How Red Phones Become an iconic image of Britain
It’s hard to imagine a more potent symbol of Britain’s identity than the red telephone box. It feels as if they have always dotted the nation, a reminder of the stability of the establishment, their design obvious and unchallenged. But, in fact, the creation of the public phonebox (or, more correctly, ‘kiosk’) was rather more problematic, as Nigel Linge and Andy Sutton explain in their new book, The British Phonebox.
The early years of the phone network saw independent companies providing services locally, and it wasn’t until they were brought under the umbrella of the National Telephone Company in 1892 that a network of lines connecting cities was created. The first public call offices allowed access to non-subscribers for a small fee, along with free calls to the fire service and for medical emergencies, yet bore little resemblance to the red kiosks we know and love today.
And neither were they universally welcomed, with one Edinburgh subscriber grumbling
that: “Any person off the street may, for a trifling payment, ring up any subscriber and insist on holding a conversation with him.”
When the telephone service was taken into full public ownership under the Post Office (GPO) in 1912, it was time for a standardised design. The K1 (‘k’ for kiosk) was born, but was never able to win hearts. By 1923, competing designs were presented and, although none were accepted, the Royal Fine Arts Commission held a design competition in the following year. Three famous architects – Sir John Burnet, Sir Robert Lorimer and Giles Gilbert Scott – were invited to participate. Scott’s design with moulded columns, back-lit rectangular sign and a royal crown above was selected. Britain’s second standardized kiosk, K2, was too large and expensive for general use, yet still sparked our national obsession. Tweaked designs followed but the GPO still couldn’t settle on a truly universal design.
Luckily, George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935 provided a high-profile opportunity to remedy this. Scott’s K6, known as the Jubilee kiosk, would become ubiquitous thanks to the Jubilee Concession Scheme, which provided a phonebox for every town and village that had a post office – more than 1,000 were installed across Britain.
Yet, at first, the K6 still wasn’t entirely embraced and the colour proved an issue. When the question was raised in the House of Lords in 1947, the Postmaster General gathered the Royal Fine Arts Commission and various councils together to examine six kiosks painted different colours and settle the matter once and for all. The verdict? The boxes would be Post Office red. The red box became part of the national sense of identity for decades. By the turn of the 21st century, mobile technology fundamentally changed the public’s relationship with telephones, yet Scott’s design lives on in the national consciousness and our nostalgia for an earlier iteration of Great Britain. Indeed, in many places, these landmarks have found second lives as tiny cafés, shops and libraries, and as enduring testament to the power of good design.