The Post Office Red colour is synonymous with London Tourism. The three quarter ton telephone boxes are perhaps the most iconic for London, up there with double decker buses and policemen’s hats.
But Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of the famed K6 design, did not approve of the red colour. He preferred a silvery tone and advised local authorities to use grey. However, the Post Office had its own brand colour and in keeping with its standardised mail pillar boxes the choice was already made. The paint colour is known as “currant red” and is defined by BS 381C-539.
When the General Post Office (GPO) was split in 1981 under Margaret Thatcher’s government as part of the sell off of flagship nationalised entities, British Telecom (BT) came into being.
One of BT’s universal service obligations and part of its current obligation under the Communications Act 2003 to provide general access and interconnection to the telephone network, includes the provision, service and maintenance of public phones. The older type red iconic booths which are generally referred to as just ‘telephone boxes’, were designed in 1920.
During a period of innovative British design affluence which started from the beginning of the twentieth century and lasted through the Edwardian era and up to the art deco period of the nineteen-thirties, the telephone box was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (b.1880 – 1960), an English architect. His other works included Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, Waterloo Bridge and Battersea Power Station.
This design is said to be in the classical style, that is to say, derivitating of Greek and Roman structure. The idea behind classical design is usually to create a sense of perfect symmetry. The design achieved this with it’s mausoleum top and panelled sides.
Colours are normally used in classic interior that reflect mother nature, in this design the ‘telephone red’ colour reflects the arterial nature of the telecommunications infastructure. It wasn’t always so; Royal Mail post boxes were originally green and the colour change to red came in 1874.
The first long-distance calls in Britain were in early 1878 when Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone to Queen Victoria at Osborne House, with calls from the Isle of Wight to Cowes, Southampton and London. A year later The Telephone Company (Bell’s Patents), pioneered Britain’s first telephone exchanges in 1879 but they were restricted to a five mile area.
In 1880 a court ruled that a telephone was a telegraph as defined in Section 4 of the Telegraph Act, 1869 and so telephone companies required a licence from the Postmaster General. As a result The United Telephone Company was formed in 1880 by merging The Telephone Company and the Edison Telephone Company of London.
However in 1884 telephone companies were permitted to install trunk wires which enabled a national network to develop. There followed a considerable order for equipment in 1885 placed by the Postmaster General which meant the infrastructure was finally catching up with the technology. But, the master patents (Bell, Edison) held by the United Telephone Company were due to expire in 1889 and so it amalgamated and consolidated the organisation and became the National Telephone Company on 1 May 1889.
With both master patents expired, there was competition between the Post Office and the National Telephone Company. In 1890 a trunk link between London and Birmingham was brought into service becoming the first telephone communication between London and the North. And in 1891 the first submarine telephone cable was laid between England and France. The Post Office trunk telephone system was implemented to the public in July 1895 and the first Post Office exchange opened in 1902 with the first coin-operated call box installed by the Western Electric Company at Ludgate Circus, London in 1906.
The Telephone Company (Bell’s Patents), had introduced one of the first telephone outlets, known as call offices, in Bristol. Later when boxes/ booths/kiosks first started to appear at the beginning of the twentieth century, as we know them today, they were of different designs as town and city councils produced independent versions. The K1 (kiosk 1) was the first version appearing in 1921 but colours and modifications remained a regional thing.
K1: discontinued in 1931
To address this lack of uniformity a competition was held in 1923 for a standard box design. Giles Gilbert Scott’s design won and he was knighted a year later when the design was implemented. The GPO designated it as Kiosk Version 2, or K2 and began installing them, primarily in London from 1927. It weighed approximately 1.5 tons but they were very expensive to manufacture so only 1,500 were made. One survives today in the entrance hall of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. K2 and K3 booths have English Heritage Grade II listed status. It was discontinued in 1936.
Also in 1927 the K3 and K4 were introduced. Sir Scott designed the K3 similar to K2 but costing half the price and painted cream. More than 12,000 kiosks were installed nationwide. The K4 was also installed up until 1935 when it was deemed unsuccessful due to its size and high unit cost. K4 contained two stamp machines and a post box, but the stamp machinery interfered with a telephone call and stamps became moist in wet weather so only fifty were ever made.
The K5 was introduced in 1934 and was a portable kiosk which would be easily assembled and dismantled as required. It was made from steel-faced plywood and intended for use at exhibitions and temporary locations.
That was not the end of it for Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. In 1935 he was again commissioned to redesign the kiosk in celebration of King George the V’s Silver Jubilee. To implement the new style across the country required a box that was cheaper to produce than the cast iron London version, so Sir Scott styled a concrete padded version which was smaller and cheaper than the K2, and became the K6, the famous telephone box that we know of today. The GPO established a Jubilee Concession to install the new boxes in 1936 making a kiosk available anywhere across the country where there was a Post Office and in so doing, more than 8,000 new kiosks were installed.
Other organisations had realised the potential for public access phones, particularly the AA and RAC who saw it as an accessory for their businesses. Police boxes had appeared much earlier than the GPO’s. The Metropolitan Police introduced a network of boxes from 1929 so that officers could keep in touch with their stations. The police box in Dr Who first appeared in 1963 as the tardis.
The Post Office continued to administer the national telephone service until the Telephone Act 1951 which proposed new telephone regulations and was the first statutory recognition of the telephone being separate from the telegraph. By 1951 there were well over 52,000 kiosks in Britain.
The K6 replaced existing boxes and by end of production in 1968 there were 70,000 in use across the country. Some regions abhorred the red colour and were allowed to repaint them. This may be one reason why the red telephone box is a London symbol for tourists, because boxes have always been red and co-existing as part of a suite alongside other red London icons such as RT double decker buses and the famous routmaster that appeared from 1959, and GPO pillar boxes. It is the K6 that is regarded as the typical British iconic landmark, sometimes referred to as the ‘Jubilee Kiosk’.
Along with the routmaster, in 1959 also appeared the K7. It was a radical shift from the Gothic design and was initially well accepted albeit a surprisingly plain, simple and dull design. It was made from aluminium and was smaller than the K6. Yet in its attempt to be ultra modern, it could not withstand the British weather. Only a handful were made and it led to the development of a better design, the K8 in 1968, which was jointly designed by another Scott, Douglas Scott. 1,000 kiosks were originally commissioned and the K8 would be the final kiosk produced by the GPO.
The GPO ceased to be a Government Department in 1969 and was established as a public corporation under the Post Office Act. In 1981 the Government restructured the Post Office and liberalised the telecommunications market. The British Telecommunications Act created British Telecom as a public corporation separate from the Post Office, and in January 1985 BT executive Nick Kane announced that red boxes would no longer be installed.
Until the mid-1960s most homes didn’t have a telephone so call boxes were very important. With the use of mobiles and other miniature and convenient telephony, the phone box has almost become obsolete. From 2012 BT began selling off its remaining stock of K6 phone boxes. It’s a process that began when BT was privatised however due to public pressure and help from the heritage bodies it prevents boxes from becoming lost forever after thousands of boxes were sold off.
In addressing the heritage aspect, BT have invited authorities to adopt its boxes for £1 each, the idea being that local people will maintain the boxes and that they will be put to community use. This began in 2008 and has been very successful in seeing nearly 2,000 boxes adopted. Some have become defibrillator points.
Some have been painted green and are free-to-use solar-powered mobile chargers. They use 150 watt solar panels as a power source and contain USB and phone charging facilities designed to provide a 20 percent boost in 12 minutes. While you wait advertising is displayed and this is how the project is funded. If successful more green booths will be rolled out (as at 2015).
Of the original quota of red phone boxes, 11,000 remain in operation today, so they have not completely disappeared. However one wonders how long this is really feasible for, considering booth trade has fallen by 80% in the last five years due to contemporary means, and that 60% of booths operate at a loss in the sense that they cost more to maintain than they make in returns.
Since 2007 the Post Office has resold BT phone and broadband services under a contract worth £750 million. BT gave notice on the contract in July 2011 and in 2012 the Post Office dropped BT as the services provider for its home phone and broadband services in preference of other providers.
One guy photographs the boxes he comes across and displays it on a website created solely to display them. You can take a peek here.