Mapped: London's Post Office History

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Mapped: London's Post Office History

This article was written in partnership with the Postal Museum.

A ride on the Mail Rail visitor attraction offers a unique glimpse into the history of the Post Office. But London is crammed with other reminders of the organisation's past. We've mapped and photographed the plaques, memorials, statues and unusual post boxes that together bring the story of the Post Office to life.

A suggested walking route is also marked on the map and detailed below.

Click or tap for larger version.

1. Gold post boxes (2012)

Start on Tothill Street, beside Westminster Abbey.

Gold post boxes can be found the length and breadth of the country. They mark the home towns of Britain's gold medalists at the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics. London contains 15, mapped here. Only one can be found in the central area. This is on Tothill Street, Westminster, and commemorates the British teams as a whole.

2. Anthony Trollope introduces post boxes (1855)

Make your way through St James's Park, cross Pall Mall and Piccadilly. Look out for a double post-box beside Caffe Nero on Dover Street, opposite the Ritz.

Anthony Trollope was one of the most popular novelists of the 19th century. He also had a glittering career with the Post Office. It was he who first introduced the free-standing post box to Britain. London's first examples appeared in 1855 on five streets: Fleet Street, The Strand, Piccadilly, Pall Mall and Rutland Gate in Kensington (all shown on the map). The five locations were given plaques in 2015, to mark the 200th anniversary of Trollope's birth.

3. Linnean Society post box (19th century)

Head east along Piccadilly and enter the courtyard of Burlington House (home of the Royal Academy of Arts).

This unusual post box can be found outside the headquarters of the Linnean Society, to the left as you enter the courtyard of Burlington House. The Linnean Society is named after Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist who developed the system for naming organisms also known as Linnean Taxonomy. Part of their building was occupied by a post office until 1904, and this beautiful wooden post box remains.

4. First Westminster post office (1794)

Carry on east into Chinatown, and onto Gerrard Street.

Glance up on the southern side of Gerrard Street and you might spot a plaque high up on the wall. This marks the location of Westminster's first post office.

5. Double cipher post box (1901)

Walk or take the Piccadilly Line to Holborn. Then seek out the post box on the corner of Grays Inn Road.

This unique post box is thought to be the only one in the country to feature the emblems of two monarchs: Victoria and Edward VII. The anomaly was presumably created when a damaged door panel was replaced with one containing Edward's cipher.  

6. London Post Office Railway (1927)

Follow Grays Inn Road up to Clerkenwell Road, then take Rosebery Avenue up to Mount Pleasant.

This 10.5 km (6.5 mile) subterranean railway was used to transport mail from Paddington to Whitechapel between 1927 and 2003. The route (marked on the map) featured additional stations at three depots along Oxford Street, as well as Mount Pleasant, King Edward Street and Liverpool Street. Part of the tunnels under Mount Pleasant are now open to the public as the Mail Rail and Postal Museum.

7. A unique post box (19th century)

Take Farringdon Road down to Smithfield, and head into Bart's Hospital.

This peculiar post box can be found inside the Henry VIII gateway — the main entrance to the hospital. The box is unique in several ways — not just its shape. While the aperture faces into the hospital, the collection door is on the outside of the gateway. It also carries no royal cipher.

8. Rowland Hill and universal Penny Post (1840)

Follow Giltspur Street and Newgate Street to King Edward Street.

A statue of Rowland Hill stands outside the General Post Office building in King Edward Street. Hill was one of the most influential figures in the history of the Post Office. He is chiefly noted for introducing the uniform Penny Post in 1840. This allowed anyone to send a letter anywhere in the Kingdom for a penny. The first stamp, the Penny Black, was introduced in the same year.

9. Penfold post box (1866)

Head one street east to St Martin's-Le-Grand.

One of the most distinctive early post boxes is the hexagonal design of John Penfold from 1866. Only a handful of originals survive, but central London includes several replicas. These can be found at Tower Bridge, the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, and a recently installed green box (pictured) on St Martin's-le-Grand.

10. First post marks in the world (1661)

Take Cheapside and Poultry to Princes Street, beside the Bank of England.

A plaque marks the site of the General Letter Office. It was here, shortly before the Great Fire of London, that the first post marks in the world were struck. Post marks show the date on which the letter is received and are intended to show (and hopefully deter) any delays in delivery.

11. Post Office Court (1678)

Cross the busy Bank junction and look for Post Office Court, an eastward cutting down King William Street.

The General Post Office originally functioned out of Bishopsgate Street, but moved to what is now King William Street in 1678. Here it remained until moving just north of St Paul's in 1829. A plaque near Bank station marks the spot.

12. Lloyds Coffee House (1691)

Head onto Lombard Street and seek out this plaque.

Coffee was critical in the early days of the mail. After William Dockwra set up the Penny Post in 1680 (see below), ‘receiving houses’ were established as places to collect and send your mail. Many of these also sold coffee. Then, like now, the local coffee shop was the perfect place for business meetings and many houses had their regulars. These businessmen visited so often the coffee house became an excellent place to address mail.

Lloyds Coffee House opened in 1686 and moved to its Lombard Street address in 1691. Each coffee house became known for a specialism; for Lloyds this was maritime insurance. It became Lloyd’s Insurance market, today one of the largest in the world and now based in the futuristic Lloyd’s building, where we're heading next.

13. William Dockwra's London Penny Post (1680)

Carry on ahead, down Fenchurch Street, then north up Lime Street until you reach the Lloyd's Building.

Dockwra, along with William Murray, standardised the local postal service by introducing a flat fee. For a penny, customers could send a letter or small parcel anywhere in Westminster, the City or Southwark. It was the forerunner of Rowland Hill's national penny post, which came 160 years later. The plaque above, marking Dockwra's office, can be found beneath the Lloyd's Building on Lime Street.

14. Edward VIII post boxes (1936)

From here, it's about a half-mile walk down to the Tower then east along The Highway.

Edward VIII abdicated in December 1936 after only 11 months on the throne. Post boxes carrying his cipher are therefore rare. Greater London contains around two dozen. The closest to the centre can be found on The Highway in Shadwell. Look for the post box opposite the Texaco garage near Swedenborg Gardens.

To find out more about the Post Office's long, fascinating history, visit the Postal Museum in Clerkenwell, and book a ride on a subterranean Mail Rail train. All images by Matt Brown.

Last Updated 22 August 2017