Tag Archives: Telephone boxes

Ringing the changes

Atraditional red phone box is to be auctioned tomorrow with a guide price of £45,000. The K2 Kiosk is located at the west end of Austin Friars on its junction with Cophall Avenue and Throgmorton Avenue. It is outside the offices of BlackRock who once had George Osborne as a director, as his colleague David Cameron bought a shepherd’s hut to write his memoirs, George might require its nine square feet.

Between 1926 and 1935 1,700 examples of the K2 were installed with the total number of surviving K2 kiosks being only about 224 in the UK.

In addition to this one, there are four more in Central London, all expected to go for around £40,000 – £45,000.

As iconic as my black cab, the K2 telephone boxes have since 1936 been an intrinsic part of London’s urban landscape. But who actually uses telephone boxes these days or even notices them? With almost universal mobile phone ownership, you could say that red telephone boxes are hidden in plain sight. Their original function has been overtaken by several uses its designer couldn’t have imagined possible.

Their use as a rather well-designed notice booth for call-girls (or boys) is now falling by the wayside as they find more effective ways of advertising their services and using it as a public urinal has its limitations, not least that its cramped compartment renders the user in danger of watering their shoes.

With brilliant originality they named it K2 for Kiosk No. 2, it was, of course, preceded by K1 which was constructed in concrete. The new design – this time in cast iron – by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott had won a Post Office competition three years earlier and started a whole series of similar-looking telephone boxes.

Its distinctive domed roof and all-over red make it the prototype of the classic K6, which was introduced nearly ten years later. Ventilation was provided via the crown in the roof section – it was made up of small, round holes!

Legend has it that the dome was Scott’s homage to the 18th Century architect Sir John Soane, R.A. (1753-1837) whose family tomb is surmounted by a very similar feature. Unlike the tops of modern British phone booths, Scott’s Soanian dome is a proper roof, dealing effectively with rain and litter while also being aesthetically pleasing.
But what makes K2 special is that it was mostly restricted to the London area and considerably bigger than its successors.

In London kiosks positioned by tourist locations have survived BT’s desire to replace them with utility ‘shower cabinets’ and stand as an iconic feature of London, for many kiosks, their purpose now would seem only to be as a photo opportunity for visitors and Japanese girls modelling bridal wear.

Many entrepreneurs have found a new use for these beautiful structures, and for the remaining unsold kiosks, the London Tourist Board should come to an arrangement with BT to pay for their maintenance and cleaning, covered in grime they’re a disgrace.

I am indebted to wallyg at Flickr for permission to use his photo of K2; his pages contain a wealth of images and background information on London.

Red and Dead

The old red telephone box is an icon of Britain from days gone by, used nowadays only by tourists and Japanese girls modelling bridal wear. They were very popular if only because they were the only method we had to have a distance conversation but believe me, I can recall the time when most households in Britain never had a phone anyway.

Is There Anybody There?

One of my earliest memories is standing in a kiosk in a cold Saturday night, trying to persuade a doctor to come and look at my infant son who had a high fever.

Numbers Game

It wasn’t all numbers back in those days either. Phones were given acronyms depending on where they were. So if you lived in Barnet, that town came under a series of districts. The first three letters would make up part of the phone number, so you would call BAR 123456. That’s why the dial had letters as well as numbers.

Morse is your Man

Decades before digital, the telephone system had a rotary dial which interrupted the line current repeatedly, very briefly disconnecting the line 1 to 10 times for each digit. When the receiver was placed on the cradle a bar at its base disconnected the current until the receiver was again lifted by a new caller.

Kids these days don’t know the half of it, said with a big smile on my face. Lifting the receiver and emulating the wireless operator on the Titanic by tapping the bar would mimic the dial turning, so to phone my friend for free on Enterprise 5041 all that was needed was to quickly depress the bar in a series of bursts, each corresponding to the numbers on the dial.

It all sounds a million miles from today’s technology with Zoom, Facebook Messenger, Skype and with mobile phone contracts costing up to £93 a month.

Button A or Button B

Assuming you actually were prepared to pay for your call, then you had two large silver pushbuttons, namely, Button A and Button B. You put four copper pennies (some showing Queen Victoria in her prime) in the slot and when someone answered your call, you pushed Button A. If they didn’t answer, you pushed Button B and you would get your money back.

Then there were the pips. Your hard-earned four coins would last maybe two minutes if you made a local call or one minute if it was a long-distance call. Upon hearing the pips you had seconds to fumble about finding coins before you were cut off. If you are under 40 I hope you are keeping up!

K6 is King

Now everyone in the world owns a mobile phone, making the famous K6 phone box redundant. There are even subsistence farmers in Africa sharing a mobile so they can know when to sell their crop to get the best price.

Some towns and villages have kept their red telephone boxes and turned them into libraries or for storing defibrillators for emergencies, the majority of phone boxes though have been sent to a scrapyard in West Yorkshire where the general public can buy them.

Expensive shed or very small office

Purchasing one of these icons is expensive, anywhere between £1,500 and £2,500, but it’s good to see recycling rather than scrapping.

And on that note – and bear with me on this – I return to London. William Stanhope, 1st Earl of Harrington built Harrington House in Craig’s Court in 1702 hoping he would be adjacent to Whitehall Palace once the palace had been rebuilt after a disastrous fire. Unfortunately, Whitehall Palace was never reconstructed. The royals migrated westward, depriving Stanhope of the opportunity to call the monarch his neighbour and rendering his grand home an isolated white elephant (although the family remained there until 1917).

Today, the 18th-century building houses a telephone exchange and allegedly harbours an entrance shaft to a large, top-secret government bunker dubbed ‘Q Whitehall‘. Now I wonder whether I am on their watch list for defrauding the General Post Office, BT’s predecessor?

Featured image: Antoine Motte dit Falisse (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Tart Cards

The early phone boxes were made tall enough for a gentleman to enter its confined space without removing his top hat.

But since the advent of mobile phones, they have met a swift and inglorious end. So prevalent was their new function taken to be, as a urinal, sloping floors were constructed to aid cleaning.

Another function has been to advertise ‘adult’ services.

[C]uriously one of the world’s leading medical history libraries, the Wellcome Library, is home to the world’s largest collection of ‘tart cards’, with over 4,500 collected since 1991, despite Westminster Council passing laws outlawing them and officials going round removing them on a daily basis the cards have appeared with relentless regularity.

This unique form of advertising by ‘ladies of the night’, has become the raison d’être of the central London phone box.

Phone boxes have been the usual depository for countless numbers of these small ‘business’ cards, promising all sorts of forbidden pleasures, from spanking to transsexual encounters, in the privacy of your hotel room or in fully equipped chambers.

The earliest cards in the Wellcome collection date from the start of the 1980’s, and it is interesting to see how these little adverts have evolved over the decades. The first is simple, homemade affairs, photocopies glued on to cardboard, while by the 21st-century colour printing and photoshopping had become widely available and the production much sleeker, many presumably having an image far removed from the actual person providing these services.

Content has changed too, as boundaries have shifted. In the 1980s discretion was still important. The cards contained little more than a phone number and imagery would be restricted to a drawing of a female form. But as taboos fell away, so the cards became more upfront and witty, with revealing photos, images of girls dressed up for role play, explicitly jokey straplines and a wider range of services more openly offered.

And the ladies too are different. Whereas 30 years ago they were predominantly British, London’s ‘working girls’ today reflect the city’s increasingly multicultural character.

In 2003 it was estimated that about 13 million cards were placed in London phone boxes each year.

But with BT planning to press Button B to cancel calls in 20,000 phone boxes – about half the remaining booths – these advertisers will now have to find other ways including the internet and mobile phones to provide more modern and efficient ways to do business.

Tart cards acquired something of a cult status. Tourists were known to take them and send them home as postcards; even kids, bored with trading Pokémon cards, collected them. Once the emblem of a sleazier side of life, their days are numbered. No more will we able to peruse the like of this literary gem from February 1992:

Roses are red;
violets are blue,
St. Valentine’s coming;
and so may you.

Featured image: A selection of cards from the Wellcome Trust (CC BY 4.0)

Pod Works or doesn’t

It must be a conundrum for BT these last 10 years.

Just what purpose do red telephone boxes serve other than to promote ‘adult’ services and for tourists to pose for selfies?

Votes in a poll last year as the greatest British design of all time with 39 per cent of the votes with the London taxi trailing sixth with 21 per cent of the votes.

[T]hese much loved symbols of our past have been collecting grim (and urine) as their purpose fades into obscurity.

Now Pod Works has found a solution, so simple it’s remarkable that no one has thought of it before. The New York based company has fitted a number of the Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed boxes with wi-fi connection and internet connectivity, a printer/scanner, wireless mouse, 25 inch screen, a charger with a selection of plugs and there’s even a hot drinks machine.

For a fee of about £20 a month small businesses can conduct business on the move in an environment devoid of the distraction of sitting in a coffee shop or listening to London’s incessant traffic.

They could, of course, sit in the back of a London cab to conduct their business.