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London Calling: Buyers Making New Use of Britain’s Red Phone Booths

Yahoo! Contributor
Visit Britain
March 6, 2013

It's as much a symbol of Britain as Big Ben and the Union Jack. But the widespread use of mobile phones has all but killed off the quintessentially British red telephone booths that once sprinkled the United Kingdom landscape by the tens of thousands. An estimated 11,000 remain in use throughout Britain today, according to the Daily Mail.

The red booths (“boxes” in the UK) are finding new life in private collections and towns of all sizes all over Britain and the world. British Telecom held its first auction of the red telephone boxes in 1985. Last year, with less and less demand for pay phones, BT decided to sell off 60 more of the old kiosks to private buyers via telecom company X2 Connect. Prices for refurbished phone booths start at £2,250 ($3,400) each.

Sturdy red kiosks
After trying a few designs with limited success, BT introduced the sturdy red cast-iron boxes called K6 in 1935 for the Silver Jubilee celebration of King George V. Designed by architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the much-loved design featured glass-paned doors and a domed roof. It had a lighted interior with a shelf for a resting one's handbag or briefcase, a writing shelf with notepad, a cigarette holder with ashtray, a heater and a mirror.

Over the following 30 years, as many as 92,000 boxes stood sentry in locations from Central London to Scotland's remote Shetland Islands, as well as in Gibraltar, Bermuda and other Commonwealth nations.

In the days before cell phones, an illuminated telephone box seen from afar on a dark and rainy street comforted like a beacon directed toward home. I remember well the firm clunk of the kiosk's heavy doors (each kiosk weighs nearly a ton) and the satisfying clink of coins dropped into the box.

A little bit of Britain
X2 Connect, the pay-phone company charged with restoring and selling the old phone boxes, stores them at a “graveyard” in Newark, Nottinghamshire, where it restored many of them prior to the 2012 Summer Olympics. Customers from all over the world are interested in owning this little piece of Britain. The new owners have found innovative uses for decommissioned red telephone kiosks: home shower cubicle, backyard garden feature, defibrillator machine holder, toilet enclosure, art gallery, wine cabinet, sculpture.

This doesn't mean the red phone kiosks are disappearing entirely. Under the Adopt-a-Kiosk plan, communities around Britain can buy the phone boxes for £1 and use them for artistic or social purposes. The village of Westbury-sur-Mendip, Somerset, population 806, found a way to purchase its own telephone kiosk and refurbish it as a book exchange for villagers.

End of an era
Although it’s been a symbol of English life for nearly a century, the days of using the iconic red telephone box for its original purpose are numbered. With an estimated 92 percent of the British public owning a mobile phone, the economics of the lovely red telephone kiosks and their required maintenance simply do not make financial sense for BT.

Still, some aren’t happy about their removal. In October 2012, residents of Kilmuir, a tiny fishing village in Scotland, set up a round-the-clock vigil, using their cars to block a crane from access to the local red telephone kiosk when they found it under threat of being hauled away. Such efforts guarantee that at least a few of the K6 boxes will remain scattered across the countryside, just waiting for you to take their pictures (and maybe hug them, while you're at it).

by Laurie Jo Miller Farr

Photos: The iconic K6 telephone kiosk was designed in the 1930s and became a much loved piece of British street furniture. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

A traditional red telephone box was downright cozy, with a shelf for personal items and other features. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

A lone red telephone kiosk is a pop of color in the countryside in Harborough, Leicestershire (Photo by Maria Adams, courtesy of mariadams.com)