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The Iconography of Britain : The Red Telephone Box

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

The British Red Telephone Box is perhaps the most iconic piece of design ever commissioned, and is recognised globally as a symbol of Britishness.

The first thing to be aware of is that there are several different designs of the British red telephone box, there are in fact 8 in the series of the red telephone box, the ones you have in your minds eye are probably the K2 or K6.

The K1

The K1, or kiosk one was made of concrete and first introduced in 1921. It was designed by the Office of Engineer in Chief of the General Post Office. The idea of a standardised design was an attempt to replace the varieties of systems inherited by the General Post Office when created in 1912. The kiosk was unpopular with local authorities and seemed outdated upon introduction. Eventually 6,300 were installed across the country with only five still remaining.

Graphic from the excellent The Telephone Box website, the original K1 from 1921 here and the 1927 adaptation here .

The brilliant British Telephones website has more technical details and a short history that can be read here .

The search for a better design

By 1923 the general unpopularity of the K1 resulted in the Metropolitan Boroughs Joint Standing Committee independently seeking a new standardised design. The results were not inspiring. The Birmingham Civic Society produced their own design – in reinforced concrete – but it was rejected in preference for the K1. The Birmingham Civic Society persisted and gathered support from the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Town Planning Institute and the Royal Academy to lobby the Postmaster General to reconsider. He relented and the Royal Fine Arts Commission organised a competition, inviting three respected architects (Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Sir Robert Lorimer and Sir John Burnet) alongside designs from the Post Office and the Birmingham Civic Society. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott had recently been made a trustee of Sir John Soane's museum and the domed top of his winning telephone box design has more than a passing resemblance to Soane's self designed mausoleums or tombs in St. Pancras' old churchyard and Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.

The Gilbert Scott Dynasty

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott came from an impressive family line of architects, famed for their gothic revival designs. His grand father George Gilbert Scott was responsible for the University of Glasgow building, the Midland Grand Hotel at Saint Pancras Station in London alongside a long list of churches. His father George Gilbert Scott Jr. was responsible for St. John Baptist Cathedral in Norwich and the Dulwich College in South London. Sir Giles himself was the architect for the magnificent Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, the iconic Bankside power station (now better known as the Tate Modern) the exteriors of Battersea Power Station (made internationally famous after featuring on the cover of the Pink Floyd album Animals) and many others. There is an original K2 in the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral to demonstrate the astonishing range of Gilbert Scott's work.

Find out more about the extraordinary Gilbert Scott family on The Scott Dynasty website which has details on the family and their architectural achievements

The K2

The K2 was constructed of cast iron sides on a concrete base with a teak door. What may look at first look a very basic and simple four sided box has several clever design features that go unnoticed. The door handle was a metal cup inserted into the door rather than a protruding handle. The door also featured a drip cap and the crown motif in the roof dome was pierced to enable ventilation. The design of the sides of the kiosk incorporated reeded moulding around the window panels which correspond to the dimensions of the door, therefore tricking the eye and disguising that there is a door on one side only. Giles Gilbert Scott suggested a colour scheme of silver with a blue green interior, but the GPO chose red.

Despite the scheme intention to be a country wide standard design, due to cost (35 pounds 14 shillings per kiosk) the K2 was mostly restricted to use in London with the K1 still featuring widely across the country and in rural areas. By 1934 only 1,700 examples had been installed. The GPO contacted Scott once more to adapt his design to produce a more cost effective kiosk to be installed nationwide. The K2 ceased production in 1935, of the 1,700 installed, 224 still remain.

The original model can still be seen outside the National Gallery. It looks almost identical to the K2 production run but has some minor design differences and is made of wood.

Graphic from the excellent The Telephone Box website, the K2 from 1924 here.

The brilliant British Telephones website has more technical details and a short history that can be read here.

The K3

The K3 evolution was a simplified version of the K2 and made of concrete construction. It had less decoration and was not painted red, but a cream colour instead. Compared to the 35 pound 14 shillings unit cost of the K2, the K3 cost a mere 13 pounds to produce. 12 thousand were produced with only 2 still in existence. The cheap construction meant they often got damaged or did not fare well in the rugged weather of the UK.

Graphic from the excellent The Telephone Box website, the K3 from 1928 here

The brilliant British Telephones website has more technical details and a short history that can be read here.

The K4

The K4 was designed by the Post Office engineering department and was an adaptation of the K2 that included a post box and a stamp machine. It was significantly larger than the original K2. A stamp machine was installed on the exterior. It was nicknamed the “Vermillion Giant” and proved unpopular. Due to size it was only ever employed in London, although the prototype was erected in Bath in 1926. The stamp machine was noisy, making telephone calls very difficult and there was no weather proofing. A single production run of 50 with only 5 remaining. It was an unsuccessful experiment.

Graphic from the excellent The Telephone Box website, the K4 from 1925 here

The brilliant British Telephones website has more technical details and a short history that can be read here.

The K5

The K5 is a curious bywater of the telephone box story, a design never put into production, no examples remain. It was constructed of wood with steel panelling, it is unclear if that is because it was a prototype or if it was intended for concrete construction. It has been considered that it was intended to be used as a temporary kiosk in exhibitions. We will never know, the K5 not only never saw the light of day but is then lost in the shadow of the British Red Telephone Box that we all know and love, the K6.

Graphic from the excellent The Telephone Box website, the K4 from 1933 here.

The brilliant British Telephones website has a short history that can be read here.

The K6

The GPO invited Gilbert Scott once again to submit an adapted design, to celebrate the King's Silver Jubilee in 1935. This was to become the ubiquitous nationwide kiosk introduced from 1936 and in production until 1968. 60,000 were installed and an impressive 11,000 are still to be found on the streets of Britain. The kiosks was slightly smaller than the original K2, the window pane pattern was simplified, the crown on the dome was moulded and the ventilation slots were moved to be part of the illuminated sign.

Some 8,000 were installed as part of the “Jubilee Concession” which encouraged towns and villages to apply for a kiosk. A year later, the “tricentenary concession” celebrating the 300th anniversary of the post office provided a further 1,000 kiosks with local authorities paying a five year subscription of 4 pounds. In 1939 a Mk II version was unveiled with vandal proofing and in 1949 the Royal Fine Arts Commission became involved once more as they permitted kiosks to be painted in different colours to not blight rural landscapes. Following this instruction, some kiosks were seen in green or battleship grey.

The crown motif on the top of the box was never traditionally picked out in gold but this started to happen in the 21st century and has become the near standard approach to the colour scheme.

Graphic from the excellent The Telephone Box website, the K6 from 1935 here.

The brilliant British Telephones website has more technical details and a short history that can be read here.

Check out the picture on the British Telephones page of the adapted Hebridean doors. Winds on the outer islands of Scotland tended to force the doors open so a non standard solution was devised for cabins in this region.

The K7-X

Further designs came in the shape of the K7, K8 and the current Kiosk KX which echoes the elegance of the classic K6. But it is the K6 which is the global icon.

The K7 was a prototype designed by Hugh Neville Conder which aimed to modernise the GPO image but went the same way as the K5 kiosk some thirty years earlier. The aluminium construction was said to not be liked by the GPO or the British weather.

The Telephone Box profile is here

British Telephones website history and technical specifications here

The K8 designed by Bruce Martin went into production in 1968. Over 11,000 cast Iron and glass kiosks were installed but only 54 survive.

The Telephone Box profile is here

British Telephones website history and technical specs here

The KX 100 was designed by DCA Design in 1985. Eventually there were 137,000 across the UK.

The Telephone Box profile is here

The KX 100+ released in 1996 was a further evolution of the DCA Design KX 100. It was a direct response to the public feeling the KX 100 lacked character. Some earlier KX100's were retro fitted with the dome roof.

The Telephone Box profile is here

Phone Box Red and the Yellow Peril

The red colour, known as “currant red” is defined by a British Standard BS381C-Red539 was introduced in 1968, previous kiosks were panted a slightly darker shade BS381C-Red538. The red colour was under threat when British Telecom was privatised in 1980 and the company adopted a corporate colour scheme of yellow the following year. They started to repaint the kiosks. After the red had been received so poorly all the way back in the early days, there was a public outcry at the decision to repaint them. The Daily Mail started a campaign against the “Yellow Peril” and questions were asked in Parliament. In the House of Lords the Earl of Gowrie, the Minister of State for Employment insisted BT should “abandon this ridiculous scheme”. Mark Lennox Boyd MP asked the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher if she would treat the decision “with the greatest possible dismay”. Thatcher, who had decide to privatise the telephone system said she could “see my honourable friends point”. It was not much later that BT announced that only 90 of the 77,000 traditional kiosks had been painted in different colours “as an experiment”.

Withdrawal of the K6

After the introduction of the updated kiosk models in January 1985 the announcement was made that the K6 model would be replaced. BT stated they did not meet the needs of their customers, they were expensive to maintain and clean, few people liked to use them and handicapped or disabled people were not able to use them at all. There was a spirited campaign against the decision but BT held firm. Many local authorities used legislation to protect architecture and historic buildings to keep K6 or the even older K2 boxes on their streets. 2,000 were listed and protected in that way, several thousand more were left in place in low revenue remote rural locations but otherwise thousands were removed and sold. Some have been converted to shower cubicles in private homes.

Hull City Boxes

An interesting exception is the city of Hull. In 1914 the Hull Corporation purchased the city phone network and did not become part of the general post office network. The city had a slightly adapted K6, painted cream without a crown motif and using a different typeface for the sign. The city only relinquished the phone network in 2007. The city has never seen a red telephone box and there are still 125 of the 500 kiosks on the streets of Hull.

Second Life

The K6 has enjoyed a second life in various different guises. 1,900 have been converted into medical centres by British Telecom. The idea was introduced in 2009 and the telephone equipment is removed and replaced with an automated external defibrillator. But BT also introduced the Adoption scheme in 2008. Effectively mobile phone use has killed the need for public telephone boxes and BT invited communities to adopt K6 boxes if they could present a project to give the kiosk a new use. This has led to K6s across the country being used as coffee shops, libraries or art galleries. The adoption scheme did not permit the K6 to be used as a telephony device. Many K6 boxes are now used as book exchanges. Some K6s in London are being painted green and converted into solar powered mobile phone charge points. Many have been restored and pressed back into service replacing the battered and unwelcoming steel and glass KX100 models that had superseded them in the first place.

Red Telephone Boxes around the world

Some K6s have made their way over the Atlantic and still serve as telephone boxes on the University of Oklahoma campus and in some locations in Illinois. There is a distinct example outside the British Embassy in Washington DC. There are two in use in Tennessee and one in the courthouse in Oxford, Mississippi. There is an example in the student centre of MIT and an original survives in the small town of Rowe, Massachusetts from when the town first got their telephone service installed. Two remain in the Epcot park in Orlando Florida and one is on display at English gardens wedding venue near Orlando. An original K6 is still in place outside the Allied Building in Treasure Island Florida and a few red boxes stand at the Ellenton Outlet Mall off I-75 near Bradenton, Florida. These apparently still have original STD code cards and are still operational. There is a red telephone box in Westminster Maryland. Several K6s are still in use in Lake Havasu City in Arizona as this is where the old London Bridge was relocated.

Porto in Portugal have a design of red box that is heavily inspired by the British K2-6 design but original K6s can be found in Kinsale County Cork, Ireland, painted green.

Red Telephone boxes can be found in Malta, Gozo, the West Indies and Cyprus. A red telephone box stands in the centre of Chinon, France and a further example in the German town of Bad Münstereifel.

Thames Town, an English imitation town in China has several red telephone boxes. 10 K6s were exported to the Isreali city of Petah Tikva in 2008.

Gibraltar sports red kiosks of various vintages.

You can locate K6 boxes round the world and even share your own pictures at this website.

The K6 in popular culture

The humble red telephone box was used in album cover art by Bowie. A red box features in music videos by Adele and features in numerous films. The K6 design is used as a money box and frequently used as a container for chocolates or biscuits, a salt and pepper shaker, Christmas decorations and teapots. A permanent fixture in departure lounge souvenir shops in UK airports. The red telephone box, or more specifically the K6, will be a part of the street scene in Britain for many years to come. A design that has made a place in all our hearts and is instantly recognisable throughout the world.

A true British Icon...The K6 Red Telephone Box, a design that instantly calls out Britain!

A chance to see the kiosks in one place

The Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings in Worcestershire holds the British Telecom collection of phone kiosks alongside AA and RAC roadside cabins and the blue Police Boxes made famous by Doctor Who!

Worksheet and Lesson Activities

New learning resources and exam materials will soon be available in relation to this topic.


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