The Letter Box Study Group on the other hand knows each depository intimately. Well, almost.
2016 marks not just the 40th anniversary of the group’s inception but also the date in which it expects to fulfill its ultimate aim: to catalogue every single post box in the British Isles. Of an estimated 115,500 scattered around the country, there are only 2,000 left to go. The mission is known as “Project Zero”.
The fact that the 400 or so members of the group are trying to log all the post boxes in the UK might appear odd at first, given the Royal Mail already boasts a comprehensive list. But according to the 48-year-old Jones, “they may know where they are but they don’t know what they are”.
That is where the Letter Box Study Group comes in. It has devised an intricate system of numbering for each particular type; be it wall box, pillar box or lamp box. Most bear the insignia of the reigning monarch at the time of manufacture. Members also scout for extra screw holes, signatures and patterns on the metal. In total, the group estimates there are close to 600 different types.
"The great hope of the post box collectors comes in the shape of a 10-year-old schoolboy from Staines who is the youngest attendee of its thrice annual meetings"
To log a post box, a photograph and detailed notes are taken which are then added to a mammoth online database. Earlier this year the group’s activity featured in a book “Dull Men of Great Britain” but in fact one third of its members, like Debbie Jones, are women.
“You can get very involved in the hobby when you go into the minute detail,” she says. “I’m just fascinated by the history of them.”
Earlier this year Jones – who is unmarried but with a partner - made the two hour drive from Birmingham to Wiltshire for the sole purpose of surveying the post boxes in the area. Others have clocked up many more miles.
The chairman of the group Andrew Young, a 61-year-old married father of two from Warrington, recalls with fondness a surveying trip to Glasgow in 2000. In a few days in Scotland he registered reams of new findings, including half a dozen Edward VIII boxes – the holy grail of letter box collecting as he was only on the throne for 11 months before abdicating. There are just 160 in the country.
Yet even with the Project Zero milestone so close, the society is struggling for new members. “We lose more who drop off through age and death that come in at the younger end,” says Young. “Information that you would previously have had to join a group like ours to acquire you can now get from the internet.”
Thomas's favourite boxes are the Ludlow wall boxes and the ?Hovis Top? whose crown is domed like a loaf of bread.
The great hope of the post box collectors comes in the shape of a 10-year-old schoolboy from Staines who is the youngest attendee of its thrice annual meetings by quite some measure. Thomas first became interested by the gold pillar boxes erected in celebration of Britain’s Olympic stars of 2012.
He begged his mum, Margaret (a teacher) to let him join the Letter Box Study Group but she only acquiesced if he passed his piano Grade one exam first. That he did a year-and-a-half ago and now she regularly takes him on trips to visit post boxes on weekends and school holidays.
"British post boxes are a collector’s item, prized the world over - particularly in the US, Russia and the Far East"
“I have seen hundreds of them,” he says. “I take a photograph on my mum's phone and then put them on a file in my computer, ranking them by the date I saw them. My friends think it is a little bit weird. They're more into football, celebrities and pop music - that sort of thing. But I just find them really interesting.”
His favourites are the Ludlow wall boxes and the “Hovis Top” whose crown is domed like a loaf of bread. For the likes of Simon Vaughan-Winter, the newsletter editor of the study group, the most attractive design is the Penfold pillar box, a hexagonal creation which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.
Simon Vaughan Winter with an 1881 'miscast Type C' letterbox in Hinton, near Peterchurch, Herefordshire.
The 62-year-old has been a member of the group since 1977 but says his wife, Janine, still regards the hobby with “amused tolerance”. During one surveying trip to Ross-on-Wye he recalls lying on the pavement to photograph a manufacturer’s name he had spotted on the base of a box. When a traffic warden came to check if he was conscious, his wife who was standing nearby denied that she even knew him.
Some, however, have forged stronger bonds over post boxes and members talk of a close camaraderie over their shared passion. There have been two marriages among the group in the last ten years alone.
The Letter Box Study Group is recognised by Royal Mail as “the only organisation in existence to have a comprehensive system for defining and numbering British letter boxes”. However its vast catalogue is not publically available. In part this is to protect the more niche boxes from a growing black market in thefts and online sales.
British post boxes are a collector’s item, prized the world over - particularly in the US, Russia and the Far East. The Royal Mail used to auction off old ones that had been decommissioned but in 2003 announced they would instead be repaired or kept in stock. A black market has consequently flourished, with classic pillar boxes in particular being offered on online auction sites for up to 6,000 each.
This summer, Royal Mail and Historic England warned of a "significant threat" and unveiled a new arsenal of high-tech tools including forensic and electronic tagging, and permanent metal-marking of post boxes.
The growing number of thefts means that even when the last post box is ticked off this year, the Letter Box Study Group will then have to revert back to the beginning to re-categorise replacements in a process akin to the never-ending painting of the Forth Road Bridge.
One suspects, however, this is exactly how the chroniclers of our postal heritage like it.
“We will give ourselves a bit of a pat on the back of course,” says Andrew Young. “And then we will just carry on.”