Transcript for A short history of public telephone kiosks and people's experiences of using them


When the first public telephone kiosks came into use in the early 1880s most people had never even seen a telephone before, let alone used one!

For many first-time users, making a call from one of the new phone boxes was an overwhelming experience. One contemporary account reported that some people:


Perspire and fidget about in the cabinet the whole time they are speaking and emerge…in a state of semi-collapse.


And there were those who had no idea how to use a phone – they’d put the telephone mouthpiece to their ear and when they couldn’t hear anything they tried to unscrew it. Others stood and bellowed into the earpiece. Eddie Donald remembers being told about the first telephone kiosk in the village in Scotland where his father grew up:

Eddie Donald:

when one farmer’s wife was in need of the doctor I think through delivery of a child erm they sent the farmer down to phone for the doctor and when he came back the doctor didn’t appear and they asked if he had phoned and he’d gone in the phone box and he’d shouted for the doctor - he had no idea!


Early telephone kiosks came in all shapes and sizes. There wasn’t a standard style. One design looked like it had come straight out of a woodland fairy tale, while others were more conventional wooden booths. Along the seafront in Eastbourne the kiosks had thatched roofs – they resembled army sentry boxes with a large mushroom on top.

It was only after the General Post Office took over the ever-expanding telephone network in 1912 that they decided phone boxes should have a uniform look and in 1921 the kiosk number one - or K1 - was first seen on our streets. A later competition was held to come up with a design for a new K2 kiosk, which was won by the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. This appeared in 1927 and was the first incarnation our famous red phone box, with a refined version – the K6 – being introduced for the silver jubilee of King George V in 1936. The K6 kiosk was then launched nationwide and has since become a British design icon, along with red letterboxes and double-decker Routemaster buses. According to the Lord Mayor of the City of London:


Most tourists take their first picture in the UK outside a red phone box.


And red phone boxes have appeared in numerous films. One can be seen in the Harry Potter film, ‘The Order of the Phoenix’. - it’s the entrance to the Ministry of Magic.

Apart from their place in fiction telephone kiosks are mainly remembered for the role they played in people’s daily lives. – They allowed everyone to have access to a telephone, young and old alike.

By the 1950s many people still didn’t have a telephone in their own home, but making a local call from a phone box was cheap and easy, as David Stonier remembers:

David Stonier:

By the time I was in my mid-teens I was a regular user of the phone box to talk to one of my friends. …you could put two old pence in to make a local call and you could literally talk for hours and we used to do that. The main constraint as far as I was concerned was how big the queue was that was forming outside the phone box.


Malcolm Wright’s family didn’t have a home phone installed until the 1970s!

Malcolm Wright:

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. …I can still hear that in my head, the sound of the coins going in.


Katherine Pell has fond memories of playing in the phone boxes at the end of her street when she was a child in the 1970s:

Katherine Pell:

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 operators played a key role in dealing with emergency calls:

Annette Cooper (Operator):

…as soon as you got a an emergency call the supervisor used to plug in because she’d have to listen as well … when you put it through you’d also listen to the call … throughout while they were relaying their message to whoever they were ringing … just in case there was a problem I suppose and they wanted verification of what had been said...


One member of the public found herself in an uncomfortable situation -


Late one night, a household of students had a brick thrown through their living room window. Terrified, and without a phone of their own to call the police on, they linked hands and formed a human chain all the way to the telephone box at the corner of their street, so that the call could be made.

While crime and the reporting of crime did take place in phone boxes, they were more often the setting for affairs of the heart, as Andrew Hurley, a telephone engineer, discovered.


…I was working on the kiosk with another chappie and he was going into the top of the kiosk to do some electrical work and he said “if there’s a five pound note in the top, it’s mine!” and I wasn’t so bothered about a five pound note, and “so, well, you’re on” and he came down laughing and he had a piece of paper in his hand and it turned out to be a love letter… and what the couple were doing were using the gaps in the roof to exchange letters and, unfortunately, the time before this letter had been written, they’d fallen out and it was a letter to say “please get in touch”.

The wind must have got in and blown the letter into the enclosed space in the top of the kiosk…


The public telephone kiosk holds a special place in the memories of generations of users.

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