History’s calling

The history and evolution of the iconic BT phone boxes

History’s calling

The history and evolution of the iconic BT phone boxes

The phone box. A staple of British culture, part of our identity. Ask most people around the world what they’d associate with the United Kingdom, and you’d probably end up hearing the Queen, Spitfires, red buses and red phone boxes. And rightly so. They’re one of the top icons in our country.

They’re perhaps the most recognisable phone boxes in the world – and definitely in the UK. Perhaps closely followed by the blue police call boxes, helped by their fame in the BBC series, Doctor Who. Sorry to say, our phone boxes aren’t as good as the TARDIS. They can’t whizz through space and time – but they have an impressive history throughout the last century to dive into.

They’re a huge part of our history here at BT. It’s an honour to be in charge of such an important status symbol of British culture. But where did it all begin?

Ever wondered why phone boxes are red? There are two reasons. Firstly, the colour of the Post Office is red – even now, you see red post boxes and red Royal Mail vans driving around. Secondly, red things are easy to spot.

In the beginning

It all starts with our BT predecessors – the General Post Office (GPO). First created in 1660 by the Merry Monarch, King Charles II, the GPO has been through many changes over the centuries; evolving with the ever-changing technology and culture of the UK.

In the late 19th century, the first telephone kiosk, or as it’s more commonly known, the telephone box, came into being. There was a huge variety of designs -and it wasn’t until 1921 that the GPO, newly in charge of the telephone system, first produced a standardised kiosk. It was imaginatively named K1 (Kiosk one), was made of concrete, and usually painted cream with a red door. Just 150 were ordered at a cost of £35 each. But it wasn’t quite the bright red design we know and love today. That was yet to come.

K1 phone box

Ever wondered why phone boxes are red? The answer is even more simple than you think. Two reasons. Firstly, the colour of the Post Office is red – even now, you see red post boxes and red Royal Mail vans driving around. But the second reason is even simpler. Red things are easy to spot. That’s right – our beloved national treasures are only red so we notice them more.

Perhaps the most recognisable and widespread is the K6 telephone box – designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and introduced in 1935, in celebration of the Silver Jubilee of King George V. Over the 20th century, the colour changed, and the designs evolved – moving with the times. And it’s quite common to find phone boxes created in the 1980s and 1990s that don’t have the rouge hue we’re so used to seeing.

The decline

Throughout the 1900s, the telephone boxes were a staple of town and village life. Their purpose was to help millions of people connect with their loved ones around the country, with the peak coming in 1992 - when there were 92,000 BT operated phone boxes across the UK.

But with the advancement of technology, like the internet, mobile phones and IP technology, the phone boxes were needed much less than before, as they had the tech right there in their pockets.

Fast-forward to the 21st century.  We here at BT honour our obligation to keep people connected on the street. But what about the ones that aren’t being used? Some innovative communities have already helped our historic landmarks to change with the times.

Into the 21st century

We all love an up-cycling project. And communities across the UK are no exception, creating new and integral things out of our phone boxes; breathing life into a national relic and creating something amazing.

What’s the best thing you could do with an old national treasure? Turn it into a new one. One phone box in Cambridgeshire was turned into a pub, another beloved British icon. Can you get more British than combining the red phone box with a pub? We don’t think so. But that’s not all.

People have turned them into libraries, local information points, mini art galleries , coffee shops, bakeries, micro-nightclubs – and perhaps most importantly defibrillators. Having this vital life-saving equipment in small rural villages could save lives in the time it takes for the emergency services to get there.

Modernity calls for change. People don’t often need a phone box to call someone these days– but they do need the internet. We use it for everything in our lives; from messaging to calls; from streaming online content to working remotely. So, we’ve adapted with the times and have started to provide the ‘modern day phone box’ - Street Hubs.

Street Hubs let hundreds of people access super-fast free Wi-Fi – with speeds of up to 1Gbps. And that’s not all. They also offer free UK landline and mobile calls, 999 calls at the touch of a button, charging stations for phones, maps of the area, directions and real-time info like tube updates, train times and weather. And it’s all free – for the user and the taxpayer. Both deployment and maintenance of the Street Hubs are funded by the revenue from the advertising on the digital displays.

Technology is constantly evolving. And we are too. The telephone box has a rich history and has evolved over time. The communities creating new things are breathing life into our national treasures. The phone boxes may not be at their peak usage anymore, but they’re certainly still a symbol of our country’s national pride and its history.

Got an idea?

Have you ever wanted to put your stamp on a bit of British history? Are phone boxes ever for sale, I hear you ask? Well, you could actually ‘buy’ one.

We’ve been encouraging communities across the UK to adopt the red kiosks – and turn them into something new. It’s not open to everyone, but if you’re a local authority (like a district or borough council), a parish, community, town council, registered charity or a private landowner who already has one of our telephone boxes on their land – then you’re in luck.

Here are two options for you. Either, you could buy a refurbished phone box of your very own. Or, for the modest fee of £1, your community could adopt a little part of history . And it’s not just a landmark you’d be adopting; there’s so much more you could do.