The original purpose of the despatch box was for members to carry documents and other belongings with them into the chamber. In modern times, two ornate wooden despatch boxes are found in the Australian House of Representatives and the British House of Commons, generally with one box on the Government side and one on the Opposition side of the table that divides the opposing frontbenches. Whereas backbenchers in both Parliaments generally deliver addresses to the chamber while standing at their seat, frontbenchers (ministers and shadow ministers) deliver their addresses from their side's despatch box. For this reason, the expression "speaking from the despatch box" is often used to describe the performance of a member of parliament (even backbenchers) in addressing the chamber.
By tradition, the modern despatch boxes often contain the religious texts used for swearing in of new members of the respective chamber.
United Kingdom Parliament
The despatch boxes in the British House of Commons were gifts from New Zealand, presented after the House of Commons was rebuilt following World War II. They are made of puriri wood and are modelled on the Australian boxes, which are replicas of the original despatch boxes destroyed in World War II.
The box on the Government side houses a number of holy books of various religions including a Bible and a Qur'an. The Opposition box contains a burnt Bible, dating back to the destruction of the Commons chamber by a German bomb on 10 May 1941 during the Second World War. The Bible was resting on the centre table at the time the bomb detonated and was recovered largely intact.
More recently, the Government despatch box is reported to have sustained damage at the hands of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Brown's habit of jabbing his marker pen at his papers led to the surface of the box becoming covered in black pen marks.
The despatch boxes in the Australian House of Representatives were gifts from King George V to mark the opening of the Old Parliament House in Canberra on 9 May 1927. They are made of rosewood, and have enamel and silver decorations. They are replicas of the despatch boxes found in the British House of Commons until those boxes were destroyed on 10 May 1941. Inside the lid of each box is an inscription signed by King George.
The Senate has two lecterns which serve a similar purpose, but which are only used by the Senate leaders of the Government and Opposition rather than by all frontbenchers. Other frontbenchers in the Senate address the chamber from their seating location in the first row of their side of the chamber.