Ring the changes

The red telephone kiosk is an icon of British design, and one that’s in danger of being consigned to history. But, as Richard Taylor discovers, there’s life in the old box yet

Ring the changes

Phone boxes across Britain have been turned into coffee shops, ice-cream kiosks and even miniature museums

What comes to mind when you think of British design? The Routemaster double-decker bus, wellington boots, the Burberry trenchcoat? How about the red telephone box? With its domed roof and rectangular panes of glass, it’s a true British icon

The first standard public telephone box to be introduced by the Post Office was produced in concrete in 1920 and named K1 (kiosk no 1). Sporting a pointed roof topped with ornate metal scrollwork and finial, this design was not of the same family as the red telephone boxes we all know and love. There are believed to be only six left in existence. Two are still gracing British streets – one in Kingston-upon-Hull and the other in Bembridge on the Isle of Wight – and there’s a replica K1 in the village of Tintinhull, Somerset.

The red telephone box we’re more familiar with is the K2 and was the result of a competition in 1924 to design a kiosk which would be acceptable to the London Metropolitan boroughs. Entries were invited from three respected architects. The Fine Arts Commission judged the competition, selecting the design by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. However, his original silver and ‘green-blue’ colour scheme was vetoed by the Post Office and they decided on red to make it easy to spot.

Various tweaks and tinkerings with the design over the years saw models K3, K4 and K5 deployed, until 1935 when the K6 was designed to commemorate the silver jubilee of King George V. The first red telephone box to be extensively used outside London, the K6 was a de facto facility for virtually every village in Britain. In 1935 there had been 19,000 public telephones in the UK; by 1940, thanks to the K6, there were 35,000.

In 1980, in preparation for privatisation, Post Office Telecommunications was rebranded as British Telecom (BT) and in February 1981 it was announced that all the red telephone boxes would be repainted yellow (BT’s new corporate colour). There was an immediate public outcry, resulting in only a small number being repainted.

Despite once being a familiar sight up and down the land, the number of traditional telephone boxes has declined in recent years. The advance of the mobile phone has made this most venerable of creations all but redundant.

In an effort to let communities keep their iconic phone boxes, BT has allowed local authorities, councils and charities to ‘adopt’ a kiosk for £1. Many have been converted and phone boxes across Britain have been turned into coffee shops, ice-cream kiosks and even miniature museums. A company in Newark, Nottinghamshire, refurbishes and sells some of the telephone boxes for BT to buyers in the UK and around the world. Apparently, one is being used as a shower cubicle in a house!

Parish councils in our region have taken up the offer, using their once-dormant boxes to house everything from a life-saving defibrillator to a collection of village maps. Slightly further afield in Bath, there is one emblazoned with a colourful array of flowers.  

My own village has adopted its box and, after a repaint and the addition of some shelving, it has become a book/cd exchange - a novel use!

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