Red Phone Boxes: The End of The Line

Las cabinas telefónicas rojas han sido uno de los símbolos inconfundibles del Reino Unido durante casi cien años, pero ahora están en peligro de extinción. Algunas se han convertido en objetos de coleccionismo, mientras que otras se han adaptado a una segunda vida.

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Daniel Francis

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In 2015, the red telephone box was voted the greatest British design of all time, ahead of London’s double-decker bus, World War Two’s Spitfire plane, the Union Jack flag and Concorde. Once an integral part of British life, present in every high street, there are now only ten thousand in existence. Just half of these are operational, while half are decorative. The red telephone box could soon be making its last call

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The original phone box was designed in wood in 1924 by the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott as a “miniature building” with the official name of Kiosk Nº 2. The version we see today is actually ‘K6’, introduced in 1936. By the 1960s, there were 73,000 in the UK. You can still see — but not use — the very first K2 phone box outside the Royal Academy in London’s Piccadilly.   

production ended

Then, thirty-two years after their introduction, the Government decided to stop production. It was time for a new design. Neglected, the boxes were vandalised or became unofficial public toilets or notice boards for sex industry ads (usually offering ‘French lessons’). Campaigns began to try to preserve the boxes. The state responded and there are now three thousand boxes listed, including all the country’s K2s. 

buying a box

And, if you want a box, you can buy one. A well-restored rare K2 will cost around $21,500. There are boxes in shopping centres in Florida and Dubai. Companies put them in their offices, while people put them in their gardens or convert them into showers

Red telephone boxes are part of a romanticised vision of Britain, along with Four o’clock tea and the Changing of the Guard. This iconic symbol has been on millions of tourist postcards and has starred in innumerable films – people regularly travel to Pennan in Scotland to visit the phone box made famous in the film Local Hero. Other phone boxes are not so lucky. Carlton Miniott, a small village in the north of England, is home’ to hundreds of ‘retired’ phone boxes. As they decay and die, they are taking to the grave uncountable ghostly phone calls from their illustrious past.

Adopt a Kiosk

British Telecom, the company which took responsibility for the UK’s phone boxes in 1980, also permitted charities and local councils to use them for new purposes under its ‘Adopt-a-kiosk’ scheme. More than five thousand have been adopted. At least seven hundred now have defibrillators. The others are art galleries, museums, bakeries, cafés, pubs or even showers. In 2018, marking the five thousandth adoption, a box in Kingsbridge, Devon, changed into ‘the world’s smallest nightclub’, playing Blondie’s Hanging On the Telephone and ELO’s Telephone Line.

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