A Penfold Box


A rare sight on Durham’s Palace Green.

In the mid 80’s with his friend Dangermouse, Penfold was one of the most famous characters beloved by children around the world, but especially in Britain. Taking his name from a Victorian inventor born in 1828, and code named ‘The Jigsaw’, – because when faced with a problem he went to pieces – Penfold helped the famous mouse characterised by a black eye patch over his left eye. Excited children cross-legged on the floor sat and watched enthralled as the duo tackled the world’s greatest villains.
But yesterday on Palace Green, Durham, I saw a different Penfold….Beside Bishop Cosin’s seventeenth century three-story house, in the lazy speckled shade of a flowering cherry, whose flowers had left the budding fruits to grow, a gentle breeze caressed the unmistakable red structure. It stood aloof, strangely ignored, like an unwelcome guest at a wedding, a shabby old in-law distantly related to the proceedings.
Yet one hundred and fifty years ago it had all been so different.
Then Victorians – with febrile missives of romance like Tennyson’s plea to Madeline:
Thou art not steep’d in golden languors,
No tranced summer calm is thine,
Ever varying Madeline.
Thro’ light and shadow thou dost range,
Sudden glances, sweet and strange,
Delicious spites and darling angers,
And airy forms of flitting change.
or familial letters from abroad: “My dear Sister
My last was addressed to you from Paris on Wednesday last since which I am about 500 miles further from home. I left Paris at 7 o’clock on Thursday Morning and had a very pleasant journey altho’ long I enjoyed it much. I find from daily experience that the great secret of travelling well in a foreign land is always to treat everyone with the greatest courtesy and respect and as in England it is sure to be returned. In securing my place in the Diligence altho’ two days before starting I was but just in time, one place only not being taken — and which I secured. The passengers were all very agreeable two of them could speak about as much English as I can French and so we managed moderately well — I took half a fowl and bread for the first days provision and passing through the Champayne country treated myself to a bottle of this wine which cost including the bottle 8d. It was, however, so tart from want of sugar that it reminded me of a certain quality of Gooseberry wine which I get sometimes — one bottle of yours is worth a dozen — and so I only drank half of my Champayne and gave the other away.”
or sober statements of business,
or even final testaments on double sheets of foolscap folded several times,
– would entrust the red and proud Penfold with their messages. Rowland Hill’s penny post with an image of the young Queen Victoria in profile – she faced left on a black background – was enthusiastically embraced by her the industrious citizens.
An exceptional Victorian polyglot engineer with a large beard, bald head and a steely-eyed gaze, John Penfold was an architect, a designer, and a surveyor. He even re-designed Jewin Street in the City of London after it had been destroyed by a large fire. But most famously in 1866, he was the creator of the Penfold pillar box. The only pillar box among the myriad of postboxes to be known by its designer’s name; hexagonal in shape, its cap, adorned with acanthus leaves and surrounded by balls, was topped by a large magnolia bud.
Like hen’s teeth or a four leaf clover, an authentic hexagonal Penfold is a wonderful sight. There aren’t many left on Britain’s streets. Old pillar boxes have been removed, replaced by less ornately designed, more utilitarian, boxes with wider mouths.
So any Victorian postbox with its VR insignia is both a rarity and a pleasure, and a Penfold even more so.
But wait!
There were replica Penfolds produced in 1988. Was this the real McCoy or was it a replica?
It didn’t take Google long to confirm:
http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM47H1 has the answer.


One thought on “A Penfold Box”

  1. Hello Richard, enjoyed this piece as at some time in the distant past I wrote something about letter boxes although I can’t now recall where.

    I am on the Isle of Wight where there is a rare Edward VIII box, although it doesn’t have a place of honour, being stuck on a narrow corner.
    I occasionally write on WordPress: Jan Toms Brief Biographies, or on Wizzley: Jan Toms Isle of Wight,
    Look forward to the course on William Wordsworth.

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