In celebration of Derbyshire's red telephone kiosks
PUBLISHED: 10:45 14 September 2018 | UPDATED: 15:13 18 September 2018
as supplied peter seddon
Peter Seddon celebrates the county's red telephone kiosks
When the Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell penned the wistful line ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’ in 1970 she articulated a universal truth. Mitchell is more environmental activist than sentimental softie – but her powerfully-expressed regret at the unthinking loss of beautiful or familiar things in the name of progress has since gained traction across a whole range of ‘endangered species’. This ‘before it is too late’ philosophy is particularly apposite to the ever-changing built environment and streetscape.
The celebrated lyric came from her song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. But a UK version could readily be re-titled ‘Small Red Box’ to honour what has become a treasured British cultural icon – the red telephone kiosk.
They were once ubiquitous – cities and towns had an abundance of them and most villages at least one. But over the past few decades the numbers have dwindled dramatically. Yet all is not lost, for the heritage lobby has worked hard to ensure these familiar landmarks will not be air-brushed out of existence.
At the last count there were 740 payphone boxes in Derbyshire. But of these only 140 were of the old-style red variety. A tacit acknowledgment of their increasingly rare-breed status is that around 50 or so of these threatened ‘Derbyshire reds’ are now Grade II listed to ensure their ongoing survival.
One might ask ‘why do they matter?’ After all, given the exponential rise in mobile phone usage since the Millennium, surely the telephone box per se is at best a quaint anachronism, and at worst a pointless symbol of obsolescence. Some ‘progressive’ voices even say ‘tear them down’ on the grounds that they are a classic vestige of a ‘colonial mindset’, too ‘British’ by far.
Yet the ‘pro lobby’ is at pains to point out that those boxes still in active service are being used – not everybody has a mobile phone, and even those who do are sometimes without their ‘lifeline’ when the need for an important call might arise. Indeed in certain emergency circumstances phone boxes have saved lives.
Nevertheless, even the biggest fans of the ‘little red box’ would acknowledge that across the population the majority of us are unlikely to have made a payphone call for many years, and in the under-30 age range the percentage ever having used one at all (or even knowing what one is!) must be significantly small.
So there has to be another reason why the red boxes are being protected. It is of course our old friend ‘nostalgia’ – back to Joni Mitchell… you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. People want to keep them precisely because they are threatened – for the instinctive reason that it would be ‘a shame to see them go’. Like an old pair of slippers well beyond their best, getting rid might be eminently sensible on practical grounds, but the heart says ‘no’.
The unlikely love affair began with the invention of the telephone itself in 1876. It was a marvellous technical innovation but very expensive, so their use in the closing decades of the 19th century was limited to the more wealthy homeowners and businesses.
The General Post Office had gained the monopoly on telegraphic communication in Britain, and in 1884 they began to expand the fragmented rudimentary system into the first national public network. Even so, at that time there were only 13,000 telephones in use nationwide, and take-up amongst private households continued to be relatively slow right up to the 1950s. As such the idea of public telephone boxes for communal use made a great deal of sense.
The first public kiosks appeared as early as 1884 to varying designs. But Britain’s first standard kiosk – labelled K1 for Kiosk No. 1 – was unveiled only in 1921. It wasn’t at that time red. Various improved designs and the high-visibility cherry red colour were subsequently introduced – each identified by their rising K number – until in 1935 the K6 came into being.
Designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880–1960) to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of King George V, it was officially christened the Jubilee Kiosk. It is this K6 design complete with embossed crown which became the world-recognised symbol of British quintessence that today remains a must-have ‘image capture’ for overseas visitors. The vast majority of surviving red boxes both in Derbyshire and countrywide are K6 – including a significant number of reproduction ones in London, erected with tourists in mind.
Between 1936 and 1968 there were 60,000 K6 boxes installed across Britain. Of these 11,700 survive, of which 2,500 are Grade II listed for their ‘historic interest’. The survivors split into three categories. Those still in active use, those decommissioned and now sadly derelict, and those adapted for other purposes.
Derbyshire has examples of all three types, but it is the transformation of the derelict ones into something useful or entertaining that is being particularly encouraged and has gained increasing uptake and press coverage.
This imaginative trend began in 2008 when British Telecom – acknowledging that many boxes were simply unprofitable – launched their ‘Adopt a Box’ scheme. For the payment of a mere £1 Local Authorities and community groups were enabled to take full responsibility for their adopted box for any approved use except telecommunication.
BT recently celebrated the 4,000th such adoption – the only limit is size, everything being done on a miniature scale. Conversions have included cafés, libraries, art galleries, sweet shops, information centres and shoe shine stands. Less frivolously, some 350 boxes have been fitted with life-saving defibrillators.
The trend is quite random – some projects are short-lived, others more enduring. Notable examples in Derbyshire have included Milford (information and swap-shop), Little Eaton (book exchange and floral display), Tideswell (oral history project), Quarndon (library), and many others besides. Art installations have also proved popular – the box at Wirksworth recently kitted out as ‘Darcey Bussell’s Beach Hut’ replete with mannequin… best not to ask!
These adoptions are undoubtedly ‘flavour of the month’ and have certainly saved boxes from demolition. Whether this will be sustained or is a transient ‘passing fancy’ is open to debate. Nevertheless there is confidence that one way or another the classic K6 will be with us for some time yet.
It’s a good bet that even 100 years from now there will be at least some still standing. It’s equally certain though that by then they will be mere historical curiosities, all first-hand memories of a golden age having long died. No one alive will ever have ‘pressed button B’ or waited outside for half an hour while a ‘line- hogger’ plies the coin box.
With that in mind it’s worth trying to capture the true essence of the red box for posterity. They are quirkily individual and undoubted design classics. But there is almost a spiritual element too. In a confined space measuring 3 feet square all human life has been enacted. Births and deaths announced. Marriages proposed and bitter break-ups finalised. Invitations for tea genteelly proffered, nefarious crimes planned, insults hurled, blackmail threats sinisterly issued, hoax calls made, childish pranks enacted, coin boxes robbed – and so it goes on.
As such the red kiosk has been a mirror of life itself – a silent witness, almost a confessional box without a priest. What tales they could tell.
But in the final analysis their preservation divides opinion. You are either moved or not moved by the heritage narrative. They may leave the ‘nots’ cold, but for now the more lyrically-inclined are winning the day. The red boxes are here to stay. And if your nostalgia buds have been truly stirred, there is even better news. BT is now selling beautifully-restored original boxes for decorative use in home or garden – a classic piece of history can be yours for just £2,750! Please form an orderly queue…