Red box (government)

Red boxes, or sometimes ministerial boxes, are a type of despatch box[1] produced by Barrow & Gale and are used by ministers in the British government and the British monarch to carry government documents. Similar in appearance to a briefcase, they are primarily used to hold and transport official departmental papers. Red boxes are one modern form of despatch boxes, which have been in government use for centuries. Despatch boxes with a very different design remain in use in the chamber of the lower house of the British and Australian parliaments. Those boxes hold religious books for swearing-in new members of the chamber, but are also used as lecterns by front bench members.

A pair of Despatch boxes

Ministerial boxesEdit

According to HM Treasury:

Ministers are permitted to use ordinary lockable briefcases to transport information which has been classified 'Confidential' or below. For information with a higher security level (such as 'Secret') they are required to use dispatch boxes, which offer greater security, and which are usually red. However, a travel version of the box is also available in black, which offers the same level of security as a red box, but is designed to be less conspicuous. In practice ministers use despatch boxes for transporting the majority of their documents due to the greater level of security they offer.[1]

Historical and famous red boxesEdit

The boxes are used by ministers on a daily basis while in government and thus become an important memory of their time in office, with many opting to buy and keep their red boxes. Many boxes owned and used by famous political figures from British history have been sold at auction. Those boxes represent some of the most important possessions of former prime ministers.

Margaret Thatcher's ministerial dispatch box was sold at auction by Christie's in 2015 for £242,500.[2] Winston Churchill's red box was sold by Sotheby's in 2014 for £158,500, 25 times the estimated price.[3]

Red boxes are often gifted to the outgoing President of the United States as a symbol of the relationship between the US and UK governments. George W. Bush received one such box from Tony Blair.


The boxes are manufactured by Barrow & Gale or Wickwar & Co to a design that has stayed the same for over a century. The 2–3-kilogram (4–7 lb) boxes are constructed of slow-grown pine, lined with lead and black satin. The lead lining, which has been retained in modern boxes, was once meant to ensure that the box sank when thrown overboard in the event of capture.[4] Also bomb-proof, they are designed to survive any catastrophe that may befall their owner.[5][failed verification] Each box takes three days to finish.[6]

They are wrapped in leather and employ a bespoke print, which is applied after curing and staining. Each box embossed in gold print with the royal cypher of the reigning monarch, the title of the owner and recipient of the red box, with the recipient's title given precedence. Each is also given a unique number to aid identification and control of the contents.[7] Another unique feature of the boxes is the location of the handles on the bottom, opposite the hinges and the handle, so that when placed on a desk, the lock faces the recipient, who has the key and the authority to access the contents of the box.[7] That also ensures the box is locked before being carried.[8]


Two reasons have been given for the use of red as the predominant colour of the despatch boxes used in government. One is that Prince Albert preferred the colour because it was the predominant one on the arms of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.[8] However, it is also claimed that the practice began in the late 16th century, when Queen Elizabeth I's representative, Francis Throckmorton, presented the Spanish ambassador, Bernardino de Mendoza, with a specially-constructed red briefcase filled with black puddings.

Today, although 'red box' has now come to be synonymous with the despatch boxes,[8] other colours are also used, to denote the many different functions of the boxes in Parliament.

Black is used for those boxes prepared for government whips[5] and for discretion when boxes are designed for travel.[8] A blue box with a red stripe is used specifically for confidential papers only seen by the prime minister, their private secretary, and intelligence officials. This box is known as "Old Stripey" due to the red stripe. Permanent secretaries, who are civil servants rather than MPs or Lords, have similar boxes but coloured green. These have exactly the same function as the ministerial red boxes. Barrow and Gale have also made available despatch boxes in green for members of parliament.

William Hague, while Leader of the Opposition, had a blue box made for him with lettering denoting his office.[9] It is not known whether a blue box is in use today.


One box cost £865.43 to make in 2010.[1] Between 2002 and 2007, the British government spent £57,260 on new boxes.[8]

Budget boxEdit

Gladstone's red box

There is an annual custom of the Chancellor of the Exchequer holding up a red box to the press in Downing Street to symbolise the new budget of the UK government. Rather than containing the new budget, the red box contains the chancellor's speech and notes.

The red box of William Ewart Gladstone, was made by Wickwar & Co for his first budget in 1853.[10] Gladstone served as Chancellor of the Exchequer on four separate occasions and held the post for longer than anyone in the UK's history.[10]

Gladstone's red box was used by every subsequent chancellor until 2011, with the exceptions of James Callaghan (1964–1967) and Gordon Brown (1997–2007), who had new ones commissioned in 1965 and 1997 respectively:[11] 51 chancellors for over 150 years. Gladstone's budget box was used by Alistair Darling (2007–2010) and by George Osborne in June 2010. It was then retired due to its fragility.[citation needed] It now normally resides in the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall.

The budget of the spring of 1868 was infamous for Chancellor George Ward-Hunt opening his dispatch box to find that he had left his speech at home.[10]

Since March 2011, a new budget box commissioned by The National Archives has been used.[12]

Royal red boxesEdit

Red boxes are delivered to the British sovereign every day (except Christmas Day and Easter Sunday) by government departments, via the Page of the Presence.[13] The Queen's role as head of state means that she needs to keep abreast of what is happening in Parliament and the governments of all the other Commonwealth countries, as well as current events from around the world. Documents to which the monarch must give her signature and royal assent are delivered to her in red despatch boxes, which the Queen addresses daily.


Early in the independence of Singapore, ministers had red boxes similar to the British ones, but with the coat of arms of Singapore.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, formerly principal private secretary to Lee Kuan Yew, revealed in a Facebook post that Lee continued using the red box throughout his life until 4 February 2015, the day before his final hospitalisation.[14]

Sri LankaEdit

Until the late 2000s the Minister of Finance used a red box with the national emblem to carry the Cabinet's annual budget plans, similar to the budget box of the British government.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b c "Red Boxes". HM Treasury. 1 March 2011. Retrieved 1 January 2017.
  2. ^ "Thatcher's red box sells for £242,500". BBC News. 15 December 2015.
  3. ^ Association, Press (17 December 2014). "Sir Winston Churchill's red despatch box sells for £150,000" – via
  4. ^ Anderson, Ross (9 April 2001). "Chapter 14 – Physical Tamper Resistance". Security Engineering: A Guide to Building Dependable Distributed Systems (1st ed.). John Wiley & Sons. p. 278. ISBN 978-0471389224 – via Cambridge University.
  5. ^ a b Brennan, Kevin. "Black Box Business". Archived from the original on 24 November 2009.
  6. ^ "The perfect present for a Cabinet minister facing the chop". The Independent. 31 March 2013.
  7. ^ a b "Despatch Boxes". Barrow Hepburn Gale. Archived from the original on 21 April 2017. Retrieved 21 April 2017.
  8. ^ a b c d e Vaidyanathan, Rajini (23 March 2010). "Thinking inside the box". BBC News.
  9. ^ [1]
  10. ^ a b c "UK Tradition Carried On In Battered Red Box". Morning Edition. National Public Radio. 25 March 2010.
  11. ^ "The Budget Box". The Daily Telegraph. 4 November 2008.
  12. ^ Read, Simon. "The Budget: Red Boxes and Booze!". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 24 May 2013.
  13. ^ "The Royal Household: Pages of the Presence". Royal Central. 17 November 2014.
  14. ^ Yuen-C, Tham (24 March 2015). "Mr Lee Kuan Yew's Red Box: Heng Swee Keat". The Straits Times.

External linksEdit