The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Red Telephone Boxes

The campaign to stop British Telecom removing every single red cast-iron telephone kiosk designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott from both the urban and rural landscape of Britain was one of the most vigorous and successful mounted by our Society.- It is a curious irony that we are now having to fight for the preservation of a few surviving examples of the last model of cast-iron kiosk produced by the old General Post Office: the K8 designed by Bruce Martin which went into production in 1968.

British Telecom was created in 1984 and this privatised concern soon showed itself obsessed with image and the need for change. In January of the following year it announced a “£160 million modernisation for Britain’s payphones” to make them suitable for the 21st century. As part of this, BT began to replace existing kiosks by new ones—glazed boxes of anodised aluminium and stainless steel—of American design and, at first, manufacture which, it was claimed “are cheaper to maintain, more resistant to vandalism, and designed to blend in with any surroundings”.

In fact, these cheap, tawdry objects were all too conspicuous but lacked the distinctiveness and dignity of the carefully designed red boxes. The Thirties Society (as we then were) immediately opposed this policy and wrote to every local authority alerting them to the threat represented by replacing these much-loved objects which were already regarded as visible symbols of Britain as well as being one of the finest examples of British industrial design. Many of the responses were published in a report rapidly published by the Society, The British Telephone Box… take it as red, written by Clive Aslet and Alan Powers. The Society also found allies in local authorities anxious to retain the old boxes in sensitive locations, notably the City of Westminster and the London Borough of Camden.

At the time there was nothing to be done to protect kiosks from BT’s remorseless replacement programme as the Department of the Environment declined to make a small change to conservation legislation to encompass street furniture. The only solution, therefore, was to press for the statutory listing of kiosks as miniature buildings. This the DoE eventually, reluctantly, agreed to do and, on 6th August 1986, Lord Elton, Minister of State for the Environment, formally listed a kiosk which stood outside the Parrot House at London Zoo. This was a rare example of a K3 constructed of reinforced concrete (examples of which are still to be found in Portugal) and, when the Minister attempted to make a call, it was found to be out of order.

At first, the principal beneficiaries were K2s, which were principally to be found in London. This, the GPO Kiosk No.2, was the model developed from the design by Scott which had won the competition held in 1924 by the Royal Fine Art Commission. A few rare K4s were also listed, the model which incorporated a post box and stamp machine. However, most examples of the most familiar and ubiquitous box, the smaller, simpler and more modernistic K6 or Jubilee Kiosk introduced in 1935, could not be listed unless it could be demonstrated that they had been installed before 1939. However, these could be protected when, in 1987, this arbitrary end date for listing was replaced by the “thirty-year rule”.

What, I think, none of us involved in the Society’s campaign at the time ever fully appreciated was the need to protect examples of the K8. At the time, they seemed too new as well as ubiquitous to worry about (11,000 had been produced by 1983, when there were 60,000 Scott kiosks standing). In my little book Telephone Boxes published in 1989 (Chatto & Windus), I am pleased now to find that I recognised the merit of the K8 as “a triumph of careful and rational design” that was as expressive of its time as Scott’s elegant Neo-Classical kiosk was of earlier decades and also stated: “As it could stand up to vandalism as well as any kiosk made by man and as, being solid, it was able to take any new improved payphone equipment, there was no reason why it could not have continued to be the new standard British Telephone kiosk”.

In my book I also illustrated examples of K8s, including a fine row of eight of them standing in the centre of Bristol. Today, almost without our noticing, they have become virtually extinct and almost impossible to find. I do hope the Twentieth Century Society can complete the campaign we began twenty-two years ago by securing protection for the handful of surviving K8s.

Gavin Stamp