Red telephone box

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An example of the most common red telephone box model (K6), photographed in London in 2012

The red telephone box, a telephone kiosk for a public telephone designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, was a familiar sight on the streets of the United Kingdom, Malta, Bermuda and Gibraltar. Despite a reduction in their numbers in recent years, the traditional British red telephone box can still be seen in many places throughout the UK, and in current or former British colonies around the world. The colour red was chosen to make them easy to spot.

From 1926 onwards, the fascias of the kiosks were emblazoned with a prominent crown, representing the British government. The red phone box is often seen as an iconic British symbol throughout the world.[1]

The paint colour used is known as "currant red" and is defined by a British Standard, BS 381C-539.[2]

Design history[edit]

K1[edit]

K1 telephone kiosk in Tintinhull, Somerset

The first standard public telephone kiosk introduced by the United Kingdom Post Office was produced in concrete in 1920 and was designated K1 (Kiosk No.1). This design was not of the same family as the familiar red telephone boxes. Very few high-quality examples remain. One example is located in Trinity Market in Kingston-upon-Hull where it is still in use.

K2[edit]

K2 red telephone boxes on Broad Court, Covent Garden, London

The red telephone box was the result of a competition in 1924 to design a kiosk that would be acceptable to the London Metropolitan Boroughs which had hitherto resisted the Post Office's effort to erect K1 kiosks on their streets.

The Royal Fine Art Commission was instrumental in the choice of the British standard kiosk. Because of widespread dissatisfaction with the GPO's design, the Metropolitan Boroughs Joint Standing Committee organised a competition for a superior one in 1923, but the results were disappointing. The Birmingham Civic Society then produced a design of its own—in reinforced concrete—but it was informed by the Director of Telephones that the design produced by the Office of the Engineer-in-Chief was preferred; as the Architects’ Journal commented, 'no one with any knowledge of design could feel anything but indignation with the pattern that seems to satisfy the official mind.' The Birmingham Civic Society did not give up and, with additional pressure from the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Town Planning Institute and the Royal Academy, the Postmaster General was forced to think again; and the result was that the RFAC organised a limited competition.

The organisers invited entries from three respected architects and, along with the designs from the Post Office and from The Birmingham Civic Society, the Fine Arts Commission judged the competition and selected the design submitted by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.[3] The invitation had come at the time when Scott had been made a trustee of Sir John Soane's Museum—his design for the competition was in the classical style, but topped with a dome reminiscent of Soane's self-designed mausoleums in St Pancras' Old Churchyard and Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. (The original wooden prototypes of the entries were later put into public service at under-cover sites around London. That of Scott's design is the only one known to survive and is still where it was placed all those years ago, in the left entrance arch to the Royal Academy.)

The Post Office chose to make Scott's winning design in cast iron (Scott had suggested mild steel) and to paint it red (Scott had suggested silver, with a "greeny-blue" interior) and, with other minor changes of detail, it was brought into service as the Kiosk No.2 or K2. From 1926 K2 was deployed in and around London and the K1 continued to be erected elsewhere.

K3[edit]

K3, introduced in 1929, again by Gilbert Scott was similar to K2 but was constructed from concrete and intended for nationwide use. Cheaper than the K2, it was still significantly more costly than the K1 and so that remained the choice for low-revenue sites. The standard colour scheme for both the K1 and the K3 was cream, with red glazing bars. A rare surviving K3 kiosk can be seen beside the Penguin Beach exhibit at ZSL London Zoo, where it has been protected from the weather by the projecting eaves and recently restored to its original colour scheme,

K4[edit]

K4 (designed by the Post Office Engineering Department in 1927) incorporated a post box and machines for buying postage stamps on the exterior. Only 50 kiosks of this design were built.

K5[edit]

K5 was a plywood construction introduced in 1934 and designed to be assembled and dismantled and used at exhibitions.

K6[edit]

K6, illuminated at night

In 1935 the K6 (kiosk number six) was designed to commemorate the silver jubilee of King George V. It went into production in 1936.[4] K6 was the first red telephone kiosk to be extensively used outside London, and many thousands were deployed in virtually every town and city, replacing most of the existing kiosks and establishing thousands of new sites. It has become a British icon, although it was not universally loved at the start. The red colour caused particular local difficulties and there were many requests for less visible colours. The red that is now much loved was then anything but, and the Post Office was forced into allowing a less strident grey with red glazing bars scheme for areas of natural and architectural beauty. Ironically, some of these areas that have preserved their telephone boxes have now painted them red.

Kiosk installation: the early years[edit]

With continued demand for K6 kiosks, siting them was more widespread than ever before. A purpose built kiosk trailer was designed from 1953 to reduce the running costs of cranes.[5]

Numbers installed[edit]

The K6 was the most prolific kiosk in the UK and its growth, from 1935, can be seen from the BT archives:

Period Number Notes
1925– 1,000 (K1 Only)
1930– 8,000 (K2 & K3 added)
1935– 19,000 (K6 introduced)
1940– 35,000
1950– 44,000
1960– 64,000
1970– 70,000 (K8 introduced in 1968)
1980– 73,000


Fabrication[edit]

Phoneboxes K2 to K6 were produced at the Lion Foundry in Kirkintilloch until 1984.

Crown[edit]

K6s, Charing Cross Road, London, showing different styles of crown: the Tudor Crown, in use 1936–1953 (left); and St Edward's Crown on separate plate, 1955 or later (right).

From 1926 onwards, the fascias of Post Office kiosks were emblazoned with a prominent crown, representing the British government (of which the Post Office was an agency). The design was initially the "Tudor Crown", then in widespread use in government service. The same crown was used in all parts of the United Kingdom and British Empire. On the K2, the design was pierced through the ironwork, and acted as a ventilation hole. On the K6, a separate ventilation slot was provided, and the crown was embossed in bas-relief.

In 1953 the new Queen, Elizabeth II, decided to replace the Tudor Crown in all contexts with a representation of the actual crown generally used for British coronations, the St Edward's Crown. This new symbol therefore began to appear on the fascias of K6 kiosks.

St Edward's Crown was initially used on kiosks in all parts of the United Kingdom. However, from 1955, in Scotland, the Post Office opted to use a representation of the actual Crown of Scotland, in line with a wider policy for government agencies in Scotland. To accommodate the two different designs of crown on K6 kiosks, the fascia sections were henceforth cast with a slot in them, into which a plate bearing the appropriate crown was inserted before the roof section was fitted.

The crowns were originally painted the same red as the rest of the box. However, since the early 1990s, when the heritage value of red kiosks began to be widely recognised, British Telecom has picked out the crowns (on both K2s and K6s) in gold paint.

Kiosks installed in Kingston upon Hull were not fitted with a crown, as those kiosks were installed by the Hull Corporation (later Hull City Council, then Kingston Communications). All boxes in Hull were also painted in cream.

Modernisation – K7 & K8[edit]

In 1959 architect Neville Conder was commissioned to design a new box. The K7 design went no further than the prototype stage. K8 was introduced in 1968 designed by Bruce Martin. It was used primarily for new sites; around 11000 were installed, replacing earlier models only when they needed relocating or had been damaged beyond repair. The K8 retained a red colour scheme, but it was a different shade of red: a slightly brighter 'Poppy Red', which went on to be the standard colour across all kiosks.

The K8 featured a single large glass panel on two sides and the door. While improving visibility and illumination inside the box, these were vulnerable to damage. Only 12 remain—most having been replaced with the KX100—making the K8 as rare as the K3.

Privatisation and the KX series[edit]

In 1980, in preparation for privatisation, Post Office Telephones was rebranded as British Telecom (BT). In February 1981, it was announced that all the red telephone boxes would be repainted yellow, which was BT's new corporate colour. There was an immediate public outcry; the Daily Mail launched a campaign "against the yellow peril"[6] and questions were asked in Parliament. In the House of Lords, the Earl of Gowrie, the Minister of State for Employment, called on BT "to abandon this ridiculous scheme".[7] In the House of Commons, Mark Lennox-Boyd MP asked the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, if she would treat the decision "with the greatest possible dismay". Mrs Thatcher, who was responsible for the privatisation, would only say that she could "see my honourable Friend's point".[8] Shortly afterwards, BT announced that only 90 of the 77,000 remaining traditional boxes had been painted different colours "as an experiment" and that no final decision had been reached.[6]

After privatisation in 1982, British Telecom introduced the KX100, a more utilitarian design, which began to replace most of the existing boxes. The KX100 was one of a series of designs, including the wheelchair-accessible open-sided KX200, and the triangular-footprint KX300.[9] In January 1985, Nick Kane, the Director of Marketing for BT Local Communications Services announced that the old red telephone boxes would be replaced because they "...no longer meet the needs of our customers. Few people like to use them. They are expensive and difficult to clean and maintain and cannot be used by handicapped people".[10] This time, BT did not relent, despite another vociferous campaign. Many local authorities used legislation designed to protect buildings of architectural or historic importance to keep old telephone boxes in prominent locations and around 2,000 of them were given listed status. Several thousand others were left on low-revenue mostly rural sites but many thousands of recovered K2 and K6 boxes were sold off. Some kiosks have been converted to be used as shower cubicles in private homes. In Kingston upon Thames a number of old K6 boxes have been used to form a work of art resembling a row of fallen dominoes.[11] It is estimated that 11,000 traditional red telephone boxes remain in public service.[12] The KX100 PLUS, introduced in 1996 featured a domed roof reminiscent of the familiar K2 and K6. Subsequent designs have departed significantly from the old style red boxes.

Adoption[edit]

Little-used red telephone boxes can be adopted[13] by parish councils in England for other uses. Some examples are shown below. The kiosk may be used for any legal purpose other than telephony and the contract of sale[14] includes the following clause 5.5.4:

The buyer shall covenant not to sell, lease or license the Goods to a competitor to the Seller nor to permit a competitor to install electronic communications apparatus (as defined in schedule 2 of the Telecommunications Act 1984) within the Goods or itself (as the Buyer) shall not install, provide or operate any form of electronic communications apparatus (as defined in schedule 2 of the Telecommunications Act 1984) within the Goods.

It is unclear why BT wishes to prohibit the kiosk from being re-used for electronic communications and why the regulator, Ofcom, has allowed it. In the USA, there is an active movement seeking new telecom uses for little-used telephone booths, e.g. as wi-fi hotspots.[15]

Libraries[edit]

During 2009 a K6 in the village of Westbury-sub-Mendip in Somerset was converted into a library or book exchange replacing the services of the mobile library which no longer visits the village.[16][17][18] Similar libraries now exist in the villages of North Cadbury in Somerset, Great Budworth in Cheshire,[19] Little Shelford and Upwood in Cambridgeshire,[20] and some 150 other locations.[21]

Art gallery[edit]

Also in 2009, the town of Settle in North Yorkshire established the Gallery on the Green in a K6, which had been adopted by the Parish Council. The Gallery has featured a range of exhibitions (see the online gallery on the website) of both notable artists and photographers (Tessa Bunney, Martin Parr, Mariana Cook) and local community groups. Its most famous contributor was Brian May, with his stereoscopic photography show 'A Village Lost and Found'.

Other[edit]

In 2010, in the village of Brookwood, Surrey, a project was initiated to restore and preserve the sole remaining K6 kiosk in the village. The kiosk had been adopted by Woking Borough Council in 2009 and a group of residents set about restoring the kiosk. This was achieved through private donations and sponsorship from local businesses.[22] A blog detailed the restoration.[23]

Following a competition by a Girl Guide unit in 2011 to find a use for their local disused telephone box in Glendaruel, Argyll, it has been fitted with a defibrillator. The equipment can only be accessed by following instructions from the Scottish Ambulance Service during an emergency call. The conversion of the box was paid for by BT under the Adopt A Kiosk scheme and the defibrillator was supplied by the Community Heartbeat Trust. It is one of five similar telephone box conversions in the United Kingdom.[24]

As of 2012, remanufactured units were offered for sale by X2Connect.[25][26][27]

Usage elsewhere[edit]

Imitation British-style box used as the entrance to a jazz club in Havana, Cuba

Several of these distinctive telephone boxes have been installed on the Norman, Oklahoma, campus of the University of Oklahoma, where they continue to serve their originally intended function. Elsewhere in the United States, a few have also been installed in downtown Glenview, Illinois. There is also one outside the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. A red telephone box can also be found on the Courthouse Square in Oxford, Mississippi. There are two in use in Tennessee. One is located on the square in Collierville, Tennessee, and the other is located next to Pepper Palace in The Village Shops shopping center in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.[28] In Massachusetts, there is also a red telephone box in the student centre of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition, there is a red telephone box outside the town building (town hall/police station/post office) in the tiny mountain town of Rowe, Massachusetts, which is an original installation dating back to when the town of Rowe first got telephone service. Two red telephone boxes are on display at the World Showcase area of Disney's Epcot in Orlando, Florida, one located in the United Kingdom area and one in the Canada area. One is on display at English Gardens a Place for Weddings in Winter Park close to downtown Orlando.An original K6 can also be found outside of the Allied Building in Treasure Island, Florida. There are also a few red boxes at the Ellenton Outlet Mall, just off I-75, near Bradenton, Florida. These still have their original STD code cards in place and have working US payphone equipment. There is a red telephone box in Westminster Maryland on the corner of West Main Street and Rt. 27 out side of Johanson's Dining House.[29]

Imitation Red Telephone Box in Ross, Tasmania

British K6 phone boxes are to be found, painted green, in the centre of Kinsale, an old historic town in County Cork within the Republic of Ireland.

Red telephone boxes are also found across Malta, Gozo, parts of the Caribbean such as Antigua, Barbados, as well as in Cyprus, showing that the colonial influence is still present. Some of those telephone booths are being used as internet kiosks. A box can also be found in the centre of the town of Chinon, France [30] and another in the German town of Bad Münstereifel.

Australia and New Zealand each had their own design of red telephone box, and some examples have been preserved in sensitive or historic sites. A brief and colourful campaign was run to "save" the red telephone box in New Zealand by the Wizard of New Zealand.[31]

In 2008 ten K6 telephone boxes were imported from the United Kingdom to the Israeli city of Petah Tikva and installed on its main street, Haim Ozer.[32]

Kingston upon Hull[edit]

Kingston upon Hull was the only area of the UK not under the Post Office monopoly, with telephones being under the control of the Corporation of Hull (city council). In Hull and the surrounding area this meant that the telephone boxes were painted cream and had the crown omitted. The Hull telephone system was subsequently privatised and is now operated by Kingston Communications. Kingston Communications (KC) have removed many of the famous cream K6 boxes circa 2007. An outraged public complained that they were losing part of their heritage. KC have retained approx 125 K6s in use today. KC allocated limited numbers (approximately 1,000) to be sold to the general public, and many were sold off before they had even been removed from service.

Crown dependencies[edit]

The telephone services of the Crown dependencies were split at various times from the GPO.

Guernsey[edit]

Guernsey Telecoms painted its kiosks yellow with white window frames; they were repainted in blue when the company was sold to Cable and Wireless in 2002.

Jersey[edit]

Jersey Telecom used locally made kiosks, painted in cream and yellow.

Isle of Man[edit]

Manx Telecom has left its kiosks in the red colour used by its predecessors British Telecom and the GPO. A green telephone box exists in Cregneash, as was the practice in many rural areas of Britain.

Portugal[edit]

Outside of the former British Empire, red phone boxes can be seen in Portugal – for example, they are a common sight in the city of Porto.[33]

Use in contemporary art[edit]

Out of Order[edit]

Out of Order

Scottish sculptor David Mach created the permanent public work Out of Order in 1989 in Kingston, London made from K6 telephone boxes. Twelve telephone boxes, first one upright, the rest gradually falling over like dominoes. It was originally intended that the first upright box was to contain a working telephone.


BT Artboxes[edit]

Ian Ritchie Architect's copper 'Artbox' next to the K2 prototype at Royal Academy of Arts, London

In 2012, BT helped celebrate the 25th anniversary of the free-phone charity ChildLine by commissioning eighty artists to design and decorate full-sized K6 replicas. These were displayed in public spaces across London and then auctioned by Sotheby's as BT Artboxes. Artists included Peter Blake, Willie Christie, David Mach, Denis Masi, Zaha Hadid and Ian Ritchie.


Replica telephone boxes[edit]

Lightweight replica K6 telephone kiosks are manufactured as flat-packs by commercial vendors and are shipped around the world for installation in such places as bars, restaurants and offices.

Galleries[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Odone, Cristina (11 March 2013). "The trashing of the iconic red phone box is one bad call". Telegraph. 
  2. ^ I Never Knew That About Britain. Season 1. Episode 4. 24 March 2014. ITV. https://www.itv.com/itvplayer/i-never-knew-that-about-britain/series-1/episode-4. Retrieved 14 April 2014.
  3. ^ New Telephone Kiosks", The Times, 28 March 1925, p. 9
  4. ^ Stamp 1989, pp. 13–14.
  5. ^ "Remember When UK – restoration – GPO trailer restoration". Redtelephonebox.com. 
  6. ^ a b Willis, David K (February 25, 1981). "Britain hangs on to tradition with a stiff upper lip". The Christian Science Monitor (Boston, Mass., USA: The First Church of Christ, Scientist). Retrieved 20 April 2014. 
  7. ^ "House of Lords Debate 11 February 1981 - Telephone Service: West Country-London". http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/. UK Parliament. Retrieved 20 April 2014. 
  8. ^ "1981 Feb 10 Tu - Margaret Thatcher - House of Commons PQs". http://www.margaretthatcher.org/. Margaret Thatcher Foundation. Retrieved 20 April 2014. 
  9. ^ [1]
  10. ^ Wright, Patrick (1991), A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London, OUP Oxford, ISBN 978-0199541942 (p. 276)
  11. ^ Kingston upon Thames#Landmarks
  12. ^ Coltman, Richard. "The Telephone Box". www.the-telephone-box.co.uk. Retrieved 20 April 2014. 
  13. ^ Adopt a Kiosk, British Telecom 
  14. ^ "Adopt a Kiosk | BT.com". Payphones.bt.com. 12 April 2011. Retrieved 29 November 2013. 
  15. ^ "Is the pay phone making a comeback? - CNN.com". Edition.cnn.com. 20 December 2012. Retrieved 30 November 2013. 
  16. ^ Morris, Steven (30 November 2009). "Ringing the changes: phone box becomes mini-library". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 1 December 2009. 
  17. ^ "Phone box has new life as library". BBC. 29 November 2009. Retrieved 1 December 2009. 
  18. ^ "Phone box's new calling". This is Somerset. 16 November 2009. Retrieved 1 December 2009. 
  19. ^ "Is this the tiniest library in Cheshire?". Cheshire Life. 10 September 2013. Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  20. ^ "Upwood Village Book Exchange". Retrieved 13 June 2014. 
  21. ^ "Telephone box libraries – a gazetteer". Association of Independent Libraries. 8 November 2013. Retrieved 13 June 2014. 
  22. ^ "Brookwood phone box restored by residents". getsurrey.co.uk. 10 March 2010. 
  23. ^ Brookwood K6 Red Telephone Box Preservation, 15 October 2011 
  24. ^ "Defibrillator revives Glendaruel village phone box". http://www.bbc.co.uk/. BBC News. 7 November 2011. 
  25. ^ Insley, Jill (26 April 2012). "BT sells off phone boxes as demand declines". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  26. ^ Rainey, Sarah (9 May 2012). "Inside the red phone box graveyard". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  27. ^ Kay, Thornton (8 August 2012). "BT's old red telephone boxes, kiosks (or booths) to be sold off". SalvoNews. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  28. ^ "The Village Shops". The Village Shops. Retrieved 29 November 2013. 
  29. ^ "Johansson's Dining House • History". Johanssonsdininghouse.com. 
  30. ^ Chinon (1 January 1970). "chinon - Google Maps". Goo.gl. Retrieved 29 November 2013. 
  31. ^ [2] The Telephone Box War
  32. ^ "Israel – Petah Tikva Imports Famed U.K. Red Phone Boxes For City Center". Jewkey.com. 
  33. ^ "Phone Box in Porto | Photo". Travelblog.org. 28 March 2011. 

Bibliography[edit]

  • Stamp, Gavin (1989). Telephone Boxes. London: Chatto & Windus. ISBN 0-7011-3366-X. 
  • Johannessen, Neil, ed. (1991). Ring up Britain: the early years of the telephone in the United Kingdom. London: British Telecom. ISBN 0948257881. 
  • Johannessen, Neil (1999). Telephone Boxes (2nd ed.). Princes Risborough: Shire. ISBN 0-7478-0419-2. 

External links[edit]