It’s a familiar sight. Tourists pretending to make a phone call, whilst taking a selfie or having a photo taken by one of their family/friends. Going to London and getting that photo is obviously one to be ticked off many a London Tour bucket list.
Every time I see it though, I try and remember the last time I actually used a phone box to call anyone? I would guess that would have been sometime in the mid 90s, just before our lives were completely taken over by mobile phones.
The phone boxes I mention above are in Westminster and Whitehall and are in general, in pretty decent nick and I guess are kept that way for the ‘tourist photo brigade.’ Others that are still a feature on or high streets, however, can be in a very sorry state. Vandalised, graffitied and generally rubbish strewn, it is actually sad to see them left like that. On the flip side, others have been rescued and are used as micro book exchanges or libraries, coffee stalls or florists, which always cheers me up.
Anyway, ever wondered how it all began?
Come with me back to 1921
We start with the K1 (K for Kiosk.) Built in concrete; this design is not really in the same vein as the designs that followed. More like an army sentry box than phone box. It is however lovely to report that two of these are till being used to this day. One is in Kingston Upon Hull and the other on the Isle of Wight.
In 1923, the Metropolitan boroughs joined forces and launched a design competition looking for a telephone box that was more pleasing on the eye and one all boroughs would be willing to erect on their high streets. The winning design was by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, also known for his work on the Battersea Power Station and the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool. Elements of Scott’s design, took inspiration by the work of the architect Sir John Soanes, especially the ‘dome’ element.
Scott wanted them made in mild steel; the Post Office went with cast iron. Scott wanted them painted silver; the Post Office went with red, saying it made them ‘easier to locate.’ Not surprisingly the Post Office won the day, and in 1926 the K2 was launched in London.
Things went backwards with the K3, which came in 1929. Made in concrete, it had a cream paint job, much like the K1. An original K3 can still be seen by the Penguins enclosure at London Zoo. The K4 went a bit sci fi, with a post box and stamp-buying machine incorporated into the design by the Post Office Engineers. That was until reports started to come in, highlighting teething problems, like damp weather causing the stamps to stick to each other. The K5 was a temporary idea, meant to be constructed and then dis-assembled for use at exhibitions.
Then came the daddy of them all. The K6 . Designed in 1935 for the Silver Jubilee of George V, it became the first red phone box to be used and seen outside London. By then, there was a growing demand. By 1940, 35,000 telephone boxes were in use in the UK and 73,000 by 1980. The K6 stood 8 foot 3 inches in height and had a crown motif added to the overall design. For you paint spotters out there, the correct colour is British Standard BS381C-red538. The K- 7 never got passed the prototype stage, before the K -8 nipped in, in 1968 designed by Bruce Martin.
In 1980, in the lead up to privatisation and the arrival of British Telecom, it was announced that all red boxes would be painted yellow picking up on the new corporate colours scheme. Perish the thought.
Following a public outcry, the idea was shelved.
With changes afoot all over, 2,000 of the old red boxes were given protected status, and they also continued to be used in places like Gibraltar Malta, Gozo, Antigua, Barbados and Cyprus.
BT sold off thousands of boxes to private buyers in the 1980s and that continues to this day. Sir Tom Jones is said to have paid £50,000 to have a one special kiosk shipped to his palatial home in California. It was the very one in Laura Street, Treforest, Pontypridd, from which he called his girlfriend, soon to be wife Linda, in their courting days.
My research for this particular Blog, threw up the following…
Next time you are near the Royal Academy on Piccadilly, check the phone box to the left of the gates. Sitting there remains a wooden prototype made by Scott, the only original known to have survived and still be where it was originally placed, way back when.
No doubt I’ll see you down there. Chuff! Chuff! All aboard from spotters corner!
The Mumper of SE5
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