I have recently been spending time creating and running a website-cum-blog for the village in Lincolnshire where we live, Kirkby on Bain. So far it’s been a lot of fun, and it gets more hits than any other site I have worked on, somewhat to my amazement. One of the most read posts is an account by my neighbour Martin Briscombe, who recently retired after managing a chicken feed mill (no jokes please) for many years.
Martin is a man of action, and on retirement he promptly took over responsibility for doing something about the red public telephone box which was adopted by the village but has been gently decaying in recent times. You can read his account of this venture here.
Before publishing the story, in the normal process of fact checking, I found myself entering a whole new universe of phone boxes. I have since become hypersensitive to every decommissioned phone box I see in villages around these parts, most of which seem to be simply abandoned, presumably as a result of the meteoric rise of mobile phones. It’s a done deal alright, those good old red phone boxes are now definitely things of the past, along with steam trains, fax machines and consideration for others.
The demise of the red telephone box did not go unnoticed. “The original Banksy London Phone Booth caused quite a stir during its brief lifespan in 2006. Appearing overnight on a street in Soho, London, this bent and broken British Telecommunications phone booth laid forlornly on its side, axe protruding from its side, blood pooling underneath. Featured in the Banksy film “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, this sculptural graffiti elicited a myriad of reactions. Londoners divided themselves into two camps: those who appreciated the spirit of the art, and those who decried it as vandalism. British Telecommunications praised this as stunning visual comment on BT’s transformation from an old-fashioned telecommunications company into a modern communications services provider. “Perhaps this official” analysis captured Banksy’s meaning in creating the sculpture.” [Stencil Revolution, undated article]
I am struck by the accelerating rate at which technology changes our lives and landscapes, and by the Darwinian process whereby yesterday’s innovations so easily and quickly become extinct, either just disappearing altogether or becoming nostalgia and tourism fodder. The fate of the “iconic” British red telephone box interests me not because I miss it much, but because it seems to be dear to so many who grew up with it. Perhaps we just cannot bear to witness its relegation to dinosaur status without making efforts to preserve the species.
I can’t quite remember when I started to spot red phone boxes popping up everywhere, mostly gracing private gardens, often not far from old-fashioned lamp posts, rustic wheelbarrows and the like, presumably as those with the wherewithal started buying them up as collectors’ pieces or designer toolsheds.
Now I learn that they are being preserved, or perhaps reintroduced, on the streets of London, along with the kind of London Transport red buses I used to travel in as a kid growing up in NW9. Purely functional artifacts of yesterday’s urban landscape now revived as tourist fantasy. Check it out next time you visit the capital. While you’re there, why not pick up your very own miniature phone box, to go with your tiny red London bus and Union Jack mug.
Some phone boxes have been preserved by acquiring listed status. “Following a two year campaign led by the 20th Century Society the first K8 kiosk received Grade II-listing on 8 July 2009. The kiosk, at Worcester Shrub Hill Railway Station, is one of around 54 remaining functioning K8 kiosks in the UK. This number includes those identified at London Underground stations, but not those in private ownership. By spring 2012 a further nine K8 kiosk have been listed…… Listing is not automatically applied to all red telephone boxes; listing is applied on a case-by-case basis. Therefore other kiosks not listed remain at risk.” [The telephone box, FAQs]
Fortunately, some British icons also happen to be examples of rather good design values and individual creativity. In this case the creativity was supplied by an architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the grandson Sir George Gilbert Scott, designer of St Pancras Station, itself to become a London icon, mercifully saved from the wrecking ball and brilliantly repurposed not so long ago.
Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed some notable English buildings including Liverpool Cathedral, Battersea power station and Bankside Power Station, now the Tate Modern art Gallery, but he is best remembered for his red telephone boxes: “He was one of three architects invited by the Royal Fine Arts Commission to submit designs for new telephone kiosks. The invitation came at the time Scott was made a trustee of Sir John Soane’s Museum. His design was in the classical style, topped with a dome reminiscent of the mausoleum Soane designed for himself in St Pancras Old Churchyard, London. It was the chosen design and was put into production in cast iron as the GPO’s “Kiosk no. 2” or “K2”. Later designs adopted the same general look for mass production: the Jubilee kiosk, introduced for King George V’s silver jubilee in 1935 and known as the “K6”, eventually became a fixture in almost every town and village. [Wikipedia]
The phone box in Kirkby on Bain is indeed a K6 type. The introduction of the K6 expanded the national network of kiosks from 19,000 in 1935 to 35,000 in 1940. Various attempts have subsequently been made to modernise our phone boxes, but it seems that the K2 and K6 remain dearest to our stout British hearts, with an estimated 11,000 still in existence in the UK.
Reflecting further on the phone box phenomenon, two aspects now strike me. One is the colour red. Scott’s original suggestion was to paint them silver, with a “greeny-blue” interior, but the Post Office went for red, probably for the same reason that our pillar boxes are red. UK Post Office uniforms and products are red. Post Office red is a recognised colour for painters and designers. It’s a brand thing.
I have heard it suggested that the idea was to make them stand out against a typical urban background, but I can’t help thinking that there’s something deeper going on in our collective unconscious, and we would not be so fond of our phone boxes if the Post Office had chosen otherwise. Somehow, red is so British. Our national colours are red, white and blue. The English flag is red and white, London buses are still red. Not to mention the Red Arrows, Chelsea Pensioners and the Welsh Dragon.
There were some attempts to break away from the colour red, but they didn’t come to much. The standard colour scheme for both the K1 and the K3 was cream, with red glazing bars, and with the advent of the K6 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 the areas that have preserved their telephone boxes have now painted them red regardless. Yellow booths were later introduced into areas where previous red telephone boxes had been vandalised or even pulled out of the ground. (I can’t quite see the logic in this idea – why would vandals back off just because a phone box is yellow?)
Following privatisation BT caused an outcry in 1981 when it began a programme to repaint the boxes yellow, the company’s corporate colour at the time. After the “ridiculous scheme” was lambasted in the House of Lords the idea was shelved.
“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”. 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.” [Wikipedia article]
A more recent paint job features in a new digital iteration of the phone kiosk – the Solarbox, solar-powered charging stations for mobiles unveiled last year on Tottenham Court Road, with support and funding from the Mayor of London, as a pilot before turning more traditional phone boxes green.
The other aspect of the phone box revival which strikes me is that the nostalgia is for the container, rather than what it contains. The revival is driven by the desire to put the kiosk to alternative uses as a piece of street furniture. In his story about the Kirkby on Bain phone box conversion, Martin writes: “Flyers were circulated to all residents ………asking for suggestions for community use. The most popular were: Defibrillator, Book Exchange & Information Board. These were all adopted.”
In a moment of levity I did suggest a revolutionary idea – why not put a public phone in it? Not everyone has a mobile phone after all, and in areas like Kirkby on Bain mobile reception is rubbish, rather like our so-called broadband. In nearby Woodhall Spa they have indeed reactivated a landline phone in their red phone box, together with a cash machine.
And guess what, you can now get the best of both worlds – a mobile phone that looks just like the real thing. The ultimate testament to the power of the icon.
I’m pleased to report that our not-phone-box has caught on. I heard a nice story from another neighbour, who was asked by someone who visits the village daily, who to approach for permission to use the book exchange housed in the phone box. When he heard the news that anyone can use it, he became a regular user. The notice board is full up, and some practical problems with the installation of the defibrillator have recently been solved. One of my Woodhall Spa spies also tells me that Woodhallites are dropping by to exchange a book or three. (Probably under cover of darkness.)
We are not alone. So far about 2,300 red phone boxes have been saved in this way. Some have become galleries, information booths, wildlife centres and miniature libraries. In Brighton a box has been converted into a tiny café called Red Box Coffee, while another is an ice cream kiosk. If you want to join the phone box revolution, check out BT’s adoption scheme – you too can take over your local kiosk for £1. Details here.
By the way, how many Dr. Who fans know that the Tardis was a police phone box? The public used these to contact the police, using a phone located behind a hinged door so it could be used from the outside. Inside was a miniature police station so the police could read and fill out reports, take meal breaks, and even temporarily hold prisoners until the arrival of transport.
They were on our streets until the late 1960s to early 1970s, when they were phased out following the introduction of personal radios. With the proposed police cutbacks, will they be the next in line for a nostalgia comeback?