From pillar to postbox

Deborah Nash explores the history of the humble postbox and picks out some notable examples from Waltham Forest

A traditional King George VI postbox (1936 – 1952) in Walthamstow
A traditional King George VI postbox (1936 – 1952) in Walthamstow

Our borough has an incredible wealth of postboxes, from the hexagonal Victorian ‘Penfold’ with an acanthus bud on its cap in Walthamstow Village, through to an Edwardian double postbox at Chingford Mount.

There are postboxes badged with contrasting cyphers (a monogram with initials and title) of King George V and King George VI, to a 1980s cigar-shaped model situated in Coppermill Lane. These cheerful examples of street furniture show the evolution of postbox design and manufacture; they are also icons of our cultural heritage, recognisable the world over.

It’s difficult to imagine these days how important the invention of something as small as a postage stamp was to improving literacy levels and democratising communications in this country, but such was the case with the Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp and a brainchild of Sir Rowland Hill, an English school teacher. He realised that if a stamp was created that was affordable to everyone and not just the wealthy, it would increase revenue for the postal service and encourage more people to read and write letters. In 1840, the Penny Black appeared and, by 1852, the first roadside postbox was installed.

Green postbox
An ‘anonymous’ green postbox from 1878-87, located in High Leyton Road until 1977 and now part of the collection of Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum

We have Anthony Trollope, a General Post Office official and a writer, to thank for the introduction of the postbox. In between working on novels such as Barchester Towers, he was commissioned to find a solution for the collection of letters which, before the arrival of the postbox, had to be taken to a letter-receiving office, often many miles away.

The first postboxes were hexagonal, painted red, and appeared in Jersey. It took a while for people to get used to them and Trollope satirised such attitudes in his novel, He Knew He Was Right, in which one character, Miss Stanbury, criticises the “hateful” pillar box.

In 1859, the colour of all British letter boxes was standardised to green, and you will find an example of one of these at Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum. This green letter box from Leyton is also described as ‘anonymous’ because it is without the royal cypher of Queen Victoria on its door. However, the green postboxes were not popular, as people didn’t see them and bumped into them, or couldn’t find one as they blended too much with the natural environment. In 1874 the red postbox, with which we are all now familiar, was relaunched.

A hexagonal Victorian 'Penfold' postbox in Walthamstow Village carrying the royal cypher of Queen Victoria
A hexagonal Victorian ‘Penfold’ postbox in Walthamstow Village carrying the royal cypher of Queen Victoria

The Letter Box Study Group has catalogued some 800 different designs of letter box. Most have the royal cypher of the reigning monarch on the front. If you look at the Penfold post box in Walthamstow Village, you’ll see the entwined initials of V and R – Victoria Regina. When King George VI’s daughter Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne, the Imperial State Crown that had previously appeared on postboxes was replaced by St Edward’s Crown, with the exception of Scotland where the Crown of Scotland is used.

So, as you take your exercise around Waltham Forest, keep an eye out for those bright red sentinels of our streets and perhaps pause to post a letter!

For more information on the history of postboxes: