STORY OF THE UK
"You may telephone from here"
By George Orchin,
It is perhaps a little surprising nowadays to see signs bearing the inscription in white letters on blue ground “You may telephone from here” affixed to the walls of old buildings in various parts of the country. They are reminiscent of the early days when most public call offices were installed in the local general store or chemist’s shop, perhaps as an added pull to custom. Such call offices, however, are now few and far between, for the public demands a 24-hour service which can be provided only at places accessible at all hours of the day: mainly, therefore, on the public highway. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, R.A., architect of Liverpool Cathedral, was the designer of the present standard No. 6 kiosk which, with its distinctive appearance and colour, its simple inscription “TELEPHONE” written in glass opals around the top, and its black and chrome internal furnishings, provides a service to the community as important as and perhaps in some cases, more important than, water, gas and electricity services.
The first kiosks appeared on the streets of our towns and villages in the early 1900’s. Fig. 1 shows a kiosk installed on the public highway at Nottingham and Fig. 2 one of a rustic arbour design in some public gardens at Folkestone, both in 1908.
The colour of the kiosks varied from place to place. A kiosk at Southport was painted buff and dark brown outside and dark brown (lower half) and white top and ceiling inside. The “Birmingham” type was finished in oak varnish. Even in 1912 scribblers caused trouble, for white paint was replaced by varnish. About this time the Postmaster General approved the provision of scribbling pads, with advertisements, in call offices to prevent defacement of the kiosk walls, although this facility was short-lived.
Soon after the National Telephone Company was taken over it was apparent that there was a need to improve the design of kiosks and to standardise the colour at red. Drawings were made in 1913 for two types of more ornamental design which it was stipulated should combine aesthetic quality with economy of design and should be produced at no increase in cost over the existing types. It is doubtful whether the proposed new designs ever reached the building or even prototype stage, for in 1914 the “Birmingham” type was still being ordered.
With the outbreak of war the question of providing kiosks lapsed into obscurity and it was not until 1921 that the problem was again tackled seriously. In that year the first standard design was introduced and was designated Kiosk No. 1. It was a prefabricated concrete structure with metal glazing bars (Fig. 6). About 150 were first ordered, at a cost of £35 each, but there was such a demand that 500 had been ordered by March, 1923. By February, 1925, the demand was for 52 a month and the cost had fallen to £13. To reduce freight charges, contracts were then being placed in various parts of the country.
For more reasons than one London had lagged behind other parts of the country in providing kiosks on the highway. The National Telephone Company had installed kiosks on some London streets, but they proved to be unremunerative and were withdrawn. It was only after protracted negotiations with the various local authorities from 1923 onwards that provision in London was stepped up. There were some 99 of these authorities to negotiate with; further, because of the extraordinary congestion of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, both the police and the Ministry of Transport had to be consulted.
With the formation of the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee, on which the police and the Ministry of Transport were represented, procedure was smoothed out to some extent. By 1926 180 kiosks had been erected on the public highway, on sites controlled by the City Corporation, County councils, County Borough councils, Urban District councils, Rural District councils, Parish councils and the Port of London Authority; 115 were installed on private sites. By the end of 1929 the number of completed kiosks in the London area of all types had increased to 1,581.
In 1924 production of a new design of cast-iron kiosk was considered and the Fine Arts Commission recommended that a premium of £50 be offered for each of three designs to be submitted by architects of recognised standing, whom the Commission would select. Designs were prepared by Sir John Burnet, A.R.A. (Fig. 7), Sir Robert Lorimer, A.R.A. (Fig. 8), the Birmingham Civic Society (Fig. 9), the Metropolitan Boroughs Joint Standing Committee (Fig. 10) and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, R.A. (Fig. 11). Models were placed on view on vacant land behind the National Gallery and selection was made by the Fine Arts Commission. The design by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was chosen and, with slight modification to the door, was adopted by the Post Office. It was designated Kiosk No. 2.
In 1927 Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was asked to design a more ornamental kiosk than the No. 1 and his design was accepted. This kiosk was of prefabricated concrete and designated No. 3 Kiosk (Fig. 12). Although, in 1929, the Post Office did not consider it desirable to discontinue entirely the manufacture of No. 1 kiosks, they intended to regard No. 3 as the normal kiosk for sites of special architectural importance and the No. 1 as the kiosk for places where all aesthetic considerations were subordinated to economy, as in a rural area where the local authorities found it difficult to guarantee a minimum annual revenue.
During this period of development there were many difficulties to contend with; local authorities were very jealous of their amenities and, while appreciating the need for public kiosks, they did not readily accept standard designs or colour. In Eastbourne, for example, the Corporation insisted on having two kiosks along the sea-front thatched to match the rustic public shelters. A local builder tendered to provide the thatched roof at a cost of £14 and the estimate was accepted. The two thatched kiosks (Fig. 13) remained from 1925 till 1936, when they were withdrawn and replaced by No. 6 kiosks.
It is interesting to recall a letter to the Eastbourne Chronicle dated March 19, 1936:
The No. 4 kiosk was first proposed in 1923 and the prototype (Figs. 14 and 15) was erected at Bath in 1926. It contained facilities for buying stamps and posting letters, in addition to the telephone. The standard No. 4 kiosk (Fig. 16) was designed by the Post Office Engineering Department on the basis of the No. 2 kiosk and was approved about 1927. It was painted vermilion outside and flame colour inside. The original cost figure was £50. 6s. 9d. and an order for 50 was placed at this time. It was argued that these kiosks would save opening town sub-offices and they were erected only at special places where it was expected they would be highly remunerative and only where there was a genuine public need. These kiosks were considerably larger than the other types and consequent difficulty was experienced in getting suitable sites. Other objections came to light with the kiosk in service; for example, the noise of the stamp machines disturbed callers, and there was difficulty in keeping rolls of stamps sufficiently protected from the weather.
For these reasons and because of the high cost the Post Office decided, about 1935, not to install any more kiosks of this type, and when those in service were withdrawn or replaced they were to be scrapped.
Although this article is not intended to deal with the provision of kiosks, it is not perhaps out of place to mention that this notable year marked a step forward in the provision of call offices in rural areas. A scheme known as the “Jubilee Concession Scheme” was introduced whereby call offices were provided in every town and village on the mainland of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which had a Post Office. In the same year which, incidentally, was the tercentenary year of the Post Office, further development was
encouraged, and the Post Office undertook to provide a call office wherever the local authority
With these further developments in rural areas it was not surprising that objections to the standard colour increased and the Post Office had recourse once again to the Royal Fine Arts Commission and the Preservation councils in an effort to resolve the “colour” problem.
The Royal Fine Arts Commission was set up by Royal Warrant for the specific object of enquiring into and advising upon questions of public amenity or artistic importance referred to them by Government Departments or public bodies. As far back as 1924 the Post Office had asked the Commission’s advice about the decorative treatment of kiosks. Their recommendation that Post Office red should be used as a standard had been adopted. In the ensuing years exceptions had, however, been permitted, especially in areas of particular natural beauty where, by special agreement with the County councils concerned, a few No. 3 kiosks were painted green to meet the councils’ wishes.
Introduction of the No. 6 kiosk rendered No. 3 obsolete and it became increasingly difficult to supply the obsolete type in the special areas; one of the difficulties with the pre-cast kiosk is that it is liable to damage in dismantling and re-erecting. Apart from the few exceptions noted, No. 6 kiosk was not provided in other than the standard colour. With the rapid increase of transport and the acceleration of movement throughout the countryside and the introduction of free emergency call facilities, it was considered essential to standardize design and colour to enable the public to recognize a kiosk so that assistance could be obtained quickly in an emergency, whether the fire, police, or ambulance service were required.
In 1939 the Royal Fine Arts Commission had endorsed their earlier recommendation. The war then intervened but in 1946 with the upsurge of interest in town and country planning and the expansion of call office facilities, post-war development brought the question again to the fore. The Council for the Preservation of Rural England raised the matter with the Royal Fine Arts Commission which, while adhering to their original recommendation, felt there were special cases in isolated rural areas and the wilder parts of the country where some variation from the standard Post Office red would be more in keeping with the surroundings and they suggested that in certain (unspecified) areas of special beauty, and with due safeguards, the Post Office should be permitted to paint kiosks dark grey or black, always retaining the approved red for the glazing bars.
In 1947 the Postmaster General, in reply to a question in the House of Lords, undertook to review the matter. Representatives of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning and the Royal Fine Arts Commission and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England took part in discussions and, to enable practical consideration of the different colours, six kiosks were erected in suitable surroundings for their inspection. The six kiosks were painted in Post Office Red, Deep Brunswick Green, Middle Brunswick Green, Black, Light Battleship Grey, and Dark Battleship Grey. With the exception of the red kiosk, the glazing bars of the doors and one other side of each of the five kiosks were painted in red and thus each kiosk could be viewed with or without this feature.
The conclusions were that Post Office Red should remain the standard colour for rural and urban areas, and that in certain places of very exceptional natural beauty, where objection was raised to the standard Post Office Red, one alterative colour only should be permitted - dark battleship grey with glazing bars picked out in red. These recommendations were accepted and a scheme was adopted which provided for cooperation between the Post Office, the local amenity societies and the planning authorities, which has proved very satisfactory in operation.
Much more might be said about the development of call offices but it is enough to say here that since 1925 some 45,200 kiosks have been provided and the total of all types in service at December, 1953, was 63,665. The annual growth
The above article finishes in 1954
Call Office Centenary
It is a fact that no other service reflects British Telecom’s image more directly than its ‘public call offices’. They also provoke strong customer reaction on a variety of issues, ranging from where they are sited to their colour.
The first kiosks, which appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, were made from wood with glass windows. Because local councils considered kiosks unsightly and a cause of street congestion, most were to be found in railway stations or inside shops. Even the introduction of a standard design in 1921 (the Kiosk No. 1) did not completely overcome the objections. In 1924, a competition, held to produce an improved kiosk design, was won by the eminent architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. His Kiosk No. 2 was well received in London, while a less grand Kiosk No. 3 found widespread use elsewhere. In 1935, as part of King George V’s jubilee celebrations, Sir Giles was again commissioned to produce a new design. His red jubilee kiosk (No. 6) proved suitable for all locations, and soon became a familiar sight throughout the country. It remained the standard kiosk until the introduction of the current model (Kiosk No. 8) in 1968.
In recent years, British Telecom - recognising the important image projected by the appearance of its kiosks
- has been looking closely at a new range of kiosks to cater for any location. Major considerations have included modular capability, maintenance and cleaning aspects, and ease of access by the handicapped.
When decimal coinage was introduced, the unit fee of the payphone was changed from 6d to 2p, and much anticipatory design and piece-part manufacture was necessary before the availability of the new coins. In the event, the challenge of D-day (15 February 1971) was met by telephone area staff, with industry’s help, with a near total change of the whole payphone system in the space of three weeks. During the 1970s it became apparent that the viable life of the POA system was limited.
Inflation had exposed a need to provide for greater flexibility in design to cope with tariff adjustment and to obtain the unit fee charge from a given combination of coins. As metering rates increased - particularly with the widespread availability of International Direct Dialling - the enforced breaks in transmission while additional coins were inserted became more obtrusive. Also, as the system aged, the concept of a payphone with its coin-validation mechanism linked to a controlling coin and fee check relay set in the local exchange did not help the quick localisation of faults between the payphone and the exchange-based equipment. Plans were drawn up in 1978 to update the whole system by exploiting the advantages of electronic technology. In planning the change, note was taken of the need to harmonise the operating characteristics with most other European countries. The decision was taken that the system would be based on the pre-payment approach, with refund of unused coins where appropriate. It was also decided to dispense with the two-part concept of POA, and to opt instead for an integral design with logic control vested in the payphone itself. A trial began in 1979 of a high-revenue-earning payphone, known as the Blue Payphone 1. This and the current version (Blue Payphone 2), are now replacing all POA payphones.
In 1981 the Phonecard Service was introduced, and so began the cashless calling revolution using phonecards which employ holographic techniques. Following a successful trial, this service is now being extended nationally. As well as being easier to use, there are no coins to collect and it is hoped that vandalism and attempted theft will decrease.
Trainphone was introduced earlier this year, and the service is now in regular use between London and Swansea. Future cashless services may include the automatic charging of telephone calls to a specified telephone number, and the use of commercial credit cards to pay for calls.
Last revised: December 19, 2010