Post boxes have stood proudly across Britain for hundreds of years – they are part of the street scene.
Britain’s bright red letterboxes are so ubiquitous that they are passed by millions of Britons every day, with the majority paying little attention to their intricate design.
But not all mailboxes are the same – they have different symbols on the front, and each gives a huge clue as to when the box was made.
A rare 1936 Edward VIII red pillar box spotted on Week Street in Maidstone, Kent
A Royal Mail letter box with a King Edward VII coding, dating from 1901-1910 (left) next to a red letter box with a more common Queen Elizabeth coding
The Postal Museum recently caused some surprise on Twitter by posting something about the Royal Cyphers on Britain’s famous letterboxes.
Dozens of Twitter users were surprised to learn that the meaning ‘GR’ and ‘ER’ was embossed on the solid metal doors, swung open daily by the postman.
These “iconic symbols” are created by “combining a monarch’s initials and title.”
What’s more intriguing is that the symbols reveal roughly when the box was made, as they were all made during the reign of the monarch inscribed on the front.
And while ER (Elizabetha Regina) symbols are most commonly seen in the UK, people have taken to Twitter to share the other symbols they’ve seen – including GR and in some cases VR.
The custom of placing a royal code on post boxes dates back to the very first roadside boxes of Queen Victoria’s reign.
The Postal Museum even explains that royal numerals on mailboxes indicate which “monarch (…) was enthroned during their creation,” and then what time frame they come from.
“When the monarch changes, new pillar boxes do not replace the old ones, but are added to those in use, which is why Britain has such a range of boxes.”
In a comment, a Twitter user said they’ve been living at their address for almost three years and “only now noticed this interesting anomaly on the mailbox.”
Another wrote: ‘I can’t walk past a mailbox without checking if it’s an ‘ER’ is a ‘GR’ or if you’re really lucky it’s a ‘VR’.
“So, I said it.”
While another person wrote: “I just clocked a post box near us with GR on it, rather than the more common ER, meaning it was placed during the reign of George V, not Elizabeth II, which I guess found interesting.”
The Royal Cyphers range from Queen Victoria to the newly created King Charles IIIs.
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022, all PO Boxes placed in the near future will have a new symbol.
What all the Royal Cyphers mean…
The Postal Museum has revealed the symbols are Royal Cyphers, which are “iconic symbols” created by combining a monarch’s initials and title
One of the oldest existing royal numerals on letterboxes comes from the Channel Islands. In the Victorian period, the British Postal Service managed the mail in the islands.
And on the first box was Queen Victoria’s initials – VR – which stands for Victoria Regina. Regina is Queen in Latin.
As letterbox design developed and expanded, the practice of including the monarch’s code arose.
A variety of styles were developed during Queen Victoria’s reign as the Post Office experimented with hexagonal, square and even a fluted design.
King Edward VII
The Postal Museum explains that Edward VII’s encoding follows the classic interlaced letter approach, ER for Edward Rex (Rex is Latin for king) with his reign number for seven in Roman numerals VII.
They added, “When Edward VII came to the throne, new ciphers were produced, just as we see today with King Charles III.”
King George V
With Edward VII’s brief reign, his son George V became king in 1910.
After this, a new coding was developed.
However, this is the simplest design of all, with a simpler font and the letters GR are not intertwined as his father and grandmother had done.
King Edward VIII
Edward’s cipher took a different form from that of its predecessors and has a much more ornate typeface.
However, the letters are distinct and separate, as The Postal Museum believes its code is a combination of some elements from all of the previous ones.
King George VI
George VI encodings are quite rare compared to his father George V and great grandmother Queen Victoria.
But while not commonly found, George VI’s cipher is easily distinguishable from that of his father, George V, because of the Roman numerals and interlocking letters.
Queen Elizabeth II
This symbol is probably the most striking of all, as it is quite common.
Queen Elizabeth was involved in the approval of her new encryption, as she chose a bold design reminiscent of George V encryption.
The two letters ER, separated by the Roman numerals II, are the easiest to recognize.
The Scottish Cypher
There is also a variant of the Scottish Cypher, which is only found in Scotland.
The Postal Museum explains: ‘The inclusion of the Roman numerals in Queen Elizabeth’s code caused controversy. Elizabeth II was not the second Elizabeth to become Queen of Scotland. The Tudor Queen, Elizabeth I, was only Queen of England and Wales.
When she died she expressed her wish that the crown should pass to King James VI of Scotland. This was the first time England, Wales and Scotland had the same monarch.
‘The first EIIR letterbox in Scotland met with a lot of resistance. Initially in the form of graffiti and strongly worded letters.’
However, during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the Scottish Crown remained on postal vehicles
King Charles III
Meanwhile, King Charles III’s new encryption has been revealed, The Postal Museum has confirmed, but how it will translate to letterbox design remains to be seen.
They are expected to be CR or CIIIR.