This year marks the death centenary of John Wornham Penfold, designer of probably Britain’s best loved pillar box. Penfold was born in Haslemere, Surrey on 3rd December 1828. He studied architecture and surveying, and was employed first by Charles Lee, before starting his own business.
Penfold rose to the top of his profession serving as President of the Architectural Association and becoming an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He was also a founder member of the Institute of Surveyors, serving as its first Honourary Secretary (the Institute was later granted a Royal Charter, making it the Royal Institution of Charted Surveyors).
In 1880 Penfold was appointed as a surveyor to the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and re-designed the Jewin Street area in the City of London after it had been destroyed by a large fire (this area was again destroyed by bombs during World War 2 and is now the site of the Golden Lane Estate).
One of Penfold’s finest works was at the former Naval Training School in New Cross, South London. In 1890 the site was taken over by the Goldsmiths Company and was converted into a technical and recreational institute. Penfold modified the building to suit its new propose and enclosed the central courtyard to create a Great Hall. This site is now part of Goldsmiths, University of London.
Throughout his life Penfold regularly returned to his native Haslemere. He surveyed the local area when the railways came, rebuilt and expanded Haslemere parish church and surrounds, and designed other local buildings. But Penfold is best remembered for his work for the Post Office.
In 1866 Penfold submitted designs for a pillar box. The Post Office had been attempting to standardise letter boxes throughout the country for some time, and had produced a national standard, but this was found to be wanting. With Penfold’s box the Post Office again attempted to establish an enduring national standard.
Penfold’s box – or the Penfold, as it became known – combined simple design with functionality. Hexagonal in shape, it was adorned with acanthus leaves and balls, a far less ornate design than some of the elaborately decorative boxes which had come before it. But the cost of producing Penfolds was high, and a cheaper and plainer standard box was introduced 13 years later.
However, many of the features initiated with the Penfold boxes remain in use. Penfolds were produced in different size to accommodate different volumes of mail, as pillar boxes still are to this day, and Penfolds were also the first boxes to be manufactured in the new standard colour of red, in 1874.
Such is the popularity of Penfolds that the BPMA and Royal Mail frequently receive correspondence from members of the public who wish to see damaged boxes in their area repaired, rather than replaced with a new box. Some original Penfolds are considered so significant that they are listed, giving them special protection under the law.
Replica Penfolds, bearing the cipher of Queen Victoria, have also been produced. The first replica was produced in 1988 and was placed in the heritage era of Windsor. Another, installed in about 1990, is sited outside Penfold’s former home in Haslemere. Penfolds are the only letter boxes which Royal Mail has produced replicas of in this way.
J W Penfold also gave his name to the sidekick of 1980s cartoon character Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse and Penfold even lived in a pillar box on Baker Street, London, although their home was an ‘Anonymous’ Pillar Box, rather than a Penfold.
J W Penfold died on 5th July 1909 and is buried in the grounds of St Bartholomew’s Church, Haslemere, which he designed. He remains the only British pillar box designer to have his box named after him.