The British Letter Box
Early letter box from the 1800s
We have letter boxes in the US, but most of us put our outgoing mail in our mailbox, put up the red flag and the mail carrier takes it when delivering the day's mail. In England the Royal Mail delivers to your front door but does not take outgoing mail. Instead we walk to the nearest red letter box. These are scattered throughout towns, sometimes built into a garden wall or the wall of an old house.
It is called the "Royal" Mail because originally it was only used by Royals. King Charles I opened it up to non-Royals in 1635. The 1840 Postal Reform created a universal affordable postage rate and stamps making the Royal Mail accessible to everyone.
To mail a letter you went to the nearest collection centre or you could wait for the Bellman to walk down your street, swinging a bell to announce his arrival and collect your outgoing mail.
The writer Anthony Trollope, who worked for the Post Office, introduced the first letter boxes to England in 1855. He had seen them in France and Belgium during his travels. This saved you the long walk to a collection centre and instead you could deposit your mail in a letter box closer to home.
The first letter boxes were free standing Pillar Boxes. A few years later the Wall Box was introduced, boxes fitted into existing walls, and after that came the Lamp Box, boxes attached to lamp poles and other poles. They are always red.
Monarchs and Post Boxes
Letter boxes show the Royal Cypher of the monarch who reigned when the letter box was manufactured. The first letter boxes were made in Queen Victoria's time and there are have only been five monarchs since, so a letter box will have one of six Royal Cyphers:
- 1837 to 1901 -Queen Victoria
- 1901 to 1910 - Edward VII
- 1910 to 1936 - George V
- 1936 - Edward VIII
- 1936 to 1952 - George VI
- 1952 - Elizabeth II
I lived in England for a year and never noticed the Royal Cyphers on the letter boxes until a friend told me about it. The letter box we use is from Queen Victoria's reign! It was easy to find other old letter boxes around the Cotswolds.
The only one I have not found is from Edward VIII. He reigned for less than a year before giving up the throne and only a few letter boxes were manufactured with his Royal Cypher.
Royal Mail Letter Boxes. A joint policy statement by Royal Mail and English Heritage, 2002 (PDF file)