/ Technology

The big red telephone box – dead at 75?

Abandoned red phone box

When a press release popped into my inbox celebrating 75 years of the iconic red telephone box, I confess to becoming a little misty-eyed, if only for a second. But do phone boxes still have a place on Britain’s streets?

To mark the anniversary BT has donated one of the red boxes; also know as the K6, to The Design Museum where it will sit alongside the Anglepoise lamp, road signs, traffic lights, the candlestick telephone and the Moulton bicycle.

There’s something quintessentially British about the red phone box. It reminds me of my youth; days when I walked miles to find one to call for help when my car broke down or popping to the phone box to call my Mum from my university digs.

The demise of the telephone box

When the telephone box was commissioned to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of the coronation of King George V in 1936, 8,000 of them sprung up across the UK. That rose to 70,000 by the end of 1968 when production ceased.

Today, the humble phone box is largely redundant.

There are now just 11,000 traditional red boxes across the UK out of a total number of 51,000 kiosks. Calls have dropped by more than 80% in the last five years and now more than 64% of phone kiosks lose money, according to BT.

Mobile phones have killed the kiosk

The downturn isn’t surprising. As I was writing this a colleague told me how he’d heard a statistic that there are now twice as many mobile phones as people on the planet.

The rise of mobiles, and of course smartphones, means few have a need for a public phone. These phones are every bit as style-conscious as the red telephone box – as my colleague Arlene Martin wrote recently, some claim you can tell a lot about someone by their phone.

Mobiles are a lot more flexible, too. They’re portable, you can choose your own personal payment plan and if you’ve got a smartphone you can do so much more – download apps, pick up emails and surf the web.

Thinking out of the red box

The red box was a far from perfect solution; they were prone to vandalism and abuse, smelled of wee and attracted postcards advertising “adult” services.

But, mobiles aren’t perfect either and are susceptible to poor reception issues, notably with the iPhone 4. Then there are those people who insist on shouting into their mobiles on a train. Often, I’ve wished they were confined to a red box.

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t be without my mobile, but it would be sad to see public phones disappear altogether. Thankfully, BT is running an Adopt a Kiosk scheme allowing local communities to preserve the red box for as little as £1.

Already communities have filled red boxes with life saving defibrillation machines, turned them into micro-museums, art galleries and even a pub.

Hopefully, this will see the red boxes live on for many years to come. I can only wonder whether Apple’s supposedly iconic iPhone will endure for as long.

pickle says:
25 August 2011

Yes, I have heard of alternative uses for the red phone boxes – we have one in Dorset which is full of books – a free library where you can leave unwanted books too…

Sophie Gilbert says:
26 August 2011

I don’t see in what way the red boxes are any more prone to vandalism and abuse than the montrosities that have replaced them (unless becasue they’re red they will be like a rag to a bull in the vandals’ tiny minds?). I don’t see these monstrosities making their way to a design museum (worthy of their name) at any time in future either.

BT only got rid of the red boxes out of sheer greed because maintaining them was eating into their (then) huge profits. I agree with Bill Bryson when he says, “I have long suspected that the British may have too much heritage for their own good. They tend to regard it in the same way other nations regard their rainforests, as an inexhaustible resource. But if there is one thing that rainforests and red phone booths have in common it is that once they are gone they are gone forever.”

According to him BT were made to keep a certain number of red boxes thanks to a public outcry. Let’s have another outcry if BT dare again try to get rid of them.

Also, not all of us have mobile phones surgically attached to our ears, so if we’ve forgotten our mobile phones, which indeed aren’t perfect in the first place, phone boxes come in handy. And if they warm the heart and are pleasing to the eye, all the better.

I cycled past a phone box yesterday that had a notice on it, “Coins not accepted”, or something like that, perhaps it was an Adopt a Kiosk one….

Phones that take coins are more likely to be vandalised, so it will take cards instead.

I was thinking about red phone boxes and their potential demise a few days ago before reading this article. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re talking about the demise of the red pillar boxes before too long.

I would love one of these red phone kiosks in my garden.
I have seen a few abandoned and neglected, and not working.
Is there some kind of law that allows people to take them away for personal use?
Maybe buy them from BT, or the local council?
I would pay for one if the price was reasonable.

anne-marie says:
11 September 2012

I too would love to know the laws on this for the same reason as daz…

There are companies that sell english heritage telephone kiosks – try putting put that phrase into google and see what comes up.

anne-marie says:
12 September 2012

The prices these companies charge are massive. If the village adopts a phone box does the kiosk have to stay in the same place or can it be moved?