From Pillar to Post

The postie's van outside my neighbor's house. (That mottling isn't a bad paint job, it's the fierce British sun beating down on the vehicle through the leaves of an oak tree across the street. Either that, or there's something very wrong with my camera.)

In the previous post, I mentioned that Her Majesty’s Royal Mail has trademarked its logo shade of red, used traditionally for phone boxes (US: phone booths), for the vans the posties drive, and on pillar boxes—the British version of blue American mailboxes.  But of course I should really say that the blue American mailboxes are the US versions of pillar boxes, because the UK had them first.

A classic cast-iron pillar box.

In the British Isles, free-standing column-shaped boxes for posting letters date back to 1852, when the Post Office sent someone to investigate ways of speeding up the mail to and from the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey.  The investigator they chose to send was, surprisingly, the novelist Anthony Trollope, who worked for the Post Office at the time.  He suggested free-standing mail collection boxes, though he may have borrowed that idea from the French.  In any case, the oldest pillar box still in use is doing its job on Guernsey.  In addition to Trollope’s “letter-receiving pillars”, the Royal Mail uses wall boxes—set into walls so that the front of the box is flush with the surface of the wall—and lamp post boxes—which sit up on poles, but not necessarily street-lamp poles.

The Royal Cipher for George VI, father of the current queen, in Stanton Drew, a village in Somerset.

One of the most interesting features of pillar boxes is the Royal Cypher, an heraldic device for a member of the royal family, something like a monogram, but with less intertwining of the letters.  Each pillar box (with a very few exceptions) displays the Royal Cipher for the monarch on the throne at the time that pillar box was erected. 

A lamp post box outside our village church.

I don’t have photographs of pillar boxes of every monarch from Victoria onward (that would be truly nerdy), but almost all of them (so that’s not quite so nerdy, then).  I’ve even got a picture of one showing the Royal Cypher of Edward VIII, who was king for less than a year and was never crowned, so pillar boxes with his Royal Cypher are rare. 

Victorian wall box still in the Surrey village of Wanborough

You can find blue American mailboxes in the UK; you just have to go to a US military base.  I confess that once after visiting some cousins in the US Air Force who lived on an American base in the UK—sitting in their American-style home, eating American brands of food they bought on the base, and passing the blue American-style mailboxes at the corner of their street—drove my car off the base and out onto an English road, but onto the wrong side of the road.  The mailboxes in particular, I think, had fooled me into thinking I was back in the States.

Edward VIII's Royal Cypher in a pillar box in Burpham in Surrey--a rare find.

There’s a (probably untrue) story about a prince from a developing country whose family sent him to school in the UK.  When he went home, he told them about the wonderful postal system, and had pillar boxes erected throughout the country.  He neglected, however, to hire anyone to collect the mail from the pillar boxes and deliver it, or in other versions I’ve heard, he ran out of money, or there was a coup in which his family was thrown out of power and someone else, uninterested in regular delivery of the mail, took over.  If anybody can tell me whether there’s any truth in the tale, I’d be interested to know where this happened. 

The always-smiling postie who delivers the mail when our regular postie has the day off. He's a transplant, as I am, though he started out in the Philipines.

The thought of the letters in that poor (and probably fictitious) country languishing uncollected in pillar boxes does strike a chord today, since the new Tory-LibDem coalition government just announced new plans to sell the Royal Mail and let it take its chances on the free market with other delivery services.  I should note that when I said in my last post that the Royal Mail turns a profit, the report from which I got that information apparently didn’t take into account many, many millions the Royal Mail is obligated to pay to retirees who have Royal Mail pensions, though exactly how selling off the service to the private sector is going to remedy that, I’m not sure.  Stay tuned for updates; if they screw up the delivery of the mail, we’ll have still have email.  At least for now…



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9 responses to “From Pillar to Post

  1. Random thoughts…

    “Postie”: There was a quickly-abandoned management decision a few years ago to change the official designation of “postmen” and “postwomen” to “posties” in an effort to be politically correct. The political correctness backfired when the unions complained that it was disparaging. I listened to a delightful interview with the union boss in which he referred throughout to the chairman of the Post Office as “chairie”.

    Edward VIII: Sarah and I spotted one of those recently but we can’t remember where. Wonder if it was the same one. (Sarah has just chipped in that it was outside the Post Office in West Dean – where we were explaining to an American visitor about the royal marks and hence noticed what would normally be invisible to me, at least.) But now I look again at your photo, it didn’t look like that so maybe we got it all wrong.

    Pension fund: I believe the government has said that privatisation will not include responsibility for the pension fund. In other words, the profit is going to the private sector and the bill is going to the tax payer.

    Cypher/Cipher: I never noticed it could be spelt two ways before.

    • Thanks for all the various points!

      In the US, everybody said ‘mailman’ until women began to do the job; I understand the official job title is now letter carrier.

      The Edward VIII pillar box I heard about–would never have spotted it! It was Ernest who spotted the George VI one–is outside Rajdoot Indian Restaurant in Burpham, Guildford (not *too* far from the Sainsbury’s superstore).

      Re pensions–oh, great. And they laughed at Brown for selling gold when the price was down…

      I ran across cypher when reading about the Royal Mail and so assumed it was the British way to spell the word. Looking it up this morning, I see the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors allows either spelling and doesn’t mark either with a specific region. (Blogging is educational!)

      Mainly, I think cypher looks more cypherous than does cipher. Now I have to define cypherous, since it’s not a real word. Cypherous: that which falls just on the romantic side of cryptic.

      Now as for spellt

      • In the US it’s been “letter carrier” for quite a while. My father worked for the PO after the war, and his title was “letter carrier”. As for what what others called him in our small town, I think it was mostly “Steve” 🙂

      • Thanks! Your comment sent me to the dictionary, where I found that the use of “letter carrier” in general goes back to at least 1552, and the use of “letter carrier” as a job title in the USA goes back to at least 1967. Looks like your father’s experience from just after the war would suggest it goes back a lot further.

        We had the same letter carrier/postman the entire 21 years I lived in Kentucky and then some; when he retired my mother went door-to-door collecting and used the money to buy him an engraved pewter tankard. His retirement felt like losing a member of the family.

  2. Candida

    “Postie” is disparaging? How very officious. A postman – or woman – is some anonymous bod who leaves letters and is never seen. The postie is someone you have a relationship with: the person you give goodies to at Christmas and pass the time of day with, who asks at YOUR door after the pensioner who lives next door if they couldn’t get a reply there, who rings properly and waits, or will helpfully leave “signed for” stuff in the shed without a signature if you really are out at that moment when they call (rather than take it back to some distant depot where you can’t get at it until next day) because you’ll TELL them if you’re going to be properly away. That’s my brace of posties, anyway, and I treasure them. Mind you, I can see they might not appreciate management referring to them the same way. Friendly relationships with management are tricky, especially with Adam Crozier, I suspect.

    Tell you a funny thing about that paint colour, though – once upon a time it would indeed have been the same for the postboxes and the phone boxes, when they were both owned by the GPO. But for years we had both outside our front gate (the phone box is now gone, alas) and they were painted different shades after the privatisation of the phones – I suppose because of that trademark. Less than two metres apart and different teams came around and painted them ever-so-slightly differing shades every few years.

    And our wall box was one of the first to have brushes across the slot, like draught excluders. Some Cornish postie came up with that idea, not to keep the post warm but to keep out slugs and snails, a real pest for rural boxes. I believe the brushes now spread further across the network, though I’m not sure how far.

    • Thanks for your comments on use of “posties”–I concur.

      Having distributed flyers for a political candidate, I can tell you I *hate* those brush-y things on mail slots. I have an idea for a simple tool that would make it easier to push mail through them; I wonder whether there’s a market…

  3. I remember bringing my young daughter to the farm country where I grew up. As we drove by a farm I remarked on the state of the silo. To my horror, my daughter asked, “What’s a silo?” Oh poor insulated city girl!
    Now I can hear her asking, “What’s a letter?” Alas, I’m afraid email has overtaken that lovely art.
    PS & I still look for “the postman”

  4. Mary Korndorffer

    Fascinating and nostalgic !
    I’m sure there was an “I-spy book” about post boxes.

    You might want to look at the Wikipedia page “post box” which has a gallery and includes a hexagonal Victorian box, and says only 150 EVIIIR boxes were made, as he was never crowned. His cypher does appear over some cottages on the Windsor estate (you can see from the road), but on the stamps, the crown is offset from being over his head!

    As for the brushes on Cornish postboxes: I did receive a 16th birthday card posted in Cornwall, which had been chewed by slugs! that was a long while ago……

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