The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

The K8 Kiosk – Last of the Great Red Boxes

The plight of the red telephone box has long been a cause for the Society (see Gavin Stamp’s article). From time to time, the Society continues the battle, fighting against kiosk de-listing requests and highlighting the continuing and varied threats to their wider survival. Recently however it has been the 1960s version of Scott’s classic design that has been the focus of our attention. With only a handful left in existence in the public realm, we’ve had to act quickly, putting the remaining boxes forward for listing and running a high-profile media campaign about their plight. After visiting four survivors in the Swindon area, (the fourth found by chance thanks to a local taxi driver), it became clear that Kiosk 8 or K8 was no poor relation of Scott’s inimitable classic—but rather a distinct and intelligent update of it. Built for a new age, but built with the same careful attention to detail, the K8 marks the end of the line for the great red boxes—as worthy of protection as the K2s and K6s we fought so hard for as The Thirties Society.

The K8 or Mark 8 kiosk was designed in 1965-6 by the architect Bruce Martin and was introduced in July 1968. Martin had initially been contacted by the GPO in 1965 and asked if he would be interested in a design contract for a new kiosk. Both Martin and designers Douglas Scott and Neville Conder were asked to submit in response to a complex and detailed brief drawn up by the GPO. This brief was a specific attempt by the GPO to reconnect with the lineage begun with Giles Gilbert Scott’s K2 kiosk and furthered by his K6 or ‘Jubilee’ kiosk—and update it, after the relative failure of the K7. The brief made repeated references to both Scott’s design and the K7, designed by Neville Conder. An almost all-glass structure, the K7 was introduced into London in 1962. Only five were ever placed on streets and after a short trial, it was found that they could not stand up to the British weather. By 1965, the GPO had decided it wanted a better, modern kiosk in line with Scott’s 1935 design, but which incorporated some of the successful elements of Conder’s kiosk.

The GPO gave Scott and Martin a tour of the works where K6 kiosks were constructed, to see how the best features of the K6 and K7 manifested themselves. Impressed by how well the K6 came out against the new brief, Martin highlighted the two problems he needed to solve, cleaning and maintenance.

After analysing the Gilbert Scott design down to its component parts, Martin embarked on a systematic breakdown and rationalisation of the K6. With meticulous attention to detail, Martin scaled down Scott’s 450 components, (without fixings), to just 183, (with fixings). However, the box only really consisted of 7 principal components – a cill ring, two identical sides, a back panel, a door, and a top cill ring, all made of aluminium on which the final large component, the roof, sat. The roof was to be of fibre-glass with four illuminated panels, to provide what Martin later termed, ‘the beacon effect’. The cill ring at floor level acted as a location jig, as well as doubling as shuttering for the pre-set concrete floor. A gap under the door gave ventilation and also stopped the door from being jammed by stones or debris. The back panel provided secure fixing for all the components and cleverly hid all the necessary fixtures. For many reasons, Martin saw the glass as a key component. Doing away with Scott’s classically ordered little panes and glazing bars, he designed a no-less elegant sheet of glass to make the kiosk visible and from the sides at least, completely see-through. The aluminium door incorporated the recessed handle and was affixed with leather hinges—as the K6 had been. The head ring, like the base cill, was strong enough to act as a jig for the panels and the door-closer mechanism. Assembly required only eight bolts and a few screws, which, in keeping with the modern look of the box, were all supplied in metric.

In Scott’s box, components were not interchangeable ie, they had to be factory constructed and then re-assembled on site. The K8, however, could be assembled in four different ways to reflect the needs of the site. By simply adjusting the relative positions of the door and the hinges, the kiosk could be constructed with optimum accessibility whatever its position.

The GPO brief for the K8 can be seen as the result of 50 years of refinement and adjustment. As such, it now stands as the most exacting design brief ever issued for a piece of UK street furniture, with Martin and Scott having to factor in more variables than any previous kiosk designers. When the competition was nearing the deadline Neville Conder, designer of the K7, withdrew his submission for unknown reasons and only Scott and Martin completed the brief. In 1966, just six months after the initial contract, they both submitted full-size models of their kiosks to the GPO—the fastest turnaround for any such design.

The Post-Master General of the time, Tony Benn, chose Martin’s design over Scott’s, who had submitted a rigid, cast-iron kiosk with stainless steel trim. Martin’s design was of aluminium alloy and the GPO, despite choosing his kiosk, expressed concerns about the rigidity of the structure. From this feedback, Martin redesigned the constructional system, incorporating the corner tubes into the panels, giving the kiosk the solidity specified in the brief. Also, for rigidity and cost reasons, the material was changed to cast-iron—though the door remained aluminium for ease of opening. Reflecting the GPO’s desire for strength and longevity, Martin also changed the material for the roof, from fibre glass to cast iron. The die as they say, was cast.

The roof had been another of Martin’s key concerns, it contained the illuminated panels, gutters to stop rainwater dripping over the door, and the ventilation slits to allow air to flow through the kiosk. In his original designs, the roof did not contain any lettering at all—the roof was to glow red through the translucent fibreglass. In the re-designed box, Martin added the illuminated panel with the word ‘Telephone’.

Our investigations have uncovered two distinct designs for the roof that survive, one which has a curving line running round the roof and another, more common design that enclosed the illuminated panel in a simple lozenge shaped cast. Only one of the Swindon boxes has this line and on that rationale, they must now be considered extremely rare. BT has been unable to elucidate the precise reasons for the two designs though it is clear that Martin did design two separate ‘hats’ as far back as the prototype stage. It is the Society’s view that because of the low number of extant examples of K8s this variation should not be considered a significant factor in terms of listing.

One of the most distinctive parts of the K8 was the huge plate glass panels, designed by Martin in response to the vandal-proofing, required by the GPO. The idea was that the more visible the interior of the box was, the less likely would-be vandals would be to wreck it. This aspect of the design was supported by the high level of illumination inside, which made the kiosks appear bright and welcoming. New kinds of brighter light bulbs were used so the box could be seen from a distance and the interior of the canopy was painted with white enamel to reflect the light. If the inside was bright, then it was nothing compared to the outside. Choosing a slightly more orangey red than had previously been employed, the GPO chose Red 539 for the K8 in an attempt to make sure that they could be seen clearly.

The K8 can now be seen as the final example in the lineage of the ‘red telephone box’. In the same manner that Gilbert Scott rationalised and modernised the K2 for his 1936 K6 kiosk, so Bruce Martin reworked the Jubilee kiosk for a new era, toning down its intricacies and evolving a design that was both elegant and functional. Their historical importance, we’ve argued, must be viewed alongside that of the K2 and K6, both of which have a degree of protection as a designed form, even if individual examples continue to disappear or be modernised. At present, the K8 lacks this protection and with so few surviving examples, the Society is concerned that the design could disappear from public places altogether. Privately, they can still be purchased, with the cheapest examples going for around £2,000.

Even if listed, the K8’s position will remain precarious, as BT ran out of replacement stock many years ago. In light of their rarity, for their parallels with Scott’s classic design and because of their misfortune in missing out under the 30-year rule last time, the Society has urged English Heritage to make a decision quickly. We hope that that they will now be able to put the surviving K8’s up where they belong; as listed structures for future generations to enjoy, whether they contain phones, ATMs or some, as yet unknown, public utility.

Finally, thanks to BT—I know, I know, but their Payphones Dept has been helpful and supportive throughout. They have publicly supported our listing request and the Society looks forward to now having increased dialogue about the uncertain future faced by all BT’s red boxes.

Bruce Martin, designer of the K8.

Bruce Martin was born in 1917. He studied Engineering at the University of Hong Kong and then qualified in architecture at the Architectural Association. After World War II he joined the Architect’s Dept of Hertfordshire County Council but also became a lecturer at Cambridge, a post he was to hold for many years. Whilst in Hertfordshire he worked under the county architect, CH Aslin and became part of the group that were responsible for ‘the Hertfordshire experiment’ – a progressive primary school building plan that used pioneering construction techniques, pre-fabrication and the idea of ‘child-centred’ design. Martin worked alongside Mary Crowley, AR Garrod, WD Lacy, Oliver Carey and others, all of whom went on to become influential figures in the ‘new school building’ movement. Martin himself was job architect on one of the more significant schools of the period, Morgan’s Junior School, Hertford, which was listed at Grade II* in 1998.

He published many articles on his involvement with the Hertfordshire programme, contributing pieces on pre-fabrication and system-building. He also wrote two books, School Buildings 1947-52 (1953) and Joints in Buildings (1977). We believe that Bruce Martin is still alive, though to date the Society has been unable locate him in order to inform him of its work on listing the K8.

As a result of our media campaign, The Society has already heard of a few more K8’s—I’ve compiled some of the most interesting stories we’ve been sent below. We aim to verify these with photographs and inform BT of them, so as we can build a more realistic picture of exactly how many still survive. Even with all these, it still amounts to a handful considering 11,000 were made.

Lucy Middleton from Allerton Bywater got in touch to tell us of a K8 next to the church in the middle of the village, though she ominously noted that two adjacent buildings were scheduled for demolition.

Chris Nast emailed to tell us of a ‘sorry-looking’ K8 on a caravan park at Cawood in North Yorkshire.

Steven Andrews from the island of Rounsay, in the Orkneys (population 212) informed us of a K8 on the island. Proof that they were once widespread. He sent us the most wonderful picture of the box, which despite a distinct
lack of maintenance, still manages to look good.

Chris Bent from Peterborough—a BT payphone engineer from 1974-76—got in touch with the charming story of his travels with a K8. After rescuing it from a scrap merchant and using it initially to house the filtration unit for his private swimming pool, Chris took the box to France and then Canada before returning to England. It now sits in his front garden ‘awaiting rejuvenation’.

Andy Barr from London was sure that a few K8s still survive at the Northern end of the Metropolitan Line. Amersham, Chalfont & Latimer, Chorleywood and Rickmansworth stations he says, still have K8s on the platforms, housing internal London Underground telephony. Investigations revealed that indeed London Underground did use the K8 extensively for this purpose and until fairly recently there were two fine examples at South Kensington station.

Peter Green informed us of two more K8s on remote Scottish Isles—one on Ellenbeich and the other on Easdale Island. Easdale has only 70 residents and no roads. Until recently the K8 was the only phone and if it rang says Peter “you would have to go and knock on the person’s door—day or night—to get them to come to the phone”.

James Strong from Devon informed us of a K8 in the village of Upottery in Devon—adding to the idea that the South West appears to be their main stronghold.

James Holland told us of two working boxes at RAF Benson in South Oxfordshire, thankfully it seems the military do not update their communications equipment as frequently as their planes.

Like Swindon, Hull seems to have been spared in the great BT phone box cull of the 80s. Charles Craven sent two pictures of the boxes, both painted a delightful shade of cream.

Bernard Hammick let us know of another K8 on a caravan park at Bere Regis in Dorset—almost the perfect setting for a late 60s icon.

Jon Wright