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Mar 14 2014

A British Icon: The Public Telephone Box

It’s incredible to think that the old British public telephone box has become so iconic.

Since the first, which was introduced in 1921, it has been redesigned many times.  The most popular one was redesigned in 1935 to commemorate King George V’s Silver Jubilee and ended up being installed in all the towns and cities that had a post office.

The public phone boxes we know and love are instantly recognisable by their striking red colour.  The thing is, while I was in Moorgate the other day, I came across this one.  As you can see, it isn’t red.  I had never seen one this colour before, so I decided to focus on this photograph this Friday.

I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t noticed black telephone boxes before and I didn’t know why this one was black.  The thing is, I do think I walk around with my eyes closed most of the time but, that’s the great thing about returning to London, I’m rediscovering it with fresh eyes.  I tend to get so used to a place, especially when I live there, and fail to notice the quirky and unusual things I might otherwise notice when I travel.

So, why is this telephone box black and not red?  I had to do a bit of ‘googling’ to come up with the answer.  It didn’t actually take that long because others had asked that exact question.  The answer is, it’s not owned by BT (British Telecom).  A number were sold off to other telecom operators but, as BT claims copyright for the design, only telephone boxes owned by BT can be red.  The rest have to be painted in a different colour, hence the black telephone boxes.

To be honest, we’re lucky to still have this style of telephone box whatever the colour because, at one time, BT were replacing them with a completely different, modern design that I never liked.  Thankfully, some of the old red telephone boxes were protected in the 1980s, having been recognised as nationally important and of special interest.  However, not all are listed and remain at risk.  The Twentieth Century Society aims to safeguard the heritage of architecture and design in Britain from 1914 onwards, which includes saving the remaining red telephone boxes.

So many people love these old-fashioned telephone boxes.  When I wander around London, I see tourists taking photos of each other in or bedside red telephone boxes.  It’s not just tourists though, in 2006, British people voted the red telephone boxes in the top ten of favourite design icons since 1900.

Have your say

Just like red buses and letter boxes, I can’t imagine London without red telephone boxes.  It wouldn’t be the same, would it?

About the author

Teresa Keane

Teresa has been to almost 60 countries. She started travelling independently at the age of 38 when she gave up her job, rented out her house, put her possessions in storage and spent a year travelling the world. It changed her life. She now creates, publishes, & promotes online travel content and is an experienced freelance trainer & EFL teacher.

4 comments

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  1. Brighter Bills

    Some of these iconic red phone boxes are being transformed into solar-powered mobile phone charging stations. The boxes have been painted green and fitted with a solar panel on the top. And what’s more: the service is completely free of charge!

  2. Teresa Keane

    I didn’t know that, and I haven’t seen any. I will be on the look out for them now because that will be really useful when my battery is low. Thanks for the info, Brighter Bills!

    Best wishes,

    Teresa.

  3. VoIP Providers

    Me too, I haven’t seen any. I will be on the look out for them,

    regards,

  4. Teresa Keane

    I’ve seen two now, so they are around.

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