Mark Mason

The marvellous reinvention of phone boxes

The marvellous reinvention of phone boxes
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Britain’s legendary red phone boxes are in the news again. Of course they’re a symbol of the country’s past (about 2000 of them are officially listed buildings) – but what makes them really great is their capacity for reinvention.

The story this week was about Ofcom preventing BT from closing down many of the nation’s 21,000 phone boxes. A box will now be saved if it meets one of several criteria, such as being located at an accident or suicide hotspot, or if more than 52 calls have been made from it over the past 12 months. But everyone knows what the long-term trend will be in a country where virtually everyone owns a mobile phone.

The red box was born in 1924, when the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott won the Post Office’s competition for a design that would satisfy the London boroughs, who were refusing to install the previous model. Scott’s K2 (the K standing for ‘kiosk’) copied its domed roof from the tomb of Sir John Soane in St Pancras Old Church (still there today), but thankfully the Post Office ignored his suggested colour of silver – they went with red, to match their post boxes. The K2 was made of iron, but the wooden prototype submitted for the competition is now at the entrance to the Royal Academy (in the left hand arch as you enter from Piccadilly).

Various tweaks followed. The K4 included a post box and a machine for buying stamps on the outside, but didn’t last long as the noise of the machine disturbed anyone making a call. The K6 was smaller, to take up less pavement space. (One story has it that earlier models had been the height they were to allow use by a man wearing a top hat. Another design feature was the sloping floor, in case anyone decided to use the box as a urinal.)

In 1953 the crown on the outside changed from the Tudor Crown to the one actually used in coronations, the St Edward’s. This was part of a general change introduced by Britain’s new queen. It annoyed those north of the border, who insisted on their boxes showing the Crown of Scotland instead.

Journalists covering a story where there was only one phone box used to station an assistant inside it with a handful of coins, so they could keep the line clear and get the scoop. The organisers of Winston Churchill’s burial in Oxfordshire in 1965 avoided this problem by installing six red phone boxes in the village specially for the occasion.

A feature of many phone boxes was (in fact still is) a collection of vividly-coloured tarts’ cards. BT waged a campaign to get rid of them that went on for as long as superpowers have been trying to conquer Afghanistan, and had just as little success. What must have really wound the company up was the fact that as the 1990s progressed, the landline numbers on the cards were replaced with mobile numbers. A box on Tottenham Court Road advertised not prostitutes but the nearby Spearmint Rhino club: ‘Call and order VIP collection from this point.’ How many VIPs use phone boxes?

Of course, as those mobile numbers showed, the writing was on the wall (literally). But the red phone box, even if its original function is now almost obsolete, has no intention of dying. Some people buy disused ones and put them in their garden as a design feature, or even in their bathroom as a shower.

And even where boxes do stay out on the street (or lane, or village green), they have been turned into venues for book swaps, or homes for defibrillators. The Yorkshire town of Settle converted one of their phone boxes into an art gallery, and another into a ‘listening gallery’ which played stories when you picked up the receiver. Also taking the artistic route was the sculptor David Mach, who in 1989 arranged 12 K6 boxes in the middle of Kingston town centre, falling over like a row of dominoes. The work, Out of Order, is still there today.

So the red phone box will be around for years to come. Perhaps its most dogged reinvention came in 2014, when several boxes in London were converted to ‘solarboxes’. They were painted green, had solar panels fitted to their roofs and used the resulting electricity to offer free charging to the public for … their mobile phones.