Perhaps the earliest form of national communication system to impinge on the Yorkshire Dales would have been that set up by the Roman army and provincial administration although we have no archaeological or documentary evidence for it here. Imperial and military post could be delivered relatively rapidly throughout the empire along the sophisticated road network using horses and riders. The withdrawal of the Roman army and government left nothing to fill its place for centuries.
Systems of beacons set up to warn of threatened invasions are the earliest nationwide communication system for which we have physical evidence in the Dales. The first of these invasion threats came from the Spanish Armada during the Elizabethan era. Tradition has it that Armada beacons were built on Sharp Haw, near Flasby and Penhill, in Wensleydale. In 1803 the threat came from Napoleon. In order to mobilise defence forces in the event of France invading, a system of communication beacons was set up. The Dales had at least one of these Napoleonic fire beacons, Beamsley Beacon and possibly another near Grassington. In the event of an invasion, the men guarding each beacon and keeping watch using a telescope, would light their beacon as soon as they saw their neighbour’s alight. The War Office reckoned on the news of the invasion travelling at a rate of 75 miles a day by this method. This was much faster than any other system of communication of the time.
1660 had seen the establishment of the first regularised postal system for use by the general public with the founding of the General Letter Office. Unfortunately few roads were in good enough condition to allow mail to be carried by post coaches. The existence of non-standard miles also led to pricing disputes. Yorkshire was well known as having a customary mile many yards longer than the statutory distance laid down by law in 1593. As late as the 18th century, milestones in the Dales sometimes still used customary miles, for example one at Long Preston, which shows Skipton as being 5 miles away instead of the actual 11 miles distance. A mail system with a charge based on the distance travelled, needed standard miles. The improvement nationally of roads during the 18th century, particularly with the building of turnpike roads, led to advances in communications. From 1766 Turnpike Trusts were obliged to erect milestones along their roads thus guaranteeing correct pricing and also that coach drivers would stick to agreed timetables. The Sedbergh Turnpike Trust erected mile posts along the length of their routes and many still survive, such as those to be seen alongside the road to Kirkby Stephen. Parish roads also acquired milestones such as those on the Dent Road to Sedbergh. Regular mail coaches began to run between towns and cities and the delivery of private mail could be guaranteed.
The 1840 postal reform allowed a universal affordable postage rate rather than one based on distance travelled. The ability to send letters came within the reach of many through the means of the new pre-payable adhesive stamps. The main problem then came to be getting letters to the nearest letter receiving office. In the Yorkshire Dales this would have meant a journey of many miles. The solution was the provision of a system of locked cast iron pillar boxes at roadsides and the establishment of a regular system of collection. The scheme went nationwide in 1853. The pillar boxes were followed in 1857 by smaller wall box-type letter boxes and still later by lamp-post boxes which were used in rural areas like the Yorkshire Dales where collections were smaller.
Each letter box carried the crown and initials of the reigning monarch of the time and this along with the wide variety of designs means that most can be accurately dated. A Victorian wall box at Skirethorns must be one of the earliest examples in the National Park. A later example dating to 1910-30 can be seen in the wall at the entrance to the old Grassington TB Hospital and still later a George V example dating to 1931-33 can be seen on the road leading from Hebden to Burnsall.
Possibly even more characteristic than the red painted iron post boxes are the classic red painted cast-iron telephone kiosks that can still be seen around the dales. The first public call offices as they were then known, were established in 1884. Public access to the new telecommunication systems was to revolutionise life in the more remote parts of the country. The first standard telephone kiosk was introduced in 1921 and was made from reinforced concrete. A new design was sought through a competition held in 1924. The winner was Giles Gilbert Scott. His winning kiosk was called the K2 and was the first to be painted red. Few of these telephone boxes were erected outside London. However, Giles Gilbert Scott repeated his success in 1935 when he came up with a new design, known as the K6. It was produced to mark the Silver Jubilee celebrations of George V and went on to be installed nationwide. As monarchs changed so did the style of the crown on the box.
By the mid 1980s, the cast iron boxes were proving uneconomic to maintain and British Telecom began to remove them and replace them with modern glass and steel kiosks. Many villages recognised their old kiosks as being part of their heritage and fought hard to protect them. Following various public campaigns, British Telecom was persuaded to retain some and many are now listed buildings. The Yorkshire Dales has 24 of these K6 design telephone boxes. Good examples can be seen in Gayle in Wensleydale and Burnsall, Linton and Arncliffe in Wharfedale.
Benford, Mervyn (2002) Milestones Princes Risborough: Shire Publications
British Telecom (1984) Britain’s Public Payphones. A social history London: British Telecom
English Heritage (2002) Royal Mail Letter Boxes. A joint policy statement by Royal Mail and English Heritage Swindon: English Heritage
Johannessen, Neil (1994) Telephone Boxes Princes Risborough: Shire Publications
Robinson, M (2000) Old Letter Boxes Princes Risborough: Shire Publications
www.payphones.by.com/2001/about/education – BT education pages including a history of the payphone
www.lbsg.org – website of the Letter Box Study Group