Anyone living in or visiting the UK is aware of iconic street furniture. Post boxes are prominent, along with gradually diminishing numbers of large, often bright red, items that have largely been left behind by technology- the Telephone Kiosk.
It is fairly easy to gather a basic understanding and knowledge of many of the telephone kiosks that can be seen while walking across the UK in town and country. If concentrating on the classic ‘K’ series of phone boxes, it is not a particularly wide range though there are also the oddities, sub-types and rarer peripherals that I shall not concentrate on here, much! Also the rather uglier kiosks, booths and pedestals that followed in the wake of design classics.
Telephone boxes, or ‘public call offices’, have a long history. It was in 1884 that the Postmaster General Henry Fawcett allowed telephone companies to establish them. Telephones were in their infancy, they were expensive to buy or rent, and by establishing them in locations that the public could access, the expanded use of the system was almost guaranteed, along with a rapid expansion of the network and an increase in profits to the various independent telephone companies then operating across the UK.
Official sanction led directly to the democratising of the telephone. They were transformed from being just for the privileged to something accessible to all. However the public did not want bystanders listening in to private calls and also wanted to shut themself off from extraneous noise, in railways stations for example.
Most telephone kiosks first erected were wood. Not neccessarily the most robust of materials in an often wet climate. Therefore most wooden kiosks were situated in protected locations- hotel foyers and within bus and train stations etc. These were also, coincidentally, where passing footfall was greatest. Very few examples of these kiosks survive and those that do are almost exclusively to be found in museums.
There was no one design or colour in the early days- the ‘Wilson’ was named after its inventor. The ‘Birmingham’ and ‘Norwich’ designs named from where they originated. This can be problematic if the public are unsure exactly what is is they are looking for when wanting to make a phone call.
Wood built telephone kiosks could sometimes have double glazing. Doors closed on to a compressible rubber seal in an attempt to seal off outside noise. These were known as ‘Silence Cabinets’. The General Post Office (GPO) also began supplying these to an approved design in the 1920’s. Some still survive, some still operational, in larger hotels and official buildings. Railway stations also have survivors though now invariably converted to some other purpose.
When the Post Office took over the great majority of the inland telephone system in 1912 (though Hull continued as an independently managed system), they decided to introduce a standard design of telephone kiosk, based on the Birmingham design. The Post Office had a responsibility as a national service to make the telephone facility an accessible service right across the country and extend kiosks to towns and villages previously denied. Also, to provide robust kiosks that would weather whatever conditions would be thrown at them in the most exposed conditions to be found. The first telephone box provided was called the K1, or Kiosk 1. The K1 was introduced in 1921 and resulted in three generations of the same kiosk. All were made of reinforced concrete sections with a wooden door. The first model, Mk234 had wooden window frames, the 1922 Mk235 replaced these with metal frames. The first kiosks were not particularly attractive and there was considerable resistance in some locations to having an ‘ugly edifice’ erected. Authorities were permitted to paint them in any colour they chose. Despite the intention to have the telephone service as widely available as possible, the Post Office was sometimes forced to place kiosks off the main thoroughfare, or strike a deal with a local landowner. Over 6300 of the early K1 models were manufactured but they are extremely rare today.
Following the K1, looking very much a product of it’s time, we then come to the first of our classic red-painted cast iron kiosks. This is the K2. Following a design contest, a design modified from that submitted by Giles Gilbert Scott (later Sir) was selected. The original perforated ‘Telephone’ wording was replaced by ‘opals’ on each face, though Scott’s perforated crown in the roof is retained to provide both ventilation and a link to the monarch’s crowns that are included on post box designs. Scott wanted his kiosks to be painted silver, with a blue-green interior. He was over-ruled and the Post Office instructed that they be painted red. This set the style that followed with almost all subsequent designs until the arrival of British Telecom decades later.
The K2 is large and imposing- approximately 9ft 3in/2820mm high and 3ft 6in/1070mm wide. It is a quite gorgeous design. The domed roof, designed to channel rain water down the grooved reeded corners is said to be modelled on the tomb of Sir John Soane in St. Pancras churchyard. With cast iron sides and a heavy teak door, and glazed on three sides, each kiosk weighs a little under a ton. This imposing kiosk was introduced in 1926 and hundreds survive across the City.
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 K2 was placed in the top ten by the British public. Though this is perhaps incorrect as it is by no means a national feature. Of the 1700 K2s produced, no more than a dozen were situated outside London. Each of the boxes still in place today has been given Listed Building status.
The K2 was expensive to manufacture and the Post Office decided to provide cheaper kiosks in rural areas until 1931. For these, they returned to the K1 design and refined that. The third generation of the K1, the Mk236, was introduced in 1927. These feature (from 1929) a wrought ironwork spear finial and scrolls on the roof with “Telephone” sign on each face. More than 5000 K1 Mk236 were manufactured, each had redesigned glazing and most were painted cream, with red painted glazing bars and door. Though yet again, some areas decided to adopt unofficial paint schemes. The survival rate has not been good and this is another rare and infrequently encountered kiosk today.
Three Points of the Compass hiked the South West Coast Path in 2018. Early in the walk, a night camp was made high on the cliffs on a foul night. An early get-away in the morning meant that I was able to visit the lonely little village of Tyneham. The residents of the Tyneham valley were forced to evacuate their homes during the Second World War as it was required for the war effort. Their promised return after hostilities never occured and the area is a remarkable time capsule testament to an earlier life.
From 1929 a K1 Mk236 was situated outside the little post office in Tyneham. It has had a run of bad luck. First abandoned and subsequently consumed by vegetation after the war, it was eventually restored in the early 1980s. During filming of Comrades in 1983, the kiosk was accidentally destroyed by the film company and they were forced to source a replacement. In 2012, the K1 was completely restored and is now authentic.
Another design of kiosk was planned for wider expansion across the country and Scott was invited by the Post Office to modify his design in 1930 for a K3 telephone kiosk. This was cheaper, mostly made of pre-cast concrete and despite being shorter and narrower, retained some of the design elements of K2, at least superficially.
Many communities were still resisting the red colour of kiosks, feeeling that it was garish and didn’t fit into a rural environment. This is strange today when the sight of a red telephone kiosk in a quiet little country village is regarded very much as normal, if quaint. The K3 was instead painted cream with red glazing bars. Astonishingly, between 1929-1935, around 12,000 K3 kiosks were installed nationwide. Many firms were responsible for manufacturing these. But you will struggle to find one today as their concrete contruction proved too fragile and almost none have survived. London Zoo’s penguin pool hosts an example outside that now has an English Heritage Grade I listed status.
The crown in the roof is absent from this design. Instead, there is a ventilation slot included just above the ‘Telephone’ sign. This is a design feature that would be carried over to the subsequent, successful kiosk that would follow in still larger numbers.
The Post Office now started getting a little cocky in its ambitions. If post boxes can be sited across the country, and telephone boxes were also being rolled out. Why not include the two functions? And while doing that, why not include a facility for the public to buy stamps, so include two stamp vending machines? So was born the K4.
Introduced in 1927 and produced in-house by the Post Office engineering department, the K4 was effectively a stretched K2 and the K4 draws on many of that kiosk’s design elements. Three quarters of it are almost unchanged. It is the rear that is radically different. Below the cipher of George V is a post box. Each side of which is a stamp vending machine, these are illuminated by a lamp above. It was colloquially known as the ‘Vermillion Giant‘. Painted one shade of red on the outside, a brighter hue was used inside to brighten the interior. Intended as a ’24 hour post office’, the word ‘telephone’ is above the door, ‘stamps’ above the stamp vending machine, and ‘post office’ on each side.
The design was an unmitigated disaster despite being the first fully-automated twenty-four hour postal service. What may be an ideal location for a post box does not necessarily suit a phone box. Telephone users complained of traffic noise and the sound of coins rattling into the stamp vending machine. Stamps got stuck up due to the damp and the sheer size of the kiosk proved problematic. Only fifty were ever made of which a dozen or so survive today. Railway stations proved the most suited of locations and a handful survive on heritage railways and other localities today. A great concept perhaps, but not a practical one.
If the K4 is a rare beast today, then the K5 is mythical. This was simply a seven-piece ‘flat pack’ kiosk of 1934 – a transportable temporary design made in steel faced plywood for use at fairs and exhibitions. The envisaged design used less glass for ease of transport. Some might have been made.
We now come to one of the most successful and familiar of telephone kiosk designs. This is the K6, created to be used nationally and installed in huge numbers. There are also some interesting varieties within this kiosk of which just a couple are covered here.
George Gilbert Scott was again asked to design this cheaper and smaller replacement to the K2. His design was termed the ‘Jubilee Kiosk, to commemorate King George V’s 1935 silver jubilee, however it wasn’t actually introduced until 1936, though a single prototype had been installed in London in December 1935. This became the most widely used version of the kiosk with over seventy thousand being installed across the UK. A more vandal-proof Mk II version replaced this in 1939.
If faced with a lone kiosk, you may wonder exactly what type you are looking at. While the larger K2 has six rows of equal sized glazing, the K6 has eight rows of wider central glass panes with narrow ones to the side. This was to let in a little more light to the smaller gloomy interiors, as well as enable the public to see the advertising that was now beginning to adorn the interior of kiosks.
After 1945, the Post Office agreed that Dark Battleship Grey kiosks with red glazing bars could be used in places of outstanding natural beauty. Many of those were subsequently repainted red as a more appropriate ‘heritage’ colour. Local authorities were, reluctantly, permitted to use more muted colours in rural locations but red glazing bars were supposed to always be included in a paint scheme, however this instruction was occasionally ignored.
The first K6 kiosks had the usual ‘Tudor Crown’, based on the Post Office crest, included in the roof moulding. With the ascent of Queen Elizabeth II, this was changed in 1953 to a St. Edward’s crown in the casting. However the Queen is not the second Queen Elizabeth of Scotland and there were some objections to its inclusion. From 1955, a slot was included in the kiosk casting so that an appropriate crown could be inserted during assembly
Another piece of information that can be found on the K6 kiosk is the manufacturer- There were five: Carron Foundry, Lion Foundry, Marfarlane [Saracen] Foundry, McDowall Steven and Bratt Colbran
So, everything going well. A successful, popular and robust design is in place. What next? In 1958 the Post Office decided to explore a replacement design and invited three designers and architects to come up with something. The modern looking design from Neville Conder was selected and six aluminium prototypes were made of the K7. Five went into service in 1962. The innovative design did not progress beyond another six K7 prototypes, this time in cast iron. The original five continued in use for twenty years. Even for such an outwardly simplistic design, there were some nice little touches. The door handle even includes GPO branding.
The Post Office was on a roll now. Despite having experimented (slightly) with alternative construction materials, it was time to not only return to cast iron, but also to the red-painted kiosk. This was a period when the Post Office was going through a bit of a revamp of it’s image. Post Offices were being modernised, Postmen’s uniforms were updated, even a brighter shade of red was now being used on postal vans, post boxes and the next telephone kiosk to be produced. 1965 saw yet another design competition.
Bruce Martin’s was the preferred design however the construction material suggested by Douglas Scott also drew favour. So the Post Office merged the two and came up with a kiosk to mostly Martin’s design but cast in iron, with a cast aluminium door to reduce weight. The first K8 was installed in July 1968 and was radically different to previous designs. The kiosk utilises far less parts in its construction, eschews any ornate decoration, and with Postmaster General Tony Benn at the helm, it is not surprising that the crown was abandoned on the design. Both K6 and K8 telephone kiosks are approximately 8ft 3in/2510mm high and 3ft 5in/910mm wide.
The 11,000 K8 kiosks produced were the last design for a telephone kiosk ever made by the Post Office. The new ‘modern’ design was exactly what was wanted for the fresh housing estates and new look towns springing up across the UK.
The British Telecom brand was first introduced in 1980, and it became independent of the Post Office in 1981. With the creation of British Telecom, ownership of telecommunications passed to them, along with responsibility for the existing portfolio of kiosks across the country. British Telecom became ‘BT’ in 1991.
The K8 kiosk was the last design to be installed so when British Telecom looked to removing many of their kiosks, it was a case of ‘last in-first out’ and they have subsequently become one of the rarest kiosks to be found with probably less than a hundred extant. Oddly, when K8 telephone kiosks were being installed it was around the time that many campsites were first opening, as a result, these locations are where many survivors are still to be found.
Some K8s were also adopted by London Underground for internal use and you can still come across examples, sometimes slightly disguised by the addition of wood and metal panelling, and painted an array of alternative colour schemes, on their lines.
The British Telecom and subsequent BT kiosks became ever more utilitarian. None more so than the 300 ordered from the US in 1985. These were short-lived on the streets however and none survive beyond the three or four in museum collections. Vast numbers of the new KX series of kiosks were installed by BT- over 137,000 by the end of the century. At the same time, some three-quarters of adults owned a mobile phone.
Stainless steel, anodised aluminium and extensive use of sheet toughened glass or plastics make for cheaper installation. Many were minimalistic in design and Three Points of the Compass has slightly lost interest in these as a result. They are far removed from the cast iron classic designs of yore.
In 1993, BT began re-installing refurbished K6 kiosk. Some replaced more modern units, others were installed in sensitive heritage sites where a more modern design of telephone kiosk would be unacceptable.
Many cast iron kiosks, mostly K6s, have entered a second existence. Some have been removed from site and subsequently sold, to be erected in private homes or gardens as private kiosks, showers, post boxes, tool sheds or simply ornamental. Others have had their phone fittings removed by BT and have been adopted by local communities and now house defibrillators, or book exchanges, local information points, vegetable sale points, coffee shops, or anything else someone may have thought of.
The various modern ‘kiosks’ introduced by British Telecom/BT are functional and resistant to vandalism, but can rarely be called attractive. Only a handful are shown here as there is a bewildering array of variations on a common theme.
BT converted some of their KX100 kiosks to accept Phonecards. The new kiosk was shown on some of their Phonecards. These phones would not accept payment by coin and must have been a source of great frustration for some users. For this reason, a coin operated payphone kiosk would also be sited close by- usually!
This not the end however for those curious as to the various telephone kioks that you may stumble across in the UK. To mention just two more of the historic kiosk types that may be seen. These are the Police kiosks and those provided by motoring organisations.
The various Police kiosks and posts utilised across the country have a long and fairly involved history. Prior to mobile phones there was a need for officers to contact their station and for a station to contact an officer. Hence the introduction of these kiosks and stand alone call points. Their heyday was from the 1920s to the 1960s. With a large number of disparate Police forces across the UK, the variety of design is large and few are actually alike. They are all invariably dark blue in colour and a number survive. Some have been converted to other uses such as coffee shops, or even taken into gardens for use as garden sheds. And don’t forget Dr. Who’s Tardis!
Both the Automobile Association (AA) and the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) had a network of phone kiosks for their staff and the public to use. The AA began installing kiosks in 1912, the RAC in 1919. Members had a key to access the interior so that they could phone for assistance. There is quite a wide variety of designs and pedestal boxes were also used. Some examples still survive of each, by far the majority are AA kiosks and they may be seen while driving around the UK.
This has just been a brief glance at some of the telephone kiosks that can be seen while walking and travelling across the UK. There are considerably more than those mentioned and shown here but I have covered the most important step changes in evolution, while also showing those most likely to be encountered.
There is considerable additional information to be found online, but little has been pulled together particularly well. Even more exists in various museums, archives and publications, but that takes time and effort to track down and visit for primary research. There are also a number of excellent printed publications that cover the subject for anyone curious enough. I suggest some of those from my own bookshelves in a separate blog.