On a day out in Windsor, accompanied by my husband, we came across a Doric fluted Victorian pillar box, situated just over the river Thames at Eton. I stopped to take the obligatory photograph. I was taken with its elegance, which was enhanced by gilding around the cap which highlighted the words ‘Post Office’, the crown and the royal VR (Victoria Regina) cipher. I shared my picture on Facebook later that afternoon, but at the time new nothing about its rarity. This box, along with a small Victorian wall box that I would drive by regularly, sparked my interest in historic and rare letter boxes.
The fluted pillar box first appeared during an experimental period in 1856, when the Post Office, prior to the standard pillar that we know today, used disparate models usually designed and ordered by district surveyors. The design for the first fluted pillar box was misinterpreted and three were mistakenly produced eight-feet-tall. Two of these pillar boxes with over-sized domes, topped with crowns and placed on cushions, made it into public service. They were made by Smith & Hawkes and were ordered by the Birmingham and Southern District. A corrected, reduced-in-height version was produced later that year; it had a flattened conical cap and a vertical aperture.
The following year, the design was adapted further with a horizontal aperture, which was thought to reduce the chance of rainwater damaging the mail. They are now Grade II listed, highlighting their importance to our heritage and can be found as far north as Birkenhead, as far south as Christchurch, as far east as Gravesend and as far west as Malvern. Of the twelve that are still in service in England, eight have vertical apertures, and four have horizontal apertures. There are four examples in museums, including the remaining eight-feet-tall original, and there are also eight recorded examples globally.
I photographed my second fluted box in Prenton, Birkenhead, on a visit home to Merseyside. This was in the days before I had joined the Letter Box Study Group (LBSG), and would search the internet for the type of letter box that interested me, usually the search terms included the word ‘historic’. It is situated outside the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, which is replete with its own neo-Georgian columns which complements the neo-classical fluted pillar.
My job sends me all over the country, and in August 2016 necessitated a Sunday trip to Ludlow. This was my perfect opportunity to stop at Warwick and visit the prominently placed Eastgate and Westgate fluted boxes. Warwick was an absolute delight, with the red of the pillar and nearby telephone box standing out at the Eastgate and I wasn’t the only visitor who aimed a camera at them. The Warwick pair, with their black bases sunken into the pavement and features gilded like the box at Eton, suit their quaint surroundings in historic Warwick.
Travelling without my copy of the Directory (the LBSG working list of all available boxes), later that evening I Googled the location of other VR fluted boxes and discovered three were in Malvern. I checked to see if Malvern could be covered on my way to Rugby – my next stop, and decided that it was too much of a detour to attempt. However, the following day, having finished work, I changed my mind and headed towards Malvern Common.
The first fluted box that I came across was outside Malvern Community Hospital. The tiered base of the box was mostly covered in pavement tarmac. Faint gilding remained on the lettering of ‘Letter Box’ which surrounded the horizontal aperture. Having taken the required photographs, I reset the sat-nav and headed for my next location, which was a short distance away. This box had been recently painted, but without any gilding. It looked stunning in the evening sunlight. Its base was partially buried by grass, but still visible at the front. I located my third Malvern box and unlike the previous, had not been recently painted, but stood tall and elegant with its black base above the pavement, perfectly suited to its Victorian street. So that was it! I’d managed to see five fluted pillar boxes in two days. Mission accomplished, I headed in the direction of Rugby.
Whilst driving, I mentally checked the boxes I had seen and the other fluted pillars that I was yet to see, and I was aware that I had missed one that was relatively nearby. My route took me onto the M42, so I pulled over at the next convenient services and I searched the internet for the Solihull box. It was such a short distance from where I was parked that I couldn’t resist one last diversion. Resetting the sat-nav once again, I headed towards Solihull. It was almost dusk by the time I arrived and the safety conscious in me wasted little time in hopping out of the car, taking a few quick snaps before getting back inside and locking the door; in a fairly industrial area, it was a little too isolated for my comfort.
Having visited six fluted pillar boxes in two days, I decided to aim for the other four boxes that I had yet to see. The goal was to have photographed the twelve boxes still in service in the UK. I visited Gravesend the first Saturday in September, its box sits on a relatively narrow residential street and looked a little unloved. It needed a fresh paint-job and a new collection plate, as it was without one at the time of my visit.
A few days later I headed north to see family and I diverted a few minutes to stop at Banbury, ostensibly to buy some lunch, but it wouldn’t hurt to photograph the fluted pillar box situated outside the Town Hall? This had an impressive brass collection plate and a plaque nearby stating that it has been in use in Banbury since 1857.
The following weekend, I headed south-west with my husband riding shotgun, to enjoy the mid-September sunshine. We drove through the New Forest and headed for Milford-on-Sea. Milford’s fluted pillar box sits on the corner of a residential road, minutes from the beach, and was easy to stop and photograph. Recently painted, it had a vertical aperture complete with inner flap to protect from rainwater. Having taken the required photographs, we spent some time on the pebbled beach before heading to our final target.
Once in Christchurch, we found the last box to complete the set of twelve VR fluted pillar boxes that are still in service in Britain. Situated on a busy road, next to a distressed looking telephone box, in the midst of some shrubbery, photographs were taken and I was happy to declare mission complete.
Liked the photos? You can see more by clicking the link to Flickr.