The red telephone box, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, is as quintessentially British as fish and chips, the Shipping Forecast, eccentric place names and – sadly – doomed pubs. But after years of dedicated service, this icon of cities, towns and villages throughout Britain and her former colonies has largely become a thing of the past.
The popular red kiosk was the result of a 1924 competition initiated due to widespread dissatisfaction with the original K1 (Kiosk No. 1) design across London. The winning design, in the classic tradition, was submitted by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of Liverpool Cathedral and Battersea Power Station.
Scott had intended his K2 kiosk, with domed roof likely inspired by Sir John Soane’s tomb in St Pancras’ Old Churchyard, to be painted silver. But the Post Office selected red to ensure the boxes were noticeable. This stirred a public outcry at the time, and boxes located in areas of natural and historic beauty were painted a more subdued grey with red glazing bars.
Ironically, it wasn’t strictly modernisation that led to the demise of the red telephone box, as the classical K2 model gave way to the definitive K6 in 1935, commemorating the silver jubilee of King George V. The death blow was dealt by privatisation in the form of British Telecom, which, from the 1980s, installed the more utilitarian KX100 in place of thousands of traditional kiosks.
Around 2000 red phone boxes have historical listed status, but many stand neglected, vandalised, or simply abandoned, with a lucky few re-purposed. In an ironic twist, the public outcry that had accompanied the introduction of the red telephone box was matched by protests over its demise, as many who had originally opposed it campaigned for the preservation of their beloved kiosks.
Its appearance in various urban art exhibits reflects the kiosk’s cult status, while adaptive reuse and popularity with collectors underscores its enduring legacy as an eccentric symbol if Britishness. But the all-too-common sight of decaying red phone boxes are perhaps the most poignant reminder that things have moved on, and that eras always come to an end.