Celebrating a century of the red telephone box

  • Themes: Culture

The red telephone box has joined the policeman’s helmet, the Brigade of Guards, the red post box and the 1980s punk rocker on the King’s Road as a signifier of Britain's national identity.

Red telephone box.
Red telephone box. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

This year sees the 100th anniversary of the red telephone box, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and introduced as Kiosk 2 in 1924. ‘Iconic’ is an overused word, but it is difficult to think of another to convey the role this functional piece of industrial design has played as an emblem of Britain. Even today, when people rarely make phones calls from public landlines, film-makers use telephone boxes as a quick means of showing that the action has moved to the UK. One stands outside the British Embassy in Washington DC. In London, tourists are often to be seen taking selfies by them. So, the centenary should be a moment of celebration, and yet, despite the love, the red phone box has become a challenge, if not a nightmare for conservationists. In the 1920s, the telephone was new, daring, possibly dangerous – left, in better households, to be dealt with by the butler. Now copper landlines have been relegated to the recycling bin of history, due to fibre optic cabling and wireless technology. What to do with the legacy of kiosks?

Well, we can admire them, of course – and not just for their appearance. They surely represent an ideal in terms of the public service ethos with which they’re imbued. In the pinched and parsimonious 21st century, it’s difficult to conceive of a time when the people in charge of our institutions respected shared public spaces and wanted to do the best they could for them – in the case of the telephone box, by holding a public competition.

Contrast that attitude to the one prevailing today. Little thought has been given to the junction boxes required for broadband, and the vast masts that provide 4G, which are dumped anywhere on our streets, with scant regard either for the users of the pavements on which they stand or the architectural setting. There’s only one exception I know of, and that’s Poundbury, the Duchy of Cornwall’s model development outside Dorchester, work of the King when he was Prince of Wales. When I visited recently I was struck by the lack of clutter of all kinds from the street. Lamp posts, for example, have been carefully placed, unless the lamps are attached to walls, eliminating the need for a pole. Elsewhere in Britain, nobody seems to care. Thatcherite privatisation, successful in other ways, gave utility companies the right to dig up the road whenever they wanted. Privatisation very nearly caused the extinction of the red phone box, too.

Before the mid-1980s, there were around 60,000 red kiosks – so many that they were simply taken for granted, scarcely noticed. In country villages and by roadsides, that was a desirable quality. No one, surely, would have wanted obtrusive modernity on a village green. And yet the distinctive shape and guardsman-red livery meant that they were easily spotted by anyone who needed to find one in a hurry. They had faults. The phones in them did not always work. A number smelt of urine because they were not adequately maintained. But these were – and remain – friendly structures, whose virtues were beyond mere inconspicuousness. They were masterpieces of industrial design, perfectly adapted to the material – cast iron – of which they were made.

We have the General Post Office – the state postal service – to thank for the design. In 1912 it took over the networks of phone lines that private companies had begun to set up, initially in the cities. By the end of the First World War, telephones had become so numerous that the public, who might not have one in their homes or had to call when out and about, needed sets that were accessible on the street. The very first telephone box was the K1, made of concrete: it failed to give satisfaction, although a working example still exists on the Isle of Wight. Thereafter, they came in two principal versions, the K2 being followed by the K6 or Jubilee Kiosk in the year of George V’s Silver Jubilee, 1935. Confined exclusively to London – although somebody once said he had spotted a rogue example in Mumbai – the K2 is spacious and dignified. Remarkably, given that Scott is best known for titanic Gothic-inspired edifices, such as Liverpool Anglican Cathedral and Bankside Power Station (now the Tate Modern), the top is a handkerchief dome derived from the mausoleum in St Pancras Gardens that the Regency architect Sir John Soane designed for himself and his family. It not only wears the regal livery of red but carried a crown perforated into the ironwork beneath the dome. The K6 was on a reduced scale. More economical to produce, it expressed the streamlined aesthetic of the 1930s, with widely space glazing bars that were derived from early-nineteenth century sash windows (those of the K2 look distinctly Queen Anne).

Evidently the Classical values of the kiosks were appreciated by the engineers who installed them, or was it a more civilised age? For it is remarkable how they were sited, often in pairs, to reflect the symmetry of a street or building. There also seems to have been little public outcry when they were fitted in country locations. Admittedly some fussy people insisted on paintings theirs grey, since the red – as the landscape gardener Humphry Repton might have said – added too hot a note to the scene. But the reception was better than it would have been had the design been new-fangled or poorly considered. Very quickly the red telephone box joined the policeman’s helmet, the Brigade of Guards, the red post box and the 1980s punk rocker on the King’s Road as a signifier of national identity.

When the Post Office’s telephone arm was privatised in 1985, British Telecom, as it had become, immediately embarked on a change of corporate image. Red was too strongly associated with the glories of Empire. It adopted the new colour of yellow. Attempts to change the colour of London telephone boxes had been met with ridicule a few years before. This problem was circumvented by the attempt, not just to repaint the red boxes, but do away with them altogether. British Telecom wanted a zappy new futuristic look. Instead of holding a competition they bought a range of new hoods, off the peg. The results were dire.

Initially, it was decreed that all but a handful of the red telephone boxes would be uprooted and hauled off as scrap. A plucky campaign by what was then the Thirties Society, now the Twentieth Century Society, ensured that a good number – over 10,000 – were kept.  If working, they still retained a function in parts of the country without good mobile signal, of which many still exist, even in the crowded South-East. When a cyclist took the corner too fast in a hamlet on the North Downs in Kent, it was the telephone box from which the ambulance was called. I am told that the box, now phoneless, still serves as an informal gathering place. The parish council has now bought it for £1 and keep a defibrillator in it, although given that the area remains a technology blackspot, what it really needs is a phone.

Generally, though, most people don’t need public telephones; they have mobile devices. In London and other cities, the police regard the surviving kiosks as a nuisance: whatever they are used for – don’t ask – it is not the making of telephone calls. Strangely it may not be so easy to get rid of them, even if that were what we wanted. Quite apart from the fact that the surviving red kiosks are now generally listed, defunct phone boxes can be private property and it requires the consent of owners to demolish them. Why should owners give it? The site of the box may acquire a value over time, as advertising space for example. This presents a conundrum – but let’s not despair. Some red kiosks contain defibrillators for first aid purposes; others that have been converted to mini-information centres, or exchange points for book lending schemes. There must be more uses to be found if we put our minds to it. The Mayor of London likes to hold competitions for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, with mixed results. Surely a competition to find a new life for the red telephone box would be more useful?

That would certainly be desirable for the 1980s booths, which never had much aesthetic merit. As for the red boxes, let’s wrack our brains. Cart them off for scrap metal and something of the British soul would have died.


Clive Aslet