London as a city probably has more landmarks and features instantly recognisable world wide than any other city in the world. While some of these are major buildings and monuments some are items of a rather more mundane nature. Everyone knows about London’s red buses, its black taxis and the Tube.
Anyone who has visited London, or the UK generally, will also be familiar with the country’s famous red telephone boxes and letter boxes. Indeed both items have been exported worldwide and can still be seen in active service in most of the few remaining outposts of Empire. I must say my recent sighting of the red letter letter box at Georgetown’s Post Office on Ascension Island rekindled nostalgic memories as I journeyed towards the UK.
I digress, not unusual for me.
Here I want to tell you a little about the British telephone box or more specifically about the red ones commissioned by the General Post Office (GPO) which managed telecommunications prior to its split into British Telecom and the Post Office in 1981 and the privatisation of British Telecom in 1984.
The first thing to note is that while they all look the same they are not.
In 1921 Britain’s first standard kiosk (phone box), the imaginatively named Kiosk No 1 (abbreviated to K1) was designed by the GPO itself. While there were over time a few K1 models it was not especially well liked and a competition was held to find a replacement.
A number of designs were received and the then recently established Royal Fine Art Commission was summoned into action. The Commission was formed in May 1924 by an Act of Parliament with the purpose of examining questions of “public amenity or artistic importance referred to it by government departments and other…bodies”.
A design by Giles Gilbert Scott was selected by the Commission and K2 came into being. Over 10,000 K2’s were installed mainly in London and of these just over 200 remain today. The remaining K2’s are Grade 2 heritage listed structures. My second photograph is of a K2. K2s were costly to produce and not rolled out beyond London. The prototype K2 box can be found in the entrance arch of the Royal Academy at Picadilly. It is made of wood. Is it real? I don’t know.
Various other largely unsuccessful models ( again imaginatively named – K3, K4 and K5) followed the K2.
In 1935 King George V celebrated his Silver Jubilee and to commemorate this the GPO commissioned the now Sir Giles Gilbert Scott to design a new kiosk – K6 eventuated. Approximately 60,000 of these were installed across the UK and around 10,000 exist and it is this K6 which has come to represent the famous red telephone box. My main picture above shows two K6s outside the British Museum. Just over 2,000 K6s are heritage listed, of which more than 90%, are actually K6 variants.
The last K6s were installed in 1968. Prior to the breakup of the GPO in 1981 K7 came out (only a handful installed) as did the rather plain K8 (around 11,000). British Telecom produced a rather pedestrian offering in 1985 and installed around 100,000 up to 1996 by which stage the advent of mobile phones and increased vandalism had sounded the death knell for further public phones of the street variety, at least. What remains now seem to be more there for street decoration than making telephone calls.
It is possible that you will come across a black telephone box when you visit London (picture three). These are in fact painted K6s. In the 1980s British Telecom sold a number of kiosks to the private sector but retained its monopoly on the red colour and thus had them painted black.
Should this review have excited an interest in Britain’s red telephone boxes you should start your further research here – http://www.the-telephone-box.co.uk/. Additionally this site includes detailed pictures pointing out the distinguishing features of various boxes for any prospective phone box hunters among you.
This is the last blog entry in a group (loop) of entries on London. I trust you have enjoyed reading this group of reviews and invite you to partake of another of the loops on my “Travel Loop” page, by clicking HERE.