End of an Era – A Brief History of Britain’s Famous Red Telephone Box

The background

In 1921, the first telephone kiosk was introduced to Britain, and was given the imaginative name of Kiosk No 1 (abbreviated to K1). Whist the introduction of the first telephone kiosk was welcomed by many, the design of the kiosk was considered to be conservative and old fashioned. Two years after the introduction of K1 there were two independent schemes established in order to redesign the K1, however, it wasn’t until 1924, and the introduction of the Royal Fine Art Commission that the redesign project was brought together. The Royal Fine Art Commission were responsible for examining questions of public amenity or artistic importance referred to it by government departments or other bodies, and as part or this responsibility, they invited three leading architects Sir Robert Lorimer, Sir John Burnet and Giles Gilbert Scott to contribute designs.

The birth of the red telephone box

In May 1925, wooden mockups of three kiosks designed by the architects were placed behind the National Gallery in London, and the Royal Fine Art Commission eventually recommended the design of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The new red kiosk was named Kiosk number 2 (K2), and was installed in London primarily. The fact that very few K2 kiosks were installed outside of London was heavily linked with the costs and size, which ultimately meant that the GPO (General Post Office) reverted back to the old K1 kiosk as an interim solution with some slight variations in appearance. In the following years Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was tasked with designing a smaller, more cost effective K3 in 1929, and the GPO even engineered and implemented their own rather unsuccessful combined telephone kiosk and stamp machine / post box.

The Jubilee kiosk

It was in 1935 that Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was commissioned by the GPO to design a new kiosk to celebrate the silver jubilee of King George V. This new kiosk (K6) was designed with the K2 as a clear influence, but perhaps most importantly, it was smaller and more cost effective – two issues that prevented the K2 being implemented nationally. As a consequence, the K6 was sought to be installed in most towns and cities with a Post Office.

The decline of the red telephone box

It was in 1969 when the GPO was nationalised, becoming the post office that marked the beginning of the end for the GPO implemented kiosks. The Post Office was ultimately split into two distinct business by 1981: the Post Office and British Telecommunications, with the latter privatised by 1984. Following the privatisation, BT had announced a large scale modernisation scheme that would see the introduction of new modern kiosks, which would inevitably lead to the removal of many older kiosks. As a result of the removal of many kiosks, many individuals and organisations sought to highlight the plight of the older kiosks, which ultimately led to statutory intervention for the protection of older kiosks. Kiosks were therefore listed as Grade II by English Heritage as being nationally important and of special interest.

The current position

The significant increase in calls being made from personal mobile telephones has meant that many kiosks are now unprofitable for BT to operate, and there are now around 11,000 kiosks that remain in service. BT have now introduced an ‘Adopt a Kiosk’ scheme that allows local authorities to safeguard the protection of underused and unprofitable kiosks to ensure that they remain part of British culture.

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