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The red telephone box, a telephone kiosk for a public telephone designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, was a familiar sight on the streets of the United Kingdom, Malta, Bermuda and Gibraltar. Despite a reduction in their numbers in recent years, the traditional British red telephone box can still be seen in many places throughout the UK, and in current or former British colonies around the world. The colour red was chosen to make them easy to spot.
From 1926 onwards, the fascias of the kiosks were emblazoned with a prominent crown, representing the British government. The red phone box is often seen as an iconic British symbol throughout the world.
The paint colour used is known as "cherry red" and is defined by a British Standard, BS 381C-539.
The first standard public telephone kiosk introduced by the United Kingdom Post Office was produced in concrete in 1920 and was designated K1 (Kiosk No.1). This design was not of the same family as the familiar red telephone boxes. Very few high-quality examples remain. One example is located in Trinity market in Kingston-upon-Hull where it is still in use.
The red telephone box was the result of a competition in 1924 to design a kiosk that would be acceptable to the London Metropolitan Boroughs which had hitherto resisted the Post Office's effort to erect K1 kiosks on their streets.
The Royal Fine Art Commission was instrumental in the choice of the British standard kiosk. Because of widespread dissatisfaction with the GPO's design, the Metropolitan Boroughs Joint Standing Committee organised a competition for a superior one in 1923, but the results were disappointing. The Birmingham Civic Society then produced a design of its own—in reinforced concrete—but it was informed by the Director of Telephones that the design produced by the Office of the Engineer-in-Chief was preferred; as the Architects’ Journal commented, 'no one with any knowledge of design could feel anything but indignation with the pattern that seems to satisfy the official mind.' The Birmingham Civic Society did not give up and, with additional pressure from the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Town Planning Institute and the Royal Academy, the Postmaster General was forced to think again; and the result was that the RFAC organised a limited competition.
The organisers invited entries from three respected architects and, along with the designs from the Post Office and from The Birmingham Civic Society, the Fine Arts Commission judged the competition and selected the design submitted by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The invitation had come at the time when Scott had been made a trustee of Sir John Soane's Museum—his design for the competition was in the classical style, but topped with a dome reminiscent of Soane's self-designed mausoleums in St Pancras' Old Churchyard and Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. (The original wooden prototypes of the entries were later put into public service at under-cover sites around London. That of Scott's design is the only one known to survive and is still where it was placed all those years ago, in the left entrance arch to the Royal Academy.)
The Post Office chose to make Scott's winning design in cast iron (Scott had suggested mild steel) and to paint it red (Scott had suggested silver, with a "greeny-blue" interior) and, with other minor changes of detail, it was brought into service as the Kiosk No.2 or K2. From 1926 K2 was deployed in and around London and the K1 continued to be erected elsewhere.
K3, introduced in 1929, again by Gilbert Scott was similar to K2 but was constructed from concrete and intended for nationwide use. Cheaper than the K2, it was still significantly more costly than the K1 and so that remained the choice for low-revenue sites. The standard colour scheme for both the K1 and the K3 was cream, with red glazing bars. A rare surviving K3 kiosk can be seen beside the Penguin Beach exhibit at ZSL London Zoo, where it has been protected from the weather by the projecting eaves and recently restored to its original colour scheme,
K4 (designed by the Post Office Engineering Department in 1927) incorporated a post box and machines for buying postage stamps on the exterior. Only 50 kiosks of this design were built.
K5 was a plywood construction introduced in 1934 and designed to be assembled and dismantled and used at exhibitions.
In 1935 the K6 (kiosk number six) was designed to commemorate the silver jubilee of King George V. It went into production in 1936. K6 was the first red telephone kiosk to be extensively used outside London, and many thousands were deployed in virtually every town and city, replacing most of the existing kiosks and establishing thousands of new sites. It has become a British icon, although it was not universally loved at the start. The red colour caused particular local difficulties and there were many requests for less visible colours. The red that is now much loved was then anything but, and the Post Office was forced into allowing a less strident grey with red glazing bars scheme for areas of natural and architectural beauty. Ironically, some of these areas that have preserved their telephone boxes have now painted them red.
With continued demand for K6 kiosks, siting them was more widespread than ever before. A purpose built kiosk trailer was designed from 1953 to reduce the running costs of cranes.
The K6 was the most prolific kiosk in the UK and its growth, from 1935, can be seen from the BT archives:
|1930–||8,000||(K2 & K3 added)|
|1970–||70,000||(K8 introduced in 1968)|
Phoneboxes K2 to K6 were produced at the Lion Foundry in Kirkintilloch until 1984.
From 1926 onwards, the fascias of Post Office kiosks were emblazoned with a prominent crown, representing the British government (of which the Post Office was an agency). The design was initially the "Tudor Crown", then in widespread use in government service. The same crown was used in all parts of the United Kingdom and British Empire. On the K2, the design was pierced through the ironwork, and acted as a ventilation hole. On the K6, a separate ventilation slot was provided, and the crown was embossed in bas-relief.
In 1953 the new Queen, Elizabeth II, decided to replace the Tudor Crown in all contexts with a representation of the actual crown generally used for British coronations, the St Edward's Crown. This new symbol therefore began to appear on the fascias of K6 kiosks.
St Edward's Crown was initially used on kiosks in all parts of the United Kingdom. However, from 1955, in Scotland, the Post Office opted to use a representation of the actual Crown of Scotland, in line with a wider policy for government agencies in Scotland. To accommodate the two different designs of crown on K6 kiosks, the fascia sections were henceforth cast with a slot in them, into which a plate bearing the appropriate crown was inserted before the roof section was fitted.
The crowns were originally painted the same red as the rest of the box. However, since the early 1990s, when the heritage value of red kiosks began to be widely recognised, British Telecom has picked out the crowns (on both K2s and K6s) in gold paint.
Kiosks installed in Kingston upon Hull were not fitted with a crown, as those kiosks were installed by the Hull Corporation (later Hull City Council, then Kingston Communications). All boxes in Hull were also painted in cream.
In 1959 architect Neville Conder was commissioned to design a new box. The K7 design went no further than the prototype stage. K8 was introduced in 1968 designed by Bruce Martin. It was used primarily for new sites; around 11000 were installed, replacing earlier models only when they needed relocating or had been damaged beyond repair. The K8 retained a red colour scheme, but it was a different shade of red: a slightly brighter 'Poppy Red', which went on to be the standard colour across all kiosks.
The K8 featured a single large glass panel on two sides and the door. While improving visibility and illumination inside the box, these were vulnerable to damage. Only 12 remain—most having been replaced with the KX100—making the K8 as rare as the K3.
In 1980, in preparation for privatisation, Post Office Telephones was rebranded as British Telecom (BT). In February 1981, it was announced that all the red telephone boxes would be repainted yellow, which was BT's new corporate colour. There was an immediate public outcry; the Daily Mail launched a campaign "against the yellow peril" and questions were asked in Parliament. In the House of Lords, the Earl of Gowrie, the Minister of State for Employment, called on BT "to abandon this ridiculous scheme". In the House of Commons, Mark Lennox-Boyd MP asked the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, if she would treat the decision "with the greatest possible dismay". Mrs Thatcher, who was responsible for the privatisation, would only say that she could "see my honourable Friend's point". Shortly afterwards, BT announced that only 90 of the 77,000 remaining traditional boxes had been painted different colours "as an experiment" and that no final decision had been reached.
After privatisation in 1982, British Telecom introduced the KX100, a more utilitarian design, which began to replace most of the existing boxes. The KX100 was one of a series of designs, including the wheelchair-accessible open-sided KX200, and the triangular-footprint KX300. In January 1985, Nick Kane, the Director of Marketing for BT Local Communications Services announced that the old red telephone boxes would be replaced because they "...no longer meet the needs of our customers. Few people like to use them. They are expensive and difficult to clean and maintain and cannot be used by handicapped people". This time, BT did not relent, despite another vociferous campaign. Many local authorities used legislation designed to protect buildings of architectural or historic importance to keep old telephone boxes in prominent locations and around 2,000 of them were given listed status. Several thousand others were left on low-revenue mostly rural sites but many thousands of recovered K2 and K6 boxes were sold off. Some kiosks have been converted to be used as shower cubicles in private homes. In Kingston upon Thames a number of old K6 boxes have been used to form a work of art resembling a row of fallen dominoes. It is estimated that 11,000 traditional red telephone boxes remain in public service. The KX100 PLUS, introduced in 1996 featured a domed roof reminiscent of the familiar K2 and K6. Subsequent designs have departed significantly from the old style red boxes.
Little-used red telephone boxes can be adopted by parish councils in England for other uses. Some examples are shown below. The kiosk may be used for any legal purpose other than telephony and the contract of sale includes the following clause 5.5.4:
The buyer shall covenant not to sell, lease or license the Goods to a competitor to the Seller nor to permit a competitor to install electronic communications apparatus (as defined in schedule 2 of the Telecommunications Act 1984) within the Goods or itself (as the Buyer) shall not install, provide or operate any form of electronic communications apparatus (as defined in schedule 2 of the Telecommunications Act 1984) within the Goods.
It is unclear why BT wishes to prohibit the kiosk from being re-used for electronic communications and why the regulator, Ofcom, has allowed it. In the USA, there is an active movement seeking new telecom uses for little-used telephone booths, e.g. as wi-fi hotspots.
During 2009 a K6 in the village of Westbury-sub-Mendip in Somerset was converted into a library or book exchange replacing the services of the mobile library which no longer visits the village. Similar libraries now exist in the villages of North Cadbury in Somerset, Great Budworth in Cheshire, Little Shelford and Upwood in Cambridgeshire, and some 150 other locations.
Also in 2009, the town of Settle in North Yorkshire established the Gallery on the Green in a K6, which had been adopted by the Parish Council. The Gallery has featured a range of exhibitions (see the online gallery on the website) of both notable artists and photographers (Tessa Bunney, Martin Parr, Mariana Cook) and local community groups. Its most famous contributor was Brian May, with his stereoscopic photography show 'A Village Lost and Found'.
In 2010, in the village of Brookwood, Surrey, a project was initiated to restore and preserve the sole remaining K6 kiosk in the village. The kiosk had been adopted by Woking Borough Council in 2009 and a group of residents set about restoring the kiosk. This was achieved through private donations and sponsorship from local businesses. A blog detailed the restoration.
Following a competition by a Girl Guide unit in 2011 to find a use for their local disused telephone box in Glendaruel, Argyll, it has been fitted with a defibrillator. The equipment can only be accessed by following instructions from the Scottish Ambulance Service during an emergency call. The conversion of the box was paid for by BT under the Adopt A Kiosk scheme and the defibrillator was supplied by the Community Heartbeat Trust. It is one of five similar telephone box conversions in the United Kingdom.
Several of these distinctive telephone boxes have been installed on the Norman, Oklahoma, campus of the University of Oklahoma, where they continue to serve their originally intended function. Elsewhere in the United States, a few have also been installed in downtown Glenview, Illinois. There is also one outside the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. A red telephone box can also be found on the Courthouse Square in Oxford, Mississippi. There are two in use in Tennessee. One is located on the square in Collierville, Tennessee, and the other is located next to Pepper Palace in The Village Shops shopping center in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. In Massachusetts, there is also a red telephone box in the student centre of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition, there is a red telephone box outside the town building (town hall/police station/post office) in the tiny mountain town of Rowe, Massachusetts, which is an original installation dating back to when the town of Rowe first got telephone service. Two red telephone boxes are on display at the World Showcase area of Disney's Epcot in Orlando, Florida, one located in the United Kingdom area and one in the Canada area. One is on display at English Gardens a Place for Weddings in Winter Park close to downtown Orlando.An original K6 can also be found outside of the Allied Building in Treasure Island, Florida. There are also a few red boxes at the Ellenton Outlet Mall, just off I-75, near Bradenton, Florida. These still have their original STD code cards in place and have working US payphone equipment. There is a red telephone box in Westminster Maryland on the corner of West Main Street and Rt. 27 out side of Johanson's Dining House.
Red telephone boxes are also found across Malta, Gozo, parts of the Caribbean such as Antigua, Barbados, as well as in Cyprus, showing that the colonial influence is still present. Some of those telephone booths are being used as internet kiosks. A box can also be found in the centre of the town of Chinon, France  and another in the German town of Bad Münstereifel.
Australia and New Zealand each had their own design of red telephone box, and some examples have been preserved in sensitive or historic sites. A brief and colourful campaign was run to "save" the red telephone box in New Zealand by the Wizard of New Zealand.
Kingston upon Hull was the only area of the UK not under the Post Office monopoly, with telephones being under the control of the Corporation of Hull (city council). In Hull and the surrounding area this meant that the telephone boxes were painted cream and had the crown omitted. The Hull telephone system was subsequently privatised and is now operated by Kingston Communications. Kingston Communications (KC) have removed many of the famous cream K6 boxes circa 2007. An outraged public complained that they were losing part of their heritage. KC have retained approx 125 K6s in use today. KC allocated limited numbers (approximately 1,000) to be sold to the general public, and many were sold off before they had even been removed from service.
The telephone services of the Crown dependencies were split at various times from the GPO.
Jersey Telecom used locally made kiosks, painted in cream and yellow.
Scottish sculptor David Mach created the permanent public work Out of Order in 1989 in Kingston, London made from K6 telephone boxes. Twelve telephone boxes, first one upright, the rest gradually falling over like dominoes. It was originally intended that the first upright box was to contain a working telephone.
In 2012, BT helped celebrate the 25th anniversary of the free-phone charity ChildLine by commissioning eighty artists to design and decorate full-sized K6 replicas. These were displayed in public spaces across London and then auctioned by Sotheby's as BT Artboxes. Artists included Peter Blake, Willie Christie, David Mach, Denis Masi, Zaha Hadid and Ian Ritchie.
Lightweight replica K6 telephone kiosks are manufactured as flat-packs by commercial vendors and are shipped around the world for installation in such places as bars, restaurants and offices.
K1 Telephone Box, Lowestoft Transport Museum
Scott's K2 wooden prototype is a working telephone box in the left entrance arch to the Royal Academy of Arts, London
K2 with a London double-decker bus and Big Ben in the background
K4 Post Office in Warrington - the vertical panels either side of the letter-slot originally housed stamp vending machines
K2 (right) and K6 together St John's Wood High Street.
A green K6 box near Stokesley in North Yorkshire
K8 box at Amersham station
KX100 in Hapsford, Cheshire
Preserved Kingston-upon-Hull crown-less K6 in original Hull Corporation livery in Hull Transport Museum
K8 housing an internal telephone at Golders Green tube station
A K2 box at the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens
K6s in St. John's, Antigua
K6 in Valletta, Malta
Crown-less K6s in the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus
K6 in Petah Tikva, Israel
Queens crown K6 at Fifth Street Public Market in Eugene, Oregon
University of Oklahoma - red K6 in front of Copeland Hall.
A replica of a K6 in a British themed shop window in Hong Kong
Two imitation British red telephone boxes at Brussels-South railway station
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