Monumental Musings: Postboxes across Derbyshire

Double Delight - oval twin aperture model in Friar Gate, Derby

Double Delight - oval twin aperture model in Friar Gate, Derby - Credit: Archant

Peter Seddon explores the weird and wonderful world of postboxes…

Scarce Sight - 1933 George V wall box in Mickleover by short-lived Derby Castings

Scarce Sight - 1933 George V wall box in Mickleover by short-lived Derby Castings - Credit: Archant

One of the definitions of a monument is ‘any building, structure or site surviving from a past age that is of historical importance or interest.’ Some that qualify for official monumental status are quite surprising.

Among them is a piece of ‘street furniture’ which particularly comes into its own in the festive season – used more than at any other time in the calendar. Topped with crisp snow and a cheeky robin they are a familiar Christmas card image. That old friend the red postbox – considered one of the most recognisable designs in the world and an enduring emblem of Britain and its heritage.

But they are more than historical curiosities. Despite the advent of digital communication they are still much-used. Over 80 million letters are handled every day by the Post Office. In 2016 nearly 100 million single Christmas cards were sold in the UK – and a staggering 900 million more in packs. The wider greeting card market rose to a value of £1.75 billion – higher than ever before – the vast majority still posted ‘the old-fashioned way’.

Indeed far from being designated ‘obsolete curiosities’ there are active initiatives to ensure the future of these much-loved icons. Royal Mail has teamed up with Historic England pledging ‘to preserve the heritage and character of the country’s postboxes’.

Golden Moment - pillar box in Chapel-en-le-Frith painted in honour of 2012 Paralympics Gold Medallist Anthony Kappes...

Golden Moment - pillar box in Chapel-en-le-Frith painted in honour of 2012 Paralympics Gold Medallist Anthony Kappes Photo: Peter Seddon - Credit: Archant

There is even a society for enthusiasts – the LBSG – founded in 1976 the Letter Box Study Group runs its own Facebook page and is growing daily. Devotees have plenty to go at – across the UK there are around 115,000 boxes of immense variety. Pillar boxes, wall boxes, lamp boxes, apertures large, small, high and low, this design, that design – a veritable ‘tickers’ dream.

Many of these postboxes are quirky and unique, some Listed as protected heritage for their historic importance and unusual features. Derbyshire has its own share and is considered a particularly good hunting ground – moreover the county boasts a seminal role in the wider historic story. The first official British boxes were introduced in Jersey in 1852 under the direct supervision of the novelist Anthony Trollope (1815-82) after he had mooted the idea of a ‘letter-receiving pillar’. Pronounced a success they swiftly spread to the mainland – red was initially not the standard colour, each local administration choosing whatever hue they preferred.

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Only in 1859 was a uniform colour first adopted – a bronze-green considered suitably unobtrusive, especially for rural areas. This actually proved too unobtrusive – boxes were difficult to spot and in gloomy town thoroughfares pedestrians sometimes walked into them. So in 1874 the familiar ‘pillar box red’ became the new adopted standard. It took almost ten years before they were all repainted – but red has prevailed ever since.

The early designs incorporated the Queen Victoria cipher and the embossed wording ‘Post Office’. Cylindrical ‘pillar’ boxes became familiar in urban areas but there were also ‘wall boxes’ set flush into brickwork and from 1896 the smaller ‘lamp boxes’ intended to be strapped to street lighting. In unlit rural areas these were often mounted on a small post – quaint examples still exist in villages today.

Strange But True - a celebrated Handyside 'Anonymous' in Hartington Street, Derby, cast in error without the intended...

Strange But True - a celebrated Handyside 'Anonymous' in Hartington Street, Derby, cast in error without the intended embellishment Photo: Peter Seddon - Credit: Archant

The postal authorities were initially receptive to variant designs. In 1866 John Penfold succeeded in introducing his striking hexagonal model. These ‘Penfolds’ prevailed until 1879 and are now coveted by enthusiasts – a rare large-capacity Penfold survives in Buxton near the Opera House. But if you spot one in Hartington don’t be fooled – it is one of a range of heritage replicas made in the late 1980s.

Extravagant designs apart, the cylindrical ‘pillar box’ became the preferred standard from 1879. This afforded a prestigious claim to fame for the famous Derby foundry of Andrew Handyside & Co – maker of Friar Gate Bridge and suppliers of cast-iron structures all over the world.

In 1879 Handyside successfully tendered for the mass-manufacture and supply of pillar boxes. As such countless surviving UK boxes bear the castmark ‘A. Handyside & Co. Ltd. Derby & London’.

Nor is this Handyside’s only place in postal history. The company had previously made other designs, beginning in 1853 – indeed the oldest UK pillar boxes still in use by the Royal Mail are two in Framlingham, Sussex, both supplied by Handyside in 1856, so the now defunct Derby firm was a true pioneer in the field.

Rare Treat - Grade II Listed stone postbox in Horsley

Rare Treat - Grade II Listed stone postbox in Horsley - Credit: Archant

There are also many Handyside examples overseas – among others the company made all the original boxes for the Portuguese Post Office. And in the vestiges of the British Empire, and the Commonwealth, there is always a chance of coming across that touch of Derbyshire – a ‘Spotter’s Badge’ for all who bag one!

But Handyside’s place in postal history also comes with a degree of notoriety. Due to an administrative misunderstanding his 1879 pillar boxes were cast without the royal cipher and ‘Post Office’ lettering. Rather than reject the batch the postal authorities negotiated a keen discount, and Handyside continued to produce these unembellished oddities for a further 13 years.

These so-called ‘anonymous boxes’ are considered by enthusiasts worth seeking out. Buxton has one, as does Hartington Street in Derby. Although probably the city’s oldest surviving box it has now been withdrawn from use and its aperture blanked off – a curiosity in itself.

The Handyside Company ceased trading in 1931 but briefly revived under the new name Derby Castings until finally succumbing in 1933. As such Derby Castings boxes are relatively uncommon – among a number of Derbyshire examples is the rather rare George V wall box in Western Road, Mickleover, made in 1933 at the Britannia Ironworks.

Victorian Gem - hexagonal Penfold pillar box in Buxton

Victorian Gem - hexagonal Penfold pillar box in Buxton - Credit: Archant

By the time of the firm’s final demise there were countless Handyside boxes covering every reign hitherto. But they just missed out on another curiosity – the small number of boxes cast with the Edward VIII cipher prior to his abdication in 1936. Only 271 were made, of which less than 150 survive. Derby has three – at Brackensdale Avenue in Mackworth, Sunnyhill Post Office on Stenson Road, and Village Street in Normanton… all now Listed Monuments.

The monarch with the greatest number of boxes is Queen Elizabeth II. Although a standard ER II design predominates there are a number of variants that claim elevated status. Friar Gate in Derby has a large double-aperture oval-shaped box – countless pedestrians pass it each day blissfully unaware of its alluring mystique to postbox buffs!

The unconvinced might consider the interest eccentric or even unhealthily obsessive, but psychologists are apt to explain it thus: ‘In a rapidly-changing world there is a tendency for the more reflective among us to derive satisfaction from familiar objects which might conceivably be threatened. Seeking out and recording what we have, classifying the data, and preserving something for posterity “before it is too late” is a positive response to this.’

Perhaps surprisingly the younger generations are buying into this philosophy in increasing numbers, rallying to the call by capturing images on smartphones and uploading them to an ever-growing online database of UK postboxes.

Odd One Out - scarce Edward VIII box in Village Street, Normanton, Derby, cast prior to the abdication of the Prince of Wales

Odd One Out - scarce Edward VIII box in Village Street, Normanton, Derby, cast prior to the abdication of the Prince of Wales - Credit: Archant

Again Derbyshire gets into the frame. Leading enthusiast David Chandler explains: ‘In 2005 I went on holiday to the Peak District from my home in Lancashire. I saw a post box in a rather picturesque location near a reservoir and took a snap of it. After that I became hooked. My Facebook page now has over 11,000 boxes on it. People send them to me from all over. My ultimate goal is to capture every single one – I still have about 100,000 to go!’

So Derbyshire is ‘to blame’. That first box might well have been at Ladybower Reservoir – there are several nice examples in the vicinity. Others labelled ‘out of the ordinary’ have been recorded at Lullington, Matlock Green, Hayfield, Brough and Melbourne. Unsubstantiated rumours suggest that Eckington was blessed with a rare experimental ‘plastic pillar box’ in polypropylene.

Horsley has a particularly unusual Grade II Listed stone letter box – no longer in use it was operative from 1869 to 1887. And Chapel-en-le Frith has the county’s only example of the 63 gold-painted boxes which honour all the Gold Medal winners from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The athlete is partially-sighted paralympian Anthony Kappes who with his ‘pilot’ won gold in the Men’s Track Cycling Individual Sprint event.

And the list goes on. So if you have Christmas cards to dispatch do take a moment to check out that humble postbox. Knowing a Handyside ‘anonymous’ from a Penfold ‘hexagonal’ might just be the stress buster you need.

But if the festive entertaining gets just too much there is a sure line to help lingering guests on their merry way: ‘Let me tell you about my new interest in postboxes’ – they’ll be getting their coats in no time. Here endeth this Monumental Musings Christmas Special – ‘Seasons Greetings’ to one and all.