I have finally finished writing my Christmas cards; each year it seems to take a little longer. I very much enjoy the whole process: selecting cards, handwriting messages, stuffing and addressing envelopes, attaching stamps. But the best part is walking to the village post box, a long-standing cherry-red pillar, and posting in each card. I love the satisfying noise each makes as it falls onto the pile within!
The British post box has become, in its one-hundred-and-sixty-year history, an iconic symbol of Britain. It all began with a writer: Anthony Trollope. Back in the 1850s he worked for the Post Office and wrote a report recommending fixed pillar boxes be trialled in the Channel Islands. The trial was a success, and a year later London got its first boxes – and from there, they slowly sprang up around the country. They were painted green initially, so as not to be eyesores but blend with the landscape, but in the 1870s it was decided that they needed to be more visible, and a programme of painting began. So many post boxes existed by than that it took ten years to paint them all red.
Various designs have been employed over the years, from green to red, hexagonal to cylindrical, but most have in common that they are for public use. But how about having your own personal post box to fill with correspondence? Kent-based writer Charles Dickens managed to secure just that for himself.
It is a well-known fact that Dickens was a prolific writer. As well as editing a weekly journal and lecturing and performing around the country, he wrote fifteen novels, five novellas and hundreds of articles and short stories. But what of letters, the chief means of communication in the days before the telephone and digital technology? According to Marion, Dickens’ great-great-granddaughter, he wrote more than 14,000 letters. That necessitates a great many trips to the post box – but from his home, Gad’s Hill Place, it was a mile’s walk to the nearest box in the village of Higham. What was a man to do? Petition for a new post box outside his home, of course! He wrote in a letter on 29 March 1859:
I think that no one seeing the place can well doubt that my house at Gad’s Hill is the place for the letter-box. The wall is accessible by all sorts and conditions of men, on the bold high road, and the house altogether is the great landmark of the whole neighbourhood.
Once the post box was duly erected, it seemed the service was very personal indeed – Dickens would leave the poor postman waiting while he finished his latest piece of mail. ‘The postman is waiting at the gate to tramp through the snow to Rochester and is unlawfully drinking a glass of gin while I write this,’ he wrote to his friend Charles Kent.
Dickens’ post box remained in place until the 1990s, when it was decommissioned, but this month it was officially reopened. I read in the newspaper that any cards or letters posted in the box before Christmas will be franked by Royal Mail with a special ‘CD’ postmark, like the seal Dickens used on his letters. I rather wish now that I had known about that before posting my cards. But then it is a long way from my home near Deal in Kent to Gad’s Hill, and based on this story I doubt Dickens would have approved of my travelling more than a very short walk to post my mail.