The Telephone Box | London’s Best Ones and Sneaky Design Details
It’s an icon of London (and the rest of the UK) but how much do you know about the telephone box? And where can you find the best ones in London?
Let’s start at the beginning.
It was the Royal Post Office who wanted to roll out telephone kiosks for public use and in 1920 they came up with the K1.
Made of concrete and fancy – if not practical – there are only 6 of these left across Britain, none (as far as I’m aware) on London streets.
At this point I feel like The City of London should get some credit as they were the first to come up with the idea of using public call boxes – albeit for specific crime reporting use – way back in 1899.
Rolled out by The Met in 1906 at their peak (c.1953) there were 685 across London. Today there’s a handful left and despite not functioning they each have Grade II listing.
In the search for a more mass-production-friendly kiosk, the Post Office asked prominant designers and architects to submit their ideas in 1926. They were then judged by the Royal Fine Arts Commission.
The winning design was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who was in turn inspired by another great London architect from – literally – beyond the grave.
This is the tomb of Sir John Soane (most famous for the Bank of England and his fabulous home-turned-museum which you should definitely visit) which you can still find in St Pancras Old Church Graveyard.
Amazingly, the very first prototype of the telephone box still exists and it’s very easy to find. Next time you go to the Royal Academy, look to the left of the entrance gates!
So Giles’ first design became known as the K2, but there’s been lots of variations over time. It’s time to get technical…
The Geeky Details
The next iconic telephone box of real importance was the K6, also designed by Giles, and made to celebrate King George V’s Silver Jubilee.
Helpfully, you’ll often find a K2 and K6 in London side by side, like here at Smithfield Market;
Look closely, the main difference is in the windows. The K2 (left) has identically-shaped, tall windows, while the K6 has one long rectangular shapes glass piece in the centre.
The K2 also tends to have a perforated crown which acts as ventilation, as seen below;
Once you’ve established whether its a K2 or K6, the final (incredibly nerdy) thing to look out for is whether it’s pre or post 1955. The clue is to look for the square outline around the gilded crown at the top.
There are two conveniently placed examples near Trafalgar Square. I apologies for the bad quality picture but you might just be able to spot the square outline around the crown on the left K6.
These variations are because after 1953 the design was changed from the Tudor crown to the Jubilee crown, but some people were unhappy with this choice. This lead to the crown being a removable attachment, hence the square outline showing where it’s slotted in.
What Happens Now?
Later designs after the K6 haven’t really managed to live up to the iconic status of the red ones. That, coupled with the rise of mobile phones, means coming up with innovative ideas to save them from disrepair.
In 2008 BT launched their ‘Adopt a kiosk’ scheme, aiming to help communities and landowners protect their phone boxes which weren’t being used.
As of 2016, 3,000 phone boxes have been renovated or transformed thanks to the scheme and the 3,000th was the first to be fitted with a defibrillator.
This snazzy – and life-saving – yellow one can be found in Bath.
Don’t worry, there’s also plenty of eclectic phone boxes to be found in London too;
Look Out For These!
The Lewisham Micro Library, on the corner of Loampit Hill and Tyrwhitt Road has been London’s smallest library since 2013!
It’s by no means the first, there’s apparently over 150 tiny libraries inhabiting phone boxes across the country, but it’s still special. I particularly enjoy their motto, written on the ceiling; “It’s not what you get, it’s what you leave behind.“
In Central London, one phone box has become something of a shrine.
Tucked in a corner of Heddon Street is a phone box linked with David Bowie. The connection comes from the Ziggy Stardust album (there’s a plaque nearby which commemorates the spot where the album cover shot was taken).
The album artwork back cover has a picture of Ziggy in a phone box so – despite this one most certainly being a replica – Bowie fans from all over the world have written messages across it.
A more artistic venture can be found on Southampton Row, Holborn;
Designed by Andrea Tyrimos, she was approached by Public Space Jam to create an art installation, promoting the need for more greenery and cleaner air in London. It took her a month, painting it every day.
Inside is another treat; a constellation painted onto the ceiling which shows the exact view of stars you’d see if we didn’t have all the light pollution covering them!
Another recent favourite was sadly only temporary, but it was part of Lumiere London, the annual light art festival. One of the most unusual displays utilised a telephone box, transforming it into a living aquarium!
It was called – amazingly – Aquarium by Benedetto Bufalino and Benoit Deseille.
Earlier in 2017 new ‘high-tech’ phone boxes were rolled out across London. Designed to offer wi-fi, maps and payable-by-card phone services, there’s one slight hitch. They don’t seem to work properly.
So aside from fairly expensive advertising screens, it seems London has a bit of a wait until there’s a comprehensive plan or replacement of the iconic telephone box.
Another new generation box you might have seen around town is the ‘Link’ offering ultrafast wifi, a charging point and free UK Landline calls, these actually sound pretty good!
Image from PA. Have you seen one near you yet?
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