Before 1840 most items of post had to be paid for by the recipient and the charges depended on how far they were being sent and on how many pieces of paper they contained. Postage costs were too high for most people to afford. In 1837 social reformer Rowland Hill proposed reforms to the postal system, which included the introduction of a single postage rate of one penny for all standard weight (up to half an ounce) letters. This would be paid by the sender. The world’s first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black, was introduced in 1840.
However people wishing to send letters had to take them to the nearest letter receiving office, which could be miles away. A growth in use of the postal service after 1840 led to the need for many more convenient locations where stamped letters could be deposited. The novelist Anthony Trollope, who worked for the General Post Office, saw roadside post boxes in use in France. He trialled the use of locked cast-iron pillar boxes with regular collection times on Jersey in 1852 and they were introduced to mainland Britain in 1853.
Some of the early post boxes were hexagonal in shape but a wide variety of designs were used. Boxes inserted into walls were introduced in 1857. In 1859 an improved cylindrical shape pillar box, with its posting aperture located beneath a cap to protect it from rainwater, was introduced for standard use. By 1859 the colour for post boxes was standardised as dark green but this colour made them difficult for people to find them. The standard colour was changed to bright red in 1874, although it was another decade before all post boxes were repainted red.
Lamp post boxes were introduced in 1896. These were designed to be attached to lamp posts but they were also attached to telegraph poles, set on their own posts or set into walls.
Around 800 different designs for post boxes have been used so far and new designs are still being produced.
Post boxes usually have the insignia of the monarch reigning at the time of placement. 60% of British post boxes currently in use have EIIR for Queen Elizabeth II or a Scottish crown on them, 15% have the insignia of King George V and the remainder in descending order are from the reigns of George VI, Victoria, Edward VII and Edward VIII. There are only 171 from the very short reign of Edward VIII in 1936 but one of these is located on the junction of Kenn Road with St Michael’s Avenue in Clevedon.