The Red Phone Box and Post Box Appreciation Society

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the telephone kiosk. The first model (K1), dating from 1921, resembled a soldier’s sentry box, made of cream-painted concrete with a red-painted wooden door and glass panes in the two sides (surviving examples can be found by searching the National Heritage List for England; ditto for all but one of the successive kiosk designs).

The red phone box is seen as a British icon; visitors to Parliament Square love to photograph themselves using or emerging from the kiosk – in this case a K2, with Soanian segmental vaulted roof and glazing reminiscent of a Georgian sash window, reeded strip surrounds, and classical paterae. The perforated crown, the symbol of the GPO, is pierced by ventilation holes.

K2 was born of a competition: versions resembling a Chinese pagoda and a birdcage were rejected in favour of Giles Gilbert Scott’s winning neo-classical design, inspired by the tomb that Sir John Soane designed for himself in London’s Old St Pancras churchyard. Scott wanted the kiosk to be painted silver, but the General Post Office (GPO) chose red, to match the colour of its pillar boxes.

K3 was a cheaper concrete version of K2. Dating from 1929, there appears to be only one survivor, whose address is ‘underneath the portal of the Parrot House, London Zoological Gardens’. K4 was an interesting and equally rare type, with an external stamp-selling machine and post box forming the rear panel. K5 was a cheaper timber version of K3 and, not surprisingly, a search for surviving examples returns a message ‘0 records found’.

Because of the large number of listed telephone kiosks, Giles Gilbert Scott is the architect with the greatest number of entries in the National Heritage List for England. Scott was a trustee of Sir John Soane’s Museum when he designed the K2, and he modelled the domed roof of the kiosk on Soane’s tomb.

The most common survivor is K6, a cheaper and sleeker version of K2, designed to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of George V in 1935, the year before the king died. This version continued to be installed until 1968, and aficionados like to spot the different crowns used in the space below the Soanesque roof: the Tudor crown, the Crown of St Edward (introduced for the reign of our present monarch), and the Crown of Scotland (introduced north of the border in 1955 following protests over the use of English emblems).

K7, made of aluminium, never went beyond the protype stage, and K8 had a flat roof and dispensed with glazing bars. The proposal to paint all the kiosks yellow following the GPO’s privatisation was greeted by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with ‘great dismay’ and dropped. Since then, it has been the fate of many kiosks to be sold to private collectors (and variously used as shower cubicles, drinks cabinets, or garden sheds) or adopted by community groups as libraries, shops, art galleries, or defibrillator cabinets.

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Text: C Catling.