I Spy Lucy Boxes

A note by Frank Sharman, Bev Parker and Duncan Nimmo with help from John Hughes, Sue Whitehouse, Ros Doran, Neville Baker, Phillip Hornby, Phillip Horton, David Plant, Keith Nutter, Henry Brown, Keith Pople and Alec Hamilton.

In 2002 an entertaining new game, I Spy Lucy Boxes, was initiated by Mike Stafford Good, who asked Judith Rowley, Chair of the City's planning committee, what could be done to enhance and preserve the cast iron boxes, decorated with the city's coat of arms, that can be seen at various places round town.  A city centre example was noted outside Endsleigh Insurance in Princes Square but, as Sue Whitehouse says, once you see one, you see them everywhere. 

As you will see from the account below, the game has now advanced to a serious attempt to preserve some of this interesting and important street furniture.

"Lucy box" is a name applied to boxes, about 3 feet high, about 2 feet wide and about 18 inches deep, which are to be found on pavements throughout the city.   Such boxes were originally used in connection with the tram network and then with the trolley bus network; and as part of the general electricity supply network; and for telephone purposes. 

A typical box - but with a bolt on extra of unknown function.

They are usually green, which was the standard colour used by the local electricity department, as is shown on the green doors and railings of their substations (shown elsewhere on this site).  Keith Nutter, or GPU Power, tells us that, when the boxes had come into the ownership of the MEB, they  painted them silver, which was their standard colour.  A few of them are now black, but that is usually due to the Council painting them that colour to match the rest of the street furniture in the area.  These days they are usually thickly coated with layers of paint, which is now chipped, and often covered with graffiti; and often they are used for fly posting. There are cases, such as the Lucy name plate shown below, where you can still see the old green colour showing up under the later silver paint.

The name "Lucy box" was applied to these boxes because the great majority of them, in the early days at least, were made by the Lucy Foundry in Oxford.

The Lucy Group of companies, which started in 1803, is still in active operation, based in Oxford, though a lot of their manufacturing now takes place in Dubai.  They specialise in electrical equipment, making equipment from that for large scale use down in size to that for domestic use. 

One of their products was a cast iron box, about two feet wide, 18 inches deep and three feet high, with a pyramidal top, and a lockable door on each side. 

The equipment inside such a box would typically be either a junction for power supply or an isolator for transport systems.  

Lucy still make and sell what they call "service pillars", including cast iron ones.

A traditional box with a selection of other boxes on the other side of Finchfield Hill.

A box in a suburban setting - at the bottom of Canterbury Road.

The company almost invariably cast its name, in the form of "Lucy Oxford", on the outside of such boxes. There was also a feeling among our informants (expressed by one person as an absolute positive) that boxes made by Lucy always had their maker's name on them. If it does not say Lucy on the outside, then one should look inside. Lucy's could also cast any other name or emblem on the box for the customer.

It seems that the Lucy Company could provide pillars on their own or fully equipped with whatever electrical gear was wanted.  

But similar boxes and the electrical equipment inside them could have been made by any electrical engineering company, with or without the assistance of a local foundry. An obvious candidate would be ECC of Wolverhampton.  Boxes by different makers have now been noted around the city.

But because of the company name which appeared on so many of them, such boxes are often known as Lucy boxes, whether they were made by Lucy or not.  And although the company calls them service pillars, those who use them often refer to them by their use, for example, isolation pillars or isolation boxes.

Lucy boxes in a transport system are "section pillars". The equipment in them was used to isolate a section of the tram or trolley bus route - that is, to stop electricity running through that section. It could also be used to "make the route solid", that is, you could make the electric current bypass the isolating components in the box; this would enable you to work on the box while the trams or trolleys continued running.

Legislation required that there should be an isolator on transport routes at least every half mile. This requirement applied to all tram systems and must have applied to Wolverhampton's Lorraine system, and to the later dual standard system and to the trolley bus system.

A box identifiable as a Lucy service pillar by the maker's name on a separately cast plate at the foot. This one is at the top of Canterbury Road.

The maker's name plate.

Therefore if you are trying to identify a Lucy box connected with a transport system you have to look for a box on a road which was on a tram or trolley bus route. 

We would add that one informant said that the section pillars on the old tram routes had "the old coat of arms" on them.

There are several boxes, of similar shapes and sizes, and of all ages, which look just like section pillars, and which have the Borough coat of arms on them, on roads which were never tram or trolley bus routes. 

The feeling of our informants from the old MEB was that many surviving boxes were not made by Lucy and were for electricity distribution and never were anything to do with transport.

Early boxes had a door at both sides and had to stand in the middle of the pavement. Later ones could be used from one side, had only one door and could stand against a wall.

On the left is one of the candidates for the oldest Lucy box in the city.  It stands at the corner of Waterloo Road and Darlington Street. The coat of arms on it is that used by the Borough up until 1898. Note the decoration on the top. It is the only one of this type so far found in the city but there is another at the Black Country Living Museum.

Duncan Nimmo has sampled the minutes and reports of the Borough Council's Electricity Committee, looking at those for 1913/14, 1918/19, 1924/25 and 1930/31. The contain payments to the Lucy Company for "feeder pillars" - one in 1913/14; none in 1918/19; and numerous payments in 1924/25.  But in 1930/31 they are no payments to Lucy but several to J. Hill & Son, ironfounders, of Albion Street, Wolverhampton.  
T. A. G. Margary, M.I.E.E., Engineer and General Manager of the electricity supply undertaking.  He joined the Department sometime between 1913 and 1918 and was appointed chief in 1920.

In the 1930s  a new pattern of box was designed by T A G Margary, the Borough Electrical Engineer. They were usually called Margary boxes.  Probably the major difference between the old Lucy boxes and the new Margary boxes was what went inside them.  It is also possible that the extant boxes which carry the borough coat of arms, and are not marked Lucy, are Margary boxes.  

These boxes may not have been made by Lucy - many local foundries were more than capable of making them and a reference has been found in the Council's Electricity Committee minutes to payments to J. Hill and Sons (see above).  Inspection of the interiors might show a maker's mark.

All the boxes which were used for the purposes of electricity supply became, on nationalisation, the property of the MEB and have now become the property and responsibility of G. P. U. Power UK. That organisation, as part of its maintenance and improvement plans, is removing pillars and replacing them with the underground boxes. 

The suggestion now is that these boxes, which were originally installed and maintained by the then Borough Council, should be restored as an interesting contribution to the streetscape. 

The boxes need to be stripped of years of accumulated paint and then repainted, either in black or green, depending on their surroundings, and with the coat of arms, where present, picked out in their proper heraldic colours.  

There are very large numbers of these boxes and there does not seem to be much point in trying to preserve all of them.  It would probably be sensible to try to preserve those which are the oldest; those which have the additional feature of being associable with the tram or trolleybus system; and those which are within conservation areas.  

This box is labelled GPO and must be a telephone junction box.

Duncan Nimmo has started to pursue this matter and the City Council has accepted that it would be good to add an appropriate selection to the list of locally listed buildings and to investigate how their restoration and preservation might be furthered.  Ros Doran of the Conservation Team is dealing with this.

G.P.U. Power has said that it will not pay for their renovation and maintenance but they are willing to hand over whatever old boxes the city council might wish to preserve.  They have also been very helpful in providing lists of their boxes and indicating which are in line for replacement. 

As the streets of the city have been scoured more and more interesting boxes have come to light; David Plant has taken Duncan Nimmo on a conducted tour of the boxes preserved at the Black Country Living Museum; and we have be sent a photo of an historic box now kept by the Lucy company itself.  Some of these are shown on the next page.

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