Last post for a splendid scarlet box?: Jonathan Glancey deplores the Royal Mail's decision to abandon 150 years of elegance on our streets

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The Independent Online
'IN ALL created nature,' said G K Chesterton, 'there is not perhaps anything so completely ugly as a pillar box.' The man was clearly a fool. The red pillar box Chesterton scorned is not only a handsome piece of design, but one of the few remaining symbols of public spiritedness in privatised Britain.

We take its reassuring presence for granted. We cannot imagine life without it and there is, increasingly, in a world of faxes and electronic mail, a pleasure to be had from feeding letters through the wide lips of its gaping mouth. For generations, until the car stole away such pedestrian pleasures, a trip to the pillar box with the family mail and the family dog in tow gave British children an early sense of responsibility.

In its most familiar cylindrical form the pillar box has stood on our street corners like a guardsman on point duty, splendid in its scarlet uniform, since 1879. This was when the National Standard pillar box was adopted by the Post Office (a design of its own), superseding the hexagonal Penfold box of 1866.

Now, the Royal Mail has plans to destroy its proud and enduring design heritage with a grim squad of new pillar boxes shaped to collect bulk mail from business parks and industrial estates. If that is successful, these urchins could be let loose on city streets. As pillar boxes do not require planning permission, the brutal designs might appear anywhere; the fact that many of today's boxes have years of useful life left may not prevent their premature destruction.

The pillar box itself dates back to 1852. It was very much the invention of Anthony Trollope, the novelist-to-be, who was then Clerk to the Surveyor of the South Western District of the Post Office. At Trollope's insistence the first Royal Mail box, painted red, was forged by John Vaudin, a blacksmith from the Channel Islands, and erected in Union Street, St Peter Port, Guernsey, the following year. It still stands.

Ever since, the Royal Mail has produced a regiment of handsome designs that have stood the test of time both from a functional and aesthetic point of view. There was a minor hiccup in 1968 when David Mellor, the celebrated cutler, was asked to design a new box to supersede the National Standard. A slab-sided affair, fabricated from rectangular steel panels fixed to an internal steel frame, the new, improved Type F pillar box proved to be as frail as it was ugly. The first, placed unceremoniously in front of St Paul's Cathedral, was quicky replaced by a traditional National Standard version.

Perhaps the bad publicity surrounding the delicate Type F discouraged the Royal Mail from investing in new design. A brand new pillar box did not emerge again until 1979, when Tony Gibbs of Hop Studios produced the Type K box, a smooth, slimline modern red pillar rising from a black pedestal. Gibbs toyed with prototypes made of concrete, glass-reinforced plastic and fabricated steel, but none of these materials proved as durable as traditional cast iron.

With privatisation in the air, this is exactly the wrong time for the Royal Mail to shoot itself in the foot where design is concerned. Successive privatisation schemes have proved that when profit replaces duty and 'customers' oust the public, good civic design flies out of the window, to be replaced with meritricious trash.

Think of the banal telephone kiosks a privatised British Telecom brought in its wake. In all seriousness, British Telecom thought these excrescences an improvement on the handsome and familiar K2 and K6 red kiosks designed by the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in the Twenties and Thirties.

Look at the decline of London's once integrated red bus fleet and its famous double-deckers. Before privatisation, a London bus was red, by definition. Like the Scott telephone kiosks, buses such as the Routemaster - the last of the line - were designed to enhance the look of the streets they served so well and for so very long. The London buses run by today's privateers are wheeled ragamuffins painted any colour as long as it's vulgar; and not red. Where pillar boxes, telephone kiosks and buses once matched and mirrored one another in colour and standard of design, today each screams for attention like a brattish child.

The Royal Mail has remained a late-flowering champion of good and imaginative civic design. The stamps we stick on our letters are some of the world's finest and the pillar boxes we post them in are the best designed in the world. The National Standard box, the Type A being the finest of all (seen to advantage in important city streets such as Whitehall), works hard for its living not only in Britain and Ireland, but also as far afield as Simla, Jerusalem, Gibraltar, Australia and New Zealand.

To date, its only enemies have been dogs (who cock their legs against them), cars (which crash into them), terrorists (who post bombs in them) and children (who drop nasty things in them). One box in rural Ireland was haunted and no postman would clear it. The ghost, so local people told the Postmaster-general's inspector, was that of 'a large white turkey without a head'.

Now it looks as if the Royal Mail itself might become an enemy of the pillar box. The biggest foe, however, remains privatisation. English Heritage has already been told by one would-be private mail company that it plans to erect 30,000 mail boxes to its own design if the Government is so determined to let the mail out of public hands. You can bet your bottom dollar that, if allowed, these will be painted any colour except red. Rival candy-coloured designs will litter every important street in the name of 'choice' and Conservative ideology.

If the Royal Mail is privatised, or rival mail services permitted, our familiar pillar boxes will surely have to go, or else be disfigured. If the mail is no longer 'royal', then the insignia decorating every fluted, Penfold, National Standard and K-Type pillar box in Britain will have to be scraped away as they have been, for example, in Ireland and Israel. The spirit of privatisation has, to date, led consistently to a lowering in the standard of civic design. British Mail plc and its rivals are unlikely to be an exception.

(Photographs omitted)

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