Morten Collection Object of the Month: April 2010

Each month, for ten months, we’ll be presenting an object from the Morten Collection on this blog. The Morten Collection is a nationally important postal history collection currently held at Bruce Castle, Tottenham.

As part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project, Pistols, Packets and Postmen, the BPMA, Bruce Castle Museum and the Communication Workers Union (the owner of the Collection) are working together to widen access to and develop educational resources for the Morten Collection.

If you have any comments on the objects or the Collection we’d be grateful to hear them. At the end of the ten months we hope we’ll have given you an overview of the Collection, highlighting individual items but also emphasising the diverse nature of the material. For further information on the Morten Collection, please see our blog of 16th December 2009.

by Bettina Trabant, Postal Heritage Officer, Bruce Castle Museum

Red letter boxes have been a familiar sight around Britain and are popular with tourists; tins and pencil sharpeners are only some of the many letter box shaped souvenirs available. However, very few people are aware of variations in their design or indeed know anything about their history.

Letter boxes are in fact a relatively recent phenomenon in the British Isles and their introduction has to be seen very much in conjunction with Rowland Hill’s postal reforms, together with the increase in literacy due to the demands of the industrial revolution. With an increase in literacy and therefore an increase in letter writing the old system of a post boy walking around the streets ringing a bell for people to come out and hand deliver him the letters to be posted was no longer efficient. The need for letter boxes, as used in Paris from as early as 1653, became apparent.

It was thanks to Anthony Trollope (who worked for the Post Office before finding fame as a novelist) that letter boxes were introduced to the UK. Trollope installed four pillar boxes in St Helier, Jersey, as an experiment on 23rd November 1852. The trial was successful, and in 1853 pillar boxes were erected in mainland Britain.

A wooden post box which is part of the Bruce Castle postal history collection

A wooden post box which is part of the Bruce Castle postal history collection

In the collection at Bruce Castle we hold a poster that shows the development and variation of pillar boxes prior to the red design familiar to us. Very early pillar boxes differ in two respects. Firstly, they do not bear the monarch’s cipher, and secondly they were green in colour, making them less visible to passers by, resulting in a number of people walking into them!

For this Object of the Month I have chosen a model of an 1857 pillar box, of which we hold two slightly different copies. The model is made of wood, is about 50cm high, has a slot for letters, and a plate with times and prices on it.

More on Letter Boxes can be found on the BPMA website.

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