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The Inescapable Melancholy Of Phone Boxes

July 9, 2019
by the gentle author

Red phone boxes are a cherished feature of my personal landscape because, in my childhood, we never had a telephone at home and, when I first made a phone call at the age of fifteen, it was from a box. In fact, for the major part of my life, all my calls were made from boxes – thus telephone calls and phone boxes were synonymous for me. I grew up with the understanding that you went out to make a phone call just as you went out to post a letter.

Yet the culture of mobile phones is now so pervasive I was shocked to discover I had hardly noticed as the red telephone boxes have vanished from our streets and those few that remain stand redundant and unused. So I set out with my camera to photograph the last of them, lest they should disappear without anybody noticing. It was a curious and lonely pilgrimage because, whereas they were once on every street, they have now almost all gone and I had to walk miles to find enough specimens to photograph.

Reluctantly, I must reveal that on my pitiful quest in search of phone boxes, I never saw anyone use one though I did witnessed the absurd spectacle of callers standing beside boxes to make calls on their mobiles several times. The door has fallen off the one in Spitalfields, which is perhaps for the best as it has been co-opted into service as a public toilet while the actual public toilet nearby is now a vintage boutique.

Although I must confess I have not used one myself for years, I still appreciate phone boxes as fond locations of emotional memory where I once experienced joy and grief at life-changing news delivered down the line. But like the horse troughs that accompany them on Clerkenwell Green and outside Christ Church, Spitalfields, phone boxes are now vestiges of a time that has passed forever. I imagine children must ask their mothers what these quaint red boxes are for.

The last phone boxes still stand proud in their red livery but like sad clowns they are weeping inside. Along with pumps, milestones, mounting blocks and porters’ rests these redundant pieces of street furniture serve now merely as arcane reminders of a lost age – except that era was the greater part of my life. This is the inescapable melancholy of phone boxes.

Redundant in Whitechapel

Ignored in Whitechapel

Abandoned in Whitechapel

Rejected in Bow

Abused in Spitalfields

Irrelevant in Bethnal Green

Shunned in Bethnal Green

Empty outside York Hall

Desolate in Hackney Rd

Pointless in St John’s Sq

Unwanted on Clerkenwell Green

Invisible in Smithfield

Forgotten outside St Bartholomew’s Hospital

In service outside St Paul’s as a quaint location for tourist shots

You may also like to take a look at

Toilets At Dawn

The Doors of Spitalfields

East End Desire Paths

The Pumps of Old London

The Manhole Covers of Spitalfields

32 Responses leave one →
  1. mlaiuppa permalink
    July 9, 2019

    But what if I should need to make a call because I don’t have phone service in the UK?

    I’m surprised any remain at all. Public phones have been gone from the U.S. for maybe 20 years. I’m sure some lobbyist connected with the cell phone industry hurried their demise along to boost private profits. The break-up of ATT accelerated the process.

    I find it lovely that the victorian post boxes are still in service and look to remain so for many decades to come.

    I’m sure these remaining phone boxes will eventually be gathered up, sold, refurbished and sold to wealthy collectors for their basement and game rooms.

  2. B Smith permalink
    July 9, 2019

    When the red ‘phones boxes were phased out in favour of more (supposedly) modern models, the telephone department here sold a great many of them to the public – a friend of mine bought one and installed it in his back garden.

  3. Graham Brown permalink
    July 9, 2019

    I read that the red telephone box, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, was inspired by the work of the architect Sir John Soane, especially the Soane family tomb.
    There was an outcry in my village when the telephone box was to be removed. Fortunately, it was saved and now contains a defibrillator instead of a redundant phone.

  4. Sally Bernard permalink
    July 9, 2019

    Loved this! The two on right of entrance to St Bartholomews hospital are very special.used
    in the Sherlock Holmes adventures recently and antique compared to the others.did you miss them or have they gone?

  5. Greg Tingey permalink
    July 9, 2019

    I note that the ones in Smithfield are of slightly different designs …
    And, of course, there’s the famous phone-box “sculpture in Kingston ….
    [ Here: https://goo.gl/maps/98GFtnLAqgpYszmA9 ]

  6. Jax Atkins permalink
    July 9, 2019

    I too, regret the passing of the red phone boxes – I remember my formative teenage years & romances were conducted from Button A & B phone boxes!
    I saw a fab use of one in the Steyne in Worthing – it was used as a mini art exhibition, with a seaside theme – flying seagulls, etc.
    Maybe this could be a good future for them? As mini-displays/expos of the area in which they are situated?
    I could think of some excellent ideas for the East End of London!

  7. Jude permalink
    July 9, 2019

    Yet they are obviously so iconic because always an attraction for tourists taking selfies.

  8. Elizabeth Neill permalink
    July 9, 2019

    Here in the U.S. “little libraries” from which you can take donated books (and you’re encouraged to leave one) have sprung up and I believe a retired phone box (booth) was converted for this purpose. I wonder if that might be a future use. I love the idea of housing a defibrillator.

  9. Barbara Anglezarke permalink
    July 9, 2019

    Lovely but sad pics GA. Have you seen the boxes in Bath city centre? They have been turned into glorious greenhouses with flowers spilling out from the windows. Our village has just adopted ours and turned it into a mini Tourist Information Centre with a Memory Book and bench – launched with a whole village party last week. It is a little gem! We have similar repurposed boxes locally too – a library and an art gallery – and we are planning to create a renewable energy themed box in Talybont just over the river. Citizens of London unite and seize control of your boxes! Perhaps there could be a Spitalfields heritage box??

  10. Gill Baron permalink
    July 9, 2019

    I used one of those outside St Barts Hospital in 1964 to tell my husband that I was at last pregnant following a successful operation carried out at this very hospital a few months earlier. I had gone for a check-up, unaware of the great news I was to receive that day.
    So one of those boxes holds a very special memory for us as I shared my news with my elated husband.

  11. Peter Holford permalink
    July 9, 2019

    A great many have gone and many of them a few years ago stood in a builder’s yard at Mossley in Greater Manchester – a bizarre, vertical graveyard of some one hundred phone boxes. Many of those were sold as garden ornaments.

    In the Pennine villages around us many are protected as part of conservation areas and some have become the housing for defibrillators to revive those walkers whom the local pub can’t resuscitate. (In Dobcross the phone box defibrillator is next to the pub door!)

    My memory of using the phone when I was young was being told by my mother to announce our number when answering the phone – Putney 9342 is forever etched in my brain. The reasoning was that if somebody was ringing from a phone box they would know if they had the correct number before pressing button ‘A’ and committing their 4d (that’s about 1½ p for those below a certain age!). Until her death in 2013 my mum would still announce her number when we rang!

  12. Alexandra Rook permalink
    July 9, 2019

    I feel much the same nostalgia for them too; with memories of heart racing & running away after pressing button B to see if any change would materialise in lieu of pocket money…

    Villages seem to have converted some to swop shops for books; in London they seem to become mini coffee outlets. I’m sure there are more ideas. They need to be repurposed to remain. It is sad to lose them – the iconic souvenirs will end up being all that remain.

    If they weren’t substituting for the absence of pissoirs, they do provide an alternative to doorways to obtain some sound proofing from traffic when m/taking a call on the street.

  13. Julia permalink
    July 9, 2019

    To the first poster – there are still public phones in the UK – they’re just not in the iconic red boxes any more, usually in black BT plinths etc.

    The red boxes I’ve seen in London lately all seem to have become daytime storage facilities for the bedding and belongings of our shockingly high homeless population.

  14. Ken permalink
    July 9, 2019

    A small number of boxes are listed, as a result of a campaign led by Gavin Stamp of the Thirties (now C20th) Society some years ago. Some in rural areas have been reused, for defibrillators, mini libraries, information points, etc. But what is the future for those in cities?

  15. Christian Smith permalink
    July 9, 2019

    I’ve noticed that some still maintain their traditional alternative function as physical message boards, particularly for local models, masseuses, etc.

  16. July 9, 2019

    I loved phone booth. Not a single one left in Spain. They were much plainer than the British ones.

  17. Helen Breen permalink
    July 9, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, that is a great shot of St. Paul’s façade in the sunlight. Alas, the demise of the red box so loved by tourists like myself. Another less visible means of communication fading from the landscape is the internet cafés of yore. Years back, I would stop at these conveniences along the way and shoot an email home to friends and family. Of course, I have succumbed and entered the Iphone universe of late years.

    Thanks for cataloguing the remaining red boxes around London such as the are…

  18. July 9, 2019

    Bear with me, if this idea has already been proposed……..or maybe even implemented? But, how about an art competition for the schools, asking kids to transform the boxes? The kids would learn about (egads!?) previous modes of communication, plus they would bring their fresh visual approach to the various phone boxes, etc.

    Or maybe all of these boxes could be gathered up and become part of an installation at your London Museum? Multiples of anything……Usually pretty interesting. (just musing here……)

    Just think: I’m old enough to recall when “stuffing” phone boxes with teenagers was “a thing”.
    At least, here in America.

  19. David Shaffer permalink
    July 9, 2019

    I remember, when the four penny, unlimited-time phones of my childhood were being phased out for the timed (was it threepenny bit?) phones with the frantic beeping during which you had to rush to insert the coin, we used to seek out the old phones….
    And before that it was such a great lark phoning strangers and swearing at them until we pressed Button B and got our money back. (The person receiving the call could hear you only after you pressed Button A, thus allowing the caller to hang up without paying if it was a wrong number – or if the call was simply a pre-arranged signal… )
    Oh, yes, those four massive phone books A to D, E to K , L to R and S to Z with different coloured covers….

  20. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 9, 2019

    Yes – I know that feeling and hate seeing the red telephone boxes going to rack and ruin (luckily our local one has also been re-purposed to house a de-fibrilator). I wonder how long the red post boxes will survive?

    As Peter Ackroyd has pointed out, Red is the colour of London…

  21. Linda Granfield permalink
    July 9, 2019

    How sad!
    At least the boxes at York Hall and St. Paul’s have mates to ‘chat’ with.
    And it must be an alumni meeting of boxes going on at Smithfield.

    Imagine all the news and gossip (and other) those boxes have heard over the years.

    Your last image captures a pair of London Symbols for those of us who live abroad–the double-decker and the phone box.
    Add Twiggy and we’re back in the sixties!

  22. Jane Annesley permalink
    July 9, 2019

    Red telephone boxes seem to be alive and well in the Highlands of Scotland – invaluable if you break down and find there’s no signal for your mobile because of the surrounding mountains. I speak from experience.

  23. Su C. permalink
    July 9, 2019

    I must admit as a tourist to London many times over the last nearly 30 years, I have stood inside a red box to have my snap taken. Always the same box now for at least the last 20 years or so. Yet on our last trip, the box was gone and I felt I’d lost my may in an area so familiar to my inner map.

  24. Bonny young permalink
    July 9, 2019

    In Brockley an old phone box has been turned into a Book Exchange. Probably the smallest library in London!

    Love your photographs and comments about them.

  25. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    July 9, 2019

    When I was in Norfolk this spring I found that the red phone box on the green in Burnham Market has become a voluntary library exchange. Where once the telephone stood there are shelves of books where people deposit a book that they have finished with and take another that they haven’t read. On my adventures rattling through the Norfolk landscape in my rental Fiat I noticed this adaptation in other phone boxes on other village greens.

    No doubt electronic media will one day overtake the humble and homely book as well. But for this moment in time, I heartily approve.

  26. July 9, 2019

    I remember visiting London in the 1980s and all the phone booths were chock-a-block with postcards for prostitutes catering to every peccadillo under the sun. “Tart Cards”, I have subsequently learned was the name for them. The graphic design of many of them was actually quite good, and I began to collect them. Fast forward about 20 years, and some bloke who had also collected published a book of them, including many which I recognised. A link here to some of them, if that is OK, GA?! Perhaps a topic for a future column? Lamenting the long-gone Spitalfields Tart Cards?!!

    https://dangerousminds.net/comments/london_calling_a_look_at_vintage_tart_cards_used_by_english_prostitutes

  27. Jim M. permalink
    July 9, 2019

    Ignored in Whitechapel, Rejected in Bow, Shunned in Bethnal Green, Desolate in Hackney Rd,

    Pointless in St John’s Sq and Invisible in Smithfield.

    You’ve just described, far too accurately I might add, a large chunk of my teenage years! ;)

  28. Nancy C. permalink
    July 9, 2019

    Most of the public pay phones in New York City have been removed, also. But as they were on almost every corner and not nearly as handsome as the red London phone booths, their demise is welcome. But I did recently watch a teacher explaining to her I think kindergarten (5-year-old) class what one was. They were mesmerized by putting coins in the slots to receive a dial tone.

  29. Beth b permalink
    July 10, 2019

    I love seeing the phone boxes when I visit England, and have many pictures of them. My friend and I both used one to make actual calls on a few years ago when we were in London with no working phones – her company had given her a plan to make calls to England, not while IN England (exactly what she didn’t need), and I had accidentally swapped chargers with my husband who was staying in Wiltshire for a week while we were in London. So the real live phone in the phone booth let my friend argue with her phone company and let me call the pub below my husband’s room and arrange to overnight his charger to him, so at least he wouldn’t be phoneless! I really hope they don’t get rid of all the real live phones. And they are SO much prettier than ours in the US – not that we have many left either, but I don’t miss ours so much. It is encouraging that so many are being repurposed.

  30. Ian Silverton permalink
    July 11, 2019

    Irrelevant in Bethnal Green, is in main road outside what we called as children the Red Church!! Made from red bricks of that colour very unusual then in all our squalor of living there at that time,now it’s flats or Appartments, local lads!!! Reg and Ronnie used them from across the road to the Boxes from there OFFICE table in Pellicci Cafe opposite arcross main Road along with other members of the Gang, bit of history there,if you LIKE.

  31. Maggie permalink
    July 11, 2019

    I’m in the U.S. and my boss, a rabid Anglophile, bought a red phone box a while back to use as a decorative item in her country house. I can only imagine what the transport cost must have been.

    I do love hearing that some in the U.K. are being used to house defibrillators. I wish the States would do something as brilliant.

    Is it the Royal Mail that profits from the sale of them? And does anyone know what the going cost is for one?

  32. Esther permalink
    July 11, 2019

    I hope the left phoneboxes will stay and get a new use. As a child I was always mesmerized by the beautiful red phoneboxes and postboxes I saw on SKYchannel and later the BBC.(ours were boring grey or later green) A lucky family in my neighbourhood had somehow aquired a real English red postbox in their frontgarden and I always dreamed of having one myself when I grew up(bought a miniversion-savingbox when I later went to Londen on holiday) The few left phoneboxes in The Netherlands where I used to live and some in Germany have become bookexchanges.I would love to have a phonebox in my backyard for the gardentools.

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