Red telephone box
Despite a reduction in their numbers in recent years, the traditional British red telephone kiosk 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 a British cultural icon throughout the world. In 2006 the K2 telephone box was voted one of Britain's top 10 design icons, which included the Mini, Supermarine Spitfire, London tube map, World Wide Web, Concorde and the AEC Routemaster bus. Although production of the traditional boxes ended with the advent of the KX series in 1985, many still stand in Britain.
The first standard public telephone kiosk introduced by the United Kingdom Post Office was produced in concrete in 1921 and was designated K1 (Kiosk No.1). The Post Office had taken over almost all of the country's telephone network in 1912. Some local authorities refused to give permission for the K1; Eastbourne Corporation insisted that the kiosks could only be installed if they had thatched roofs. The design of the K1 was not of the same family as the familiar red telephone boxes. As of 2021, there remain fourteen K1 boxes in the UK, including seven that are in museums and museum collections. A further two remain in the Republic of Ireland. Seven of the UK's fourteen have been listed at Grade II by Historic England, some of them still located on British streets, including one situated in Trinity Market in Kingston-upon-Hull, and another in Bembridge High Street, Isle of Wight.
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. 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 those designed by Soane for his own family mausoleum in St Pancras Old Churchyard, and for the mausoleum for Sir Francis Bourgeois at Dulwich Picture Gallery, both in London. However, Gavin Stamp thinks it "unlikely" that Scott was directly inspired by either of these precedents, arguing instead that "a dome above segmental curves is, in fact, a logical solution to the geometrical problem of designing a sculptural termination to a square pillar when a flat top is not suitable".
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 originally placed, 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, introduced in 1929, again by Giles 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 restored to its original colour scheme. There is another in use at Rhynd in Perthshire.
K4 (designed by the Post Office Engineering Department in 1927) incorporated a post box and machines for buying postage stamps on the exterior. Only a single batch of 50 K4 kiosks were built. Some contemporary reports said the noise of the stamp-machines in operation disturbed phone-users, and the rolls of stamps in the machines became damp and stuck together in wet weather. This has been widely repeated (including by Stamp) but Johannessen chose not to, having found no evidence to support the story. Ten survive with four in public use at Frodsham, Warrington, Whitley Bay and near Tunstall, East Riding of Yorkshire. A fine example of a K4 may also be found outside the station building at Bewdley on the Severn Valley Railway. There is a fully restored K4 (including correct telephone and coin operations) at the Bury Transport Museum (East Lancs Railway) Castlecroft Yard – Bolton Street.
K5 was a metal-faced plywood construction introduced in 1934 and designed to be assembled and dismantled and used at exhibitions. It is not known how many were produced, and there is little evidence they ever reached more than prototype stage. A fully detailed replica (constructed using the original drawings) can be seen at The Avoncroft Museum (Bromsgrove, Worcestershire), as part of the National Telephone Kiosk Collection.
In 1935 the K6 (kiosk number six) was designed to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of George V. It was consequently sometimes known as the "Jubilee" kiosk. It went into production in 1936. The 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. In 1935 there had been 19,000 public telephones in the UK: by 1940, thanks to the K6, there were 35,000.
The design was again by Scott, and was essentially a smaller and more streamlined version of the K2, intended to be produced at a considerably cheaper cost, and to occupy less pavement space. The principal differences between the two designs were:
- Size. The K6 was 8 feet 3 inches (2.51 m) tall and weighed 13.5 cwt (0.69 tonnes). This compared with 9 feet 3 inches (2.82 m) and 1.25 tons (1.27 tonnes) for the K2.
- Elements of the design were simplified and streamlined, in keeping with the "moderne" aesthetics of the 1930s. The Grecian fluting was removed from the door and window surrounds, and the previously separate pediment and frieze were merged.
- The Crown motif (see below), which had previously been pierced through the ironwork to give ventilation, was now embossed in bas-relief. A new, separate ventilation slot was provided.
- A new glazing pattern was introduced. The door and two glazed sides of the K2 each had 18 equal-sized panes of glass arranged in 6 rows of 3. In the K6 the number of rows was increased to 8, and the central column of panes was made considerably wider than those to either side. This improved visibility, and gave a more horizontal appearance to the windows, again in keeping with "moderne" principles.
The K6 has since become a British icon, but 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 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. The paint colour used most widely today is known as "currant red" and is defined by a British Standard, BS381C-Red539. This slightly brighter red was introduced with the K8 model in 1968, but went on to be used across the estate on previous models too. Hence, for complete historical accuracy, any kiosks in pre-1968 settings should really be painted in the previous, and slightly darker, shade BS381C-Red538.
Kiosk installation: the early years
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.
The K6 was the most prolific kiosk in the UK and its growth, from 1935, can be seen from the BT archives:
|1930–||8,000||(K2 & K3 added)|
|1970–||70,000||(K8 introduced in 1968)|
The K1 and the later K3 concrete kiosks were produced at various (and largely unrecorded) locations, around the country. This made quality control and supervision of the manufacturing process difficult, when compared to the GPO's experience with cast-iron post boxes, and was an important aspect of the GPO's move towards cast-iron telephone kiosks. Over the years, five foundries were involved in this work for the Post Office. Lion Foundry in Kirkintilloch, MacFarlane (Saracen Foundry), and Carron Ironworks near Falkirk all produced batches of the K2, the K6 and the K8; and, in addition, Carron produced the single batch of K4 kiosks. The other two manufacturers were McDowall Steven and Bratt Colbran, both of which produced only relatively small batches of the pre-war Mk1 K6.
Although many kiosks have been fitted with replacement backs over recent years, unmodified examples generally have the identity of their manufacturer marked on a plate on the outside at the bottom of their back panel. The only exceptions are the few Mk1 models made by Bratt Colbran, which are anonymous. A supplementary way of identifying the manufacturer is by means of casting marks on the various component parts – i.e. LF, CC, MF, MS and BC – which were used to various extents over the years. A more consistent manufacturer mark can be found at about shoulder height on the inner face of the back panel. These marks generally identify both the manufacturer and the precise model of kiosk. Up to around 1949, the year of manufacture is also included. The more recently erected non-BT K6 kiosks (generally painted black) are for the most part new castings, sourced from new manufacturers.
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, in Scotland, following protests over the use of English insignia, the Post Office (like other government agencies there) began to use, from 1955, a representation of the actual Crown of 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
In 1959 architect Neville Conder was commissioned to design a new box. The K7 design went no further than the prototype stage. K8, introduced in 1968, was 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 become 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. There were two versions – the Mk1 and the Mk2 – with the most visible difference being in the detail of the roof and the surround of the 'TELEPHONE' opals.
In order to create a new box with easier access, lower maintenance and brighter lighting, the Post Office introduced a prototype run of "Croydon" telephone boxes from 1972, named as such because they were erected in Croydon. The Croydon boxes, which featured a black handset silhouette with bright yellow paintwork, were erected as an experimental prototype to replace the red telephone boxes. However, although the trials were successful, the quality of the materials and design made it too expensive for the Post Office to mass-produce and the design was not adopted.
In either the late 1970s or late 1980s a new, smaller hooded booth was introduced known as Booth 7A. These yellow booths were introduced into areas where previous red telephone boxes had been vandalised or even pulled out of the ground. They became known as "Oakham" boxes – a reference to the similarity in shape to "Oak Ham" brand tinned meat.
Privatisation and the KX series
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" 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". 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". Thatcher, who was responsible for the privatisation, would only say that she could "see my honourable Friend's point". 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.
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. 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". 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. As of January 2020, it was estimated that 8,000 traditional red telephone boxes remain in public service. The KX+, better known as 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. BT followed the KX series with the Multi.phone in 1999 and the ST6 in 2007.
BT is one of the partners in InLinkUK, a new communications service intended to replace over 1,000 payphones in major UK cities. The InLink unit provides free public Wi-Fi, phone calls and device charging.
Little-used red telephone boxes can be adopted 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 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 US, there is an active movement seeking new telecom uses for little-used telephone booths, for example as wi-fi hotspots.
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. Similar libraries now exist in the villages of North Cadbury in Somerset, Great Budworth in Cheshire,Little Shelford and Upwood in Cambridgeshire and some 150 other locations. One such box was donated by Cumbernauld's town twinning association and installed as a library in Bron, France. The Telephone Box Book Exchange in Cutnall Green opened in June 2016.
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'.
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 be accessed only 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. Similar installations have been made in many other places, including Loweswater, Cumbria, Auchenblae, Aberdeenshire, Withernwick, East Riding of Yorkshire, and Witney, Oxfordshire.
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. A blog detailed the restoration.
From October 2014, several of London's disused K6 telephone boxes have been painted green and converted to free mobile phone chargers named Solarboxes. They have been considered an outdoor kiosk alternative to indoor chargers such as the Chargebox.
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, and Glencoe, 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. Two are in use in Tennessee: one is on the square in Collierville, Tennessee, and the other is located next to Pepper Palace in The Village Shops shopping centre in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
A red telephone box is in use 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 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 outside Johanson's Dining House.
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.
In Lake Havasu City, Arizona, a few K6s arrived when the old London Bridge was preserved there. As they are in the US, and not under British restriction, they are fully functional, but with updated electronics to make them code compliant.
Red telephone boxes are also found across Malta, Gozo, some islands of the West Indies 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.
Boxes can also be found in the centre of the town of Chinon, France, and in the German towns of Bad Münstereifel, Bielefeld and Eppingen.
Kingston upon Hull
Kingston upon Hull ran a municipal telephone system from 1904. There were several such municipal services in the UK, but whereas most had been brought under the Post Office monopoly by 1913, Hull's, being very efficient, was allowed to remain under the control of Hull Corporation (the city council). As a result, although the Corporation used K6 kiosks, they were painted cream and had the crown omitted from the design. The Hull telephone system was privatised in 1999 and taken over by Kingston Communications (KC; later renamed KCOM Group in 2007). In about 2007 KC removed many of the cream K6 boxes. After public complaints at the loss of heritage it was agreed that about 125 of the boxes would be retained, and they remain in use. KC also allocated limited numbers (around 1,000) for sale to the public and many were sold off even before they had been removed from service. Hull also continues to use K8 and KX100 PLUS kiosks, and in the past has used other non-GPO/BT designs.
The telephone services of the Crown Dependencies were split at various times from the GPO.
Jersey Telecom used locally made kiosks, painted in cream and yellow or just yellow.
Isle of Man
Gibtelecom operates red kiosks of various vintages.
Use in contemporary art
Out of Order
Scottish sculptor David Mach created the permanent public work Out of Order in 1989 in Kingston upon Thames, London. It takes the form of a row of twelve K6 telephone boxes, the first one upright, the others gradually falling over like dominoes. It was originally intended that the last upright box was to contain a working telephone.
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.
The red telephone box has appeared in British pop culture. In music it has featured in Adele's video "Hello", the front cover of One Direction's album Take Me Home, and the back cover of David Bowie's album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It was the subject of the 1980 single "Red Frame/White Light" by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. In film it features in a prominent scene in the 1955 black comedy The Ladykillers where a motley gang of crooks led by Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) cram into one, and a red telephone box near Scotland Yard appears in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) as Harry Potter and Arthur Weasley enter the Ministry of Magic.
K1 Telephone Box, Lowestoft Transport Museum
K2 with a London double-decker bus and Big Ben in the background
K4 Post Office in Warrington – the vertical panels either side of the letter-slot originally housed stamp vending machines
Decommissioned K6 box in Newbold Pacey, Warwickshire
Decommissioned K6 boxes in Preston, Lancashire
A green K6 box near Stokesley in North Yorkshire
KX100 in Hapsford, Cheshire
Preserved Kingston-upon-Hull crown-less K6 in original Hull Corporation livery in Hull Transport Museum
K8 housing an internal telephone at Golders Green tube station
A K2 box at the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens
K6s in St. John's, Antigua
K6 in Valletta, Malta
Crown-less K6s in the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus
K6 in Petah Tikva, Israel
Queens crown K6 at Fifth Street Public Market in Eugene, Oregon
University of Oklahoma: red K6 in front of Copeland Hall
K6 kiosks in South Lake, Pasadena, California
A replica of a K6 in a British themed shop window in Hong Kong
Two imitation British red telephone boxes at Brussels-South railway station
- Pillar box (red UK postal box)
- Police box (blue UK police phone box)
- AEC Routemaster (red London bus)
- KX telephone boxes
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Red telephone boxes.|
- The Telephone Box Complete illustrated history of the Red Telephone Box. Includes K5 & K7 images.
- PayPhoneBox Index of British Red Phone Boxes.
- More K6 facts
- Red telephone kiosks in Oxford, England
- Existing red phone boxes around the city of Liverpool
- Where I Live: Are there any K8's out there? (BBC)