April 24, 2015 / 5:19 PM / 2 years ago

Red legacy of Victorian novelist still defines British streets

3 Min Read

A man rides a bicycle past a post box in London November 27, 2013.Suzanne Plunkett

LONDON (Reuters) - Anthony Trollope is best known as a British novelist whose chronicles of the minor dramas, snubs and triumphs of Victorian country life still win readers worldwide. But he left his mark on Britain's streets as well as its bookshelves.

Trollope, courtesy of his day job in the 19th century Post Office, was responsible for giving Britain its bright red post boxes.

The first was installed in 1852, while Trollope was stationed in Jersey in the English Channel Islands. The first four stand-alone collecting boxes came to London three years later and now there are 115,300 dotted up and down the country.

Royal Mail, the stock exchange-listed postal operator, is legally obliged to operate at least one post box within half a mile (just under a kilometer) of 98 percent of all homes in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It is also guardian of a diverse portfolio of heritage assets. There are around 800 different types of roadside letter cataloged by the Letter Box Study Group, a volunteer-led organization which maintains the UK's most detailed database of individual post boxes.

There are three main varieties: the largest, typically, are pillar boxes. There are also wall boxes and lamp boxes for locations where smaller volumes of letters were, or are, required.

Nearly all post boxes carry the cipher – or monogram – of the British monarch reigning at the time of installation. Boxes dating from the reign of George V (1910-1936) account for around 15 percent of the total. They sport a plain GR cipher.

Boxes from the reign of George VI (1936-1952) have a more curly cipher, and contain the Roman numeral for six (VI). There are around 5,000 boxes from the 1901–1910 reign of Edward VII and a similar number from the much longer reign of his mother, Queen Victoria.

Only around 170 boxes dating from the 10-month reign of Edward VIII are still in use.

About 74,000 bear the insignia of Queen Elizabeth II, though Scottish boxes erected in the current monarch's reign do not have the 'EIIR' cipher because Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603) was not Queen of Scotland.

Scottish post boxes of the current monarch bear a Scottish crown whose design is based on the ancient crown of King David II, son of Robert the Bruce.

(Robert Cole is a columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a trustee of the Letter Box Study Group.)

Editing by Ruth Pitchford

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