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History Is In The Post As Letter Box Is Replaced

Published on: 24 Apr, 2021
Updated on: 27 Apr, 2021

The George VI post box by St Catherine’s bus shelter is removed. The fractured mortar bed can be seen six brick courses from the base. Photo Fiona Giles

By Martin Giles and David Rose

Our nearest letterbox, even in this computer age, is still a familiar object, something we still use for those times when email won’t do.

The new box at St Catherine’s, functional but austere, still awaiting insertion of collection time information, just one afternoon lift a day now. Photo Fiona Giles

There is perhaps something reassuring about its continuing presence in this quickly changing world and we might have some sort of sentimental attachment thinking of the letters we have posted there in our lives.

So when my wife brought the news that the box, of King George VI vintage (1936-52), at St Catherine’s was being replaced there were obvious questions: why was it being replaced? what would the new one look like?

The answers were quickly obvious as the workmen involved pointed out that the brick pillar in which the old box had been contained had a fractured mortar course making the box insecure.

And the new one? Well it is functional, if austere, and probably a lot cheaper.

The episode made me wonder about other letterboxes in Guildford, which one was the oldest and so on.

Over to David Rose, our Through Time editor, who explores the general history of post boxes with a focus on those to be found locally…

It was with the rapid growth of correspondence following the introduction of uniform penny postage on May 6, 1840 a demand for more posting facilities arose. The public began pressing the Post Office to follow the example in France and provide roadside posting boxes.

They were first trialled on the Channel Islands, with four at St Helier on Jersey in 1852 and more in St Peter Port, Guernsey, the following year.

London’s first letter box.

London did not receive its first roadside letter boxes until 1855, when six were installed. They were rectangular in shape and stood approximately five feet in height.

An unknown Victorian postman, possibly from Guildford.

Between 1866 and 1879 boxes of a hexagonal pillar box design, known as Penfolds, after the architect, were installed throughout the country.

But there were many complaints about letters being caught up and delayed by faults in the internal mechanism of the boxes. So, in March 1879 the pure cylindrical design was introduced, and further modifications were incorporated over the years, including double pillar boxes in London in 1899.

In November 1887, the royal cypher and the wording “Post Office” in the collar of the rim of the roof were added.

A new design, that was not cast iron, was introduced in November 1968 made of easily replaceable rectangular panels, fixed to an internal frame. The design incorporated an improved internal mechanism for it to be emptied far quicker.

This was the first prototype of the new rectangular letterbox pictured outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London. In the picture is the Rt Hon John Stonehouse who was the Postmaster General at the launch of the new box on October 9, 1968.

Field trials were held with 201 of these rectangular boxes throughout the country. One of which was at Albion Square in Woking opposite the railway station entrance. However, there were difficulties with the new design and the one in Woking fell to bits. The project was later abandoned.

Originally, letterboxes were painted a dingy bronze-green colour. To make them stand out more, a trial was held in early 1874 and seven boxes in London were painted red. The change was gradually implemented in the provinces as and when they needed repainting. This process took 10 years to complete.

Royal cyphers on UK post boxes.

The borough of Guildford appears to have examples of post boxes with royal cyphers of Queen Victoria, Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII, George VI and Elizabeth II.

I know of one Victorian wall box locally. It is within to the historic Great Barn of Wanborough.

The Great Barn of Wanborough. Built 630 years ago by Cistercian monks of Waverley Abbey. Its Victorian wall box stands out beautifully.

And a close-up view of the wall box at The Great Barn. It is similar to other Victorian wall boxes from the 1890s which do not bear the more ornate, intertwined cypher.

Edward VII wall box on the corner of Berkeley Court and London Road.

George V pillar box under Tunsgate. There seems to be a lot of George V boxes in Guildford!

It is thought the pillar box under Tunsgate is the same one as seen here next to the Guildhall and pictured in the 1950s.

There is one example of the very rare Edward VIII pillar boxes. It is on the parade of shops at London Road, Burpham.

Rare Edward VIII pillar box by the parade of shops, London Road, Burpham.

Despite it being knocked about when a vehicle crashed into it a few years ago, it has been straightened, but leans a bit to one side!

The story of these Edward VIII boxes is: During the king’s brief reign (January 20, 1936 to December 11, 1936) 271 letterboxes were manufactured. Of these, 161 were the traditional pillar box, six were wall boxes and the remaining 104 were for use within sub-post offices. After his abdication, many boxes bearing his cypher were modified or replaced.

Today about 132 Edward VIII pillar boxes remain in use throughout the country. Locally there is another at the junction of Hollies and Woodlands Avenues in West Byfleet.

George VI pillar box in Down Road, near the junction with Epsom Road in Merrow. The building behind was once a sub-post office. Nice road sign too!

Elizabeth II double pillar box in North Street.

Back of another Elizabeth II double pillar box in upper High Street showing the maker’s name – Machan Engineering, Denny, Scotland.

One of the more modern-style Queen Elizabeth II pillar boxes in Glaziers Lane, Normandy.

Of the history of Guildford’s Royal Mail Post Office, the former curator of Guildford Museum and now the borough’s honorary Remembrancer, Matthew Alexander, gave details in his book Guildford As It Was (Hendon Publishing, 1978).

He wrote: “Until 1843 the building on the corner of [High Street and] Swan Lane, now Salsbury’s [currently 2021 jewellers Ernest Jones] was the Royal Mail office. From there it moved to what was then 117 High Street until 1885, when it went to 48 High Street until 1869.

From 1870 to 1886 the Guildford’s Post Office occupied part of the County and Borough Halls in North Street. This is a 1900s picture postcard view.

“In 1860 two post boxes were installed, one at the railway station and the other at the junction of the London and Epsom Roads. From 1870 to 1886 the Post Office occupied part of the County and Borough Halls in North Street.

“On February 14, 1872, 6,000 extra letters were sent, illustrating the new craze for Valentine’s Cards. By 1877 over 60,000 letters were being handled each week, rising to 200,000 by the end of the century.

The North Street Post Office in the early 1900s. Also a picture postcard view.

“In 1886 the Post Office was built, adjacent to the Congregational Hall in North Street, and formed part of an imposing row of massive public buildings. It was replaced in 1972 by the present structure.”

The ‘new’ North Street Post Office pictured soon after it was built in 1972. The view also shows the former Guildford Methodist Church on the corner of Woodbridge Road and North Street about to be demolished.

To continue, the firm of architects of the 1972 building were Roman Halter & Associates. It’s often commented upon that it’s the ugliest building in the town centre!

Guildford Post Office at the top of North Street, 2006 to 2019.

The Post Office moved in 2006 taking over the former Barclays Bank building at the top of North Street.

In April 2019 it moved again to the first floor of WH Smith in the High Street where it is now (2021). Click here for previous story.

St Nicolas Post Office with tobacconist G. A. Smith’s shop in the High Street (far right) next to the Town Bridge pictured in the 1920s. Picture courtesy of the Guildford Institute.

There were once several sub-post offices in Guildford town centre. One was next to the Town Bridge (south side) known as St Nicolas Post Office within G. A. Smith’s tobacconist’s shop.

Guildford’s High Street Post Office near the Three Pigeons pub seen here in this early 1900s picture postcard view.

Another was on the north side of the High Street near the Three Pigeons pub, and yet another at 50 York Road (west side) at the junction of London Road.

And finally….. re-telling of the tale of the White Line Experiment.

In the early years of the 20th-century, pillar boxes were subject to attack by the Suffragettes, particularly the “Great United Attack” on November 27, 1912. However, Suffragettes have come and gone, but the eternal enemy of pillar boxes is the dog.

We might see a letterbox painted red and think “post” but a dog thinks, “Ideal, prominent, territory marker, time to cock my leg.”

For years, trials using anti-dog mixtures have been conducted and found to be utterly ineffective.

However, in 1937 a member of the Post Office staff did forward, anonymously, a plan that might have just worked. In his letter, he stated that he had discovered that dogs would not use for any objectionable purpose, any object surrounded by a white line.

His mother was a sub-postmistress and had painted a white line around the base of her pillar box and a friend had painted a white line along the entire front of his shop, and consequently, no further urinary incidents had occurred.

In explanation of the phenomena, he said that it must be an optical illusion to dogs – the white line appearing to divide the box, or wall, from the footpath.

Hopeful of a remedy at last, the Post Office took up his suggestion and trials of a white line, painted two inches deep on the footpath (one side touching the base of the pillar box), began in six towns, one of which included Woking.

However, it is understood that the initial trials of the White Line Experiment, as it was known in official circles, were not a success.

Then unusually one resourceful postman experimented, privately, with a tree opposite his home.

He painted a white line about four inches from the base of the tree and reported to his superiors, that this had the desired effect.

So, for one more month, the White Line Experiment continued, this time with the line painted about four inches away from the base of the box.

But whatever magic worked for trees did not work for pillar boxes. And exactly what the residents and their dogs thought in the towns, including Woking, selected for the White Line Experiment, is not known!

Thanks go to Mark Coxhead from Pyrford for additional historical details within this whole article.

Perhaps you have a notable postbox in your area? Please let us know using the “Leave a reply” feature below.

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