Postal Reform and history of Post Boxes


Summarised from The British Postal Museum & Archive,. ‘Rowland Hill’S Postal Reforms’. N.p., 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

Reforms introduced by Rowland Hill in the Victorian period changed the face of the British postal service forever. He opened up what had been a complex and expensive system to a much wider public by hugely simplifying the system. This coincided with an increase in literacy due to improvements in education and resulted in greatly increased communication.

Before the reforms

Prior to 1840, the British postal system was highly complex and very expensive. Letters were charged by distance and the number of sheets of paper they contained. Normally, the charge was paid by the recipient.

However, a large number of items travelled free, especially a certain number of letters to and from Members of both Houses of Parliament. There were also a lot of anomalies and further a number of local systems existed with different charges. The system was widely abused and ripe for reform.

After the Napoleonic Wars postage rates were high. They were designed as a tax to raise revenue, a typical single letter from Dublin to London would cost 1s 3d (approximately equivalent to £3 today). Two sheets of paper doubled the cost, three tripled it.

However, there were a lot of local services – Penny Posts – which charged an extra 1d for delivery, although often only 1d in total was charged for mail within the extent of the local post service. In the case of some cities this area was quite large, Glasgow, Manchester and Dublin being particular examples.

The London area was originally a Penny Post but by this time the charge had risen to 2d, or 3d for outlying country areas. In Scotland there was an additional charge of ½d for all letters carried by mail coaches, and similar tolls were levied for certain bridges such as the Menai Bridge.

All Members of Parliament, both the Commons and Lords, had the right to frank and receive a number of letters free of charge. This also applied to others by virtue of their position. As a result, correspondents frequently asked their MP to frank their post so that it travelled free.

Various ideas were proposed to improve the system and various official inquiries took place. Nothing happened, despite the best efforts of Robert Wallace, a persistent parliamentary critic.

Rowland Hill and Post Office Reform

In January 1837 Rowland Hill published his pamphlet Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability. He had no doubt that the source of trouble lay in the complexity of the charges and the mixture of paid and unpaid letters.

His solution was prepayment. The charge should be low and uniform and he recommended that it be 1d up to one ounce in weight. No mention was made initially of the method of prepayment. Later that month he suggested the use of stamped covers, an idea previously put forward before by Charles Knight.

An official inquiry into aspects of the Post Office was still continuing and Hill was summoned to give evidence. He outlined his plan and expanded his idea of stamped covers. Then, referring to possible difficulties with people unable to write, he suggested the use of “a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash.” This was eventually to become the Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp. When the inquiry reported later in 1837 the commissioners recommended Hill’s plan to reduce postal charges. They appended examples of stamped covers printed on John Dickinson’s silk-thread security paper.

Uniform penny postage

Wallace published the final report of the parliamentary Select Committee in March 1839 recommending most of Hill’s ideas but with a uniform 2d rate. This resulted in a lot of activity and some action was demanded of the Government.

Public pressure meant that Lord Melbourne, the Liberal prime minister, promised a bill in favour of uniform penny postage. This was passed and given the Royal Assent on 15 August.

It enabled the reduction of postage rates to a uniform penny regardless of distance but measured by weight. Free franking would be abolished and prepayment would be in the form of stamped paper, stamped envelopes and labels, though this would not be compulsory.

Rowland Hill was appointed to the Treasury to oversee the implementation of his ideas, with Henry Cole as his assistant.

The image on adhesive stamps were based on an engraved head of Queen Victoria as this was considered the most difficult image to forge successfully. All items, with the exception of the stamped paper submitted by the public, became valid for postage on 6 May 1840. The most important and successful were the labels, the Penny Black and the Twopence Blue, the world’s first adhesive postage stamps.

Accordingly uniform postage charged by weight was first introduced on 5 December 1839 when it was reduced to 4d anywhere outside London. It was immediately successful, so much so that uniform penny postage was introduced on 10 January 1840. At the same time free franking was abolished, including the allocation given to Queen Victoria, a move intended as an example to others.

Outcomes of the reform

Hill’s postal reforms were an immediate success. The number of chargeable letters in 1839 had been only about 76 million. By 1850 this had increased to almost 350 million and continued to grow dramatically. Revenue was initially cut but with the increase of letters it soon recovered. Adhesive postage stamps were gradually introduced throughout the world.

Post Boxes

Use of the postal system multiplied rapidly, as a result the earlier systems for collecting; sorting and delivering letters had to change. One such change was in the means of people posting letters. Prior to the introduction of letter boxes there was principally two ways of posting a letter. Senders would either have to take the letter in person to a Receiving House (effectively an early Post Office) or would have to await the Bellman. The Bellman wore a uniform and walked the streets collecting letters from the public, ringing a bell to attract attention.

Early Experiments

Anthony Trollope, now more famed as a novelist, was, in the 1850s working as a Surveyor’s Clerk for the Post Office. Part of his duties involved him travelling to Europe where he saw road-side letter boxes in use in France and Belgium.

He proposed the introduction of such boxes to Britain and in 1853 a trial was agreed for the idea on the Channel Islands. Three cast-iron pillar boxes were cast and installed, as a trial, on the island of Jersey.


The earliest boxes on Jersey were green, today the colour of British letter boxes is as much part of the iconic nature of the box as any other feature. Everyone knows that letter boxes are pillar box red. Early boxes, however, were green so as not to appear too obtrusive in the landscape. So effective was this that complaints were received by people having difficulty finding them.

The Post Office investigated alternative colours and initially settled on chocolate brown, this required an extra coat of varnish so proved more expensive than the alternative suggestion of bright red. The new colour was introduced in 1874 and it took 10 years to complete the programme of re-painting. Red remained the standard colour for boxes from then on with few exceptions. In the 1930s special boxes were introduced for posting airmail letters, these were painted blue. From 1938 blue airmail boxes were removed and repainted red, the only other official colour change occurred in 2012 when post boxes in the home towns of British London 2012 Olympic Games gold medal winners were painted gold to mark their achievement.

Standardisation in Design

By 1859 the Post Office realised having so many different designs of letter boxes across the country was proving expensive. They issued instruction that a new standard box was to be introduced..

It failed to prove popular in all districts and in 1862 the District Surveyor for Liverpool commissioned his own, non-standard box, known today as the Liverpool Special.

This broke the standard pattern and so in 1866 the Post Office again produced a standard letter box. This time the box was designed by J W Penfold and came in three sizes. As a standard box however it was not to survive. In 1879 a further standard box was produced. This time more of the earlier lessons were taken on board. The new standard box at last resembled the letter box that is today the iconic image of Britain – cylindrical with round cap and horizontal aperture under a protruding cap with front opening door and black painted base.

From 1879 onwards this box continues to be one of Britain’s most recognisable symbols. Changes did occur to the box, and into the 20th century new styles of box were introduced. However the basic design of the 1879 box continue to prove to be the most effective design for the job in most circumstances.

Wall and Lamp Boxes

While pillar boxes remain the most numerous they are not the only type of letter box. In 1857 as a means of introducing cheaper, smaller capacity boxes for smaller towns and more rural areas, wall-mounted boxes were introduced.

Initially these were small rectangular boxes mounted either into existing walls or into purpose-built brick pillars. Once these began to prove successful larger varieties were cast, eventually up to three basic sizes.

In 1897, to answer the demand for more convenient posting facilities for London squares, around which were the houses of some of London’s more influential residents, small boxes were designed. The boxes, made to attach to existing lamp posts, and big enough only to hold small letters, soon began appearing in low volume areas around the country and disappeared from the London squares.

Lamp boxes are now a regular feature of villages across Britain, often fitted to telegraph or lamps posts, or mounted on their own pedestals. The design has changed a little over the years other than an attempt to increase their capacity, and importantly the aperture size, to allow for the larger letters of the modern era.

Royal Ciphers.

Since Post Boxes have been systematically deployed they have carried the cipher of the reigning monarch of the day from Victoria Onwards.

Victoria circa 1850 -1901,

Edward VII 1901 – 1910,

George V 1910 -1936,

Edward VIII 1936,

George VI 1936-1952,

Elizabeth II 1952 –

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