AA Boxes: A Little-Known British Institution

aa-box (Image: Bob Kingsley, cc-nc-4.0)

Britain’s iconic red telephone box and classic blue Police box (popularised by the TARDIS in the BBC’s Dr Who) are celebrated in British culture. However, there is a rarer sentry-style box hidden in the UK that remains more elusive. There were once 787 of these yellow and black ‘AA’ boxes standing alongside Britain’s roads. Now, only 19 remain. But what was their purpose?

aa-patrol-bike (Image: Adrian Pingstone, public domain)

The Automobile Association (the AA) has been patrolling the UK’s roads supporting motorists since 1905. As well as being influential in motor insurance, hotel classification, route planning and essential road signage, the association also started the first weather information service for pilots in 1931. However, in the very early days, AA scouts would just cycle around alerting drivers to Police speed traps by waving red flags or using salute codes.

aa-box-flowers (Image: Sheffield Tiger, cc-4.0)

In 1912, the AA began building wooden shelters for its patrols. Some patrols made their boxes blend in with the surrounding countryside by planting flowers and bushes around them. These first shelters would have been equipped with the classic black bakelite telephone. Prosecution signs provided a deterrent for illegal phone use – with the switchboard operator and a phone log book system in place to monitor calls.

aa-box-yellow-black (Image: Sheffield Tiger, cc-4.0)

In 1920, the AA boxes were locked and stocked with maps, route cards, a first aid kit, fire extinguisher and a small amount of fuel. AA members were given a key and, in 1947, new keys were issued which also worked on Royal Automobile Club (RAC) boxes. The telephone became the primary function of the AA box until the shelters were phased out in 1968 in favour of pedestal phones.

aa-box-museum (Image: Thomas Nugent, cc-sa-4.0)

Some of the 19 AA boxes still on the roadside have been restored or are historically listed while others are still neglected. There are several more boxes in transport museums. With the popularity of the mobile phone, pedestal phones have also been phased out and were actually decommissioned in 2002.

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About the author: Alexandra Smith




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