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.