Little Boxes on the Roadside

Here’s a London icon for you:

Yeah, you like that, don’t you. What you have there is one of the ultimate icons of London, familiar from a thousand picture postcards and souvenir paperweights, the classic red phone box.

The time was when these were simply everywhere, and indeed, in London they still are. The advent of mobile phones has rendered them largely obsolete except as a place for prostitutes to advertise (Yr. Humble Chronicler recalls an American friend who was most impressed by this. “In America we keep porn out of reach, in Britain you’ve got it in the phone booths!”), but nevertheless, as a curiosity I don’t see them vanishing any time soon.

Phone boxes are a relic of the time when not only did people not have mobile phones, most didn’t even have a house phone. From the 1870s onwards, most phone calls had to be made from “call offices,” usually located in shops. At the beginning of the 20th century, the telephone companies began to locate these offices in booths outside of the main buildings, hence the birth of the phone box. These were sometimes rather elaborate structures in iron or carved out of wood, but more often were simple shed-like structures.

In 1911, most of the phone companies were nationalised under the General Post Office and some thought was given as to mass-production and standardisation. The first boxes (a preserved example may be seen right) were made of concrete, and were simple structures with pointy roofs and no standard colour. These were the K1s, the “K” standing for “kiosk” if you’re kurious. Ironically, given the now-iconic status of the boxes, the Metropolitan Boroughs of London refused to let these be sited within their boundaries.

In 1923, thought was given to a redesign, and so the Royal Fine Arts Commission held a competition. Giles Gilbert Scott’s design was the winner. Scott is these days best known as the designer of Liverpool Cathedral and Battersea Power Station. His design was simple but elegant, and would come to be known as the K2, the design pictured at the top of this entry.

The design was supposedly inspired by the tomb of Sir John Soane (he of the Museum) in St Pancras, on the left there. Scott envisioned it as being made of steel and silver in colour, however the GPO went with cheaper cast iron and a bright red colour scheme for visibility.

Despite all these compromises, there were problems with the K2 design. It was far larger than the design brief specified and each one would cost £50, 25% over budget. Which rather raises the question of why this design was chosen in the first place, but ours not to reason why. As a result, most of them were installed in Central London and on sights of prestige, with the K1s continuing in use elsewhere (including a couple of thatch roofed examples in Eastbourne, I am not making this up).

So Scott went back to the drawing board and came up with the smaller, concrete K3, seen right. This satisfied those initial design requirements, but there were issues nevertheless – concrete pillars had to be thick and so restricted space inside, and they were quite expensive to maintain as compared to iron. The solution, in 1936, was the K6.

[PARENTHESIS: For the purposes of this article, I’ll skip over the K4 and K5. The K4 incorporated a letter box and stamp vending machines, and the K5 was a portable model made of wood, the 1930s equivalent of a mobile phone I suppose]

The K6 was made of iron and known as the “Jubilee kiosk” for King George V’s Jubilee in 1935, first being installed in 1936. This was the best of both worlds, being small and cheap to build like the K1 and K3 but distinctive and cheap to maintain like the K2. They also featured the option of the Scottish crown rather than the English one above the sign.  These were installed nationwide, becoming by far the most familiar phone boxes in the country and continuing in production into the 1960s.

In the 1960s, the Post Office began to favour more modern designs, the sort of thing that looks more like a shower cubicle than a phone box, and I hope you’ll forgive me if I skip over the K7s, K8s, KXs and the various non-Post Office/British Telecom manufactured examples. I’ll briefly mention the KX-Plus, which does look like a shower cubicle but also incorporates a Scott-style dome, which I feel is at least a step in the right direction architecturally-speaking.

Yet the old red boxes were far from dead. As soon as they started to disappear, people began to complain, to the point where British Telecom was having to perform booth replacements at midnight to prevent outcry. An actual exception was made to the rules concerning listed buildings to allow 2000 of the boxes that remained to be saved. Thousands of the boxes that were removed were saved and refurbished, often finding new uses on private sites. Many have even been reinstalled as phone boxes, some in places that never had such kiosks in the first place.

Not bad going, given that these days their primary function seems to be as props in tourists’ photographs.

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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, History, London, tourism

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