The Telephone Kiosk: Dialling back the years on a British Icon

Billy Hotchkiss explores the story behind the one of the nation’s most recognisable structures, detailing its rise, fall and continued public service.

Walking down Market Street in Preston, you’d be excused for not noticing an iconic British landmark. Along the edge of the former Shankley Hotel stands 9 red telephone boxes, 8 of which form the longest line of continuous kiosks in the country. Like many of the telephone boxes across the UK, they no longer contain phones, nor anything else, the glass is smashed, and they smell. Surely these can’t be a shrine to Britishness. How can something supposedly ‘iconic’ be left in such a state.

Preston’s line of telephone kiosks no longer work as public pay phones (Credit: Billy Hotchkiss)

“If you were to ask someone to describe the typical English village, I bet they would say it has a church, it has a pub, it has a duck pond and a phone box – that’s if you want the chocolate box image.” said Nigel Linge, professor of telecommunications at Salford University.

How the telephone box, rather kiosk (to use the correct term), gained its status is a long and complicated story, involving many models, designers and both the nationalisation and privatisation of an entire industry. Nigel’s book ‘The British Phonebox’, which he co-authored, details the over 100-year-old history. 

The history of the kiosk is over 100 years – briefly summed up here. (Credit: Billy Hotchkiss)

One of the most important moments in said story, was in 1935, when the K6 was released (for the uninitiated, each model is referred to via a K number). Designed to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of King George V, this model steeped in patriotism, is what you probably imagine of when you hear the word kiosk. Dreamt up by architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the K6 gained its iconic status via numbers, with 60,000 being originally dotted around the country.

And yet the kiosk didn’t peak in popularity for another fifty years. Nigel said: “It actually peaked with the KX series in the 1980s because it’s a little-known fact  that when BT (British Telecom) was privatised the population of phone boxes doubled – [BT] heavily invested in phone boxes.”

Professor Nigel Linge and a K8 kiosk (Credit: Nigel Linge)

For many, the reason kiosks remain in the British psyche is due to their presence in important life moments. Without mobile phones, how else could you tell family of exam results or keep in touch with a long-distance lover.

Sharon from Lytham St Annes experienced a major life moment in a kiosk when she gave birth to her daughter in 1985. Only living with her five-year-old and without a mobile phone, at 36 weeks she went into labour in the middle of the night.

“I grabbed the five-year-old, tying shoelaces between contractions and went 3 minutes down the road to phone my father in a kiosk, not knowing the baby was imminent, as I put the phone down she was born,

“It’s a shame [the box] isn’t there anymore, I wrote to British Telecom to ask if I could buy it when it was taken away, but they never wrote back.”

She added: “My friends joked I should have named my daughter after Buzby, the BT mascot at the time.”

Surprisingly, the major drop of in usage occurred in the 21st century. In 2002, 800 million minutes were recorded on payphones compared to 2021/2022’s 4 million, according to Ofcom. 

Nowadays with everyone carrying a mobile phone, many kiosks have little use, bar starring as background extras in period dramas or being used as urinals by the inebriated. Others have continued to provide a public service, being converted into defibrillators.

The idea to convert was originated by Community Heartbeat Trust. The charity have now installed around 1000 sites and are the only organisation approved to install defibrillators by BT.

The organisation’s national secretary, Martin Fagan said: “They have power, they’re easy to find, they’re on all the survey maps… They tend to be right in the centre of the community and people want to retain this great iconic structure.”

He added: “While I don’t think our work will define the future of the kiosk, what’s interesting was, when we were doing a project in a school a while ago and just in the course of conversations, the children were asked where a defibrillator was, and they all said in the telephone box – our work has established it as a recognisable placement.”

(Credit: Community Heartbeat Trust)

Nigel noted: “The irony of ironies is if you go and try get in to get a [defibrillator] you have to make a phone call to get an unlock it, its slightly ironic, but a great use.”

In 2021, Ofcom released tougher rules on telephone box conversion, which Martin admits make it more difficult to install defibrillators. The regulator strengthened safeguards against removing phone boxes in areas not covered by all four mobile networks or located at accident or suicide hotspots.

In their announcement, they also revealed that in the year to May 2020, phone boxes were used to make 150,000 calls to the emergency services, 25,000 calls to Childline and 20,000 to the Samaritans.

Despite the fact many of the more iconic models may have smashed windows, no phones or have been removed all together. Those which still work are clearly needed.

It was announced, last year, that the Preston Kiosks had been bought by the city council, with plans to upgrade the boxes, recognising them as an asset to the city. Phone-boxes are entering a new era, things on the surface may look broken – but their future is likely A-OK.