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Shooting Azimuths

A Short History of the Pillar Box

José PicardoJosé Picardo
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Sending and receiving mail used to be a very public affair. Senders had to take their letters in person to a receiver at a Receiving House or to a Turnpike House where their mail waited to be picked up by the Royal Mail coach. Receiving a letter was the same procedure in reverse. Who was posting or receiving mail was public knowledge.

When the first pillar boxes were introduced in Britain from mainland Europe in the 1850s, the instinctive reaction of many was one of concern. Concern because now there was a way in which letters could be sent anonymously by slipping them into the now iconic red pillar boxes. The contemporaneous introduction of the Uniform Penny Post, complete with postman deliveries, ensured that receiving mail became a simplified and private business too.

Many worried about the consequences of such postal reforms: The public would begin to send letters anonymously and cheaply and nobody would know who was writing to whom and for what mischievous purpose. To many, this clearly marked the beginning of the end of Victorian moral rectitude and heralded the breakdown of civilised society.

Needless to say, despite the unfounded initial concerns, the ensuing revolution in interpersonal communication heralded, not the collapse of civilisation, but the dawn of a new era of democratised transmission of information.

Many thanks to wasabicube for his picture.

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I am Assistant Principal at Surbiton High School. My main interests are pedagogy, technology and how they combine to produce great teaching and learning. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a regular and well-regarded speaker in conferences and INSET events. Most notably, I have been a guest speaker at the HMC Annual Conference, The Sunday Times Festival of Education, ResearchED, BETT and the Education Show. In addition, I am a regular contributor to the TES and my work has also featured in the Guardian.

Comments 5
  • Will Burn
    Posted on

    Will Burn Will Burn

    Reply Author

    Where did you find references to concerns about the introduction of the pillar box (1853) or the penny post (1840 – not really contemporaneous)?  I’ve had a quick look and haven’t found any.


    • José Picardo
      Posted on

      José Picardo José Picardo

      Reply Author

      Here Will http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0184yvg/episodes/player – Knock yourself out. As to whether 13 years difference 150 years ago is or isn’t contemporaneous, up to you.


      • Will Burn
        Posted on

        Will Burn Will Burn

        Reply Author

        I note an interesting comment on the producer’s blog:
        “But what really boosted mail volumes weren’t the missives of ordinary letter writers, but big business. Before long, Victorian letterboxes were crammed with “circulars” advertising the latest consumer goods flooding on to the marketplace.” http://goo.gl/37hPq
        Perhaps the differences between the early days of the Royal Mail and the present glut of advertising that reads our every keystroke aren’t that great after all.


        • José Picardo
          Posted on

          José Picardo José Picardo

          Reply Author

          Also from that blog:
          “The internet is rightly considered the defining innovation of our age. But in making the Peoples Post I’ve realized that almost everything the internet does today, the post office did first. Sending messages quickly and cheaply, fostering a wider sense of community, it helped disperse information, ideas and – yes – junk mail.”

          So what are you saying Will? The Royal Mail has never done anything for us? The internet hasn’t either? I think it’s time to stop getting mired in ill-conceived apprehensions and start embracing the possibilities staring at us in the face. 

          Thanks for your comments Will.


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