Post Boxes, Their History & How to Tell Their Age

The Uniform Penny Post, introduced in 1840, revolutionised the postal system under the reforms initiated by Rowland Hill. This innovation made the postal service accessible to nearly every person in Britain, dramatically increasing its usage.

As the use of the system expanded, the existing methods for collecting, sorting, and delivering letters became inadequate, necessitating significant changes. One major innovation was the method by which people could post letters.

In smaller villages, the large capacity of a pillar box wasn’t necessary, leading to the introduction of wall-mounted letter boxes in 1857. These wall boxes underwent many design changes over the years, adapting based on operational feedback.

Particularly notable are the wall boxes with distinctive enamel plates produced for sub-post offices from 1885 to 1965, many of which still exist. These are referred to as Ludlow boxes, named after their manufacturer in Birmingham.


Another interesting development is the lamp box, introduced in 1896 as public gas lighting was becoming widespread. Initially common in urban settings and mounted on lamp posts, lamp boxes are now more frequently seen on telegraph poles in rural areas or integrated into countryside walls.


Before postal reforms in 1840, sending mail was a costly affair. The introduction of the Uniform Penny Post changed that, shifting the financial responsibility for postage from the recipient to the sender. In the same year, the revolutionary Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, was issued.

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It took another 12 years before the first roadside Post Office pillar box was installed as part of a trial in St Helier, Jersey. Following the success of this trial, in 1853, the mainland United Kingdom saw its first roadside pillar box established in Carlisle.

At 171 years old, the country’s oldest postbox is still in use, as you can see it bears the initials of Queen Victoria and this beauty is Grade II Listed. Holwell, Dorset

The concept of roadside letter boxes was first proposed in the UK in 1840, inspired by their existing use in European countries such as France and Germany.

The first such letterbox in the UK was installed in 1852 on the island of Jersey, and the initial mainland pillar box was introduced in Carlisle in 1853. Remarkably, a letter box from 1852 continues to be operational at Bishop’s Caundle in Dorset to this day.

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The earliest pillar box in London was situated at the intersection of Farringdon Street and Fleet Street. Today, only a few photographs and remnants of this box remain. Initially, these early Victorian letter boxes were painted green, but the iconic hexagonal Penfold style later became the standard.

During this period, the standard color transitioned to red, with the first red boxes appearing in London in 1874. It took another ten years for this color change to be universally applied across the UK.

1856 type PB1/viii at the West Gate, Warwick, Warwickshire, England

The familiar cylindrical design was introduced in 1879, and the inscription ‘POST OFFICE’ was added to the boxes in 1887. The smaller lamp boxes, typically used in areas with less mail traffic, were introduced around 1897. Ludlow boxes, which were susceptible to rot, were installed at sub-post offices from 1885 to 1965.

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In 1930, airmail-specific pillar boxes were launched. A revised lamp box design featuring a flatter roof was released in 1935. In 1979, the cylindrical design was reintroduced without the traditional cap on the pillar box. Additionally, the inscription was changed from ‘POST OFFICE’ to ‘ROYAL MAIL’, reflecting updates in branding and operations.

Post Boxes Go Red

The initial letter boxes installed on Jersey were painted red, but in 1859, a decision was made to standardise the color of all post boxes to green. Today, the color of British letter boxes is as iconic as any of their other features.

Initially, the green paint made the boxes too inconspicuous, leading to complaints from people who had trouble locating them. As a result, a shift back to red was mandated in 1874. It took a decade to complete the repainting program, but since then, red has remained the standard color for letter boxes, with only a few exceptions.


Originally, letter boxes were constructed according to local specifications, but by 1859, a standardized cylindrical pillar box was introduced.

Subsequent varieties of post boxes included the wall box (introduced in 1857), typically embedded in a brick wall or gate-post; the Ludlow box (introduced in 1885), utilised at sub-post offices; and the lamp box (introduced in 1897), generally mounted on a lamp post, often in rural areas. There are approximately 350 different post box designs recorded, though many are variations on a few key themes.

A Royal Mail post box in Windsor in Berkshire bearing the royal cypher of King Edward VII, an intertwined EviiR
A Royal Mail post box in Windsor in Berkshire bearing the royal cypher of King Edward VII, an intertwined EviiR

As the postal service evolved, necessary adjustments were made to the letter box’s aperture, or the slot through which mail is dropped. Early Victorian boxes featured vertical apertures, but the horizontal aperture soon became the standard.

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To prevent mail from getting stuck, the aperture was relocated from the body of the pillar box to the door. Additionally, a protective shade was added over the aperture to shield incoming mail from rainwater damage.

Post Boxes and a New Design

By 1859, the Post Office recognised that the variety of post box designs throughout the country was becoming costly. Consequently, they decided to standardise the design and introduced a new model of letter box.

This new design was available in two sizes: a larger, wider version for areas with higher mail volumes and a smaller, narrower one for other areas. Drawing on insights from earlier designs, it featured a cylindrical shape with a horizontal aperture and a protective hood to keep out rain.

Liverpool Special post box
Liverpool Special post box

However, this standardised design did not meet the approval of all regions. In 1862, the District Surveyor for Liverpool, dissatisfied with the new standard, commissioned a unique design for his city, which is now known as the Liverpool Special.

After the failure of the standardised design in certain districts, the Post Office introduced a new standard letter box in 1866, designed by J.W. Penfold, available in three sizes.

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Despite encountering some problems with the initial design, such as letters getting stuck in the cap, modifications were made, including the addition of downward-pointing chutes to address these issues. Although the ‘Penfold’ letter box was not exceptionally successful operationally, it gained popularity among many people.

Nevertheless, this design did not endure as the standard. In 1879, the Post Office unveiled another standard model, incorporating more lessons from previous designs.

This new design finally established the image that would become the iconic representation of the British letter box—cylindrical with a round cap and horizontal aperture beneath a protruding cap, featuring a front-opening door and a black painted base.

From 1879 onwards, this design has remained one of Britain’s most recognizable symbols. Although various styles have been introduced throughout the 20th century, this model has consistently proven to be the most effective. Initially produced in two sizes, designated as type A (larger, wider box) and type B (smaller, narrower box), these types continue to be recognized and utilized across the country.

Wall Post Boxes

Modified versions of wall boxes were also developed for post office walls, incorporating a door at the back that allowed postal staff to empty the box from inside the building.

However, production of wall boxes was discontinued in the 1980s as the costs associated with removing and repairing damaged boxes, along with the expenses of restoring the walls, became prohibitive.

 This particular box is from the 1880s, you can tell this by the style of it.

In 1896, to meet the needs for more accessible posting facilities in London’s residential squares, where many influential residents lived, smaller boxes were designed and tested. These were intended to be attached to existing lamp posts and were sized just for small letters.

Victorian wall box

Initially introduced in London, these lamp boxes soon spread to lower-volume areas around the country and eventually were removed from the London squares. Today, lamp boxes are a common sight in villages throughout Britain, often attached to telegraph or lamp posts, or mounted on their own pedestals.

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Over the years, the design of these boxes has been slightly altered to increase their capacity and aperture size, accommodating the larger letters commonly sent in the modern era.

Edward VIII Post Boxes are Very Rare

In January 1936, the Post Office Circular expressed its continued loyalty and devotion to the new King Edward VIII. However, the king’s inability to offer the same commitment to his subjects resulted in a brief reign of only 325 days.

Edward VIII A-size pillar box
Edward VIII A-size pillar box

Consequently, post boxes bearing his royal cipher are among the rarest, with only 271 such boxes produced in 1936—161 of them were pillar boxes, and the rest were a mix of wall, lamp, and Ludlow boxes. The first post box displaying Edward VIII’s cipher was installed at Balmoral, as reported by The Times on September 11, 1936. Today, fewer than 150 of these boxes survive.

The abdication of Edward VIII in December 1936 triggered a flurry of correspondence between the Director of Postal Services and the Stores Department. These communications during the autumn and winter of 1937 reflect the concern within the department that the abdication crisis might impact governmental operations.

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A distribution list for post boxes featuring the former king’s cipher was compiled by the Postal Department. Upon review, it was noted that Glasgow had an unusually high number of these boxes, with twenty-seven, followed by Manchester with seven. The reason for Glasgow’s disproportionate number of these boxes in 1936 was not clarified.

Additionally, it was decided that when these boxes were sent for repairs, they should be discreetly replaced with boxes bearing George VI’s monogram or have their doors replaced to feature the new king’s cipher.

The cost of changing the cipher on a Ludlow type box in situ was estimated at £9.15s per box, with twenty-eight boxes requiring modifications. These changes were to be carried out as discreetly as possible and when deemed appropriate, to prevent any potential embarrassment for the General Post Office or the new monarch.

Queen Elizabeth II

After Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne, her cipher EIIR was placed on pillar boxes. However, Scottish Nationalists strongly objected to this, arguing that there had never been a Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland, thus making a second Elizabeth inappropriate.

A contemporary Scottish republican song captured the sentiment with the line, “How can you have a second Liz when the first yin’s never been?”

Pillar boxes became a focal point for these grievances as they carried the royal insignia, seen by some as a symbol of English authority over Scotland. The first pillar box bearing the EIIR monogram was installed at The Inch in Edinburgh.

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From the time it was erected in November 1952, it faced severe vandalism: it was tarred and feathered, smeared with paint, set on fire, attacked with explosives, and even struck with a 7lb hammer.

In February 1953, it was destroyed by an explosion, believed to be orchestrated by the Scottish Republican Army, though this was never officially confirmed.

The Scottish Covenant Association (SCA) expressed regret that such violent acts might continue but criticized the “obstinacy” of the authorities in maintaining the controversial cipher.

The SCA urged the Secretary of State to ensure that any replacement pillar box would not provoke further violence with the disputed cipher. Consequently, the original pillar box was replaced by one without any royal cipher.

Interestingly, the campaign focused solely on the cipher for Queen Elizabeth II, ignoring the fact that there had been no Scottish monarchs named Edward VII or Edward VIII either, whose ciphers remained untouched on Scottish pillar boxes. The campaign from 1952-53 ultimately led to the removal of the EIIR cipher from Scottish post boxes, replacing it with a Scottish crown.

The ‘Belfast Box’

The Irish Postal Service separated from the British General Post Office (GPO) in 1922 when Southern Ireland gained independence. British pillar boxes were repainted green, but the British royal ciphers from the time of installation remained, occasionally sparking protests from Irish militants.

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Similarly to Scottish nationalists, militant Irish groups used post boxes as tools of resistance during the 20th century. From the 1920s onwards, the royal monogram was often removed from damaged boxes before they were reissued after repairs, in an effort to minimize further attacks on these symbols of British sovereignty on Irish soil.

Painted in Irish green, but still displaying the crown and cipher of King George V from earlier times.
Painted in Irish green, but still displaying the crown and cipher of King George V from earlier times.

In the latter part of the 20th century, during “The Troubles,” the Irish Republican Army would sometimes paint pillar boxes in Northern Ireland green to protest British rule.

As the conflict escalated, it became necessary to modify the apertures of these boxes to extremely narrow openings to prevent the insertion of bombs. These modified boxes became known as ‘Belfast boxes’, and similar modifications were made to post boxes in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland.

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Post boxes have stood as enduring symbols of the Crown and State throughout shifts in the political landscape. They have been a ubiquitous presence in British society for over 160 years, serving as the practical embodiments of communication history.

Despite being frequent targets of rebellion, post boxes also symbolize the stability of the country, the monarchy, and national identity. While they may seem like unremarkable street fixtures, the iconic status of the British post box ensures its continued presence on our streets for the foreseeable future.

Royal Cyphers on Post Boxes

The tradition of featuring a royal cipher on letter boxes originated with the earliest roadside boxes during Queen Victoria’s reign. One of the oldest surviving examples is from the Channel Islands, where The Postal Museum currently houses one of only two such boxes in existence.

Although the Channel Islands are a Crown Dependency and not part of the UK, during the Victorian era, the UK postal service oversaw mail operations on the islands. This particular box displayed the initials “VR,” standing for “Victoria Regina,” with “Regina” meaning “Queen” in Latin.

Royal Cypher of Queen Victoria
Royal Cypher of Queen Victoria

As the design of post boxes evolved, the tradition of incorporating the reigning monarch’s cipher became established.

Throughout Queen Victoria’s reign, the Post Office explored various designs in their quest for the ideal post box, experimenting with hexagonal, square, and even fluted shapes. The slots for letters, known as postal apertures, underwent changes from horizontal to vertical and back to horizontal configurations.

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During the Victorian era, there was no standardized cipher initially used by the Post Office. However, by the 1880s, a consistent cipher for Queen Victoria began to appear more frequently. This cipher featured the intertwined letters “VR” in a decorative typeface. Notably, unlike the ciphers of subsequent monarchs, Queen Victoria’s cipher typically did not include a crown.

King Edward VII

When Edward VII ascended to the throne, new ciphers were created, similar to what we are currently witnessing with King Charles III. The monarch has the privilege of selecting their own cipher and collaborates with the College of Arms to design it.

Royal Cypher of King Edward VII

King Edward VII opted for a traditional cipher, which became widely used during his reign across documents, buildings, military insignia, and by the Post Office.

His cipher featured the classic style of intertwined letters, “ER” for Edward Rex (“Rex” is Latin for “King”), accompanied by his regnal number in Roman numerals, VII. Notably, on post boxes, this cipher is crowned with a royal emblem, marking a departure from Queen Victoria’s uncrowned cipher.

King George V

Edward VII’s reign was notably shorter than that of his mother, Queen Victoria. When his son, George V, ascended to the throne in 1910, a new cipher was introduced.

Royal Cypher of King George V
Royal Cypher of King George V

For this iteration, the cipher featured on post boxes differed from those used in other contexts by King George V. He chose a simpler, bolder design specifically for use by the Post Office. This new cipher used a plainer font, and the letters “GR” were not interwoven, a departure from the styles of his father and grandmother.

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Additionally, it did not include the Roman numeral “V,” although he was the fifth monarch named George. Since he was the first to have roadside letter boxes marked specifically in his name, the inclusion of the numeral was deemed unnecessary. Early designs presented to the king initially included the numeral, but it was ultimately omitted from the final version.

King Edward VIII

Following the death of George V in 1936, the monarchy experienced a turbulent period. His son, King Edward VIII, ascended the throne but abdicated after just 326 days.

Royal Cypher of King Edward VIII
Royal Cypher of King Edward VIII

Despite his brief reign, a new cipher was created and began to be used on post boxes and vehicles. Edward’s cipher differed from those of his predecessors, featuring an ornate font while maintaining distinct and separate letters, perhaps incorporating elements from all previous ciphers.

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Due to the brevity of Edward’s reign, fewer than 200 post boxes bearing his cipher were produced, making them a rare find for those interested in royal ciphers. One of these boxes is currently on display at The Postal Museum.

King George VI

Ciphers from the reign of George VI are relatively rare compared to those from the reigns of his father, George V, and great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. George VI reigned for 16 years, six of which coincided with World War II.

Royal Cypher of King George VI
Royal Cypher of King George VI

During this time, the war took precedence, and iron production was primarily directed towards the war effort, resulting in fewer and less varied iron post boxes being produced compared to other periods. However, his cipher was not limited to letter boxes and vehicles; an intriguing example within the museum’s collection is a toilet roll holder adorned with the George VI cipher.

George VI’s cipher is notably different from that of his father, George V. It features roman numerals and interlocking letters, making it easily distinguishable.

Queen Elizabeth II

The sudden passing of George VI in February 1952 led to his daughter, Elizabeth II, ascending to the throne. Continuing the established tradition, Queen Elizabeth participated in the approval of her new cipher.

Cypher of Queen Elizabeth II
Cypher of Queen Elizabeth II

She chose a striking design that echoed the style of George V’s cipher, featuring the letters “ER” flanked by the Roman numerals II. Due to the extensive duration of her reign, ciphers marked with “EIIR” are among the most recognisable.

King Charles III

The new cipher for King Charles III has been revealed. It incorporates elements from previous ciphers, but its interpretation is yet to be fully understood. There are practical issues to consider regarding how ciphers are displayed on letter boxes.

Cast iron boxes, for instance, have certain restrictions on what can be cast into them. Meanwhile, some of the newer boxes employ a printed vinyl for the cipher, which allows for the use of color.

Royal Cypher of King Charles III.
Royal Cypher of King Charles III.

It is anticipated that the final design will feature a crown above the cipher, and it remains to be seen whether the Roman numerals for three will be included.

Another point of interest is whether the Scottish crown will continue to be used exclusively on boxes in Scotland, or if a version of the King’s cipher will be introduced on new boxes there.

The Scottish Cypher on Post Boxes

A unique cipher variation found only in Scotland has sparked controversy due to the inclusion of Roman numerals in Queen Elizabeth’s cipher. Elizabeth II was not the second Elizabeth to reign in Scotland, as the Tudor queen, Elizabeth I, ruled only over England and Wales.

This is a relatively unusual example of an ‘English’ postbox north of the border. The distinction is only relevant for Elizabeth II-reign boxes: While the majority of boxes of Elizabeth’s reign have the E II R insignia, as this one does, the Scottish boxes of the same period have just the crown with no lettering at all. The reason is that the present Queen is only the first named Elizabeth to rule over Scotland, not the second as she is south of the border.

Upon her death, she wished for the crown to pass to King James VI of Scotland, marking the first instance of a unified monarchy over England, Wales, and Scotland.

The installation of the first EIIR letter box in Scotland faced substantial opposition. Initially, this manifested as graffiti and strongly worded letters. However, the situation escalated to include attacks on postal facilities, threatening letters to the Postmaster General, and even the placement of explosive devices in the post box.