Tuesday, 22 March 2011
There may be many different models of Royal Mail letter boxes but, apart from a few pre-1874 Penfold hexagonal boxes in green or bronze-green, the immense majority is painted in just one colour: red. Therefore this blue George V box outside Windsor Castle really stands out.
Such blue boxes first appeared in the streets of the main British cities in 1930 for the sole purpose of posting air letters. However they were painted in Air Force blue rather than the darker navy blue used when this one was last repainted. Additionally they displayed on top an oval sign with "Air Mail" written on it. Having separate air mail boxes alongside the usual red ones proved to be too costly and in 1938 the Royal Mail decided that the public could use any box to post air letters.
This one has been placed next to the spot where Windsor Post Office once stood (built in 1887, it was demolished in 1966) and commemorates the first United Kingdom aerial post. On 9th September 1911, Gustav Hamel took off from Hendon aerodrome with a 23 pound mail bag celebrating the coronation of King George V. Twelve minutes later his Blériot XI powered by an Anzani motor landed in Shaw Farm meadow, Long Walk, Windsor. This was slightly further than the planned landing site and the postman had to jump on his bike to go and get the delivery but at least, in spite of the strong winds, the flight had been a success. It is said that during that short journey Hamel managed to write a postcard to the King. The correspondance carried on that occasion consisted of envelopes and postcards especially printed for the occasion and bore the inscriptions "A.D. Coronation 1911 - First U.K. Aerial Post by Sanction of H.M. Postmaster General" and "To be forwarded by aeroplane from London to Windsor. The Postmaster General is not responsible in case of loss, damage or delay."
Between 9th and 26th September, Hamel and the other pilots of the Graham-White Aviation Company Ltd, which was running the service, made 21 flights with either Blériot XI or Farman III aeroplanes and carried a total of 130,000 letters. However such impressive figures hide the fact that several setbacks occurred during these days. As it was reported, "the official verdict of the experiment was that the airmail would have no scientific value, but it might under favourable conditions permit of more rapid communication than by any other means of transport, but that it was too dependant upon weather to be of use as a regular and ordinary mode of conveyance." Indeed flights had to be delayed or cancelled because of fog, on a few occasions the pilots were unable to reach their destination, and on 11th September, Huber Latham fractured both his legs in a crash. When Hamel heard the organisers did not want to compensate Latham, he went on strike. He only resumed his series of flights on 25th, when the Postmaster General agreed to pay the injured pilot £500. Still, the operation of the world's first scheduled aerial post made a profit and the King Edward VII Hospital in Windsor was presented with the sum of £1,000.
Following this event, Hamel became extremely famous and participated in many public displays and a few publicity stunts. However he disappeared over the Channel on 23rd May 1914 while flying the brand new Morane-Saulnier he had just acquired in Paris. As for air mail services, they became well-established in the 1920s thanks to improvements in aircraft design and the boldness of former First World War pilots.
As a commemorative item, this special blue air mail box does not accept letters, and nowadays neither does the more recent Elizabeth II red pillar box next to it: its aperture has been sealed because of alleged terrorist threat.