Story of the telephone box


Before the development of the telephone in 1876 communication over any distance was often by telegraphy and wireless telegraphy. The General Post Office (GPO), a Government department until 1969, held the monopoly on telegraphic communication in Britain.

The telephone was a marvellous technical innovation, but was very expensive, so their use in the closing decades of the nineteenth century was limited to wealthy homeowners and businesses.

There was not a single, unified system, instead the service was owned and operated by a number of private companies. These companies operated a series of local exchanges to which households and businesses could subscribe. This subscription provided them with a telephone and connection to the network.

The General Post Office network

In 1884 the GPO relaxed the rules which had previously restricted the coverage of exchanges, allowing for the development of a national system. This meant that the first public telephone network could be created, at a time when there were only 13,000 telephones in use, nationwide.

As telephone technology developed, an increasing number of services were set up in larger towns and cities across Britain. But gradually, through a number of Acts of Parliament, and a series of acquisitions, services were consolidated under the National Telephone Company (NTC) and the GPO.

1912 marked a watershed for the UK telephone network when the assets of the NTC were acquired by the GPO, effectively nationalising the telephone network. With the combined staff and assets of two separate organisations, the GPO looked at standardisation of equipment, including telephone kiosks. However, the outbreak of the First World War saw development of a standardised kiosk put on hold.

In 1921 Britain's first standard kiosk, the imaginatively named Kiosk No 1 (abbreviated to K1) was introduced. Its design was conservative and appeared somewhat old-fashioned.

Other telephone box networks

It wasn't just the GPO that introduced a nationwide telephone network. Motoring organisations - the Automobile Association (AA) and Royal Automobile Club (RAC) - realising the benefits of a telephone network for their members soon started developing a network of sentry boxes.

At the time, cars were expensive to purchase and they were prone to breaking down. The motoring clubs employed patrolmen to help their members and the sentry boxes provided shelter for its patrolmen. The patrolmen would man the boxes or travel between them on bikes, providing motorists with roadside assistance. Each sentry box carried its own unique number, or name, which helped identify its specific location.

The Police service also adopted a network of telephone boxes. These boxes allowed Police officers to keep in touch with their station. The earliest Police boxes were introduced in Glasgow in 1891 and the Metropolitan Police Service introduced Police boxes from 1929.

The origins of the red Telephone Box

In 1923, two independent schemes were established to explore design alternatives to the unloved K1 kiosk. The Metropolitan Boroughs Joint Standing Committee organised a competition to find a design for a new national kiosk. Additionally the Birmingham Civic Society had produced independent proposals for a new national kiosk, which they submitted to the GPO. At the same time, the GPO were looking at their own ideas for a national kiosk.

With different schemes competing for attention it required the recently established Royal Fine Art Commission to bring matters into focus. The Commission was formed in May 1924 by an Act of Parliament and was able to examine questions of "public amenity or artistic importance referred to it by government departments and other...bodies".

The Commission formulated proposals to invited three leading architects - Sir Robert Lorimer, Sir John Burnet and Giles Gilbert Scott (knighted later that year on 22 July at Knowsley by King George V) - to contribute designs for a national kiosk. It was stipulated that the kiosk should ideally be constructed from cast-iron with a per-unit price not exceeding £40.

Wooden mockups of the three kiosks were installed behind the National Gallery in London. In May 1925 the Commission recommended the design by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott to the GPO, which they accepted. The kiosk was designated Kiosk No 2, or K2. The K2 was primarily installed in London, although a small number were installed outside the capital. THe problem with the K2 was its cost and size.

An expanding network

Without a cost-effective kiosk for nationwide use the GPO reverted to the K1, which it spruced up with larger windows and revised signage, becoming the K1 Mk 236. It was only an interim solution, and by 1928 the GPO had commissioned Sir Giles Gilbert Scott to produce a cheaper kiosk, to be manufactured of pre-cast concrete sections. The K3 was introduced a year later in 1929.

The GPO was not content with the K2 and K3; since 1925 they had been working on plans for a new kiosk, which could incorporate a stamp machine and post box; a mini-Post Office. Essentially the K4 was an enlarged version of the K2, designed within the GPO by the Engineering Department. The decision to enlarge the K2, which was already considered too large, is curious. The K4 was gigantic; to say its success was limited is to be kind.

Undaunted by the limited success of the revised K1 and K3, the GPO attempted to produce plans for a low cost kiosk. Designs for the K5 included a small number of sample models, none of which survive.

The Jubilee Kiosk

In 1935 King George V celebrated his Silver Jubilee and to commemorate this the GPO commissioned Sir Giles Gilbert Scott to design a new kiosk. Fortunately the GPO left the design considerations to Scott. His design drew clear influences from the K2, but was smaller and, more importantly, cheaper to produce.

The GPO had restricted the installation of the K2 on the grounds of cost, but with the K6 they actively sought to install kiosks more widely. To that end the GPO established a number of schemes, starting with the Jubilee Concession, which sought to make a kiosk available to all towns and cities with a Post Office.

Post-war kiosks

In 1951 the Festival of Britain was held, with its centre-piece on the South Bank in London. The festival was a tonic to post-war Britain, and served to showcase modern Britain, recovering from post-war austerity. It would demonstrate Britain's skills in the fields of arts and architecture, industrial design and science and technology. With this new wave of modernity the design of the K6 was starting to fall out of favour.

In 1959 the GPO invited submissions for a new kiosk from leading architects Misha Black, Neville Conder and Jack Howe. After consideration of the designs six experimental K7 kiosks, designed by Neville Conder were installed in 1962. The K7 was ahead of its time; the use of aluminium and extensive use of glass would only be adopted by the GPO's successor, British Telecom, in the 1980s. Despite this, the K7 didn't proceed beyond these prototype models.

Unfazed by previous failures - only the K6 could justifiably be called a 'national' kiosk - the GPO again sought submissions for a new kiosk, this time from leading architects Neville Conder, Bruce Martin and Douglas Scott. Perhaps disheartened by his experiences with the GPO and the K7, Neville Conder chose not to submit designs. Of the designs by Scott and Martin the GPO opted for that by Martin. Although Martin had proposed aluminium the GPO opted for tried-and-trusted cast-iron, seemingly unwilling to switch from a material first used with the K2. The K8 kiosk was introduced on 12 July 1968 in Westminster, London.


The following year, 1969, marked the beginning of the end for the GPOs eight kiosk variants. Since its inception the General Post Office was effectively nationalised, but as a Government Department. It was properly nationalised on 1 October 1969, becoming the Post Office. By 1981 the Post Office was split into two separate businesses: the Post Office and British Telecommunications. This was a prelude to the privatisation of the telecommunications side of the business, which was completed on 12 April 1984.

Within a year British Telecom announced a £160 million modernisation scheme for the public telephone network. This would see the installation of a new, modern kiosk. Inevitably this would mean the removal of large numbers of the GPO kiosks. Alarmed by these plans, individuals and organisations including the Thirties Society and some enlightened London boroughs sought to highlight the plight of the GPO kiosks. Statutory protection was first afforded to a kiosk in 1986. The first telephone kiosk listed was a K3 kiosk outside London Zoo's parrot house. Kiosks were listed as Grade II, described by English Heritage (the Government department responsible for protecting our historic built environment) as "nationally important and of special interest". An initial batch of 2,000 significant kiosks were listed.

It wasn't only the GPO kiosks that were in decline. For the AA and RAC reliable vehicles allowed patrolmen to travel in their own vans and telephone equipment could be housed in smaller pedestals. Likewise the Police were able to keep in touch by personal radio equipment.

Under threat

The majority of red Telephone Boxes have either been removed or replaced with British Telecom branded, modern kiosks. Ironically, given British Telecom's urgency to seemingly eradicate all traces of the GPO kiosks on processional routes in London, and in sensitive historic locations British Telecom has actually reinstated kiosks, usually K6 kiosks. British Telecom has also helped establish the National Telephone Kiosk Collection at the Avoncroft Museum in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. Elsewhere British Telecom claims the copyright for design of the red telephone box, which is ironic given the company's "success" in replacing them with the family of KX-kiosks.

The final challenge to the GPO kiosks has been the change in the telecommunications market. In 2010 Ofcom, the telecommunications industry regulator, published figures recording the number of mobile connections per 100 head of population of 130% (i.e. individuals with more than one handset). Between 2005 and 2008 payphone usage in the UK halved. From a peak of 92,000 kiosks around 51,500 survive; from a peak of 73,000 GPO kiosks prior to privatisation, just 11,000 GPO kiosks remain.

The AA, RAC and Police service also rationalised their kiosks, as they gradually became redundant. Only a handful survive from the AA and Police service, while no RAC sentry boxes are believed to survive in-situ.

A heritage icon

In March 2006, as part of a competition organised by the Design Museum and BBC Television to find Britain's favourite design icon since 1900, the Telephone Box was placed in the top ten by the British public.

As kiosk usage declined further, and with British Telecom left with a legacy of unprofitable kiosks to maintain, the company developed an "Adopt a Kiosk" scheme, allowing local authorities to adopt under-used kiosks for £1.00, with the community assuming responsibility for maintaining the kiosk. By September 2011 1,500 communities across the UK had adopted a kiosk. Many have been converted as homes for Public Access Defibrillators as part of a scheme between BT and The Community Heartbeat Trust.

Of the other telephone boxes in the UK, it is the Police box that is internationally famous. The Police Box, made famous by the BBC science-fiction series 'Doctor Who', first appeared on British television in 1963 as the TARDIS. In 2013, in the fiftieth year of the series, the TARDIS is firmly part of the Doctor Who culture, story and merchandising.

Community cohesion

The "Adopt a Kiosk" scheme demonstrates a number of points: the strength of local communities; individuals and communities standing up to preserve and maintain our heritage; communities uniting in a voluntary capacity to maintain a community asset; the fondness amongst the British public for the red Telephone Box; and the importance of keeping adopted kiosks at the heart of local communities.

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