The red telephone box is a much-cherished symbol of old-school Britishness. But most have been removed from the nation’s streets, with more due to disappear. Where do they all go in the case of the disappearing phone boxes? Where there were once the distinctive little red metal framed glass boxes barely roomy enough for one, consumers depend on a mobile phone signal and their smartphone.
They’re battered, rusting and flaky, some having stood in the sun, rain, wind and snow without any attention for three decades. A few have weeds poking through gaps that once housed glass panels. In a few weeks, maybe a few years, they will begin an afterlife – abroad, or, more likely, in British gardens.
The humble British phone box is a symbol of nostalgic life in Britain before the smartphone and iPad.
Staff at Unicorn Restorations spend up to 30 hours stripping old kiosks, repainting them in the same shades of red once stipulated by the General Post Office and putting in new glass. Finished booths are packed into wooden crates, looking a little like enlarged coffins, for shipping. “The re-animated corpse emerges from a case at the other end,” jokes Christian Lewis, the company’s restorations manager.
In 2002 there were 92,000 BT payphones across the UK. Today 57,500 remain, of which just 9,400 are traditional red models. Mobile phones mean most of those are now little used.
Payphones have almost disappeared from the landscape in the UK
Yet they still inspire affection. The classic red kiosk was voted the greatest British design of all time earlier this year, beating the Routemaster double-decker bus and the union flag into second and third places.
“I think the appeal of the red telephone box is based on two things,” says design critic Stephen Bayley. “First, the very pleasing neo-classical proportions and details which, in some mysterious way, are always satisfying wherever they are found. Second, perhaps at another unconscious level, it reminds us of a moment, alas long passed, when public service companies maintained a notion of civic responsibility – and used beauty and utility to meet that end.”
There are about 70 red phone boxes in the restoration yard. Costing between £2,000 ($3,200) and £10,000 ($15,600) when fully restored, they are not a cheap adornment. Renovated boxes have gone to Greece, Australia, Italy, France, Switzerland, Abu Dhabi and the US.
One resides on the fourth floor of a Manhattan office building, a British theatrical agent having bought it. China and Russia are growing markets, but the UK remains the biggest.
“They’re a reminder of a time when things were built to last and to show the pride people had in their communities and the things that they had to share, including public telephones,” says Lewis. “Up to 90 years later they’re still standing. Everyone in the world knows them. If you went to New York and didn’t see a yellow cab, it would be a total let-down. It’s the same with red phone boxes if someone came to visit Britain.”
Old phone boxes await their makeover