The Palace of Westminster has secured a letter box designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, circa 1851.
The wooden box, used for collecting mail ready for dispatch, was designed for the New Palace of Westminster in Pugin’s signature Gothic Revival style and went missing over 100 years ago. The letter box returns to the collection of national and international significance housed at Parliament.
The letter box was purchased recently at an auction in Nottingham after being found in an outbuilding in the area. It needs some conservation work but is in relatively good condition despite its recent history. It is a rare moment for Parliament’s curators to find a piece this unique and to be able to return it to the collection.
Once the letter box has been conserved, it will be added to the Historic Furniture and Decorative Arts collection, which holds a large number of functional, decorative items that were originally designed for the Palace of Westminster. Following incorporation into the collection, the letter box will be displayed within the Palace of Westminster, where the public will be able to view it.
When the letter box was designed in the late 1840’s, the world’s then biggest economy was heavily reliant on the postal service. At a time before widespread use of telephones and the telegraph, the messengers in Parliament were located on the ground floor in the House of Lords. From there they would make frequent trips around the Palace and out into the city to collect and deliver the post.
The letter box is made of oak with iron hinges. It is decorated with the crowned lion of England, with a postman’s satchel around its neck on one side of the lid. On the other side it has two curved tripartite decorative hinges. Falcons, an ink well and pen, as well as an inscription, are carved in the woodwork. The crowned lion leaves little doubt that it was designed for the New Palace of Westminster and most likely for senior officers in the House of Lords. The decoration is unmistakably Pugin in concept and style, with his wit and panache shining through.
In researching the origins of the letter box, Estates Archivist and Historian Dr Mark Collins came across a letter dated 27 December 1851. In the letter, Charles Barry, the architect of the Palace, informed Pugin that, “The drawings for the letter boxes were sent to Hardman as soon as I received them. I have this moment given Crace the drawings for the decoration of the blank lights [i.e. presumably the carved panels to the sides], received this morning with orders to proceed… I enclose a diagram which he has made of the pannels [sic] and a list of the data for their decoration; and shall be very glad, if it were not be bothering you too much, if you would give the subject your deliberate attention… That would be most satisfactory“.
There is good reason to regard the recently discovered box as one of those referred to in this letter. One letter box was presumably intended for the House of Lords, the other for the House of Commons.
Melissa Hamnett, Head of Heritage Collections & Curator of Works of Art, said, “This is a tremendous treasure which has been returned to the Palace of Westminster. I am absolutely thrilled, and I cannot wait for it to go on display for people to enjoy. Our restoration experts are in the process of ensuring that the letter box is in excellent condition, and then we will find a suitable place for it to be displayed.”
Dr Mark Collins, Parliamentary Estates Archivist and Historian, commented, “It is always exciting to come across an item mentioned in our archives and especially when it appears to be the only copy in existence. We are still piecing the history of the letter box together and figuring out how it fits in with other Pugin designs in the Palace.”