STORY OF THE UK
PUBLIC CALL OFFICE
"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.
Other types were coming into use by 1912, when the Post Office took over the National Telephone Company. A contractor in the south of England tendered for kiosks at an approximate cost of
£12 free on rail and painted to specification.
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 Kiosk No. 3 (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.
The Post Office had marked Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1896 by introducing a number of improvements in the country's communications and at the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935 further improvements were introduced, including developments in call office facilities. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was commissioned to design a new kiosk retaining the best features of the Kiosk No. 2. His final design showed considerable improvement and received general approval of the Post Office and the Royal Fine Arts Commission. The Commission fully endorsed the use of Post Office red as the standard colour. This kiosk became known as the Jubilee kiosk (Fig. 17) and was adopted as a standard for all parts of the country. Simultaneously the Post Office redesigned the internal fittings in black and chrome (Fig. 18) and the unit is known as the Jubilee Assembly. The official title is the Kiosk No. 6 and came into service in 1936.
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 would contribute £4 annually for five years. The scheme was entitled the 'Tercentenary Concession'. Both schemes have now been replaced by the Rural Allocation Scheme under which call offices are provided in rural areas in co-operation with the Rural District Councils' Association.
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 Kiosk No. 6 kiosk rendered Kiosk 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 is shown in the graph. Considering the intervention of the war and the restrictive years which followed this is no mean achievement. To provide a high quality service to the public, a well-designed, clean and attractive kiosk, neat and durable fittings, has been the constant policy of the Post Office and it has not failed in this respect. Much more remains to be done and saturation point seems a long way off but there is no doubt that our Jubilee Kiosk will stand the test of time and I remain a hallmark of successful enterprise and development in the interest of our people.
The above article finishes here in 1954. But Kiosk installations and models continued to grow.........In 1958 the Post Office approached the architect Neville Conder to design a modern kiosk. He responded with an ultra modern design using the new trunk dialling pay phone equipment. The Kiosk was 14 inches shorter than the K6 and was constructed from aluminium, with large panes of glass. It was named the Kiosk No. 7 (Fig. 19).
The Kiosk was trailed in Central London in January 1962 and the public were invited to send their comments to the Postmaster General.
Due to the English weather the Kiosk never got past the prototype stage as the aluminium bled greyish streaks over the assembly and the panels blistered. It looked a complete mess.
Only five aluminium examples entered service, four in London and one in Coventry. A further half dozen were commissioned in cast iron, but it is not known where they were erected, if anywhere.
But the concept of the No. 7 Kiosk was not lost and in 1968 the Kiosk No. 8 (Fig. 20) was introduced by the British Post Office. Two designers, Douglas Scott and Bruce Martin, had been commissioned in 1965 to produce designs for a new kiosk. The designs had to incorporate the best features of previous designs and be suitable for both urban and rural surroundings. Bruce Martin's design was eventually selected and when introduced had been produced in just over one year, the shortest time then taken to create a new kiosk.
It was made from cast iron and contained full length toughened glass windows. It became the successor to Kiosk No. 6 (the K6) for all replacements and new installations as the standard payphone housing. This model has only 50 component parts compared with the 400 component parts of the Kiosk No. 6.
In 1981 the Post Office was privatised and British Telecom wanted a new look Kiosk. The KX range of Kiosks was introduced in 1985 and although a new design, the KX100 (Fig. 21) model looked very similar to the Kiosk No. 7.
Designed to be wheelchair accessible, these kiosks also had a large gap at the bottom which ventilated the kiosk but it also allowed the wind to blow any any debris dropped on the floor!
Due to criticisms of the KX design, the KX100 was replaced in 1996 by the KX+ or KX Plus (Fig. 22). This had a larger dome which could be used to house equipment like WIFI repeaters and made the structure more visible from a distance. Some KX100's were also retrofitted with a domed roof at this time..
By the end of the Century public payphone use was very much diminished by the use of mobile phones and BT saw revenues drop. They started a programme of kiosk removal and also ceased production of the KX.
But in 2007 the Kiosk booth "Street Talk 6" (Fig. 23) was introduced by BT, in partnership JC Decaux, which effectively killed off the KX range. This new Booth was free standing with a hooded pay phone on one side and a scrolling 6 advert display on the rear.
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.
But in the early l880s things were very different. Although there had existed, particularly in London, a small number of callrooms (as they were then termed), the telephone companies operating them had little incentive to extend because they were required by Government to pay a royalty of 50 per cent on the gross receipts. In November 1884, however, the Government - in response to pressure from the trading community - granted new licences and reduced the royalty to ten per cent.
A month later the National Telephone Company issued a series of stamps (above) to avoid making cash payments to the call office attendant. The stamps were issued for sale to, and use by, subscribers and members of the public, and when the telephone was used at a call office, the stamps were attached to a form kept by the attendant.
The stamps were issued in denominations which corresponded with certain of the company's fixed scale of charges, based upon the distance between the points of communication. They were: 1d (black); 3d (pale red); 4d (ultramarine); 6d (bronze); 1s (brown). Each stamp bore a three-quarter face portrait of Colonel Robert Raynsford Jackson, chairman of the company. The stamps were at one time much used in Scotland, from where the company operated, but because of their confusion with and use by the public as postage stamps, they were withdrawn in 1891 at the request of the Postmaster-General.
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: October 30, 2022