The best of Dorset in words and pictures

By Royal appointment

Guy Smith looks at some Dorset post-boxes

Familiarity breeds contempt, or so the saying goes. How often do we take people or objects for granted, especially those we can’t do without? How often, for instance, do we stop to take a closer look at the humble post-box? Residents of Dorset have more reason than most to do so since our county is home to numerous historic boxes, including the oldest operational post-box in Great Britain. Situated at Barnes Cross, near Holwell, this year it celebrates its 150th birthday! Built by John M. Butt and Company of Gloucester in 1856, the box boasts some highly distinctive features. Octagonal in shape and standing only five feet in height, it has a very narrow, vertical posting aperture with a swinging flap to keep out the rain; since 1857 all boxes have had a horizontal aperture. The manufacturer’s name appears on either side of the aperture and also on the base, although subsidence means that this is no longer visible. There is some doubt as to whether Barnes Cross was the box’s original site. Wayne Cox, writing in the Letter Box Study Group Newsletter (November 2004), suggests that it may have been one of the last boxes of its type to be erected at nearby Sherborne before being moved to its present position at a later date.

Roadside pillar-boxes first appeared in 1852. Since then there have been hundreds of different varieties bearing the ciphers of six reigning monarchs. It was the writer, Anthony Trollope, a Post Office surveyor, who originally suggested the idea and the first boxes erected in the British Isles were on the Channel Islands. Initially, each Post Office district surveyor ordered boxes for his own area, resulting in a multitude of designs. It was not until 1859 that Cochrane and Co. began making ‘First National Standard’ pillar-boxes. Cast iron was and remains the preferred material of construction despite recent experimentation with sheet steel and polypropylene.

Roadside pillar-boxes generally served towns, but in 1857 smaller boxes were introduced to villages and rural areas. These took the form of wall-boxes. However, the most common post-box found in rural areas today is the lamp-box (first made by Andrew Handyside of Derby in 1896), usually attached to a post or pedestal but originally designed, as its name suggests, to be fixed to a lamp-post.

Throughout the 20th century, post-boxes continued to evolve and develop. Dual-aperture boxes were introduced during the reign of Edward VII, while special blue airmail boxes were installed in London during George V’s reign. The standard aperture size grew from eight inches to ten and in 1968 rectangular boxes made from replaceable steel sheets appeared. A cast iron version followed in 1974 but, like its sheet steel counterpart, was deemed not to have been a success. The cylindrical shape re-appeared in 1980 with the ‘K’ type pillar boxes, a completely new design.

A number of unusual post boxes are to be found in Dorset. Located in the east of the county are three pillar-boxes cast during the short reign of Edward VIII, one in Highcliffe and two within a mile of each other in Parkstone, Poole. Only 161 such boxes were ever made and about 150 survive nationwide.

Sherborne contains a fine example of a so-called ‘anonymous’ box. Built by Handyside between 1879 and 1887, these boxes, the first to resemble the iconic style of the 20th century, had no distinguishing features whatsoever. The position of the posting aperture, just below the rim, dates the Sherborne box to between 1879 and 1883, after which boxes were cast with a lower aperture following complaints about letters becoming stuck inside the tops of boxes. It took the Post Office until 1887 to admit there had been a mistake and post-boxes cast from then on bore the royal cipher and the words ‘Post Office’ on either side of the aperture.

The most famous Victorian pillar-box was named after its designer, J.W. Penfold, and cast between 1866 and 1879. One hundred of the distinctive hexagonal boxes are known still to exist and many remain in use, including one in Dorchester. There were several types of Penfold box, cast in three sizes. The Dorchester box is an example of the fourth and most common type and would have been made after 1872. A replica Penfold box is sited at Poundbury on the outskirts of Dorchester. This box is dark green in colour (replicas may not be painted red) and was cast by Machan Engineering of Stirlingshire in 1988. It is a copy of the second type of Penfold box and has a higher aperture than its larger Dorchester cousin. An original Penfold of this type can be seen at East Cliff, Bournemouth.

Machan of Stirlingshire also cast a pillar-box located beside the post office in Puddletown. Bearing the cipher E II R and the words ‘Royal Mail’ (which replaced ‘Post Office’ in the 1900s), it is cylindrical and at first glance not worthy of special attention. However, the eagle-eyed will spot that the makers’ name has been cast upside down on the base!

Despite uniformity in pillar-box design, it wasn’t until 1895 that letter-boxes at post offices were standardised. The most attractive of the new standardised wall-boxes was the Ludlow (named after its maker, James Ludlow of Birmingham). Ludlow’s boxes were intended for sub-post offices and were made of steel with a white enamelled plate bearing the words ‘POST OFFICE LETTER BOX’ below the royal cipher. Numerous Ludlow boxes can be found in Dorset including one in Charminster which was originally set into the window of a sub-post office but has since, following the conversion of the property into a private residence, been set into the building’s wall.

A Ludlow-type box can be found in Sherborne. Made by Eagle Range and Foundry Company of Birmingham, this small cast iron fronted box is a rarity even amongst the twenty-two known to exist since it still has its original enamelled plate. It differs from Ludlow boxes in that its aperture is shielded by a hood.

Not all post-boxes have been as fortunate as that at Barnes Cross. An ‘out of service’ George V Ludlow box at a former sub-post office in East Lulworth can still be seen opposite its modern pedestal replacement, while at Wareham station a Victorian wall-box, now a sad, faded pink, has been blocked up. In Cerne Abbas another Victorian wall-box has lost its door although, at the time of writing, a mail bag still remains inside!

With the pace of change in modern society, we are perhaps fortunate to have so many historic post-boxes still in use in Dorset. English Heritage certainly thinks so and is working with the Royal Mail to provide more with ‘listed’ status. The box at Barnes Cross appears to be in good hands. It is cherished by the local community and was recently re-painted by the local Women’s Institute! Rest assured that it will be around for a good few years yet.

Dorset Directory