Police box

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A police box outside Earl's Court tube station in London, built in 1996 and based on the 1929 Gilbert Mackenzie Trench design

A police box is a public telephone kiosk or callbox for the use of members of the police, or for members of the public to contact the police. It was used in some countries, most widely in the United Kingdom throughout the 20th century from the early 1920s.[1][2] Unlike an ordinary callbox, its telephone was located behind a hinged door so it could be used from the outside by anyone, and the interior of the box was, in effect, a miniature police station for use by police officers to read and fill in reports, take meal breaks and even temporarily hold detainees until the arrival of transport.

The typical British police box contained a telephone linked directly to the local police station, allowing patrolling officers to keep in contact with the station, reporting anything unusual or requesting help if necessary. A light on top of the box would flash to alert an officer that they were requested to contact the station.[3] Police boxes were usually blue, with the most notable exception being Glasgow, where they were red until the late 1960s.[3] In addition to a telephone, they contained equipment such as an incident book, a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit.[3] Labelled a "British icon" by the Plymouth Herald, the blue Metropolitan Police boxes, designed by Gilbert Mackenzie Trench in 1929, became Britain's most recognisable police boxes.[1][4] The blue police box is associated with the science fiction television programme Doctor Who, in which The Doctor's time machine, a TARDIS, is disguised as a British police box.[1][5]

United Kingdom[edit]

An 1894 advertisement for the "Glasgow Style Police Signal Box System", sold by the National Telephone Company

The first public police telephones in Britain appeared in Glasgow in 1891. These tall, hexagonal, cast-iron boxes were painted red and had large gas lanterns fixed to the roof, as well as a mechanism which enabled the central police station to light the lanterns as signals to police officers in the vicinity to call the station for instructions. As with Chicago's boxes, the original intent was that trusted members of the public would be allowed access to the telephone in case of emergency using a special key that was registered to them, which would remain trapped in the lock until released by a master key carried by a policeman.[3]: 5  A newer, rectangular type of cast-iron police box was introduced in Glasgow in 1912, but with the signal light now powered by electricity rather than gas, and access to the telephone now restricted solely to the police.[3]

Rectangular, wooden, garden shed style police boxes were introduced in Sunderland in 1923 by Chief Constable Frederick J. Crawley, and then in Newcastle in 1925 when he took over as Chief Constable there.[6] Crawley was arguably the first proponent (at least in Britain) of the concept of the police box as a miniature police station rather than just a communications point, including unrestricted access to the telephone by the general public for contacting police, ambulance, and fire services.[7] His well-publicised success with these boxes, and the revised policing methods they allowed, soon led to the adoption of similar police box systems in many of the larger cities in the north of England, including Manchester and Sheffield.[8]

A 1929 Mackenzie Trench design police box preserved at the National Tramway Museum in Crich, Derbyshire. Between 1929 and 1938 approximately 1,000 of these were built, with 685 installed in London.[9]

The Metropolitan Police (Met) introduced police boxes throughout London between 1928 and 1937,[10] and the design that later became the most well-known was created by the Met's own surveyor and architect, Gilbert Mackenzie Trench, in 1929.[11][12] Between 1929 and 1938 around 1,000 examples of the Mackenzie Trench police box were installed. They measured 9 ft 4 in (2.84 m) tall, and 4 feet 6 inches (1.37 m) wide.[9]


Initially, two competing prototype designs were installed on the newly built Becontree Estate in December 1928, with the winning builder being contracted to erect 43 boxes made of wood with concrete roofs in the final Trench pattern as part of experimental installations in the Richmond and Wood Green sub-divisions, which were completed in December 1929 and January 1930 respectively.[8] Their success resulted in the widespread adoption of the system throughout Greater London over the next eight years using newer models of the Mackenzie Trench design now made completely of concrete for increased durability, save the doors, which were still made of teak.[8] Constables complained that the concrete boxes were extremely cold and damp compared to their wooden predecessors, so provisions were made for more powerful heaters.[8] For use by officers, the interiors of the boxes normally contained a stool, a table with drawer, a brush and duster, a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit, and a small electric heater.[10] Like the 19th and early 20th century Glaswegian boxes, the London police boxes had a light at the top of each box, which would flash as a signal to police officers indicating that they should contact the station.[10]

This police box (left, pictured in the late 1920s) at the south east corner of Trafalgar Square in London was constructed in the base of the lamp plinth. Today it is used for storage.

By 1953, there were 685 police boxes on the streets of Greater London,[13] with an additional 72 smaller police posts, also designed by Trench, used in the inner divisions where there was no space for the larger kiosks.[8] Between 1923 and 1960 the police box and/or post system had been adopted by most of the provincial police forces throughout Great Britain.[8] The design and construction of the police boxes used in each system were at the discretion of each individual force, and consequently varied a great deal from location to location, but the police pillars/posts were usually one of three successive models provided by the General Post Office (GPO).[8]

Police boxes continued to play an important role in police work until the late 1960s to early 1970s, when they were phased out following the introduction of personal radios. As the main functions of the boxes were superseded by the rise of portable telecommunications devices like the walkie-talkie and the near universal access by the public to telephones and the 999 emergency number, very few police boxes remain in Britain today. Some have been converted into High Street coffee bars. These are common in Edinburgh, though the city also has dozens that remain untouched — most in various states of disrepair. Edinburgh's boxes are relatively large, and are of a rectangular plan, with a design by Ebenezer James MacRae, who was inspired by the city's abundance of neoclassical architecture.[14] At their peak there were 86 scattered around the city. In 2012, Lothian and Borders Police sold a further 22, leaving them owning 20.[15]

A slightly modified Mackenzie Trench police box, coloured red, as seen in Glasgow

Beginning in 1933, a slightly simplified version of the Met's police box design was also used by the City of Glasgow Police when its old cast-iron police boxes were replaced by an expanded Crawley type of integrated police box system. This was done as part of the restructuring of the force brought about by Percy Sillitoe after he was appointed Chief Constable at the end of 1931. Like the cast-iron boxes before them, the new concrete boxes continued to be painted red until the popularity of Doctor Who prompted a change to blue in the late 1960s.[3]

In 1994, Strathclyde Police decided to scrap the remaining Glasgow police boxes.[16] However, owing to the intervention of the Civil Defence & Emergency Service Preservation Trust and the Glasgow Building Preservation Trust, some police boxes were retained and remain today as part of Glasgow's architectural heritage.[16] At least five remain—on Great Western Road (at the corner of Byres Road); Buchanan Street (at the corner of Royal Bank Place); Wilson Street (at the intersection of Glassford Street, completely restored); one on Sauchiehall street at the junction with West Nile Street and one near the corner of Cathedral Square (at the corner of Castle Street, also restored). There was also a red police box preserved in the Glasgow Museum of Transport but this was returned to the Civil Defence Trust after Glasgow City Council decided it did not fit in with the new Transport Museum. The police boxes in Glasgow on Great Western Road, Cathedral Square, and Buchanan Street are currently under licence to a Glasgow-based coffee outlet.[14] As of 2009, only the Great Western Road and Buchanan Street boxes have been transformed to dispense beverages, and restrictions are enforced by the Civil Defence & Emergency Service Preservation Trust to prevent the exterior of the boxes from being modified beyond the trademarked design.

Dinky Toy police box manufactured in the 1940s by British toy company Meccano Ltd, based on the mk1 design.

The Civil Defence & Emergency Service Preservation Trust now manages 11 of the UK's last Gilbert Mackenzie Trench police boxes on behalf of a private collector. Another blue police box of this style is preserved at the National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire. One of the trust's boxes stands outside the Kent Police Museum in Chatham, Kent,[17] and another at Grampian Transport Museum. An original MacKenzie Trench box exists outside of the Metropolitan Police College (Peel Centre) at Hendon.

In the City of London, there are eight non-functioning police "call posts" still in place which are Grade II listed buildings.[18] The City of London Police versions were cast iron rectangular posts, as the streets are too narrow for full sized boxes. One compartment contained the telephone and another locked compartment held a first aid kit. Fifty posts were installed in the "Square Mile" from 1907; they were in use until 1988.[19]

A Mackenzie Trench preserved at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Hampshire

On Thursday 18 April 1996,[20] a new police box based on the Mackenzie Trench design was unveiled outside the Earl's Court tube station in London, equipped with CCTV cameras and a telephone to contact police.[10] The telephone ceased to function in April 2000 when London's telephone numbers were changed, but the box remained, despite the fact that funding for its upkeep and maintenance had long since been exhausted. In March 2005, the Metropolitan Police resumed funding the refurbishment and maintenance of the box.

Glasgow introduced a new design of police boxes in 2005. The new boxes are not booths but rather computerized kiosks that connect the caller to a police CCTV control room operator. They stand 10 feet in height with a chrome finish and act as 24-hour information points, with three screens providing information on crime prevention, police force recruitment and tourist information.[21]

Manchester also has Help Points similar to those in Glasgow, which contain a siren that is activated upon the emergency button being pressed; this also causes CCTV cameras nearby to focus on the Help Point.

Liverpool has structures similar to police boxes, known as police Help Points, which are essentially an intercom box with a push button mounted below a CCTV camera on a post with a direct line to the police.

Boscombe in Bournemouth opened its own old-style police box in April 2014 in a bid to tackle crime in the area.[22] The box contains a yellow phone for when it is not staffed by police, along with security cameras and a defibrillator.

City of London launched in February 2021 a competition to bring a back a new and updated police box to its streets.[23] Whether if these new boxes will have any similarity to the old London police boxes remains to be seen.

In Doctor Who[edit]

The TARDIS prop used from 2010 to 2017 seen at BBC Television Centre

The BBC science-fiction television series Doctor Who features a time machine, the TARDIS, disguised as a Mackenzie Trench-style police box. In the show, although a TARDIS is normally capable of disguising itself to blend in with its surroundings, the ship's "chameleon circuit" broke down in England in 1963, and left the TARDIS seen most often in the show stuck as a police box, except for a brief period in one adventure seen in 1985. Doctor Who was originally broadcast from 1963 to 1989; as police boxes were phased out in the 1970s, over time the image of the blue police box became associated as much with Doctor Who as with the police. In 1996, the BBC applied for a trademark to use the blue police box design in merchandising associated with Doctor Who.[24] In 1998, the Metropolitan Police filed an objection to the trademark claim, maintaining that they owned the rights to the police box image. In 2002, the Patent Office ruled in favour of the BBC, arguing that there was no evidence that the Metropolitan Police—or any other police force—had ever registered the image as a trademark.[5][25][26] In addition, the BBC had been selling merchandise based on the image for over three decades without complaint by the police.[25] The series was revived in 2005, and the police box continues to feature prominently in almost every episode.

Although the dimensions and colour of the TARDIS used in the series have changed many times, none of the BBC props has been a faithful replica of the original MacKenzie Trench model. This has been explained within the context of the show that chameleon circuits tend to display a bit of "drift" if left in the same setting for too long, and in any case the circuit of the Doctor's TARDIS is malfunctioning.[27] This was acknowledged in the episode "Twice Upon a Time" which had the Twelfth Doctor meet the First Doctor, and had the original incarnation and Bill Potts point out the visible differences between the modern and original TARDISes.[28][29]

United States[edit]

The first police telephone was installed in Albany, New York in 1877, one year after Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. Call boxes for use by both police and trusted members of the public were first installed in Chicago in 1880, initially housed in kiosks to protect the inner signal boxes from the weather and to limit access to them so as to discourage false alarms.[30] In 1883, Washington, D.C. installed its own system; Detroit installed police call boxes in 1884, and in 1885, Boston followed suit.[3]: 3  These were direct line telephones usually placed inside a metal box on a post which could often be accessed by a key or breaking a glass panel. In Chicago, the telephones were restricted to police use, but the boxes also contained a dial mechanism which members of the public could use to signal different types of alarms via telegraph: there were 11 signals, including "Police Wagon Required", "Thieves", "Forgers", "Murder", "Accident", "Fire" and "Drunkard".[3]: 4 


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Huddersfield's Tardis police box is on the move!". Yorkshire Examiner. Retrieved 15 April 2023. The blue boxes were once a common sight across the country
  2. ^ Immanuel Burton. "A Brief History of the Police Box". Archived from the original on 23 December 2017. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Stewart, The Police Signal Box: A 100 Year History.
  4. ^ "Doctor Who: Thirteen TARDIS-like police boxes left standing in the UK and where to find them". Plymouth Herald. Retrieved 15 April 2023. when talking about British icons which are nearing extinction there isn't anything quite as rare or as famous as the blue police box
  5. ^ a b "BBC wins police Tardis case". BBC News. 23 October 2002. Retrieved 17 January 2007.
  6. ^ Darrington, Peter. "Police Box History". Police Box Website. Archived from the original on 26 July 2012. Retrieved 17 January 2007.
  7. ^ "Decentralization and the Police Box System", by Frederick James Crawley; Police Journal, Vol. 1 (1928).
  8. ^ a b c d e f g "The Rise and Fall of the Police Box", John Bunker (October 2011). ISBN 978-1858584652
  9. ^ a b "The story of the Police Box". Telephone Box.co.uk. Retrieved 14 October 2021.
  10. ^ a b c d "Police Boxes". History of the Metropolitan Police Services. UK: Metropolitan Police. Archived from the original on 8 November 2008. Retrieved 17 January 2007.
  11. ^ Burton, Immanuel. "History". Police Boxes. UK. Archived from the original on 4 March 2010. Retrieved 17 January 2007.
  12. ^ "A History of the Real Police Box". The Mind Robber. Retrieved 17 February 2010.
  13. ^ Stewart: 8.
  14. ^ a b McPherson, Ian (2004). "The Police Box Page". Kiosk Korner. Archived from the original on 22 January 2007. Retrieved 23 January 2007.
  15. ^ "Police box sale could give blues to buyers". Retrieved 9 March 2013.
  16. ^ a b "The Police Boxes". Civil Defence & Emergency Service Preservation Trust website. Archived from the original on 30 April 2001. Retrieved 23 January 2007.
  17. ^ "Kent Police Museum - Police Box". Archived from the original on 25 January 2010. Retrieved 17 April 2010. Kent Police Museum
  18. ^ Stuff, Good. "Listed Buildings in England". www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk.
  19. ^ "Law & Order route". www.london-footprints.co.uk.
  20. ^ "The Earl's Court Police Box, London, UK". BBC h2g2. 23 November 2006. Archived from the original on 24 January 2013. Retrieved 14 August 2013.
  21. ^ "Police box offering hi-tech help". BBC News. 24 August 2005. Retrieved 17 January 2007.
  22. ^ Frampton, Will (18 April 2014). "Police box Tardis pulls the crowds at Boscombe". Bournemouth Daily Echo. Retrieved 22 April 2017.
  23. ^ Evans, Martin (1 February 2021). "Police Boxes for the digital age set to return our streets". The Telegraph – via www.telegraph.co.uk.
  24. ^ "Case details for Trade Mark 2104259". UK Patent Office. Archived from the original on 29 June 2012. Retrieved 17 January 2007.
  25. ^ a b Knight, Mike. "IN THE MATTER OF Application No. 2104259 by The British Broadcasting Corporation to register a series of three marks in Classes 9, 16, 25 and 41 AND IN THE MATTER OF Opposition thereto under No. 48452 by The Metropolitan Police Authority" (PDF). UK Patent Office. Retrieved 17 January 2007.
  26. ^ Winter, Paul (24 October 2002). "Time and Registered Documentation in Space". Doctor Who Appreciation Society. Archived from the original on 21 October 2004. Retrieved 17 January 2007.
  27. ^ "Doctor Who A History of the TARDIS Police Box Prop and its Modifications". Retrieved 17 February 2010.
  28. ^ Dillon-Trenchard, Peter (25 December 2017). "Doctor Who: geeky spots & references in Twice Upon A Time". Den of Geek. Archived from the original on 26 December 2017. Retrieved 16 April 2023.
  29. ^ Martin, Daniel (25 December 2017). "Doctor Who Christmas special 2017: Twice Upon a Time". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 26 December 2017. Retrieved 16 April 2023.
  30. ^ "History of the Chicago Police", John Joseph Flinn & John Elbert Wilkie (1887).
  31. ^ "Why S.F. still counts on street fire alarm boxes". 7 February 2012.
  32. ^ "Calls to preserve historic former police box hidden on the edge of Dewsbury". Dewsbury Reporter. 28 September 2021.

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