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Trail talk: the ‘one in every village’ wall box scheme

Between 1956 and 1965 the British Post Office improved posting facilities by installing replacement wall post boxes with larger apertures that would allow larger items of mail to be posted. It was an ambitious and expensive scheme. A cheaper method than wholesale replacement involved cutting out the apertures on existing wall boxes in-situ and fitting a larger aperture. Thousands of wall boxes were provided with modified apertures and the replacement and modification scheme became known as the ‘one-in-every-village’ scheme.

GR wall box with modified posting aperture. Morvich, on the Cape Wrath Trail
GR wall box with modified posting aperture. Morvich, on the Cape Wrath Trail

One in every village… The 1950s and 60s aperture enlargement programme

Bright red painted post boxes are a feature of both town and countryside in the UK and this familiar street furniture has a wide variety of types, ages, styles and features for those who choose to take notice. Hiking in the UK you are frequently passing through small villages and there is often a particular form of post box that you have almost certainly not noticed. It is a modification carried out on 1000s of wall boxes to meet the demands of a dissatisfied public, yet was also discharged with care. What’s more, it was one man who completed almost all of the work in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In mid-twentieth century UK a wide range of envelope sizes were in use. The British Standards Institution prescribed 47 sizes of envelope as being of ‘standard size’ while the British Post Office (PO) itself had 97 types of envelope in use. Many envelopes were much larger than those previously favoured when the Victorians were posting letters when post boxes were first installed from 1852. The PO frequently received enquiries from the public asking why the size of posting apertures in letter boxes could not be increased to allow larger envelopes to be more easily posted.

GR Lamp Box (installed in a wall here). Its small size means that the posting aperture canot be enlarged. Ightham Mote, on the  London Countryway
GR Lamp box (installed in a wall here). Its small size means that the posting aperture cannot be enlarged. Ightham Mote, on the London Countryway

The general reply from postal officials in 1955 was that while many post boxes in service remained “totally adequate” to the task, all new boxes came with the ‘modern’ standard aperture of 8″ x 1 3/4″. It was believed that this was the maximum practical size as it not only reduced the risk of theft from post boxes but also discouraged the posting of overlarge packets.

This demonstrates a different set of values and beliefs from today as the standard aperture width on new post boxes is now 10″. Also pointed out at the time was that the wholesale replacement of all old type post boxes would be impossible due to the cost involved. It was also suggested that any exercise in enlarging existing post box apertures could possibly weaken the structure of boxes. An excuse subsequently abandoned.

A VR wall box with standard unaltered and narrow posting aperture. Cawsand, on the South West Coast Path
VR Wall box with standard unaltered narrow posting aperture. Cawsand, on the South West Coast Path

Pillar boxes are expensive and suited to large volumes of mail being posted. Cheaper wall and lamp boxes were used where footfall was smaller, such as villages. The PO commissioned a report on how many small aperture post boxes there were in existence. The results of the survey were regarded with dismay- while almost all pillar boxes met the minimum standard, there were also 17000 type C wall boxes (with apertures of 6 1/4″ x 1 1/8″) and 12500 pre-1940 type lamp boxes (with apertures of 5 1/2″ x 1″). The cost of replacing these was put at £500,000.

“the problem to be so large that the only practical solution seems to be one of selection. We have accordingly now asked the Regions to advise on what proportion of the total of boxes with small apertures would need replacement in accordance with a standard we have tentatively evolved”

Deputy Director General, Post Office, 21 April 1955

The various PO Regional offices were canvassed on the number of replacements required if every village (other than the very smallest) were provided with at least one post box with a larger aperture. This bought the totals down to around 1400 wall boxes and 500 lamp boxes. At this point it was proposed by the PO Director, Scotland that they be excluded from the exercise. Scotlands preference was to simply wait for complaints and then consider any necessary action. London based officials were wary of such inaction:

“I think that some action, however nominal will be necessary in Scotland. I hate to think what the Scots would say if it came to light that benefits being distributed south of the border were to be withheld from them”

J.R. Baxter, Postal Services Department, 18 May 1955

Isolated houses and hamlets were excluded from proposals. At these places bulky packets could be handed to the postman and it was felt that this practice sufficed. The situation in Northern Ireland was similar. Post Office Headquarters at Belfast was only able to trace a single complaint about the size of posting box apertures. Belfast officials stated that there were less post boxes in rural areas than elsewhere and correspondingly more mail was handed to the postman on delivery.

The PO was spending £90000 per annum on new post boxes and felt that an additional £10000 per annum was all that could be justified for a post box replacement programme. This equated to about 400 wall boxes and 135 lamp boxes each year- three and a half years to complete any enlargement scheme. The Postmaster General expressed his willingness for the replacement programme to be accelerated from three and a half years to just two and work began 1 September 1956. The following year the PO committed to the replacement or alteration of wall boxes so that there would be at least one with a large aperture in each of 2000 villages throughout the country, slightly more than the 1900 previously suggested.

New costings initially estimated some £35000 but needless to say, this quickly began to spiral. Worse, more accurate numbers of the true requirement for larger aperture post boxes began to surface. Full returns from the regions following the commencement of the replacement scheme revealed that earlier estimates had been far too low. It transpired that 3295 wall boxes and 1365 lamp boxes, 4660 in total, would be required. However the various manufacturers were unable to increase production of boxes to meet the requirements. The major foundry of wall boxes for the PO was W.T. Allen. While their contract stipulated 80 per month and they stated their ability to raise this to 120, average production remained at 74 per month. The PO considered using another foundry, McDowall Stephen, to meet the shortfall but they were more than aware that unit costs from this manufacturer were 100% up on those from W.T. Allen. Part of the problem also lay with Chubbs who supplied the locks. There had been an unprecedented demand for wall boxes fitted with both front and rear doors, these required twice as many locks, Chubbs struggled to meet demand. It looked as though relying on a box replacement scheme would scupper the promised improvement project.

Post Office Engineering had previously advised against enlarging the apertures of existing boxes in-situ but due to the difficulties now being encountered, the PO began to re-explore the practicalities of an aperture enlargement programme on existing post boxes in conjunction with a box replacement programme.

Aperture replacement had its difficulties. Boxes were cast from iron and the use of hacksaws was both impractical and largely impossible. Use of oxy-acetylene cutting equipment provided its own difficulties with work in-situ. Once an existing aperture had been enlarged, a replacement, larger escutcheon piece would have to be fitted to each box. It was now obvious that the old style lamp boxes would have to be excluded from any enlargement process as their design was simply not wide enough to accommodate a wider posting aperture. The PO still stated their aim to complete the programme as originally envisaged: ‘at least one box in every village to possess a standard size aperture’.

Miss Three Points of the Compass posts a card into a Victorian wall box. The post box originally had a small aperture but this has been cut out to fit a larger one. Photographed while hiking the Dales Way in 2012

The financial cost was too great to meet in the first year. £8750 was split between the regions to cover the first six months of the programme up to 30 September 1957.  The cost of enlarging an aperture would potentially be far lower than replacement of the whole box so a spare box was experimented on by PO engineers and fitted with a replacement ‘standard size aperture’ of 8″ x 1 3/4″ . Following inspection by officials this was deemed “quite satisfactory“. On the back of this experiment, it was decided that an aperture enlargement should not supplement the box replacement programme but now replace it entirely. 1087 wall boxes had been replaced by 30 September 1957 and only a very limited number continued to be supplied as replacements. W.T. Allen were told to rein in production of wall boxes from 80 to 40 per month. At first, progress was slow. The Engineering Department lay the blame on the variation being encountered in crown, cipher, ornamental beading and the words ‘Post Office’ on wall boxes:

Modified aperture plate fitted below Crown and EviiR cipher
Modified aperture plate fitted below Crown and EviiR cipher. Any replacement aperture programme had to avoid obscuring or damaging these

apart from accommodating these as a matter of geometry they must either be totally unobscured or completely covered; any partial obscuration being likely to receive adverse comment”

E.J. Castellano, Post Office Engineering Department

PO Engineering, Power Branch produced drawings for 640 ‘Mouth Pieces’ to be used for enlarging the apertures on size ‘C’ wall letter boxes. The method used for replacing the apertures was agreed between PO Engineering and HM Inspector of Factories and authorisation for the work was given in December 1958, though this was then sub-contracted.

Victorian wall box with modified aperture, Worcester.
Victorian wall box with modified aperture, Worcester.
Side view of replacement aperture plate on Victorian wall box, Worcester
Side view of replacement aperture plate on Victorian wall box, Worcester

It was expected that work on each box would take some two and a half hours. The existing aperture was cut or chiselled off the box. The contractor was instructed to take great care to avoid cutting through portions of the cipher or other markings above or below the replacement aperture. Each new replacement aperture was supplied with a thin web at the edge which was cut away if and where necessary to clear any markings on the box.

Four holes were drilled in the face of the box to take the fixing studs of the new casting and the replacement aperture, complete with baffle plate, was fixed into position. Any gaps or cavities between the old and new castings were filled with putty or waterproof filler. This was allowed to set hard. The box was then painted Post Office Red.

Inside a modified wall box, looking up into the top corner of the box with replacement aperture below. One of the four studs holding the larger aperture plate in place can be seen. Below the aperture are the 'dragons teeth' designed to prevent theft of mail from a post box
Inside a modified wall box, looking up into the top corner of the box with replacement aperture below. One of the four studs holding the larger aperture plate in place can be seen. Below the aperture are the ‘dragons teeth’, designed to prevent theft of mail from a post box
Modified aperture on GR wall box. Bellingham, Northumberland
Modified aperture on GR wall box. Bellingham, Northumberland, on the Pennine Way. It can be seen how the contractor has cut away the webbing of the replacement aperture to fit around the Crown and cipher

Wall boxes type C bearing G.R., E.R. [or EviiR] and V.R. ciphers were selected for the work. Not all small size Victorian boxes were suitable for the conversion work as some were particularly early examples with hinged flaps over the aperture. The contract was awarded to Messrs. Grinding Improvements (Edinburgh) Ltd. of 1 Clarendon Road, Croydon, Surrey. They were paid £6 for each box completed. Work on modifying the apertures on wall boxes commenced summer 1959. Remarkably, it appears that it was a sole engineer who carried out almost all of the work. He had completed all of the boxes in the Home Counties Region and the London Postal Region by the end of October 1959 and all of the boxes in Northern Ireland by the end of the following August. The programme was completed November 1960.

Victorian wall box with replacement apperture. Photographed on the London Countryway
Victorian wall box with replacement aperture. Photographed on the London Countryway
EviiR wall box with modified aperture. Photographed on the Dales Way
EviiR wall box with replacement modified aperture. Photographed on the Dales Way
GR wall box with replacement aperture. Photographed at Helmsley on the Cleveland Way
GR wall box with replacement aperture. Photographed at Helmsley, on the Cleveland Way

Earlier public interest in the programme had largely died down and it was quietly proposed that the original figure of 2000 boxes be revived. 634 boxes required work to bring the aperture enlargement programme up to this number (1366- the remainder of the 2000, having been altered by replacement of the whole box). If further ‘strong’ complaints about the size of aperture of a box in a village where there was no box with an aperture at least 8″ wide, and where no box was due to be dealt with were received, then Head Postmasters could replace the box (if a lamp box) or instruct the engineers to enlarge the aperture of a small wall box type C. If any box requiring work did not fit these criteria then apertures could be widened using an alternative method by postmen or local handymen “if this can be done competently and cheaply for say not more than £1′“. Such local work may explain the occasional poor examples of modified apertures ocasionally found.

Completion of the 634 wall boxes was supposed to bring the project to a close but, flushed with success, work on the 2660 boxes previously discounted was then proposed. The regions were again canvassed for their opinion. Responses varied- Scotland stated that there was actually no demand for the work from the public. Conversely, the reply from Wales and the Border Counties was that intense criticism of small aperture boxes had been received, particularly during the Christmas pressure period. In all, the nine postal regions stated that 826 lamp boxes required replacement and 2517 wall C box required replacement or alteration to fulfil the one-in-a-village concept, 3343 boxes in total. It was estimated that this work would cost about another £25000 to complete (2500 boxes at £7.10.0 each and 830 lamp boxes at approximately £8 each). Faced with this estimate and a generally lukewarm response from the regions, officials considered whether the exercise should be dropped on grounds of cost. However two of the regions had been strongly in favour of continuing the programme. The response from Wales and the Border Counties was echoed by the Director of the North Eastern Region who also stated his approval and wish for the project to be continued – 166 lamp boxes and 502 wall boxes in his region required work. The two regions alone accounted for 1104 of the 2517 wall boxes requiring attention.

Victorian wall box with modified aperture in brick pillar, Old Hunstanton, Norfolk
Victorian wall box with modified aperture, in brick pillar, Old Hunstanton, on the Norfolk Coast Path
EviiR wall box with modified aperture. Photographed on the Great Glen Way, Scotland
EviiR wall box with modified aperture. Photographed on the Great Glen Way, Scotland

To keep expenditure within an acceptable limit, the replacement programme for lamp boxes was dropped. Instead, continued modification of wall box apertures was given the go-ahead in November 1961. Those in the two regions most affected were given priority. The cost of modifying each box was £5-15-0 and work began August 1962. Originally scheduled for completion by late November 1964, poor weather held up operations and it was not completed until late 1965. It is not recorded what contractor was awarded the contract for this second phase of aperture modification but was likely to have been the same as before.

What was actually modified?

Other than replacement of small apertured wall boxes and lamp boxes, modification of apertures was supposed to have occurred on the mid-sized wall boxes measuring approximately 28″ x 10″. For the experts in letter box sub-types, around eleven types and sub-types of wall box can be found with the modified apertures from this programme.               

The official files record 634 wall boxes were completed as part of a dedicated (phase 1) programme by late 1960 with another 2517 altered soon after (phase 2). Trials were also conducted on at least seven boxes, it is likely that these were pressed into service complete with modified apertures. This accounts for 3158 wall boxes with modified apertures so it is very easy to unexpectedly stumble across one while hiking in the UK. In addition there would have been the occasional alterations carried out on a local order basis. Beside this enlargement programme ran the continued, though declining, box replacement scheme until the manufacture of wall boxes ceased completely in 1980.

It can be satisfying to identify a post box with a modified aperture from the 1950s/60s enlargement programme, many surviving examples remain and the work carried out is mostly holding up well over the years. Once aware of what to look for, these modified wall boxes are easy to spot. When you next encounter one, take a few minutes to study the alteration and decide for yourself if the work was sympathetic, aesthetically pleasing or possibly more to the point, actually necessary.

This is part of an occasional series where I have looked at street furniture to be seen while hiking and travelling in the United Kingdom. Other blogs have been:

Victorian wall box with replacement aperture and rather too many coats of paint. Friston, East Sussex
Victorian wall box with replacement aperture and rather too many coats of paint. Friston, East Sussex

8 replies »

    • Pleased you got something from it.
      Stay tuned for more useless writing on other non-hiking related ‘stuff’ (plus a bit on hiking, on occasion, just a bit!)

      Like

  1. I’ve become much more conscious of the variety of postbox styles out there since reading this post, simply did not realise there were so many different ones.

    Like

    • The UK is blessed with a quite astonishing variety of post boxes. I will occasionally be blogging on a few of these over the following year, sorry about that!

      Like

  2. This is some seriously nerdy, geeky **** here…. and thanks to you, TPotC, I am now unable to walk past a flippin’ post box without looking to see if it has a modified aperture!!!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Of course I have, and of course I have, and of course I have… with the last two being why my wife kinda hates me now… or maybe hates you… It’s hard to tell. Probably best to assume she hates both of us!

        Liked by 1 person

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