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Early single penny coin box, with pass-key facility for use by subscribers - a Connected Earth artefact, now in the Museum of London

Payphones for the people (1884) : another new way to spend a penny

Only existing 'subscribers' were allowed to use the telephone for the first five years of its life in Britain. Then, in 1884, the Postmaster-General, Henry Fawcett, allowed telephone companies to establish 'public call offices' (payphones in other words) open to everyone. These were provided in shops, hotels, post offices and railway stations.

By 1900, there were two types of telephone kiosk. The automatic model was accessed by inserting an old penny into the door.

The superior model was attended by a uniformed attendant who opened the door, placed the call and took the payment, then left, leaving you to talk in private.

The first pre-payment coinboxes appeared in the 1920s, which worked by falling coins ringing different chimes to notify the operator when the money had been deposited.

Later still came the coinbox with its twin buttons A and B, familiar to older payphone users.

Kiosk 1 Mk235 - a Connected earth artefact, now at the Avoncroft Museum

Kiosk No.1 Mk.235 (circa 1920) : a blot on the landscape?

The Post Office decidedto create a standard phone box that could be used across the country and the chosen design was the concrete Kiosk No.1.

Altogether some 1,000 or so boxes were rolled out across the country outside London. There were several versions of the box. The Mk.235 was the second and differed from the original Mk.234 in that it had metal window frames rather than wooden glazing bars.

Many local authorities were reluctant to give the GPO permission to install the boxes in their high streets. In an era before neon signs, flashing lights and hectic traffic, they were often seen as a vulgar addition to the roadside and there were many fights between aesthetics and practicality.

In Eastbourne two kiosks were installed only after they were given thatched roofs, but in London the design was never accepted and resistance from local authorities forced the GPO to develop the K2 kiosk.

Kiosk 3 Mk.235 - a Connected Earth artefact, now at Avoncroft Museum

Phone box design - K3 (circa 1928) : cementing phone box differences

The classic red K2 telephone box designed by Gilbert Scott was installed throughout London. However, it was considered far too expensive for use elsewhere.

The answer was the K3 - also by Gilbert Scott.

Its overall size was close to that of the K1, but it was very similar in style to the K2. This made the process of finding sites for new kiosks very much easier.

The K3 also shared the K1s basic material - concrete - and so shared its lower production costs and was cost-effective to install even in less profitable areas.

Painted cream with red glazing bars, the K3 went on to be installed across the UK, in cities, towns and rural areas. Overall, something in excess of 10,000 units were erected.

KX100 Mk1 in its early British Telecom livery - a Connected Earth artefact, now at the Avoncroft Museum

KX100 Mk.1 payphone housing (1980s) : over exposed, under appreciated

In the 1980s the payphone system was struggling. Few people yet had mobile phones so the public still relied heavily on the payphone. The trouble was the phones frequently didn't work, or were vandalised or dirty.

The newly privatised British Telecom realised this reflected very badly on its image and something had to be done quickly.

The company replaced many of the old red telephone boxes with a brand new design. The KX100 was one of a series of models for different applications. It had huge windows making the interior more exposed and deterring people from vandalism or doing anything else they shouldn't. It had brighter lighting, and a door that normal people could open. There was no step, which made it suitable for those in wheelchairs. The kiosk was fitted with new payphone equipment including the new telephone card technology that worked, and stayed working.

Most people welcomed the improvement but a significant minority complained when the old red boxes were changed. Many local communities launched campaigns to save theirs and some are now preserved as 'listed buildings'.

Cairngorms kiosk

A focal point : the community telephone

The role of the telephone box has changed over the years. At first it was introduced as a way of making people more 'telephone minded' by ensuring telephones were available to all in public places.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the telephone kiosk allowed the Post Office an easier way to extend services to remote or rural areas, where the length of the 'local loop' made a full service impossible. And after 1945, the telephone box was sometimes the only way of providing services to the housing estates and new towns that were springing up all over the country.

For developments like these - and for rural villages - the telephone box became a focus of the community - a place where people tended to meet while waiting to make - and sometimes receive - their calls.

Kiosk publicity leaflet, 1936

Telephone box advertising : a site of opportunity

Back at the turn of the century, telephone boxes were often known as 'silence cabinets'.

They didn't actually offer that much noise insulation - the wooden walls and doors were too thin for that.

However, the wooden box did offer plenty of surface area to display advertisements and this was a valuable source of revenue for the National Telephone Company.

The Post Office was never interested in using the exterior of kiosks for advertising purposes - although the very look of the kiosk was a brand statement in itself.

Inside, kiosks did display posters and adverts - normally The Post Office's own - above the telephone equipment.

In recent years, the telephone kiosk has become a prime advertising site - illegally - for various services, most of them disreputable. Modern designs aim to make it increasingly difficult to place stickers inside.

Multimedia kiosk

The Future of the telephone kiosk : the Internet age phone box

A subsidiary company, BT Payphones, now operates 140,000 public payphones throughout the UK.

The number may go down over the next few years - the use of payphones has dropped by almost 40% between 2000 and 2002 largely due to mobile phones.

However, the demand for public Internet, e-mail and text messaging terminals is growing - and this may be the telephone kiosk's new role in life.

BT already has 500 Internet terminals across the UK achieving more than one million hits a week. It now has a multi-million pound programme to create the world's largest public multimedia network, installing 28,000 new terminals over five years from April 2002.

The new terminal features built-in video displays, keyboard and trackball to allow users to access e-mail and text messaging, Internet-based services and voice calls.

Telephone box user - button A and B : Malcolm Wright

Malcolm Wright, born in 1953, grew up in the outskirts of London before moving to Cornwall aged 14.

His family went on the telephone first in the 1970s, so his early experiences using telephones were in public call boxes.

He remembers the sounds made by the phones and how it reminds him of happy days.

audio clip


I still remember the lovely sound that they used to make when you put the four penny coins in. And that there was a case of having to press button B, I think, if you wanted your money back and button A when you wanted to reply. So they were kind of happy memories. I can still hear that in my head, the sound of the coins going in

Public telephone user - (button A or B) : Marion Rose

Marion Rose, born in 1938, took to the phone fairly easily when one was installed in her home aged 10 years old.In later life she became a teacher and worked with children with special needs and amongst her subjects was teaching the youngsters how to use a phone.Here she remembers the telephones she used as a child, particularly the public phones that required the caller to push the 'A' button to start talking or the 'B' button to get back her coins back.

audio clip


I remember using public telephones with buttons A and B. We did have a telephone at home from when I was about ten and so I was always used to using the phone. There were two types of telephone boxes; I remember one that was sort of cream with red writing and the other was all red. Usually in those days you could find a telephone directory in the box, which was very useful. It was, you know, the press button A and B (type of phone); you put your money in and if you didn't make the call you got your money back by pressing button B.

Telephone kiosk fun user : Katherine Pell

Katherine Pell is a 30-year-old Museum assistant from Bournemouth and like most people of her age grew up with the phone as being an everyday part of life.The phone was something that she took totally for granted and as it result it was as much a toy as a communication device.As her home phone was strictly out of bounds, Katherine explains a game she played with here sister using public telephones.

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My elder sister used to use it quite a lot to talk to her friends so my mother bought a little lock, and none of the children were allowed to use the phone without her permission so we used to go round the corner to play around with the telephone boxes. There were two side by side and my elder sister would go into one and I'd go into the other, and we used to put the money in and call each other up on the phones.

Telephone box user : Colin Mount

Colin Mount, born in 1942, grew up in the post-war devastation of south-east London. However aged 15, following a childhood fascination for pigs, he moved out of the city into the countryside to learn farming. Today he is a farm manager in Kent.

Having a private phone was beyond the pocket of a young farm labourer, but as well as writing letters, he often called his parents in London using the phone box in the village. He remembers the phone box was the only exterior light source they had there.

audio clip


Some people, you know, a few solicitors and lecturers from the university, that lived in the village, they probably had their own phone, but certainly from the farming community, farm workers and the like they certainly didn't have their own phones. You're newly married you're trying to build a home - I was living in a tide cottage but most of the money that we had would be going into furniture and building the home up. It was the only light in the village once it got dark. There's only a hundred and twenty people in this village and the only light was the actual phone. It was at the end of our road so it was we had our own phone anyway.

The different telephone kiosks : the changing face of public call boxes

The different telephone kiosks : the changing face of public call boxes
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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.

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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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