Pop it in the Post: Your world at the end of the street

The Postal Museum

Take a journey back in time and meet the people who changed the world

Starting a communications revolution
The Victorian era was a time of great change in Britain. Many revolutions took place that would change society forever. One of these was the communications revolution. With the introduction of penny postage, stamps and later pillar boxes, the post was opened up to more people than ever before.
The Penny Black changed the world
Before 1840 the stamp as we know it didn’t exist. Mail was paid for by the recipient, and how much it cost depended on how far it had travelled, with extra charges incurred for things such as additional sheets of paper. This made sending (or receiving) letters too expensive for the average person.

In 1837 Roland Hill, a former teacher from Kidderminster, put forward a proposal to change this unfair and not particularly profitable system. He suggested that as long as it weighed less than half an ounce (14g) a letter should cost a uniform one penny whether it travelled two miles or 200 miles, and that it should be paid for by the sender. From this proposal the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black, was born.

The pillar box is born
The introduction of the Penny Black meant that more people could afford to use the postal system – and they did. What was missing however was somewhere for them to post their letters. Going to a receiving house, or waiting for the bellman, wasn’t always convenient especially in isolated areas. In 1852 the renowned Victorian writer Anthony Trollope was working as a surveyor in the Post Office where he suggested ‘iron posts’ on the side of the road for people to put their letters into at any time of day, as a way to solve this problem. 

It was isolated areas that were most in need of this innovative idea. As such the first place in the UK to have them installed was St Helier in Jersey. This took place in November 1852 and was followed shortly after in 1853 by six boxes in St Peter Port on Gurnsey, one of which is now in our collection and may well be the oldest pillar box in the world.

From green to red
Today we know pillar boxes as being a uniform red (with a splash of gold for special occasions), but many early boxes were actually green so they blended into their surroundings. This however often made them difficult to find, especially in the countryside, so in 1874 red became the permanent colour.

The design of post boxes varied across the country too. They were made to fit anywhere and everywhere. This led to the creation of wall boxes and lamp boxes to supply areas where a full pillar box wasn’t necessary or feasible.

Your local postie
Letter carriers, later known by the more familiar term postmen, delivered thousands of letters every day across the country. In a time before cars and bicycles letter carriers would walk their long routes, in all weather. Many had to provide their own work clothes, as uniform wasn’t given out in all areas. This meant they weren’t always well protected against the elements.

Delivering in town...
In London there was a need for letter carriers to look smart when delivering to people’s homes, as before 1840 it was only the wealthy who could use the postal service, so they had been provided with a free uniform since 1793. The uniform consisted of a bright red coat, with blue detail and a top hat made from fur.

Delivering in the country...
Letter carriers in the country weren’t as fortunate as their urban counterparts. It was almost 80 years later that they were provided with free uniforms. This was despite the fact that they would often have to walk further, meaning they could work up to three hours more a day, and often in worse weather.

From "iron post" to British icon
The introduction of stamps and pillar boxes changed the way we communicated forever. There are now almost 116,000 pillar boxes, wall boxes and lamp boxes of all shapes and sizes in Britain. It has also come to be more than just somewhere to post letters. It was voted the tenth most iconic British design, being beaten to the top spot by another Post Office creation – the telephone box.
Credits: Story

Exhibition content - Dominique Gardner

Digital production - Rachel Kasbohm

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Royal Mail and The Trollope Society

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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