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In the summer of 2012, London hosted both the Olympic Games and the Paralympics. Although London had previously hosted the Olympic Games twice before, in 1908 and 1948, for the 2012 Games Royal Mail would celebrate gold medal success with a new tradition. For each gold medal won at both the Olympics and Paralympics, not only would a commemorative stamp1 be issued, but they also declared that in each of the gold medal-winning athletes' home towns, a postbox would be painted gold in their honour.
What is a postbox?
A postbox should not be confused with either a letterbox or mailbox. A letterbox is a slit in a door to a building, allowing incoming envelopes, newspapers and small packages etc to be posted into the building. A mailbox, not commonly seen in Britain, is a box outside a building which serves the same function as a letterbox. This allows the depositing of post for the addressees inside that building, although the resident has to go outside their residence in order to check this and get their post.
A postbox serves an entirely different function. It is something used by members of the public to post outgoing envelopes and small packages to other destinations. These were first introduced in the British Isles in the Channel Islands in 1852 and come in three basic types:
A smaller box, 2ft (610mm) tall or less. These were designed to be able to be attached to lampposts, telegraph poles or other convenient fixed points, although they are often mounted on their own stand or pedestal. As pillar boxes are expensive to make, lamp boxes supplement the pillar box network where a full pillar box would not be needed.
These are larger2 than lamp boxes though not as tall as a pillar box and usually built into a wall near a road. These are found in rural areas where streetlights and telegraph poles are less frequent. Wall boxes were made between 1857 - 1980.
Over 117,000 postboxes are in use in Britain. Although postboxes were originally painted green to make them unobtrusive, this colour was a disadvantage as they were difficult to spot, especially during London's pea-souper fog. Since 1874 red has been the standard postbox colour, with the exception of Guernsey3, where the postboxes are blue.
The postboxes painted gold in honour of gold medal-winning British Olympians at the 2012 London Olympic Games are the first postboxes officially painted any colour other than red since the Second World War4.
Although pillar boxes are the ones which have been most commonly painted gold, lamp boxes and wall boxes have been painted too. The postboxes are expected to stay gold for three months before returning to their customary red, although many councils are requesting that the postboxes remain gold.
The idea behind the painting of postboxes gold to celebrate Olympic success was warmly welcomed nationwide and overall considered a great idea and a success. These postboxes were so popular that they became almost the unofficial mascots of the London 2012 Games. Despite this, a few have attracted some local controversy.
Royal Mail decided to paint one box in the athlete's 'home town' - but that's the problem. In an age where moving house is commonplace, is the home town the town where they were born, brought up, or live now? If they live in the countryside or a suburb or village should the painted box be closest to where the athlete lives, or in the nearest town centre or main post office? When in doubt, Royal Mail checked the official Team GB website, which sadly was not always accurate.
Similarly, athletes who live in Great Britain but represent other countries have not been given golden postboxes in their home towns. For example, athletes from Northern Ireland who represented Team Ireland and won gold medals were not initially given golden postboxes by Royal Mail.
Many people have felt that all of Great Britain's medal-winning Olympians should have had a postbox painted in the appropriate colour in their honour, not just those who have won gold.
Where some of these controversial postboxes are located:
Alton, Jane Austen's home town and the terminus of the Watercress Line Steam Railway, is also home to equestrian gold medallist Peter Charles. Except that it's not. In fact, 52-year-old Charles lives four miles away in the village of Bentworth. When this error was made, Royal Mail announced that they had been unable to confirm Charles' address with him and had to rely on 'Internet research', including the official Team GB website, which states he lives in Alton. A resident of Alton, when interviewed, said:
The gold postbox looks brilliant and it's a great addition to the town. We are very proud to be associated with Peter Charles and a gold medal-winning Olympian – but he doesn't actually live here. His home village is about four miles down the road.
After initially stating that they would not paint another postbox actually in Bentworth, Royal Mail relented and agreed to do so.
Equestrian Nick Skelton, the teammate of Peter Charles, was born in the town of Bedworth in 1957. Although the town's chemist is named Skelton's after his family, he had a postbox painted gold in Alcester, where he now lives. A Facebook campaign with over 800 supporters, including Nick Skelton himself, successfully petitioned Royal Mail for the right for a gold postbox in Bedworth. Royal Mail spokeswoman Val Bodden stated:
We picked Alcester as this is the home town where Nick lives and has his stables and we think it made an excellent location to celebrate his magnificent Olympic win. However, after speaking with Nick, we have agreed to also paint gold the postbox near the Civic Hall in Bedworth, where he was born. We're delighted to do this – Nick is a famous son of Bedworth.
Bedworth's mayor John Haynes stated:
I am absolutely over the moon. Everyone in Bedworth is proud of Nick's success and this is great for the town.
Mary Bedson, Nick Skelton's assistant for over 22 years, gave an insight into Nick's own view by saying:
Nick was concerned that people may have thought that Alcester was his choice for a gold postbox but he was never consulted by Royal Mail. He has always been a huge supporter of Bedworth. In fact, this will be his third one – because one of our members of staff has also put gold paint on Nick's own private postbox, which stands outside his farm.
Within hours of it being unveiled, the Bedworth postbox had sadly been defaced by vandals. Kevin Wise, who had led the Facebook campaign, sadly announced:
It looks as if someone took a screwdriver to the postbox and scraped the surface. The damage was only small but it shows that some people do not have any honour, respect or pride.
Bramhope, West Yorkshire
The Brownlee brothers took the gold and bronze in the men's triathlon: they grew up in Horsforth, a village on the edge of Leeds, so a postbox was painted gold there. But they now live in Bramhope, another village on the edge of Leeds, and many people expected the honoured postbox to be there.
Local resident Peter Moran, 82, who lives in the same road as the brothers, painted a postbox outside his house gold in their honour. When interviewed, he said:
When I watched what [the Brownlee brothers] went through to get the medal I thought, I've got to do something to celebrate this. I had an old pot of gold paint in the garage and I thought it would look really good. Loads of people have been stopping and having their pictures taken by it. It's been great but if I'd have had even one complaint I would have painted it back red. The box shouldn't have been painted in Horsforth anyway, they don't live in Horsforth – it's miles away and would take you ten minutes to get there. I just wanted to do something for the village. It doesn't get much more local than this. Not many people use this postbox but the ones who do were enjoying it. There was no harm done. I guess I'll just wait for the bill now.
Royal Mail promptly painted this postbox back to red. Mr Moran said he had intended to paint the gold postbox red once the Olympics were over. Other Bramhope residents, including parish council chairman Denis Johnson, thought the postbox outside the Brownlee brother's local pub, The Fox and Hounds, would be painted gold after Alistair's triathlon victory. The parish council even wrote to Royal Mail asking them to consider putting another gold postbox in Bramhope, with the council chairman stating:
The village just wants to share in the brothers' success. There were lots of media here [after the race], I spoke to several of them and they actually filmed the postbox outside the pub. They seemed to be under the same impression as everybody else. The whole village has been asking the same question so all we can do is make our request on the basis that there were two medal winners, albeit not both gold. The village is delighted with the success of the brothers and hopefully [Royal Mail] will acquiesce.
Royal Mail spokesperson Morag Turnbull announced:
Royal Mail is delighted to mark the achievement of Team GB athletes winning gold medals at London 2012, either individually or part of a team. Each of these gold medal winners will have a postbox painted gold in the community they are, or have been associated with. This could be where they were born, where they grew up or where they presently live and we look at all these factors before reaching a considered choice. We picked Horsforth as this was the place where Alistair grew up.
Shortly afterwards, Alistair's official gold postbox in Horsforth was vandalised. The almost incomprehensible graffiti message, which might possibly have read 'Time to Waste' or perhaps 'Gone to Waste' was scrawled in runny black paint. Morag Turnbull stated:
We are extremely disappointed that someone has chosen to vandalise the gold postbox painted to recognise the gold medal-winning achievement of Alistair Brownlee. We have teams around the UK which look after and maintain our 115,000 postboxes and we will repair the damage to this box as soon as possible.
A different controversy surrounded a postbox in Cheltenham, painted gold in honour of rower Alex Gregory's triumph in the coxless four race. Within two weeks of the postbox being painted, the paint was wearing off, with local Mr Clayton saying:
I was very disappointed and embarrassed when I saw it. The red has come through. It's all dribbled down onto the black plinth. I think it's an insult to the athletes and it's a slap in the face. The athletes have put four years at least into training and they have spent four minutes painting the postbox, by the looks of it.
Royal Mail announced it would be repainted.
A postbox in Doddington was unofficially painted bronze to honour hockey midfielder Georgia Twigg, who helped the women's hockey team win bronze. A photograph of the bronze postbox was tweeted by Twigg after she was sent a copy on Twitter along with the message: georgietwigg, Village postbox, amazing support from your local Lincolnshire Village of Doddington.
A Royal Mail spokesperson declared:
We understand the sentiment, and congratulate the women's hockey team on their achievement. However, we'd rather people left the painting of postboxes to us. We are liaising with our engineers to ensure that it is repainted red as soon as possible.
The postbox painted gold in Dunblane in honour of Andy Murray's historic tennis singles gold medal at Wimbledon was so popular that fans scratched parts of the gilt paint off to keep as souvenirs of his victory. A delighted Royal Mail spokesman announced:
Everybody wants a piece of it. We don't see it as vandalism, but we will be touching it up.
Eglinton, County Londonderry
Though Jason Smyth won two gold medals at the Paralympic Games, he was not initially recognised with a golden postbox in his home village of Eglinton, County Londonderry. Smyth won the T13 100m and 200m sprint for Team Ireland despite being from the Northern Ireland village. Royal Mail at first announced:
We absolutely acknowledge Jason Smyth's achievement, but the stamps and gold postboxes were specifically for gold medal-winning Olympian and Paralympians who competed for Team GB. We can't change that, even for people in the north of Ireland.
A resident of the village stated:
A gold medal is a gold medal. Jason lives in the village and his post is delivered by the Royal Mail. All his congratulations cards and fan mail will be delivered by Royal Mail to his house. I think it would be fantastic if Royal Mail joined in the community spirit. We are so so proud of Jason I think the community deserves a gold postbox and we would love to see a gold postbox in Eglinton.
After a huge protest and backlash, Royal Mail relented and agreed to paint a postbox gold in his honour. Pat Ramsey, MLA5 for Foyle who had been campaigning for the golden postbox, announced:
I welcome this change of heart by Royal Mail. They listened to people, took their views on board and this response is very well received. The spectacular achievements in the recent Paralympics are an inspiration to us all. It is only right and proper that it should be respected and recognised in this way by Royal Mail. I have no doubt... these gold postboxes will be inundated with congratulatory mail.
29-year-old Ben Maher won a gold medal as part of the show jumping team. He lives in the small village of Elsenham in Essex, but because the village's nearest postal town is Bishop's Stortford in Hertfordshire, Royal Mail initially planned to paint a postbox gold there. After double-checking Ben's address, Royal Mail relented and agreed to paint a postbox in Elsenham instead. Elsenham postmaster Colin Bowen, when interviewed, announced:
Everyone is happy because he's local and the horse was raised here.
Sailor Iain Percy from Emsworth in Hampshire and his teammate Andrew 'Bart' Simpson from Sherborne in Dorset narrowly missed out on a gold medal in the Star Class. To celebrate their silver, residents of Emsworth wrapped up a postbox in silver foil.
Glengormley, County Antrim
Michael McKillop is a Paralympic double gold medallist, winning the 800m and 1,500m T37, including breaking the 800m World Record. As he competed for Team Ireland rather than Team GB he was initially denied his own golden postbox, until protests forced Royal Mail to rethink.
Double gold medal-winning cyclist Laura Trott had a postbox painted gold in her honour in Harlow, Essex. Although Harlow was the town in which she was born, she no longer lives there. Laura immediately used Twitter to ask her followers to campaign for the postbox in her hometown of Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, to be painted instead, tweeting: So people I need you to tweet @PostOffice for me. My postbox is going in Harlow which isn't in my hometown, Cheshunt is where it should be!!
Royal Mail announced that the mistake occurred because Harlow is listed as Laura's hometown on the Team GB website, and said:
We tweeted her straight back to say we'd be delighted to do one in Cheshunt as well.
The fact that no Olympic gold medallists have come from Henley-on-Thames has not stopped Royal Mail from painting a postbox gold in that Oxfordshire town. The justification for this bizarre act has been that many of Britain's rowers are members of the Leander rowing club. Leander Club members won 12 medals at the London 2012 Olympic Games, bringing the club’s overall total number of Olympic medals to 111. Three members of the club based in Henley-on-Thames won gold at the 2012 Games, including Anna Watkins in the women's double scull as well as Peter Reed of Nailsworth and Alex Gregory of Cheltenham, who won as part of the men's coxless four. Alex also helped paint this postbox gold.
Peter Reed said:
It is so humbling to know how many people were right behind our team for our biggest day two weeks ago. The golden postbox is a symbol that everyone loves to see to feel part of that achievement.
Anthony Ogogo won a boxing middleweight bronze medal, and soon Lowestoft locals painted a postbox bronze to salute and celebrate this knock-out achievement, the first Olympic medal won by someone from the town. The mayor, Nick Webb, said:
I know absolutely nothing about who's behind painting the postbox, but whoever it is – congratulations. It's nothing less than the boy deserves.
Royal Mail were not quite so pleased, sternly announcing:
Prior to the Olympics, we announced an extensive programme that would involve painting postboxes gold to celebrate any individual and team athletes that won a gold medal. Royal Mail congratulates every single member of Team GB on their success at the Olympics. However, due to the scale of the programme, we are sorry but we do need to limit the programme to those athletes who have won a gold medal.
Gold medal-winning sailor Ben Ainslie first went to school in Lymington and today lives in Lymington, yet Royal Mail painted a postbox gold in Restronguet, Cornwall. This is somewhere that Ben moved to and attended school for a period after his initial schooling in Lymington. A Facebook campaign demanding a golden postbox in Lymington was launched, quickly attracting more than 2,000 supporters. Shortly afterwards a friend of Ben's, Rob Smith, took matters into his own hands and painted a postbox in Lymington gold, using car paint. He was promptly arrested by police on suspicion of criminal damage, though released on bail, which led to more campaigning and even more demands for a golden postbox in Lymington. When interviewed, Smith said:
When [Royal Mail] said they weren't going to paint anything in Lymington, I just thought: this is madness. He's lived here for around 15 years. All of Lymington believes that the Post Office made the wrong choice in painting one down in Cornwall. Give him two.
Ben Ainsley spoke on Smith's behalf, calling him a 'passionate sportsman' and 'legend of Lymington', by saying:
Obviously the police didn't really like it but it's really nice the Olympics generated that kind of excitement in the nation. To hear the stories of support around the nation made such a huge difference to us as competitors, it was really very, very special.
Royal Mail painted the postbox that had been painted gold back to red, but, after fierce protests from locals, relented and repainted the postbox gold. A Royal Mail spokesman announced:
After speaking with Ben we have agreed to repaint the postbox on Lymington High Street at his request, and are delighted to do so. Ben is a local hero in Lymington and now he will be one of the few lucky Team GB gold medallists to have two gold postboxes celebrating his achievement. However, we still highly recommend people leave the painting of postboxes to Royal Mail.
Peter Reed, victorious in rowing the coxless four contest with Alex Gregory from Cheltenham, has controversially had four postboxes painted gold in his honour. The first was a lamp box near the family's home in Watledge, and after an appeal by his mother Sue, two postboxes next to each other in Nailsworth town centre were painted as well. Nailsworth is Pete's home town. This is in addition to the postbox in Henley-on-Thames painted gold to celebrate the success of rowers there.
Plymouth in Devon is home to two medal-winning athletes; diver Tom Daley who won bronze, and 15-year-old Ruta Meilutyte, who won the 100m breaststroke gold medal for her home country of Lithuania. Although she won gold for a different country, locals are as proud of her achievement as that of local hero Tom Daley.
Communication Workers Union's divisional representative Mr Webb announced that he had secured funding and resources to paint postboxes bronze and gold to honour them, if Royal Mail approved. Plymouth City Council leader Tudor Evans gave the proposal his full backing, but Royal Mail stated:
We have been asked about making exceptions for several athletes. There have been discussions but it has been decided that no further postboxes will be painted. Due to the scale of the programme, we are sorry but we do need to limit the programme to those GB athletes who have won a gold.
Following Royal Mail's announcement, three second-hand pillar boxes previously surplus to Royal Mail's requirements were bought by the owner of the local football club, Plymouth Argyle. These were painted by students at Plymouth College of Art and Design, one gold, one bronze and the third emblazoned in Argyle's football kit colours of green, white and black, arranged in the same pattern as on the Union Flag. Mr Webb said the bronze box would honour both Tom and Team GB rower Greg Searle, who claimed a bronze medal at London 2012. Although from Surrey, he is a Plymouth Argyle supporter and the son of Plymouth-born parents.
Although these boxes, being in private ownership, will not be serviced by Royal Mail, fans will be able to post messages of congratulations to the athletes.
Seaforde, County Down
Bethany Firth won a swimming S14 100m backstroke Paralympic gold medal for Team Ireland. Initially denied a postbox in her honour, Royal Mail relented after a campaign on her behalf and her fellow Paralympians Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop. Barbara Roulston, Head of External Relations for Royal Mail in Northern Ireland, announced:
Honorary gold postboxes for Jason, Michael and Bethany are an appropriate tribute for our local Paralympic heroes given their tremendous achievements and the very clear community support for this.
Sheffield, South Yorkshire
The postbox painted gold in honour of poster-girl Jessica Ennis' heptathlon success shot to national fame when it became the first postbox to be vandalised with graffiti. When interviewed, Royal Mail announced it did not know what the graffiti said as an engineer repaired the damage very quickly as 'a point of pride', although South Yorkshire Police confirmed that the graffiti read 'Go Jess' in very small letters.
The postbox, opposite John Lewis which had its whole upper floor frontage covered with a picture of her for the Olympics, had become a major tourist attraction in Sheffield. People have travelled from all over the country to see it. Brides and grooms have also reportedly posed for wedding photographs beside it.
Canoeist Tim Baillie had a Type M6 postbox painted gold in his honour in his hometown of Westhill. Locals soon complained that this postbox wasn't big or prominent enough. Shortly afterwards, a second, larger Type K7 pillar postbox in a more central position was painted gold.
Royal Mail announced it was not responsible for painting the box in Wyke Road and said there would be an investigation. It was:
extremely disappointed someone had chosen to vandalise the postbox. It is illegal to tamper with any of our postboxes and we are liaising with our engineers to ensure that it is repainted red as soon as possible.
Royal Mail's idea of celebrating gold medal success with golden postboxes has since been imitated by two other postal services outside the United Kingdom. Isle of Man Post painted a postbox gold to commemorate Manx man Peter Kennaugh's success in the cycling team pursuit. Similarly Guernsey Post, whose postboxes are normally blue, painted the only postbox on the island of Sark gold to celebrate Carl Hester's success in the team dressage.