If you were to find yourself walking down the street in the UK, you may spot something tall and red out of the corner of your eye that clashes against the grey concrete jungle or lush green countryside.
It probably doesn’t look all that magnificent either with its glass windows broken and rubbish strewn inside, giving it an overall quite dishevelled look.
There is even a high chance that you will not take notice of any of these at all because they have become so few and far between, even though they were once a common sight all over Britain, particularly in London.
The UK’s red telephone box has been a recognisable cultural icon all around the world throughout the last century and can even be found overseas in places like Malta, Bermuda, and Gibraltar. Tourists visiting the country often flock to the capital, eager to snap a picture next to one of these iconic telephone boxes.
However, the last few decades have seen these red boxes slowly disappearing from the streets of Britain in favour of newer and sleeker models such as BT’s Link. Moreover, the rise of mobile phones begs the question of how much time these red kiosks have left.
History of the red phone box
Designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1924 and introduced to the public in 1926, the K2 kiosk was Britain’s first red telephone box which replaced the short-lived K1 after only three years of service.
The design was inspired by Soane's Tomb in London and soon after their introduction by the General Post Office, they were adorned with a gold-painted crown to represent the British government.
At its height, the GPO network totalled 92,000 public call boxes. Today, owned by British Telecom, the network totals 46,000 call boxes, of which 8,000 are red telephone boxes.
The original red telephone box, the K2, was much larger than its successors and thus harder to install nationwide. Understandably, roughly only 1,500 K2 kiosks were ever produced and installed, making them extremely rare. In 1935, the production of the K2 kiosk was discontinued in favour of other designs.
Photo courtesy of The Telephone Box
The most recognisable iteration of the red telephone box we know today is the K6 which was commissioned in 1935 to celebrate King George V’s Silver Jubilee. Out of 60,000 ones that were installed across the UK between 1936 and 1968, just over 10,000 remain.
Admittedly, as impressive as the red telephone boxes are, they do scream ‘outdated’ which is partly why their production began to decline towards the latter half of the 20th century.
Telephone boxes in general have been on the decline since the 1980s when mobile phones were introduced, but the red kiosks in particular also suffered other problems that have led to their dwindling numbers.
Photo courtesy of The Telephone Box
It’s not difficult to understand the reluctance to maintain these boxes. They are often prone to vandalism, either to the payphone itself or to the kiosk. Even worse, they could be misused as toilets or for drug dealing.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a red telephone box that is in usable condition, not smelling of urine and littered with broken needles, beer cans, and broken glass.
The design of the older variants also makes them hard to be repaired quickly. Furthermore, given that most people nowadays are in possession of a mobile phone, there is no real sense of urgency to repair one.
Today, there are about 21,000 working payphones left in the UK, but only 3,600 of those are red phone boxes.
Many people are trying to save red telephone boxes as BT has been decommissioning their payphones over the last several years due to low usage.
BT, who now owns the red boxes, first put the red kiosks on the market in 2008 and has since been running the ‘adopt a kiosk’ scheme which allows recognised local authorities, registered charities and private landowners that have a kiosk on their land to lease a decommissioned telephone box for just £1.
Twenty-four hundred of these red wonders are being protected as Grade II listed buildings while others have been repurposed into kiosks for small businesses, cash machines, tourist information centres or libraries through BT’s scheme.
The charity Community Heartbeat Trust is working together with BT to help communities transform adopted telephone boxes into publicly accessible defibrillators for local medical centres. So far, the trust has adopted over 1,300 boxes.
Some decommissioned ones are sent away to phone box graveyards that now store the husks of these magnificent kiosks with the intention of restoring them. Meanwhile, a select few have been the subject of art installations such as the one on Southampton Row.
What the future holds for these boxes
It would be devastating if the UK were to see these famous cultural icons phased out for good, but it seems that while they are no longer needed as public payphones, there is still hope that Britain’s iconic red phone box is here to stay for now.
Hopefully, more can be saved and repurposed and perhaps in the future, we may see a return in some form of the red telephone box to Britain’s streets.
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