English life

British icons – the red pillar box

A famous British icon – the red post box
Photo by sl wong on

A burst of colour in the streets

Modern technology may have diminished the longstanding tradition of sending letters, but the red pillar box remains a well-known and much loved British emblem in the same way as the iconic red phone box. (see post of 4th October, 2019 British icons – the red phone box).

But how did red letter boxes come about ?

A brief history

Sir Rowland Hill was a teacher and social reformer who campaigned for changes in the postal system in the 1830’s. At that time, the postal service was poorly managed, costly, and slow. There was a complicated system of postal rates, and it was the recipient who paid for the letter and not the sender, so letters could be refused. Despite some fierce opposition, Hill revolutionised the postal system to create affordable standard rates by the use of postage stamps, to be paid by the sender.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is pexels-photo-247801.jpeg
Postage stamps have long been collectable items
Photo by Pixabay on

However, in order to post a letter, it still needed to be taken to a receiving office, which were not always located near to the letter writer. These offices were usually coach inns or places where road tolls were collected, very different from the Royal Mail Post Offices we use today. As the country became more urbanised and industrialised, people needed more convenient places to deposit their correspondence. In 1852, Rowland Hill sent Anthony Trollope, a civil servant and a novelist, to trial the use of a “letter-receiving pillar” in the Channel Islands, a location which was further hindered by its dependence on a boat to and from the mainland for its postal service.

The use of pillar boxes along with scheduled collection times was a success. Letter boxes were introduced in Jersey in 1852, and later extended to the rest of Britain, where the first pillar box was inaugurated in Carlisle in 1853. The first post boxes were hexagonal but there have been more than 800 different types of post box over the years. One thing they generally have in common is that a post box displays the insignia of the incumbent monarch at the time of its installation.

Up to 1859, there was no standard colour for the pillar box. From 1859 to 1874 the standard colour was green, which was eventually deemed too inconspicious. Using the same logic as in the case of the phone box, the colour was changed to red to make post boxes easily identifiable. By 1900, the number of pillar boxes amounted to 33,500 in Britain, plus those throughout the British colonies.

A George V post box
Photo by Nadi Lindsay on

There are numerous types of pillar box which have survived until the present day. They are referred to by designated letters, type A, B, C and so on. John Penfold designed some of the first letter boxes and his nine different designs are now simply known as Penfolds. British post boxes have been copied and replicated in other countries in colours such as blue, green and yellow. And did you know that every time a British athlete won a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics, a pillar box from their home town was painted gold to commemorate the occasion?

So not only do pillar boxes still serve their original purpose, they brighten our streets and add a little bit of history.

By paulinell

I am an EFL teacher, examiner, Spanish to English translator and English-stuff is my blog on English history, culture and language.

3 replies on “British icons – the red pillar box”

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