My London Shoes ‘culture’ gig this week got me researching and exploring the history behind what was, (and to some extent still is -as it is still emblazoned on many items of souvenir merchandising) – a major London related cultural visual icon, that is instantly recognisable across the globe – and that is the old red public Telephone Box !!!!
Delving into the history behind its design and inception, uncovered a lot of stuff that I (and most probably, a lot of others) was never aware of – all of which, I feel, makes interesting reading.
Public telephone boxes were first introduced in Britain in 1920, by the Post Office. They were known as K1’s (“K” standing for Kiosk), and were constructed of concrete – and did not look anything like the later ‘red’ telephone boxes. There are remarkably, still 2 of the old K1 boxes in existence on British streets, that are located in Kingston-Upon-Hull, in Bembridge High Street, Isle of White.
As time moved on there was a greater demand for more public phone boxes right across Britain, and so in 1924 the Post Office invited 3 of the most prominent architects of the day, to each submit plans for a new style telephone box, so that they could select the best design, most suitable for the London streets.
One of the architects approached was a “Giles Gilbert Scott” who was only 22 but was already known as an up and coming star in the architectural world, because of his work on the newly erected Liverpool Cathedral, as well as Cambridge University Library, Waterloo Bridge and the power station site at Battersea.
Now – Giles Gilbert Scott, was also a curator of the John Soane Museum in Lincolns Inn Fields.
Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was a renowned architect/designer from the previous generation, who created monumental public buildings such as the Bank of England, numerous stately homes, country houses and loads of churches up and down the country – and in his will he bequeathed that his London headquarters be made into a museum promoting architecture and the arts.
When Sir John Soane’s wife died in 1815, he designed and dedicated a bespoke tomb in her memory that was then placed over her grave in Old St. Pancras churchyard (just north of where St. Pancras Station is today).
With his role as curator of the John Soane museum, Giles Gilbert Scott was obviously very familiar with this tomb that Soane had constructed for his late wife – and it is the design of this tomb that Giles Gilbert Scott incorporated in to his designs that he submitted for the new style telephone box competition – that was to be judged by the Fine Art Commission and the Birmingham Civil Society.
A wooden prototype of Scott’s telephone box was piloted and tested, and it was agreed that it would be his design that would be used for the new wave of “K2” boxes. In fact, one of the original wooden ‘pilot’ telephone boxes, still stands today at its original spot, just inside the entrance gates to the Royal Academy of Art in Piccadilly.
These new K2 boxes were made of cast iron and designed in a gothic style, which was Giles Gilbert Scott’s preference for all the work he created, and the design almost replicated the characterisation of the Sir John Soane tomb in Old St. Pancras churchyard – and they were painted ‘red’ so that they could be easily noticed on the busy London streets.
So – from 1924 right up until 1934 the telephone boxes designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, that were heavily influenced by the design of Sir John Soane’s tomb for his wife – were erected all over the British Isles.
In 1935 Scott was approached again and commissioned to design what was called the ‘Jubilee’ Kiosk to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V.
This design specification was titled the “K6” and went into production in 1936 – and it was the first time that ‘red’ telephone boxes were situated ‘outside’ of London, replacing all the earlier K1’s.
By 1940, there were 35,000 K6 design red telephone boxes scattered across every town and village throughout Britain – and it is this design which has become a universal icon.
Sadly, as years progressed through different generations, these old phone boxes were subjected to mis-use and vandalism – and by 1985 communications technology had progressed to such an extent, that the boxes had outlived their purpose, and as a result, new style boxes/booths were rolled out by the newly formed British Telecom.
Fortunately, there are still quite a few of Giles Gilbert Scott’s K2 & K6 design telephone boxes scattered around, particularly in London – which are now all Grade II listed. Some have received sanction to be turned into a completely different use – for example, a hanging garden, a ‘street’ library – artistic monuments etc.
So, my challenge for this week, armed with all this history – was to simply seek out some of these iconic historical phone boxes that are still scattered around London, and simply appreciate the role they once played in everyday life.
On my way back home, I popped into the ‘Barrowboy & Banker’ pub – just by London Bridge the Borough Market side – for the mandatory ‘cheeky’ beer.
Hope you found this topic and the accompanying photos interesting.