Tag Archives: Penfold

Popular characters in the Wilkinson Collection

by Emma Harper, Cataloguer (Collections)

In my last blog there was a picture of a letter box with Mickey Mouse on it. This is just one of many items in the Wilkinson Collection that has images of characters from popular culture on it. Some of these have specifically postal links, the most obvious being Postman Pat, others are there because the objects are primarily directed at children. It may be that you collected objects with Disney characters on, or were a fan of Danger Mouse when you were younger, or still do now! I know I was particularly excited when I found a money box tin in the shape of the old Police public call boxes only to find that it was in fact a model Tardis with none other than Tom Baker as Doctor Who on the front, complete with his iconic long stripey scarf, something that brought back memories of my own childhood. There are many items like these in the Wilkinson Collection.

Danger Mouse Talc Container

Danger Mouse Talc Container

After Postman Pat, the most postally relevant popular character to appear in the Wilkinson Collection is Danger Mouse and his side-kick, Penfold, named after the designer of one of Britain’s best loved pillar box. Despite the name Penfold, the pair actually lived in an Anonymous pillar box and it is this that ensured their inclusion in the collection. One of the items that features the pair is a model plastic letter box which was also a bubble bath container. Another is a container for talcum powder (left) which shows Penfold holding onto a rope inside the letter box with Danger Mouse standing next to him. That a programme such as Danger Mouse can use a letter box as the hero’s home shows how instantly recognisable letter boxes are and makes an everyday object part of another world.

Some of the model letter boxes in the collection are also musical boxes. One of these shows the dog ‘Dougal’ from the television series ‘The Magic Roundabout’. However, this object also has a more serious message as on the back is a decimal currency conversion chart complete with pictures of the new coins. This is another common theme used on model letter boxes made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, – the period when Britain changed from an imperial to a decimal currency – and shows how important an issue it was. Indeed, the post office itself was involved in organising aspects of the change-over.

Ian Wilkinson also collected model post vehicles (pictured below), one of which shows a US mail car being driven by the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip character Snoopy. The car has paw prints on it and ‘SNOOPY/ US MAIL’ is inscribed on the sides. Maybe seeing their favourite cartoon character drive a mail car inspired some children to work as a postman/ woman when they were older, I’m sure Postman Pat must be responsible for a few recruits! Other popular characters that appear throughout the collection are Paddington Bear, Felix the cat and Spot the dog. There is also a tin depicting Coronation Street, which includes a letter box!

A group of vehicles from the Wilkinson Collection, including a US mail car with Snoopy

A group of vehicles from the Wilkinson Collection, including a US mail car with Snoopy

I had a lot of fun cataloguing these items as not only were they things I had enjoyed as a child, but they were also not what I had expected to find in the collection. This highlights how diverse and unusual collections can become. If you recognise any of the objects mentioned here, or have similar ones do please respond with your own memories!

John Wornham Penfold and his pillar box

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.

J W Penfold

J W Penfold

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.

A replica Penfold pillar box in the collection of the BPMA

A replica Penfold pillar box in the collection of the BPMA

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.

The BPMA holds four examples of Penfolds, three originals (two red, one green) and a replica. These can be inspected on our Museum Store Open Days.

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.