Early history of post boxes

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Early history
of postboxes


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An early hexagonal box in David Place


Rowland Hill's reform with the penny post in Britain brought about a rapid expansion in the number of letters being sent. But letter receiving houses - the forerunner of today's sub-post office - were few and far between, and members of the public began to suggest the new Continental use of posting boxes at the roadside

Anthony Trollope

Action was only taken after Anthony Trollope was sent to the Channel Islands in 1851 to make recommendations on how to improve the service.

Trollope wrote this report which was to have a far-reaching outcome:

"There is at present no receiving office in St Helier, and persons living in the distant parts of the town have to send nearly a mile to the principal office. I believe that a plan has obtained in France of fitting up letter boxes in posts fixed at the road side, and it may perhaps be thought advisable to try the operation of their system in St Helier - postage stamps are sold in every street, and therefore all that is wanted is a safe receptacle for letters, which shall be cleared on the morning of the despatch of the London Mails, and at such times as may be requisite. Iron posts suited for the purpose may be erected at the corners of streets in such situations as may be desirable, or probably it may be found more serviceable to fix iron letter boxes about 5 feet from the ground, wherever permanently built walls, fit for the purpose, can be found, and I think that the public may safely be invited to use such boxes for depositing their letters."

John Tilley of Postal Headquarters in London suggested this would be a "good opportunity to try the system". Within a month the Postmaster-General had given his consent to the trial of four boxes. Almost at once, Trollope asked for permission to erect three similar boxes in the town of St Peter Port, Guernsey, and this, also, was agreed to.

In July 1852 George Cresswell, the Surveyor for the Western District of England, informed London that he had conferred with the Constable of St Helier, ‘in whose province such matters properly fall’', and that he had put himself ‘into communication with very intelligent parties as to a good form for this new mode of collecting the correspondence of the public, the result being the enclosed sketch and estimate which appear likely to answer the purpose extremely well’.

Cresswell sought authority to give an order for the whole number to John Vaudin, ‘whose terms appear to me to be very reasonable'. The Postmaster General agreed that Vaudin should be directed to supply the seven pedestals and boxes.

No trace of the sketch referred to by Creswell can be traced in the archives of the General Post Office, but Vaudin was a blacksmith and the boxes were cast at Le Feuvre's foundry in Bath Street, St Helier.

Construction

In October 1852, the Chronique de Jersey informed its readers that "Workmen are engaged in placing in various parts of the town certain granite blocks to serve as bases for the cast-iron pillars which are about to be erected to receive letters. The work is under the direction of Mr Watson, one of the highly placed officers of the General Post Office, who has come to Jersey for the purpose of setting in order certain matters relative to the postal service"

Six days later, the Jersey Times noted: "The cut granite pedestals for the cast-metal receivers for letters, as assistant post offices, are now being put down in various parts of the town and suburbs. Those already set are at the top of Midvale Road at the junction with Campbell Terrace; at David Place, corner of Wellington Street; at Colomberie, corner of St Clement's main road; others are being placed at Quatre Bras and Cheapside. These, when completed (and it is high time that completed they should be), will be a great benefit to those of the public who reside at some distance from the General Post Office".

The Postmaster of St Helier informed the public that on 23 November 1852 roadside letter boxes would be opened in the following locations:

  • David Place, nearly opposite the Rectory.
  • New Street, in front of Mr Fry's, painter and glazier.
  • Cheapside, top of the Parade
  • St Clement's Road, corner of Plaisance

Installation

There is no sketch of the design of these boxes, but the Jersey Times of 26 November 1852 did give an eye witness report of the appearance of the newly installed pillar boxes:

"The Post Office Receivers are now erected and in full use, and a very great convenience they are to the public. They are made of cast-metal, are about four feet high and are sexagonal. On three of the sides, near the top, are the Royal Arms; on two sides the words Post Office; on the other the words Letter Box; with a protected receiver. A sliding cover allows the collector to unlock the receiver and remove its contents. They are painted red and fitted in solid granite blocks two feet deep and raised four inches from the ground."

The Guernsey boxes were also being erected, despite a small amount of dissent over the sites selected by the Postmaster General, and an additional box was also approved at the expense of the Post Office. An allowance of one shilling and two pence a week was granted to two of the town's letter carriers as payment for clearing the boxes.

Jean Young Farrugia’s The Letter Box tells of changes that were made to improve the boxes:

"In June 1853, just four months after the extension of the scheme to Guernsey, another of Creswell's clerks submitted an on-the-spot report from Jersey in which he stated that the box `standing at the head of Bath Street was too small’, and that, ‘with the view of having the box replaced by a larger one', he had `been to Mr Vaudin's foundry and seen the models he used in casting the former pillars'. He enclosed a letter from Mr Vaudin in which he described a way of casting a large box from his original model, or pattern."

Creswell's clerk went on to report that Vaudin had said that "should any more pillars of the larger size be required, the extra cost of each above the former price would be comparatively trifling, and that he would still be able to furnish ones of the old dimensions at the former cost, as the models, would, after the alteration, be applicable for casting either description of pillar".

Vaudin continued: "The pillars now have six 8-inch sides at regular angles, and the model for casting them in two parts”. He ended his report with the suggestion that the 'halves of the model should be placed 8 inches apart by the addition of two 8 inch sides, so that the proposed pillar would be eight-sided, though not an exact octagon, but it would look nearly, if not quite, as well as though it were".

While Jersey does not have any of the original Vaudin prototypes, Farrugia thinks it almost certain that Guernsey still does - one in Union Street, and one which was transferred from Hauteville to the Guernsey Museum in Candy Gardens in 1953.

Trollope was pleased with the success of the pillar boxes, and wrote as follows:

"Short as is the experience I have had of the working of these boxes I feel assured that their introduction in England would be followed by most beneficial results, but there they must be introduced liberally and energetically, and with fitting modification as to size and make."

In 1853, the scheme was extended to England.

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