The Red Telephone Box and Letter Box

Nov 23, 02:33 PM

This history trail audio is narrated by the poet Michael Rosen, with script researched by Helen Weinstein and the team at Historyworks. This recording is part of a series of Cambridge history trails which have lyrics inspired by 'history beneath our feat' performed by local schoolchildren, with poems by the top poet Michael Rosen and songs by the funny team at CBBC's songwriters commissioned by Historyworks. To find more trails and further information, go to

The red letter box and the red telephone box are both iconic features of towns, cities and villages around the UK. Both structures help us understand how communications evolved from the Victorian era - when the national postal service began - through the invention of the telephone and the erection of public phone boxes - right up to installation of wifi hot-spots.

The first red telephone box was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, an English architect, who was born in 1880 and is famous in Cambridge for designing part of Clare College in the mid 1920s and the Cambridge University Library in the 1930s. But back in 1924 he won a design competition and his iconic “K2” red telephone box went into production. His design was later used as the inspiration for the mass production of the “K6” telephone box, a slightly smaller version of the original box, which was created in 1935 for George V’s Silver Jubilee and named the “Jubilee Kiosk”. More than 100,000 of these K6 boxes were then put into towns and villages across the UK. Although the mobile phone has largely replaced the need for them many “K2” and “K6” telephone boxes can still be found.

If you look at the red phone box on “The Backs” along Queens Road and then look up at the tower of the University Library you’ll see from shape of the tower and the top of the telephone box that the same architect designed both.

During the Victorian era, before the invention of telephones, communication for the general public was by letter post. The first adhesive stamp to pay for postage – the Penny Black - was made available in 1840 when many of the letters went by stage coach pulled by horses. But the transportation of mail was made much more efficient for Cambridge by the advent of the railway in 1845 with the first lines built to connect Cambridge and London.

The first pillar or “letter” box was installed in Jersey, in the Channel Islands in 1852 at the suggestion of the novelist Anthony Trollope then a General Post Office official. The first box was installed on the mainland a year later in Botchergate, Carlisle in the North of England and soon after that another letter box was installed at Barnes Cross, Bishop's Caundle in Dorset. That one is still in use today over 150 years later! The earliest box in Cambridge stands outside Kings College – it’s an unusual shape!

The first pillar boxes didn’t have to be a standard colour and it wasn’t until 1874 that red became the accepted colour, but it took over 10 years for all the post boxes to be painted the right colour! The design was later improved to make the first ‘National Standard Box’ in 1859 and today there are over 100,000 of varying designs. Did you know you can often see when a letter box was built by examining the letters on the front – it’s “Stamp of Authority” with VR standing for Queen Victoria , ER for Edward VII ( 7th) GR for George V ( 5th ) GVIR for George VI (6th) and EIIR for Elizabeth the Second – if you find one for Edward VIII ( 8th) you’ll be very lucky – there are fewer than 200 from his very short reign in 1936 . See if you can spot the letters on the next letter box you see and work out which king or queen it stands for. Look out for a very old box at the corner of Priory Road and Riverside – why wouldn’t you want to climb on it?

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