A glance at one of the most varied of UK post boxes. The Ludlow is increasingly threatened and becoming ever rarer. Keep an eye out for what was once a ‘cheap’ alternative to the more common cast iron boxes.
Visit any village, town or city in the UK, and you do not have to travel far to come across one of the most familiar of British icons- the post box. Pillar boxes, wall boxes and lamp boxes have been a part of the street scene for over a hundred and fifty years. There is an enormous variety in post box design. Shape, material, cypher and even colour; variety is to be found in all of these as well as other minutia that has provided enthusiasts with ample material for specialist study. There is a particular design of box that is steadily becoming one of the rarest of its kind. Notwithstanding it’s cheap construction, these boxes continue to give sterling service decades after the last one was constructed. These are the ‘Ludlow’ post box.
The Ludlow post box was constructed by James Ludlow of 34 Albion Street, Birmingham. Both hand-annotated contemporary adverts and Kelly’s (a contemporary commercial directory) indicate that Ludlow was operating from this address in 1900. His occupation listed as ‘manufacturer of iron buckets, kettles, boxes, trays, tanks and trunks, all kinds of iron plate work’. Previous to Ludlow, a builder by the name of Edward Cole was working from that address in 1886 and prior to Ludlow’s involvement, Cole had also produced post boxes. A large number of boxes constructed by Cole were installed. In the Manchester District alone, with seventy ‘Cole type’ boxes recorded in use there in 1906.
The exact nature of the takeover, handover or possibly partnership of these two firms has yet to be unearthed, but what is known is that the business was soon run solely by James Ludlow. The size of the firm in its formative years is unclear but in 1961, the firm consisted of James Ludlow, his daughter Mrs. M. Dunn, who acted as Secretary- and three craftsmen.
Just about every other type of official post box is mostly constructed of metal, though glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) has also been utilised. Ludlow boxes were primarily made of wood. They were hand-made, the wood dovetailed together and the box fitted with an internal wire ‘cage’ and galvanised iron chute. The wood was Deal soft wood, changed in 1951 to Parana Pine. The front door and face of the box was covered with a thick steel sheet for security. Locks and keys were supplied by Chubbs. There was originally a wide range but these were reduced to four and eventually just two.
A striking feature of most Ludlows was a white enamelled metal sheet on the front. These were supplied by Garniers. This firm also supplied the Post Office with enamelled collection plates, tablet frames and time tablets. The white, enamelled, monogrammed plates while attractive, can crack or suffer the vagaries of weather or salt air. Many are also only held on by screws and are easily removed or stolen.
Ludlow boxes were originally produced for sale directly to sub-postmasters when it was them that were responsible to pay for post boxes installed on their premises. While sub-postmasters were not obliged to purchase these from Ludlow, most did. Ludlow also supplied their post boxes to businesses, hotels and more wealthy individuals, who chose to pay for a special ‘private’ collection from their premises. These Private Boxes were not fitted with an enamel plate on the front of the box.
At first, it was almost exclusively Town Sub-Post Offices that had Ludlow boxes installed by the Post Office and sub-postmasters at rural offices were responsible for installing them at their own expense. In 1907 the ‘Hobhouse’ Committee on Post Office Servants recommended that all sub-office post boxes be supplied at Post Office expense. This recommendation was implemented 1 January 1908 and sub-postmasters appointed after this date were provided with a post box free of charge, the Post Office was responsible for their installation, repair and maintenance, and subsequent removal. Sub-postmasters appointed prior to 1 January bore all such costs themselves; however, the box remained as their property. It was the practice for these long-standing sub-postmasters to sell a box to their successor, or if in good condition, to the Post Office for re-use in another office.
There was a little grey area in that the Post Office could not demand an earlier appointed sub-postmaster to remove a box they owned if he/she retired, resigned or was sacked. They could only instruct that the box have its aperture blocked and be painted a colour other than Post Office red (red being described as vermillion on Ludlow’s advertisments) or, alternatively, remove the box and make good the property at Post Office expense. Incidentally, there is no one ‘Post Office Red’ but that can be the subject of another blog. Most boxes removed from service were painted black and that is today’s specification.
Regarding the colour of a Ludlow box, an interesting proposal was made in 1909, that a Town Sub-postmaster could, if he so wished, paint a box in his office to match the colour of his shop front, this was to be at his own expense. The Secretary to the Post Office agreed with this proposal. Hence the occasional box encountered with abnormal coloration.
The initial ownership of a Ludlow post box by the sub-postmaster and not the Post Office could cause problems. This confusion has continued down the years, even today, there are some officials within (what is now) Royal Mail who think all Ludlow boxes are owned by the business. This confusion is compounded by the fact that many Ludlow boxes were later paid for and provided by the postal authorities for installation. Surviving records of ownership are poor or non-existent.
When a post box had to be provided by a country sub-postmaster, a specification was sent to him. Traditionally, this box had often been constructed by a local carpenter to fit the peculiar circumstances of where it would be fitted, i.e. within a wall or window.
In their earlier dealings with the Post Office, Ludlow did not enjoy a guaranteed monopoly. In 1910 Thomas Perkins & Sons of Burton-on-Trent provided a cheap ‘window box’ and Post Office officials compared this with a box manufactured by Ludlow. The twice as expensive Ludlow box excelled in the comparison test- it was larger, fitted with a wire-guard, chute, aperture for time tablet and the thick metal plate and ornamental beading on Ludlow’s box were regarded as ‘distinctly superior’ to the thin plate and beading on the Perkins box. This did not prevent the Post Office putting the pattern Perkins box into service in the Burton District.
After 1909 the policy was that at town Sub-Offices, the ‘official’ post box was now supplied by the Post Office. These official boxes were the all-metal construction wall boxes. At country Sub-Offices, the Post Office Surveyor made the decision whether to provide an official box or “one of the existing type of cheap box”. This meant that Ludlow had lost their favoured position of supplying boxes to town Sub-Offices. Instead, they had gained sufficient favour for their boxes to be adopted as the preferred box for fitting to country offices. Some surveyors felt that Ludlow’s boxes were unsuitable for country offices; the Acting Surveyor for North Wales felt that local carpenters should fashion any boxes required, the boxes simply being fitted with a regulation enamelled aperture plate.
In 1912 the moderate number of Ludlow boxes being requisitioned by postmasters was enough that the secretary authorised a contract to be made with Ludlow. Previous to this, Ludlow had been regarded as a private tradesman, not a letter box contractor and he had been supplying boxes under tender. Following the award of the contract, this status altered somewhat, and Ludlow boxes were then requisitioned directly from the Stores Department just as pillar and wall boxes were.
At some other town offices, a Ludlow was not required, all that was needed was an aperture for posting letters into, with a ‘safe’ door being fitted in the wall below. Such doors were manufactured by a number of companies such as Bates and Sons while zinc apertures were provided by Messrs Dixon, the Office of Works Contractor. Brass aperture surrounds were installed by the Office of Works.
Following the First World War, while the price of materials fell considerably, the wages paid to a carpenter had risen. There was a large increase in the cost of a box that Ludlow charged. In 1920, a number 4 box cost £3 4s, a rise of slightly more than 128% over that charged pre-war. Besides the occasional haggling over a few pence on renewals of contract, the Post Office continued to feel they were getting value for money. The relatively small number being ordered meant that that the Post Office had little need to insist on better terms; in 1914, 141 Ludlow boxes of all sizes were ordered, in 1917, this had fallen to just 12.
The Post Office frequently became hung up with quite small design detail. The normal design arrangement for post boxes installed at sub-offices was with the Royal Initials surmounted by a Crown. Due to the cramped space on the face of Ludlow boxes, the Post Office Secretary granted permission for the initials to be arranged in a single line. Later, there were concerns raised regarding the number of pearls that appeared on the King’s Crown as the design differed slightly from that shown in ‘Dods Peerages’ but having dispatched a Post Office official to the Heralds College, there, the matter of the number of pearls was brushed aside as being “…a matter of no significance.” and the design was approved as being “quite all right” by the College.
The question of the correct crown to be used by the Post Office continued to be reviewed and in 1934 the Director General decided that the use of the so- called ‘Post Office’ crown should be replaced with a design featuring nine pearls on each side of the arch, that was supposed to replace the other crown ‘as and when occasion arises’ though other variants were more common.
The door on the front of a Ludlow is obvious, what is not so obvious is that many also have a door in their rear. Sub Postmasters were normally permitted a half day off during the week, although a number still had to attend their offices to allow postmen to collect mails after the office had closed to the public. In January 1912, the Postmaster General ordered that wherever possible, a post box in a sub-office should have both front and rear doors to enable the postmaster to make up sealed bags (containing the registered mail) and place these together with any unregistered parcels into the box for later collection by the postal official. If a box with an internal door was required, this was specified on the order form. The rear doors have also been a subject of contention in recent years with some insurers looking at this as a place of weakness in building security. Though the great majority of Ludlow boxes supplied over the years did not have these extra rear doors.
In addition to the fitting of rear doors to some boxes, subtle changes occurred to the front of Ludlow boxes. Complaints were made in 1922 that as a result of constantly opening and closing the door, a groove could become worn in the wood beading resulting in the bolt becoming exposed to view, rendering it:
“…possible to open the box by using a pocket knife or similar implement”
This was remedied by Ludlow riveting a curved metal plate on the doors of the boxes covering the joint between the door and the framework along the width of the lock. He charged the Post Office an additional 2/- per box for this work.
In 1929, the range of sub-office boxes produced by Ludlow was reduced from four to two. The number of boxes type 1 & 2 being ordered annually had reduced, additionally the internal well fitted in type 1 (which was designed to support a hanging mail bag) and 2 took longer to clear on collection duties. Henceforth only types 3 and 4 were available. Also in 1929, Birmingham based James Ludlow supplied eight boxes for fixing to tramcars in his town at a cost of £3 10s each. Boxes for tramcars followed no generic design, but tended to be produced by local manufacturers to meet the specific design and requirements of the vehicles for which they were required.
In November 1934, the Post Office began to make arrangements for all cast iron posting boxes to carry a large flat type of collection notice plate as standard. Ludlow was instructed to bring his boxes in line with this. The notice plate was recessed into the door behind the steel facing plate. The Post Office also preferred to have the tablet holder (that indicated when the next collection would take place) recessed behind the steel faceplate as well.
Each new monarch had their cypher placed on boxes made during their reign, the last to be found on Ludlows being Queen Elizabeth II. The abdication of EviiiR caused a bit of a headache to the Post Office. Ludlow reported 28 Ludlows with EviiiR monogram had been distributed across the country to destinations that included Penzance, Edinburgh and Newport on the Isle of Wight. The Post Office decided to change the fronts of Ludlow boxes bearing the EviiiR monogram to GviR. This was done by changing the enamelled iron aperture plate on type 3 boxes and the cast iron aperture plate and enamelled iron plate on type 4 boxes. The latter had their plates changed to GviR in situ, the Post Office issued instructions that such changes should be made “as unobtrusively as possible”. Possibly the only indication of their original designation is a date branded inside the occasional survivor. There was one remarkable survivor that slipped the net. A lone EviiiR Ludlow remained for many years in Bawdsey, Suffolk. Anecdotally, I was told many years ago that it had been a militarised zone and the postal official was denied access to the box.
On 10 February 1937 King George VI approved his Royal Cypher for use on Post Office vans and post boxes. Ludlow was sent a drawing of the approved design of GviR of Royal Initials and Crown to be used on post boxes. He reported that the first box bearing the GviR cypher was issued on 18 June 1937.
Ludlow was careful to protect his reputation with the Post Office and was quick to keep up with orders. On the other hand, the supply from other manufacturers of all-metal wall boxes was a different matter; orders were often three months in arrears. A census of all public post boxes made in April 1949, recorded 3434 Ludlow boxes of all types remaining in use. This census is revealing. In addition to the Ludlows, there were 14573 Lamp boxes, 41867 Wall boxes, 28168 Pillar boxes and 4983 ‘other types’. A total of 92925 post boxes installed across the UK. There is currently around 120000 post boxes, few of which are now the vulnerable Ludlow.
Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the throne in 1952, crowned the following year, and in common with new mail vans, telephone kiosks and post boxes, a ‘Scottish’ crown design was created for use on new Ludlow boxes to be installed in Scotland.
In June 1954 it was decided that while the EiiR cypher could remain on new Ludlows generally (together with St. Edwards crown) and a Scottish Crown 2 ¼’’ high on both sizes of box in Scotland, the enamel plate previously installed by Ludlow should be excluded from new boxes as it was now felt that this was an unnecessary extra decoration. The words ‘Post Office’ on a small plate screwed to the lower part of the door was adopted. As a result, Ludlows from the reign of EiiR can look a little plain compared to those that preceded them.
James Ludlow terminated his contract with the Post Office and his firm closed 30 April 1965. The number of new post boxes being ordered from him had fallen greatly; the previous year only 32 size 3 and 64 size 4 had been requested. Despite the delays often encountered, the Post Office recommended that metal wall boxes made by W.T. Allen be ordered instead. An alternative suggestion was that Private Posting Boxes should be ordered as the Post Office didn’t realise that Ludlow also supplied these! 1000 size 3 and 1700 size 4 Ludlows were recorded in use at this time and there was concern about the ongoing supply of spare parts such as door, box front, wireguard, chute, steel facing sheet, locks, hinges, notice plate frame, time tablets, aperture plate, escutcheon plate and ‘Post Office’ plates. This list demonstrates not only how the wear and tear on these boxes was quite heavy but also how remarkable it is that so many remain in existence today.
Today, though decreasing in number at an alarming rate due to post offices closing or simply wearing out, many of these interesting post boxes continue to function as they were first intended to, though they may be a bit rickety around the edges and many have suffered bodged repairs from less-than-skilled workmen. They worked well and are testament to the skilled craftsmen that made them. There is a great variety amongst survivors, far more than illustrated here. To my mind at least, Ludlows are one of the most varied and fascinating design of post box ever put into service.
Be aware that not every wooden post box is a Ludlow. Similar in design are still rarer variants. These include the locally-produced ‘Carpenters’ boxes, also made of wood, that were made to local specification for installation in a particular building. Even cheaper to make than Ludlows, very few of these boxes survive. Rarer still are the Eagle Range and Foundry boxes, produced circa 1887, again, of wooden construction with a metal face.
Note that these mail receptacles are frequently referred to as letter boxes, however they are now used for mail defined as ‘packets’, in addition to letters, so I have used the more accurate ‘post box’ term. In fact some large pillar boxes are specifically designed for parcels rather than letters. One for the pedant!
This has been part of an occasional series looking at street furniture in the United Kingdom. Others in the series have been:
- Post boxes on the London LOOP (part one, part two)
- Post boxes on the Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path
- Enlarged aperture wall boxes- the ‘one in every village’ scheme
- Sustrans Millennium Mileposts– on the National Cycle Network
- Telephone Kiosks
- Village and Town Signs
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