Carlisle – home to the first pillar box in mainland Britain

The Post Office archives record that the first box in mainland Britain was erected in Botchergate, Carlisle, in 1853. This is commemorated today with a replica Penfold box, located outside the Old Town Hall in Carlisle city centre. So why Carlisle?

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In the early 19th century Sir Rowland Hill was a well-known campaigner and reformer, best known for his reform of the postal system based on the concept of a uniform  prepaid Penny Post to facilitate the safe, speedy and cheap transfer of letters. He originated the basic concepts of the modern postal service, including the invention of the postage stamp.

Image of Sir Rowland Hill

He often visited the Lake District and the story goes that he saw a young woman at a cottage door in Buttermere refuse a letter that the postman had brought. Thinking that she could not afford the high postal rates (then prevailing) Sir Rowland spoke to her, but was informed that there was no need for his concern. The letter was from her brother who was working at Penrith and he and his sister had agreed that, if he was able to come for a holiday at Martinmas, he should put a cross on the right-hand corner of the envelope; if he was unable to do so, the left-hand corner. The cross, the maiden blushingly informed him was on the right-hand corner, so her brother would be coming at Martinmas. According to this account the Buttermere folk were certainly careful with their money. (W.T McIntyre in the Cumberland News 1939). 

Later Hill argued that if letters were cheaper to send, people, including the poorer classes, would send more of them, thus eventually profits would go up. He proposed an adhesive stamp to indicate pre-payment of postage, the first being the Penny Black in 1840, the first year of Penny Post. That year the number of letters sent in the UK more than doubled.  Within 10 years, it had doubled again. Within three years postage stamps were introduced in Switzerland and Brazil, a little later in the US, and by 1860, they were used in 90 countries.

Perhaps this is why Carlisle was chosen to have the first official pillar box for letters.

There is much more of the history of Cumbria to be found in my book ‘The Little Book of Cumbria,’ available in shops locally and nationally.

David Ramshaw.

David Ramshaw
Author: David Ramshaw

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