxes were mainly installed at post offices as places where people could deposit outgoing mail, which in those days could be done for free by the sender, as it was the recipient who paid the postage. These would have been the days of the original stampless covers, as collectors refer to them today.
All of that said, it was indeed the introduction of pre-paid postage and adhesive stamps in 1840 that really spurred the need to enable people to put a letter into the post without having to go to a post office to do it. Interestingly, despite the fact that Great Britain was the first country to issue postage stamps, they were not the first to use free-standing postboxes. The most common type of free-standing receptacle is called a “pillar box” and was already in use in France, Belgium, and Germany by the time the first pillar box was installed in the British Isles in 1852 in Jersey .
The first British pillar boxes were bronze in color, followed by green, which later gave way to the wellknown red color, which became the standard in 1874. It took another 10 years before all boxes were painted red. Designs varied from ornate to simple, with very early examples of rectangular boxes, followed by hexagonal, octagonal, and fluted types, before circular and oval designs became predominant, as they still are today.
Figure 3. Examples of early British pillar boxes. Left: A so-called Suttie Box from Greenock, Scotland in 1856, named for its maker, blacksmith Thomas Suttie. Note the vertical mail slot, also referred to as the aperture. Middle left: An original Liverpool “Special” Pillar Box made in 1863 for use exclusively in that city. Middle right: A replica Queen Victoria cipher Penfold Pillar Box painted in the original green color located in London, photo credit . Right: Original QV cipher Penfold Box located on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland. Note the use of the Scottish crown just below the mail slot compared to the coat of arms on the green replica.
Different Types of British Postboxes
There are three basic types of postboxes in service today in Great Britain: the pillar box, wall box, and lamp box. These are listed here in generally decreasing order by size and the number found in service, meaning that the pillar boxes are the largest in size of the three and are most commonly encountered, whilst the lamp box is the smallest and least commonly found.
Figure 4. Examples of current British wall and lamp boxes. Left: An earlier style wall box, with the cipher at the top above the mail slot. Middle left: Later style wall box, featuring a much larger door with the cipher in a lower position on the door. Middle right: A lamp box, so called as they were originally intended to be hung on lamp posts. They are more commonly supported by a single post of their own nowadays. Right: A very new design lamp box in Scotland, which appears to use a laser-cut aluminum plate to display the crown.
Following on with changes in pillar box design over the years, it should be mentioned that the British Post Office first tried to standardize the design in 1859. Even the standard designs continued to change for the next 20 years, finally settling into the familiar cylindrical and oval styles that we see today. Pillar boxes come in both large and small cylindrical sizes, as well as the double-wide versions with two slots on them.
Figure 5. Examples of current British pillar boxes. Left: A small-sized cylindrical box, which is the most commonly found of this type. Middle left: A modern oval-shaped box, located inside a building. Note the use of decals for the cipher and the inscription “Royal Mail,” which has replaced the former legend “Post Office.” Middle right: A double-aperture oval box with two ciphers, one on each side. Right: A double-aperture oval box with a single cipher in the center and doors on opposite ends.
Use of Royal Ciphers on British Postboxes
Simply put, a royal cipher is a monogram of a country’s reigning monarch, and it generally consists of the monarch’s initials and numeral (as appropriate) as well as a crown. As an example, the cipher for Queen Elizabeth II looks like EIIR. In her case, the E stands for Elizabeth, her chosen regnal name, followed by the Roman numeral for 2, as she is the second queen called Elizabeth in the history of the British monarchy. The final letter R stands for “regina”, which means queen in Latin. Similarly, the final letter R for a king would stand for “rex” .
Given my love of history, one of the most interesting aspects in the design of postboxes in Britain for me is the use of the royal cipher, but this feature also has developed and changed over time. The use of the royal ciphers on British postboxes began in the early days from 1852-1879, and then apparently stopped for several years until the practice was reprised in 1887 and continues to the present day. A table which summarizes the use of royal ciphers on British postboxes is presented below.
Based on figures from Royal Mail, it is estimated that there are currently about 115,500 postboxes in service throughout Great Britain, and as can be seen from the table, more than half of those are attributed to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. It should be noted, in Scotland the EIIR cipher is normally replaced by a Scottish crown. This is due to the fact that Queen Elizabeth I was never queen of Scotland, so the current queen would not be considered as “the second” in Scotland. There were protests in Scotland, in 1952, when EIIR postboxes were first installed, so those were quickly replaced with the Scottish crown, examples of which can be seen in Figures 4 and 5.
Unusual British Postboxes
As might be expected, the least commonly found royal cipher is that of King Edward VIII, who held the throne for 10-11 months in 1936, but was never officially crowned. There were only 171 postboxes created during his short reign, and some of those are no longer in service. I could not determine a definitive figure of the surviving number of such boxes, but I estimate it to be between 100-150. From the big picture perspective, that means that Edward VIII postboxes comprise about one box in every thousand or roughly 0.1%, one-tenth of one percent.
There are, of course, other out-of-the-ordinary postboxes to be found in Great Britain. From 1930-1938,
postboxes painted blue signified that they were designated for air mail service. Based on my research, it seems that there is only one surviving air mail postbox, and it has been maintained to commemorate its
Figure 6. Examples of some unusual classic British pillar boxes. Left: The last remaining blue air mail pillar box, located just outside of Windsor Castle. Middle left: The next-to-last blue air mail box, which served Manchester until 2019. Middle right: Edward VIII pillar box in Aberdeen, Scotland. Right: A very uncommon Edward VII rectangular pillar box found in London that seems to have been created out of a re-purposed wall box.
In more recent years, Royal Mail has started to paint postboxes in different colors for other reasons. In 2012, they decided to celebrate the winners of Olympic and Paralympic gold medals by temporarily painting a postbox gold in the hometown of the victorious athlete. This program was so popular that the selected postboxes have remained gold, and Royal Mail has continued to honor the Olympic and Paralympic champions at subsequent events.
Figure 7. Examples of unusual recent British pillar boxes. Left: Some pillar boxes have been painted blue to honor the dedication of NHS (National Health Service) employees during the pandemic in 2020. Middle left: George VI pillar box in Aberdeen, Scotland painted gold to honor hometown 2012 Olympic champion Katherine Grainger (Inset to the right: plaque with inscription). Right: George VI pillar box painted black with gold trim in honor of Black History Month in the UK in 2020 (Inset to the left: partial view of the inscription of a particular honoree).
Postboxes as Iconic Symbols of Great Britain
Considering that this article is being published in The Stamp Forum Newsletter, it would seem to be a great oversight not to include any images of stamps, so here goes. Postboxes have been featured on stamps of Great Britain on multiple occasions , but here are some of my favorite examples.
Figure 8. Pillar boxes depicted on British stamps. This set was issued in Oct-2002 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the British mainland letter box in 2003; Great Britain, Sc2076-2080. From left to right: 1857 green/bronze, hexagonal Victoria cipher pillar box; 1874 red, fluted pillar box; 1934 blue, cylindrical air mail pillar box with signage on top; 1939 George VI red, double-aperture, oval-shaped pillar box with wartime features; and 1980 Elizabeth II modern design red pillar box.
Figure 9. Wall and lamp boxes depicted on British stamps. This set was issued in Aug-2009; Great Britain, Sc2679e booklet pane of 4. Top margin: small image of the 1809 Wakefield Post Office slot. Self-adhesive stamps from left to right: George V wall box; Edward VII “Ludlow” wall box; Victoria lamp box; Elizabeth II wall box.
There have also been numerous depictions of postboxes on Christmas stamps issued by Great Britain, as
well as by many other countries. Especially when it comes to the wall boxes, I find so many here to be
beautifully, almost artistically situated, to a much greater extent than I have found anywhere else in my
travels around the world. Here are a couple of local examples.
Figure 10. George V wall box mounted into the side of a stone building in Oxford, England near where I currently live. When I see settings like this, it makes me wonder if the building, which is now a pub/ restaurant, was in former times a British Post Office.
Figure 11. Edward VII wall box mounted into a brick pillar in a wall in front of what is now a private residence on Abingdon Road in Oxford. In this case, there is a stone emblem of Queen Victoria on the side of the building and a sign on the door indicating that the building was indeed a British Post Office in former times.
One of the things that I really value about TSF is how much I have learned while I have been a member. My philatelic horizons have been broadened immeasurably, which is actually both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because I am always grateful to be able to learn from others, but also a curse, as it makes it all that much harder to figure out on which areas of philately I most want to concentrate!
I would like to gratefully acknowledge the contribution of my lovely wife Amy, who took some of the photos and helped with proofreading the draft article. I would also like to thank Emily, the author of Memoirs of a Metro Girl, for graciously granting me permission to use one of her photos in the article.
Furthermore, I would like to express special thanks to Alex Walker, my fellow TSF member who, in addition to volunteering to be our host during our visit to Aberdeen, also patiently acted as our tour guide around the town,
taking me to see Edward VIII postboxes and explaining some of the history about the famous Mercat Cross Post Office. On top of that, Alex has also kindly reviewed the draft manuscript of this article for accuracy of the
content, especially points about Aberdeen and Scotland, which were very important for me to get right. Thank
you, Alex, for all your help, without which, this article would not have been possible.
References & Credits
 Farrugia, Jean Young. The Letter Box: A History of Post Office Pillar and Wall Boxes. Centaur Press Ltd., Fontwell, Sussex, England, 1969.
 History of British Letter Boxes. Paul’s Unofficial Letterbox Pages: http://www.wicks.org/pulp/part1.html
 Photo credit: The history of the Royal Mail’s post boxes and how you can tell each one’s age (roughly!). Memoirs of a Metro Girl: https://memoirsofametrogirl.com/2019/07/21/london-post-boxes-royal-mail-history-queen-victoria-queenelizabeth-ii/
 Spotting a Royal Cypher. The Postal Museum: https://www.postalmuseum.org/blog/royal-cypher-appearances/#
 Use of the Royal Cypher on Post Boxes. The Royal Mail Group: http://500years.royalmailgroup.com/gallery/use-of-theroyal-cypher-on-post-boxes/
 Postboxes Featured on Stamps. Colne Valley Postal History Museum: http://www.cvphm.org.uk/Stamps.html