Skip to content

RICS 150

5 MAR 2018

John Wornham Penfold: Designing the Penfold letter box

John Wornham Penfold is best known for the design of the Penfold letter box and is the only British pillar box designer to have the box itself named after him. Commissioned by the Post Office, the design, hexagonal in shape and adorned with acanthus leaves and balls, was intended to create a national standard for letter boxes.

Some of the original letter boxes are still in use today, 150 years on, and have been listed to give them special protection under the law. Penfolds are also the only letter boxes to have been replicated by the Royal Mail, including one sited outside Penfold’s former home in Haslemere.

Although the Penfold design has been replaced, many of the features are still in use – including a variety of different sizes. The Penfold boxes were also the first to be manufactured in red – which remains the standard colour today. The design was also popular abroad and they can be found in India, British Guyana, Australia and New Zealand.

The fame of the name Penfold was added to in the 1990s when a character in the cartoon Dangermouse, his side-kick, was named Penfold as the duo lived in a post box.

Penfold’s work was not limited to letter boxes, however. He trained as an architect and surveyor and it was as surveyor to the Goldsmiths’ company that he re-designed the Cripplegate area of London after a fire on 19 November 1897. During his time at Goldsmiths’ he was also responsible for the modification of the former Naval Training School in New Cross, South London into a technical and recreational institute that is now part of Goldsmiths, University of London.

Born in Haslemere, Surrey, Penfold regularly returned to the town throughout his life. He surveyed the town and preserved many of its historic features – converting cottages and farmhouses, extending the parish church as well as endowing a cottage hospital.

Founding member

Penfold was also a founder member of the Surveying Institution, the precursor to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. He was the first Honorary Secretary serving for 36 years from 1868 to 1904, the longest serving holder of this office and in 1906 he was elected an honorary member.

John Penfold is one of the surveyors being celebrated in the RICS 150 Exhibition ‘Shaping the World, Building the Future’ at RICS headquarters on Parliament Square, London, where there is a section dedicated to Penfold and a replica of his famous letter box.