An introduction to UK phone boxes

The first public phone boxes, (kiosks) were introduced 100 years ago. Many introduced in the 1930s are still with us and some are ‘preserved buildings’. Many are the iconic, red phone box, know all over the world as a symbol of the UK.

Early days

There were about three kiosk designs in the early days of telecommunications set up by various telephone companies. With the nationalization of telecommunications in 1912, all except a few local authorities run systems, came under the control of the General Post Office (GPO), who later became Post Office Telecommunications and more recently BT.

The private companies had taken the view that they wanted subscribers to their system, they did not charge for individual calls, the cost of subscription covered all the use the subscriber made of the system. The simplest way to operate phone boxes was to either:

  • Give the subscribers tokens to give to a phone box attendant.
  • Use a coin collecting box on the door of the phone box (like a public convenience!).

Apart from museums you will not find any early phone boxes in existence. There were not many of them because providing telephone access for casual users was not a priority for telephone companies or the GPO in its early days.

K is for Kiosk

First of all, why ‘kiosk’; after all everyone calls them phone boxes (phone booth, pay phone) don’t they? In the more formal days when public call offices were set up a kiosk was a:

  • A small enclosed structure, often freestanding, open on one side or with a window, used as a booth to sell newspapers, cigarettes, etc.
  • A similar unattended stand for the automatic dispensing of tickets, etc.
  • A Turkish garden pavilion.

Kiosk general features

Most phone boxes are square in floor plan, with the telephone and coin collecting on one wall, there are often notices and instructions for using the phone box as well as telephone directories. The door forms one wall and is often glazed. For wheel-chair access the door is omitted. The other remaining walls are also often glazed. On many phone boxes the door could be positioned opposite the phone side or to its left or right. This allowed them to be grouped together in threes or fours.

The phone and coin collecting mechanism, notices, directories and layout of the ‘back board’ on which they are mounted, do give away the period of the phone box, however, they are not covered here. This article covers the K series produced by the GPO, Post Office Telecommunications and BT. Phone boxes existed before the K series, provided by the companies that formed the nucleus of the GPO’s Telephone business, but these are not covered here. Neither does this article cover the phone boxes introduced by Other Licensed operators (OLO).

GPO K series

Ranging in date from 1921 to the current day the K series (K1 to K8 and KX) are the mainstay of public phone boxes in the UK.

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