Letter Boxes - Letter Plates - Mail Boxes - History - Diy Tip 48

Fitting a letter box or letter plate

1. First decide where you want to put your letterbox on the door. Use the letterbox as a template and draw around it, you can position it correctly by measuring from the top of the rail (it is being fitted in) to the top of the letterbox.

If you are a perfectionist you can make sure that the letterbox is positioned both vertically and horizontally by using a spirit level. Make sure you also take note of the spring mechanism (if there is one) and mark this opening on the door.

We only sell (within the Directdoors.com web site) gold colour annodised aluminium letter boxes Brass, Chrome Plated or Antique Black the Gold colour or aluminium types are less likely to tarnish or leak and they keep draughts to a minimum.


2. Cut out the wasted wood by using a jigsaw or padsaw. To help start this off, drill small holes at opposite corners of the template drawing, remember to use a timber block on the opposite side of the door and at the position where the drill will appear to prevent the door splintering.

3. Mark where the fixing bolts will be positioned, some letter plates such as the type we sell are screw fixed rather than bolt fixed.

4. Drill the holes for the fixing bolts. Hold a small block of wood on the other side of the door in the same space you are drilling.

This will prevent the wood from splintering when the bit passes through. Sand any rough edges. Fix the bolts in position with the fixing nuts.

You may need to cut the bolts down at the back if they protrude past the nut. This can be done with a hacksaw. The historical information set out below is supplied from The British Postal Museam & Archive (BPMA)

The BPMA is a fantastic resource and has lots of things to see for all the family, they also provide a fantastic learning resource for teachers, parents, adults and kids, contact them for all general enquiries & event bookings;

  • Address: Freeling House
    Phoenix Place LONDON WC1X 0DL
  • Email: info@postalheritage.org.uk
  • Phone: +44 (0)20 7239 2570
  • Fax: +44 (0)20 7239 2576
  • Minicom: +44 (0)20 7239 2572

Please feel free to contact them on any matter... a research enquiry, loans of museum objects, or donating your own material to their collections.

In general terms we in the UK tend to use both terms "Letter Boxes and Letter Plates" when speaking about the mail aperture in our doors at home or when thinking about posting a letter through the Royal Mail.

My personal feeling is that we continue to have a fantastic service that we should maintain at all costs, the fact that a small stamp can get a letter delivered to any UK address including Islands and also the tradition of community services that the Royal Mail continues in our less populated areas should be protected.

HISTORY The history of the Royal Mail is a long and illustrious one. Founded in 1635 by King Charles I, it was secured following disruption in the Civil War by another Act of Parliament upon the Restoration.

This established the “General Post Office” as a branch of government, headed by the Postmaster General. During the 18th century, there was much development of the service.

In particular the routes by which mail was carried were developed, but it was the 19th century that saw the organisation’s greatest expansion.

Postal Reform and the introduction of the Penny Post occurred in 1840. This, combined with increased adult literacy, saw a dramatic increase in the volume of mail. The Post Office moved into parcel delivery, telecommunications and banking.

These were all accessible through its nationwide network of offices. The now sizeable organisation was reorganised in the 1930s and again in the 1960s.

Eventually it became a public corporation in 1969. Restructuring continued in the 1980s and 1990s, with the separate telecommunications section being privatised in 1984.

In 2001 the Post Office became a public limited company (PLC), named Consignia – which was replaced by the Royal Mail brand in late 2002.

The Office of 'Postmaster General': 1657-1969

The head of the Post Office has been known by many different titles – Master of the Posts, Comptroller General of the Posts, and Postmaster of England. It was not until 1657 that the head of the Post Office became known as ‘Postmaster General’.

This continued for 312 years, until September 1969 when the office of Postmaster General ceased to exist. King Henry VIII became the first British monarch to establish a regular service for the carrying of Royal messages in around 1516 when he appointed Sir Brian Tuke as ‘Master of the Posts’ . In 1635, when King Charles I opened up his private Court mail system to the general public, it was the beginning of the Post Office as we know it today.

Although an Act passed in 1657 first created the office of Postmaster General as the Head of the Post Office, it was not until another Act was passed in 1660, after the death of Oliver Cromwell and the Restoration of the monarchy, that the office of the Postmaster General was officially confirmed.

The appointments of Postmaster General were not generally made for a fixed length of time, which meant that many new Postmasters General were only appointed upon the death, retirement, or resignation of the previous postholder.

Famous Postmasters General include Henry Bishop (1660-1663), inventor of the ‘Bishop mark’ (the first Postmark), Henry Fawcett, the blind Postmaster General (1880-1884), Neville Chamberlain (1922-1923) Clement Attlee (1931) and Tony Benn (1964-1966).

Postal Reform

In 1840 Uniform Penny Post was launched marking a revolution in the way the postal system could be used. 

See Rowland Hill's Postal Reforms for more information. 

Rowland Hill’s postal reforms opened up the postal system to almost every person in Britain. Use of the system multiplied rapidly, as a result the earlier systems for collecting, sorting and delivering letters had to change. 

One such change was in the means of people posting letters.

Before Road-Side Letter Boxes

Prior to the introduction of letter boxes there was principally two ways of posting a letter. Senders would either have to take the letter in person to a Receiving House (effectively an early Post Office) or would have to await the Bellman.

The Bellman wore a uniform and walked the streets collecting letters from the public, ringing a bell to attract attention.

Standardisation in Design

By 1859 the Post Office realised having so many different designs of letter boxes across the country was proving expensive.

They issued instruction that a new standard box was to be introduced. It was to be available in two sizes, a larger, wider size for higher volume areas and a smaller narrower version for elsewhere. 

It took its lesson from the early experiments and was cylindrical with a horizontal aperture and a hood to help keep out the rain. It failed to prove popular in all districts and in 1862 the District Surveyor for Liverpool commissioned his own, non-standard box, known today as the Liverpool Special.

This broke the standard pattern and so in 1866 the Post Office again produced a standard letter box. 

This time the box was designed by J W Penfold and came in three sizes. 

Problems were encountered with some of the early designs however and modifications were made, such as the inclusion of downward-pointing shoots to help prevent letters being caught up in the cap of the box. 

The ‘Penfold’ letter box while not particularly a success operationally was very popular with many people. As a standard box however it was not to survive. In 1879 a further standard box was produced. 

This time more of the earlier lessons were taken on board. The new standard box at last resembled the letter box that is today the iconic image of Britain - cylindrical with round cap and horizontal aperture under a protruding cap with front opening door and black painted base. From 1879 onwards this box continues to be one of Britain’s most recognisable symbols. 

Changes did occur to the box, and into the 20th century new styles of box introduced. This box continues, however, to prove to be the most effective design for the job. 

It was initially produced, in two sizes, designated, and still recognised as the type A (larger, wider box) and type B (smaller, narrower box).

Early Experiments

Anthony Trollope, now more famed as a novelist, was, in the 1850s working as a Surveyor’s Clerk for the Post Office.  Part of his duties involved him travelling to Europe where he saw road-side letter boxes in use in France and Belgium.

He proposed the introduction of such boxes to Britain and in 1852 a trial was agreed for the idea on the Channel Islands.

Three cast-iron pillar boxes were cast and installed, as a trial, on the island of Jersey. Later that year a further four were introduced on Guernsey.  The boxes used on Jersey are not known to survive but two of the four from Guernsey do, one within the collections of The British Postal Museum & Archive.

The first trial was considered a success and boxes began appearing on the British mainland from 1853.  During this initial period, design, manufacture and erection of boxes was the responsibility of local surveyors. 

This meant that no standard pattern of box was issued and resulted in many, very differing, styles of box. In basic form all boxes were vertical ‘pillars’ with a small slit to receive letters.  There the similarities ended. 

By 1857 horizontal, rather than vertical apertures were taken as a standard. Flaps were trialled over the apertures to prevent rain finding its way inside and the position of apertures were settled to below a slightly protruding cap. 

As developments progressed more and more lessons were learnt about the most effective type of boxes.

Modern Boxes

The reign of Queen Elizabeth has seen the biggest variety of boxes since the early Victorian experiments.  In 1968 square sheet steel boxes were introduced, as a trial but were found to be ineffective, in 1974 a cast iron variant was launched and examples of this can still be seen in use. The Square boxes were never as popular and cylindrical designs continued. 

In 1995 square boxes were once more re-visited with the introduction of business boxes. These were expressly for use by companies with bulk postings.

More recently there has been a growth in internal glass re-enforced plastic boxes, appearing in shopping centres and supermarkets.

Wall and Lamp Boxes

While pillar boxes remain the most numerous they are not the only type of letter box.  In 1857 as a means of introducing cheaper, smaller capacity boxes for smaller towns and more rural areas, wall-mounted boxes were introduced.

Initially these were small rectangular boxes mounted either into existing walls or into purpose-built brick pillars.  Once these began to prove successful larger varieties were cast, eventually up to three basic sizes. Modified versions were also created for the walls of post offices where a door was fitted to the back to allow postal staff to empty the box from the inside. 

Manufacture of wall boxes ceased in the 1980s as removing boxes from use and repairing damaged ones began to become expensive with the cost of making good walls as well as maintaining the boxes themselves. In 1897, to answer the demand for more convenient posting facilities for London squares (around which were the houses of some of London’s more influential residents) small boxes were designed. 

The boxes, made to attach to existing lamp posts and big enough only to hold small letters soon began appearing in low volume areas around the country (and disappeared from the London squares).

Lamp boxes are now a regular feature of villages across Britain, often fitted to telegraph or lamps posts or mounted on their own pedestals.  The design has changed a little over the years in an attempt to increase their capacity and importantly the aperture size to allow for the larger letters of the modern era.


After postal reform in 1840 the volume of mail increased dramatically. From about 150 million a year, the number of letters rose to over 2 billion a year by 1900.

To deal with this, effectively manual jobs needed to be mechanised and automated as far as possible. Machines were developed to do the various tasks in dealing with the mail. The first processes to be mechanised were cancelling the stamps and conveying the mail within a sorting office. Machines for these were developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

From 1935, sorting the smaller letters became a mechanised process. Finally coding and sorting letters, packets and parcels were mechanised. The aim was to complete automation of the system.

Mechanisation has also reached post office counters. Computerised machines print or vend prepaid labels as stamps and barcodes to track parcels or special delivery mail through the system.

The DIY info is supplied from www.directdoors.com and edited by "Chippy"

Any questions, email info@directdoors.com and ask "Chippy"