The ringing red icon – a whistle-stop look at telephone boxes

You may wonder why a blog is being written by The British Postal Museum & Archive about telephone kiosks. The reason behind it is that 100 years ago, in 1912, the General Post Office (GPO) took over the majority of the UK’s private telephone service – and were responsible for the telephone service until responsibility for this was taken on by the newly formed British Telecom in the 1980’s.

Street furniture

With the increasing popularity of the telephone in the early 20th century, it was only a matter of time before telephones kiosks were seen in the street. Telephone kiosks based inside hotels, stations and other handy places already existed and were known as Silence cabinets.

Those placed on the streets took on various, often ornate guises. The GPO needed to develop its own street furniture in order to open up the service to the general public but also advertise the GPO simultaneously. In 1920, the first telephone kiosk under the GPO was introduced, the K1 (Kiosk 1). Whilst K1’s remained on our streets for many years they were made out of concrete, rather than the GPO’s preferred medium of cast iron. Although relatively cheap to produce they were not seen as an attractive addition to the streets. Some councils even tried putting thatched roofs on top of K1’s to improve their appearance! Though the K1 was never a permanent solution thousands were produced with a handful surviving today.

Grand style statement

K2 telephone kiosk and pillar box.

K2 telephone kiosk and pillar box.

The GPO’s quest for a telephone kiosk that was hard wearing and aesthetically pleasing was answered in 1924 when architect Giles Gilbert Scott designed the cast iron K2. GPO officials deemed that the now iconic K2 was to be red – standing proud as the colour of pillar boxes.

The K2’s domed roof was believed to echo the ornate design of the tomb of Sir John Soane, a fellow architect. The K2 was beautifully designed and functional. Rain water was directed off by vertical grooves down its sides. The ventilated crown at the top was handily placed far enough away from the speaker so that their conversation could not be heard outside, whilst still providing fresh air. Another design feature included was a sloped floor… to offset possible unsavoury use as a urinal. Many K2’s remain in the street today, predominantly in London. This was partly the downfall of the K2 – it was too expensive to produce in bulk to send out across the country. All K2’s today are listed.

Everything to everyone

Let us pass swiftly by the K3, the cream concrete version of the K2, (although there is one still inside London Zoo), and only briefly mention the K4, designed in 1925. The K4 tried to be everything to everyone – a combination telephone kiosk, stamp vending machine and post box. Sadly, it was not practical. Making a phone call in a kiosk that was next to a noisy road (enabling a quick collection of letters by the postal worker) simply did not work. An ideal site for a kiosk was not necessarily the same for a post box. Only 50 K4’s were made.

Two views of the K4 telephone kiosk, currently on show at our Museum Store.

Two views of the K4 telephone kiosk, currently on show at our Museum Store.

Triumphant (and cheaper)

I will also miss out altogether the prototype K5 and come instead to 1935 when the now Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed the K6. The triumphant (and cheaper) alternative to the K2 had been found.

The K6, designed in King George V’s Silver Jubilee year and referred to as the Jubilee Kiosk, eventually hit our streets in 1936. At least 60,000 were produced and can still be seen up and down the country today. Many councils disliked the red colour and as long as the bars across the doors remained red, the box itself could be painted a more muted colour such as grey or green.

The K6 was a slimmer, less fancy version of the K2; and, of course, it was practical. The central horizontal panes of glass on the doors of the K6 were elongated- to allow internal advertising to be viewed through the doors. In short, the K6 was a triumph.

Reflecting a newer, post-war era

The K8 telephone kiosk.

The K8 telephone kiosk.

The K6 stood the test of time. It was not until the early 1960’s when another prototype, the K7, was introduced, and it was 1968 when a successor, the K8, was introduced as an alternative. The K8, the last of the cast iron kiosks, was designed by Bruce Martin. Glazed on 3 sides with a large single glass panel per side, it reflected a newer, post-war era. Gone is the crown, coinciding with discussions about whether the Queen’s head should be removed from stamps, and also with the crown being removed from pillar boxes.

An end to kiosks under the GPO

From 1981 BT took over the telephone communication service and the GPO’s involvement ceased. The kiosks and the telephone service still remain an important part of the BPMA’s story, however, highlighting the visible face of the GPO and its importance in the fabric of communication. The BPMA’s treasure trove Museum Store in Debden holds examples of many of the kiosks discussed in this article. The only way to easily distinguish between the kiosks is to come and view them side by side at our Store! Come and decide on your favourite- mine is the K2.

Dominique Gardner – Exhibitions Officer

See our website for the schedule and booking details for Guided Store tours, or alternatively please contact Curator Emma Harper for enquiries about bespoke tours emma.harper@postalheritage.org.uk.

The National Telephone Kiosk Collection is held at the Avoncroft Museum near Bromsgrove.

One response to “The ringing red icon – a whistle-stop look at telephone boxes

  1. I’m fortunate enough to have seen several k2′s in maida vale – my favourite too!…

    Really looking forward to going on a guided tour soon.

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