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Telephone kiosks

Early Dutch telephone kiosk

Origins of the telephone kiosk (1884) : odd boxes

In 1884, the British Postmaster-General, Henry Fawcett, allowed telephone companies to establish 'public call offices' - the first telephone boxes.

It meant that the telephone was transformed from being just for the rich or businessmen to something accessible to all

In the days of the National Telephone Company (NTC) there were few standard designs - telephone kiosks turned up as anything from ornate cast iron boxes to rustic style huts and arbours. Mainly, they were made of wood, with three patterns being particularly common: the Wilson, the Norwich and the Birmingham. When the Post Office took over the telephone system in 1912, they soon decided to have a standard design, based on the Birmingham - but then the First World War intervened.

Concept drawing for 24-hour telephone and postal facility

Different types of kiosk - oddities : collectible kiosks

Some telephone boxes are so rare that they might almost be worth their weight in gold.

The K4 'Vermillion Giant' combined a K2 kiosk with stamp machines and letter box to form a '24-hour post office'. It was not a success - the thing was too big to fit on most sites and the stamps became damp. Only 50 were ever made.

Rarer still is the K5 'flat pack' kiosk of 1934 - a transportable knock down design made in steel faced plywood for use at fairs and exhibitions, It's thought some were made - but if any survived, they're very well hidden.

The K7 - Neville Conder's innovative design of the early 1960s - is also a spotter's delight.

Six prototypes were produced in aluminium but didn't weather very well. So the Post Office commissioned a further six in cast iron - some of which may have gone to Glasgow. What has happened to them since remains a mystery.

Croydon' Pattern Telephone Kiosk - Connected Earth artefact, now at the Museum of London.

'Croydon' pattern telephone kiosk (1970s) : a lighter, brighter telephone experience

The Croydon Telephone kiosk was an experimental prototype created in the 1970s by the Post Office while searching for a replacement for the old, red public telephone boxes.

There were only a few of these models made, which were tested on location in Croydon, Surrey. The design was trying to overcome all the limitations of the previous kiosks, which up until then had been made predominantly from heavy, user-unfriendly, cast iron. It provided a range of new features: easy access, particularly for wheelchair users, low maintenance with materials that didn't need to be painted, reliability, brighter lighting and less areas to vandalise.

The trials were successful and the kiosk achieved most of its objectives. However, the quality of materials and design made it too expensive for the Post Office to mass produce and the design was not adopted.

K6 kiosk with grey livery housing

Different colours : any colour - so long as its red

The first K1 Kiosk of 1921 was painted in a colour to suit its locations, such as brown or green. The later concrete K3s that followed it during the 1930s were almost all a cream colour, with red glazing bars.

Giles Gilbert Scott wanted his elegant K2 of 1926 to be painted silver, with a "bluey green" interior. But the Post Office chose to paint the cast iron box overall in red. It defined the style for the next 60 years.

Red telephone boxes were sometimes resisted in rural areas, but the Post Office was at first indifferent to complaints.

After 1945, they agreed to reconsider and agreed that Dark Battleship Grey kiosks with red glazing bars could be used in places of outstanding natural beauty. Ironically, many of these grey boxes have since been repainted red as a more appropriate 'heritage' colour.

The black K6 kiosks found in city centres belong to the operator New World - which is also reinstalling the classic telephone box.

K2 kiosk on display at the Avoncroft Museum 

Scott, Sir Giles Gilbert (1880-1960) : designing an institution

Scott's phone box was the most distinctive and well-known symbol of telecommunications across the country. It was strong, long-lasting and instantly recognisable. Called simply the K2 (Kiosk 2), it was widely disliked when first unveiled. Over time the public grew to appreciate it more and it became as much an icon of twentieth century Britain as the double-decker bus

A newly installed 'old' kiosk, in central London

Telephone kiosks as heritage : 'you never miss what you've got till it's gone ...'

Graceful K2 and K6 kiosks rapidly began to disappear from Britain's streets and villages in the mid/late 1980s - sparking a fierce upsurge of protective affection for these old friends.

In the battle between preservationists and British Telecom, peace was brokered with the decision to protect 2,000 old style kiosks as 'listed buildings'. Many of these have been fully restored. There are hundreds of other 'classic' red kiosks still in service - not listed but not scrapped either.

The rest have been sold off - some for scrap - but most as complete units that have turned up as garden ornaments, club and restaurant centrepieces, shower cubicles - even as fish tanks.

And a few have even begun a new life as public telephone boxes. In 1993, BT began re-installing recycled K6 kiosks, starting with 60 in Westminster. Some have replaced more modern units - but many were installed in sensitive heritage sites where a telephone kiosk would otherwise be unacceptable. And, in a remarkable turn about, many are in places where they could never have been erected originally. For example, in London's Parliament Square, none of its four red kiosks were there before BT was privatised.

fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

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