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Notes and news — December 2001

In this issue:

Spot it and jot it 1: Letter Boxes

At the moment we are trying to improve the database which was originally intended as a part of the GLIAS Book due to be published in the early 1980s. Many sites have been demolished and many sites were not included as they were not deemed important enough.

Therefore I have decided to suggest that members might like to look around the streets close to home and note any interesting pieces of street furniture. Street furniture can be all sorts of things from bollards to manhole covers, or pillar boxes to telephone boxes, or horse troughs to street lamps, or mile stones to traffic signals. Just let me know what it is, where it is, street and postcode with a short description and we should be able to add it to the database. You only need to 'spot it and jot it'.

I thought I would start a short series of notes about such remains to encourage some of you to have a go. Please contact Sue Hayton if you have any useful information.

To start with letter boxes.

In 1635 the 'Letter Office' was created to carry public mail at a speed of 7mph in the summer months and 5mph in the winter. A letter sent from London to Edinburgh would therefore take 85 hours and would cost the princely sum of 9d. Charles I had perhaps envisaged this as a money-making scheme to pay for his Royal Mail. The Post Office proper was set up by his son, Charles II, in 1660.

Inns were used as the collection point for mail as it was easy for the post boys to pick up the mail and change horses. A Mail Coach service was set up in 1784 and by the 1820s they could average 9mph with stops every 10 miles to change horses. All London coaches left from the General Post Office and apparently spectators would gather last thing at night as 28 Royal Mail coaches would set off at once for all parts of the country.

With the advent of the railways, the mail coaches disappeared. The last service, from London to Norwich, stopped in 1846. The great change, of course, was the introduction of the Penny Post by Sir Rowland Hill in 1840.

Post masters had appeared in towns all over the country, some even used their own servants to deliver the mail, but with the advent of a cheap means of communication, they were not able to receive all the mail and so mail boxes had to be introduced.

Britain was a somewhat dilatory in providing letter boxes. In Paris boxes were introduced in 1653, although this scheme was not a success. By 1829 letter boxes were available all over France, even in the deepest countryside. The author Anthony Trollope, who began his career in the Post Office before pursuing a literary career, suggested that there should be post boxes in Guernsey. There was, apparently no difficulty in buying stamps on the island, but there was no receiving office to take in the mail. A local blacksmith, John Vaudin, cast seven boxes in 1852, one of which can still be found in Union Street, St Peter Port. These first boxes were hexagonal, 4ft 8in tall, adorned with the royal cipher of William IV and painted red. There were complaints, but only because there were not enough boxes!

They were quickly taken up on the mainland, but no specific design was agreed, so that there were many variations in size and shape. The first London boxes were designed by E A Cowper, the consulting engineer to the Post Office and manufactured by Messrs H & M D Grissell of the Regents Canal Iron works at Eagle Wharf Road in Hoxton. They were square and 5ft tall with a shallow domes roof lopped by a ball and were quickly found to be inadequate as they were so low that the instruction on the box were easily splashed with mud. Cowper, however, was pleased that they were secure and that no item of mail had been stolen. Six boxes were installed at Fleet Street, The Strand, Pall Mall, Piccadilly (two boxes) and Rutland Gate.

Mention should here be made of the Richardson box of 1857-1859. The Post Office had conferred with the Department of Science and Art at South Kensington and Richard Richardson had submitted an elaborate decorative hexagonal box in cast iron. However decorative and attractive the box was, it had one essential flaw, there was no hole for letters to be posted through. A mouth could not be introduced at the side because of the heavy decoration and so a hole was cut in the top of the box through which letters could be posted. Of course, the rain could also penetrate!

Various designs were tried out and rejected until in 1864 J W Penfold was asked to design something better. He reverted to the hexagonal box which was used from 1866 until 1879 when it was decided that a cylindrical box would be better. Many of these Penfolds still remain, cast by Cochrane. I know of one in the London area at Royal Parade in Chislehurst. Where are the others? Robinson quotes a number in London, but are they still there?

Penfold, Wood Lane

The first National Standard Box was introduced in 1879 and was a cylindrical box in two sizes. A cylinder was preferable as it could be cast more easily than the Penfold and it could accommodate more letters even though the earlier design was thought to be more aesthetically pleasing. The contractors for the new boxes were Handyside and this style of box remained in production for 100 years.

by Royal Albert Hall

To make sorting easier, double boxes, the Type C, were introduced in London in 1898-99 for 'town' and 'country' and cast by Handysides of Derby. They proved very successful and so were introduced in provincial towns after 1905.

Type C, Great Russell Road

Signs were added from 1924 to the top of pillar boxes to direct customers to the nearest Post office. These are becoming rarer because of vandalism. Often the only trace is the cast-iron holder on the top of the box.

Lincoln's Inn

Trials of stamp dispensers were carried out as early as the 1890s but the idea was not taken up until the 1920s when machines were attached. The K4 telephone box designed by Giles Gilbert Scott also included a post box as well as a stamp machine. The type D box by Derby Castings with the George V cipher was oval with an aperture at one end and a stamp machine on the other. There were a number in London, but where are they?

Wall boxes were used, particularly in the countryside, where numbers of letters were small and space too was at a premium. Between 1959 and 1965, the Post Office widened the mouths of over 5,000 such boxes because modern letters were so much larger than their Victorian counterparts. How many of these boxes survive in the outer areas of London?


Edward VIII had the shortest reign of any monarch apart from Lady Jane Grey, but many pillar boxes from his reign remain recognisable only from the cipher. They were cast by McDowall Steven. I know of one in Beckenham, but where are the other London examples?

King Edward VIII, Southgate

In 1968 a rectangular box was erected outside St Paul's Cathedral, designed by David Mellor. It was unusual as it was made of rectangular steel panels fitted to an internal steel framework. Mellor insisted that, as letters were rectangular, the post box should also be rectangular. Two hundred such boxes, called the Type F, were made but they were not strong enough for the job. What happened to this box — is it still there? In 1974 the Carron Company produced a similar G Type in cast iron but this too was a short-lived model.

The most recent box — National Standard K — was designed in 1978 by Tony Gibbs of the Hop Studios. It was cast at the Lion Foundry of Kirkintilloch and brought into operation in 1979 as the new National Standard Box, 100 years after the first cylindrical National Standard box. Various new materials were considered but nothing bettered cast iron for durability and resistance to vandalism. The older model was difficult to cast and there was a high rejection rate at the foundry. They were designed without the traditional cap and the cipher as well as the posting information is recessed, meaning that the boxes could be rolled across the factory floor during production without damage. The first one was installed outside the Royal Albert Hall in 1979. There do not seem to be many examples of this model, perhaps because they do not stand out as easily as the older ones, perhaps the most obvious example appears on the opening titles of 'Brookside' on Channel 4! Sue Hayton

Some founders:

Further reading:

Consignia Heritage Services (formerly known as the Post Office Archive) is in Phoenix Place at the back of Mount Pleasant Post Office and is open from Monday to Friday from 9am to 4.15pm. It is closed on Bank Holidays including Maundy Thursday
The Letter Box Study Group website:

Follow-up: Newsletter 141 of August 1992 featured a brief article in which I gave a potted history of British standard boxes and listed some of the more interesting examples to be found in the London Postal area.

Since then many changes have taken place — for instance the unique pair of wallboxes in Bishopsgate, EC2, has gone — but most importantly the Letter Box Study Group (LBSG) records have been computerised and many more surveys have been undertaken of postboxes in areas that had not previously been scrutinised.

Membership of the LBSG entitles those who have joined to receive, at modest cost, detailed lists of postboxes by type, rarity, and location which can be by postcode, county, country or town.

London is extremely rich in its variety of postboxes still in daily use and just to quote one example, on the north side of Shepherd's Bush Common can be found the very last survivor of the square sheet-steel pillars. When seen in early May it was in very poor condition and seems destined to be replaced by a conventional cast-iron box.

Any member of GLIAS wishing to join the Letter Box Study Group should send an SAE to Val Scott at 38 Leopold Avenue, Handsworth Wood, Birmingham B20 lES. P Lynch

Spot it and jot it 2

GLIAS cruise

The GLIAS working-boat trip in the Tilbury — Gravesend area as previously advertised (GLIAS Newsletter June 2001) took place on Sunday 7 October.

This turned out to be a very wet day with high winds. In fact this was probably the wettest GLIAS outing since our visit to the beach to the east of Folkestone with Dr Paul Varley (jointly with the Newcomen Society) on Saturday 22 October 1994 to see abandoned remains of early work on the Channel Tunnel (GLIAS 153, p1; GLIAS 154, p1). If it had not been high tide then we might have seen something of the Beaumont Tunnel which was driven c1880-83.

For the cruise this year we embarked at Tower Wharf, Northfleet, which is currently the SEACON terminal. The visit here was quite interesting in itself despite the fact that no ship was on the berth that day. We had, though, chosen a time when there was a good deal of shipping activity. This part of the Thames is still very much a working river.

From Tower Wharf we headed east keeping close to the south bank and getting good views of Northfleet, Rosherville, Gravesend, Milton, Denton and beyond. If the weather had been better we could have inspected this very interesting industrially active stretch of the Thames in a more leisurely manner. Another GLIAS expedition here would be very worthwhile. There are quite a number of riverside berths and jetties still in use although even here riverside housing development is beginning to take over. In a few years' time this will be prime commuter territory when the very rapid local trains start running over the Channel Tunnel Rail Link to St Pancras.

The wake from ships gave rise to considerable bobbing about but the motion was not particularly unpleasant. No sickness was noted. Indeed the high wind did not produce as much swell as we expected. The main problem was the rain but fortunately most of the party were very well equipped with appropriate really waterproof clothing. Our Sargent boat, the Enterprise, even had the luxury of some covered accommodation for those with less adequate clothing. Enterprise was used by GLIAS on 21 August 1994 for an up-river cruise to Lambeth (GLIAS 154, p5) when it was quite warm and dry (but on the Thames itself relatively boring by comparison).

Having passed the Ship and Lobster public house we crossed the river to the north bank and headed west. Now we were more exposed to the bad weather. We had good close views of Tilbury Power Station, The Fort, Tilbury Landing Stage and the reinforced concrete Tilbury Jetty with its bowstring bridge which allowed lighters to pass beneath to the landward side of ships for loading (cf the dolphins on the south side of Royal Albert Dock in Newham). The jetty still looked in fairly good condition even though pretty much out of use since the introduction of containerisation. We continued north-westwards past the very busy Northfleet Hope Container Berth and on to Tilbury Grain Terminal where we made quite a close approach. A short way further on we crossed the river again and once more headed east along the south bank back to Tower Wharf. Even though the voyage was shortened because of the weather most people by now felt that the cruise had lasted long enough.

Thanks are due to Mr John Sargent for acting as our boatman in person and getting everyone back without mishap.

This account of our outing on the river seems to be more about bad weather than industrial archaeology but for those who took part this unfortunately was the overriding impression — it was a bit like going through the car wash on a grey day. However, the Thames off Denton was superbly beautiful in near storm conditions with driving rain and some of our party, say those used to hill walking, found the bad weather exhilarating. Memories of blinding rain, almost painful at times with more than a hint of hail or sleet persist. At least it was exciting. In normal weather the industrial archaeology would have predominated.

A number of GLIAS working-boat river cruises have been organised in the past, see eg Twenty Five Years of GLIAS, 1995, edited by Tim Smith, p12. Most of these were well up-river where now there is almost no port activity. By contrast in the Tilbury area one still sees plenty of deep-sea shipping including really large container ships. The south bank opposite Tilbury would repay a more detailed scrutiny and it is hoped to organise a repeat of this boat trip in about six months when the weather should one hopes be better. Bob Carr
If you are interested in taking part in a repeat trip (and are perhaps a little forgetful) you might send a sae now for a booking form to R Carr, 127 Queen's Drive London N4 2BB. The booking forms should be sent out in due course nearer the time

EMIAC 62, Melton Mowbray

Lack of space precludes much of a description of what went on at Melton on 20 October but as expected the meeting commenced with a demonstration of pie making by hand using a dolly or pie raiser ( Following this members of the audience (including a visitor from London) were called out to the front try this for themselves. It was not actually quite as difficult as anticipated.

Cheese making, especially blue Stilton was covered by a speaker from the Long Clawson Dairy a farmers' co-operative originally formed in 1911 ( Later Steph Mastoris from Snibston gave a very instructive account of traditional pig keeping. A talk from him along these lines but with a London emphasis would make a good GLIAS lecture. We also heard about the (slightly controversial?) Museum of the Hunt being set up in the former Carnegie Library, Thorpe End and much else.

Despite this being an excellent well-attended conference easily within reach of London the number of GLIAS members present was very small indeed. Although on the face of it about the industrial archaeology of Melton Mowbray the day did seem to have been dominated by the pork pie but then this is perhaps the best known product of this singular market town. Of course the food at lunchtime (included in the price) was really plentiful and excellent (and much more than just pork pies). Genuine Melton Mowbray pies are readily available in London.

This was a most interesting day involving local small industry which had a niche market to exploit. It was innovative and should provide useful ideas for organisers of other Regional Conferences. Please take note.

The next EMIAC, number 63 (they are so keen on industrial archaeology in the East Midlands they have two a year), will be held in Beeston on Saturday 18 May 2002. Beeston is another small town easily reached by train from St Pancras. EMIAC 63 includes the Boots Company, lace making, walks and a visit to G H Hurt & Son, Chilwell, who sill have some 250 years old handframes on which they make Shetland style knitwear and delicate shawls. Bob Carr
To book send an sae to Mrs Joan Hodges, 2 Knighton Road, Woodthorpe, Nottingham NG5 4FL. Tel: 0115 920 3570. The booking deadline is 12 April. Lunch is included and there are stands/bookstalls

Thames shipping

The new riverside path around Blackwall Point is now open. This passes close to the Millennium Dome and gives a good view of the slice of ship which was installed for the Millennium Experience. It is meant to remind us that the Thames was once a working river.

There are still a few small ships to be seen on the Tideway. The SS VIC 56 is at Trinity Buoy Wharf, presently on the riverside wharf. Around the corner in Bow Creek at the berth VIC 56 used to occupy is a diesel trawler, perhaps Ross Leopard. There are a number of preserved tugs about including the Steam Tug Portwey (GLIAS Newsletter December 2000) which was seen off Gravesend during the GLIAS cruise on 7 October (see above). The diesel tug Swiftstone has been at Wood Wharf Greenwich, which is the southern terminus of the former Greenwich Steam Ferry of c1886 (ref Engineering 17 February 1888). This closed when the present foot tunnel opened in 1901. At Pope & Bond's, Wood Wharf, Horseferry Place SE10, a good deal survives from the remarkable steam ferry and the northern terminus, off Ferry Street on the Isle of Dogs E14 also has considerable remains. The fireboat Massey Shaw which was at Wood Wharf is now up at Lambeth at the London Fire Brigade Museum pier. The MV Royal Iris (GLIAS Newsletter June 2001) is still at the same berth just down river of the barrier.

There are, of course, numerous small craft of the Tupperware variety and recently these have been supplemented by some extremely large Tupperware type private motor yachts, some so big one of them might almost have been owned by Mr Tupper himself. Some of these have been visiting the West India Docks and this seems to be becoming quite a regular feature. We have also had the MV Lone Ranger in the West India Docks this year. She is a diesel-powered former Icelandic icebreaker converted for use as a private yacht and now owned by a wealthy American. The regular visits of cruise liners and warships to the Upper Pool have been taking place as usual. For advance information see the notice displayed at Tower Bridge (GLIAS Newsletter October 2001). Convoy's Wharf Deptford is now dead as far as shipping is concerned.

Real deep-sea ships, bulk carriers bringing unrefined cane sugar, continue to call regularly at Thames Refinery Jetty, Silvertown, for Tate & Lyle, now the only sugar cane refinery in the UK — and don't forget the Woolwich free ferries which are a delight to watch. For traditional East Enders the trip over the water on the Woolwich Ferry is still a 'real sea cruise' and it costs nothing. However you are no longer allowed to stay on board for a return trip — be warned. Bob Carr

Rotherhithe notes

At Rotherhithe the controversial new apartment building on the riverside over the Brunel Thames Tunnel is nearing completion — despite the opposition to its construction (and the demolition of the warehouse which was on the site). There is now little left of the Knot Garden just to the east. The picture research library continues to occupy the former Grice's Granary and the Brunel Museum is still in business (Tel: 020 8318 2489; 020 8748 3545).

To the east the frame of the gasholder at the former Rotherhithe gasworks is still in situ. The corresponding riverside jetty to the north of this where coal for Rotherhithe gasworks was once unloaded is also extant and moreover public access is now permitted. Bob Carr

St Pancras redevelopment

At St Pancras the work of dismantling the famous gasholder triplet continues slowly and painstakingly. Cast-iron column sections once removed are carefully packed in steelwork frames and taken away by road. On Saturday 20 October this year the south-western guide frame forming the triplet was still intact while the guide frame to the north west was partially dismantled, only about three quarters remaining. The other member to the north east had completely gone by 8 October.

20-21 October was the first weekend when St Pancras station closed for Channel Tunnel Rail Link work. Trains were stopped from 6pm on Saturday evening until the following Monday morning. Midland Mainline trains were terminated at Luton. Overhead traction wires just north of St Pancras station had already been removed. More closures at the weekend are to follow. Bob Carr

King's Cross gazetteer

Lots Road closure

Lots Road power station (GLIAS Newsletter December 1983), built 1905, which provides traction power for the underground in the central part of London is to close shortly. The building will be at least partially retained and converted, rather radically, for loft accommodation. What a place to live! Bob Carr

RIBA — a real sea change?

On Sunday 21 October the winner of the prestigious 20,000 RIBA Stirling architectural prize was announced.

The judges had been faced with a shortlist of seven schemes some involving adaptive re-use. Surprisingly they chose something of an outsider, Magna Rotherham, the former Templeborough steelworks originally built in 1916. It was almost as if they were saying sorry for what architects had done to create Tate Modern (GLIAS Newsletter June 2000). This time an award went to a building conversion where some of the industrial plant had been retained.

Perhaps the GLIAS newsletter is more widely read than we realise (or do they just think like us)?

Templeborough steelworks became Europe's largest electric-arc melting shop when converted in 1962-5. It closed in 1993. Magna is a stylish new hands-on visitor attraction set within the old steelworks. Bob Carr

Roundhouse lottery award

The Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded the Roundhouse Trust a Stage One Pass for their application (GLIAS Newsletter June 1999).

The Roundhouse is a Grade II* listed building at risk and its new permanent role will prevent this unique building from falling into greater disrepair.

The UK Property Innovation of the Year Award

In 1999 this award was won by the Spirella Building Letchworth which was formerly the Spirella factory. It is just to the west of the railway station. Does anyone have further information regarding the UK Property Innovation of the Year Award? Who received this award in 2000 and 2001? Bob Carr

Top award for London's wetland site

The Wetland Centre in Barnes is the overall global winner of the British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow awards — the most respected international competition for the best eco-tourism development in the world.

The centre opened last year (GLIAS Newsletter August 2000) on the site of the former Barn Elms reservoirs. The project turned four concrete bowl reservoirs, obsolete because of the completion of the London Ring Main, into a network of 30 pools designed as wildlife habitats.

The 105-acre complex is the largest urban wildlife habitat in the world. It has been visited by more than 140 species of bird — some not seen near London's heart for 200 years — at least five kinds of bat and more than 300 species of butterfly.

Urban Design Week

People who like Open House will probably also enjoy Urban Design Week which is run by the Urban Design Alliance (UDAL). The week has been in existence for four years. Bob Carr
For further information contact the UDAL Secretariat, Institution of Civil Engineers, 1 Great George Street, London SW11 3AA. Tel: 020 7665 2221. Website:

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© GLIAS, 2001