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The Inescapable Melancholy Of Phone Boxes

April 3, 2015
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

Irrelevant 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

34 Responses leave one →
  1. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    April 3, 2015

    I remember one on Hampstead Heath with the initials of some long-dead monarch on the door. GRVIII, was it?

  2. Lucas permalink
    April 3, 2015

    Wasn’t there some talk of converting some of them to free wi-fi hotspots? In any case, they are beautiful things and I (as a Yank tourist) would be sad to see them disappear … if for no other reason than they do make great touristy photos.

  3. Julia permalink
    April 3, 2015

    I remember using the phone boxes at Smithfield as an 18-year-old on my year abroad. I would stand there freezing cold, calling home to Australia (reverse charges… My poor parents!) There is a wonderful phone box that has been converted into a ‘library’ in Lewisham. Leave a book, take a book. Perhaps the red phone booths need to be reimagined…

  4. Julie in Memphis permalink
    April 3, 2015

    There was ( in 2001) a phone box outside the street side wall at Hampton Court Palace – also used as a photo opportunity by us. My daughters were excited to see a “real” phone box after seeing them in so many old movies.

  5. April 3, 2015

    Like so many time travel units, dotted around London.

    There is a man in BT, whose job it is to look after the phone boxes. The brother of a friend.

    And, another bit of trivia. There is a long running BBC detective drama production unit which carries around a red phone box, for set dressing. It helps establish the British brand.

  6. April 3, 2015

    Dear Gentle Author,
    I send you, across the ocean, a message of consolation. Standing proud, right here on our town Square in Oxford Mississippi, is beautiful British red phone box. It is most carefully tended and in pristine condition. I think it may also be functional. It marks the spot where our big red double-decker bus stops for passengers. (Apparently, generations ago, our university town was named for the original Oxford.) The red phone box stands in quite a lovely spot just a few yards from where writer William Faulkner presides in philosophical gesture with pipe in hand. Mr. Faulkner rests on his own bench, surveying the Oxford Square, day and night incarnated in bronze. Sometime I will email a photo of our bright red phone box to you ~ and Faulkner, too. How very beautiful your pictures of phone boxes are ~ how regal and how melancholy.

  7. Ros Dick permalink
    April 3, 2015

    A most moving post
    I laughed between the tears!
    Sherlock lovers still appreciate the telephone box – using post-it notes tho to communicate with the beyond!

  8. Helen Cockerill permalink
    April 3, 2015

    You may be interested in the Brockley Boxes on Lewisham Way – 2 red phone boxes that have been loved back into life. One is a library, the other an art gallery. Run by volunteers and much appreciated by the community.

  9. April 3, 2015

    what a unique design the phone boxes are. I like the other red London icons you photographed along the way. Reds amongst the London grey, what an unforgettable combination . There was a lovely horse trough at the bottom of our street that leant it a rustic charm. Wonder how many of those left? Lovely post and photos though you must have been glad of a sit down with a cuppa by the end.

  10. April 3, 2015

    It is sad that these wonderful little landmarks are disappearing, too. When I was a child, hardly anybody had a phone at home, and we all went to the phone box, clutching our 4 pennies, to make calls. Valerie

  11. April 3, 2015

    What a sad story about THE explicit identification of Great Britain — in my English text books at school the red phone boxes were always present. England without them — impossible!

    In Germany our Telekom-Boxes disappear too. And it is just funny when younger persons do ask what the dial was used for… 😉

    Love & Peace

  12. Suzy permalink
    April 3, 2015

    Aww reeally love the nostalgia in this. Save the phone boxes, I say!

  13. Bob Gladding permalink
    April 3, 2015

    Melancholic indeed. In Kingston-on-Thames we have a public art work by David Mach of 12 telephone boxes leaning against each other like a set of dominoes. Or maybe tumbling tombstones. A sad but effective retirement.

  14. Roger Carr permalink
    April 3, 2015

    Definitely repurposing is the way to go. How about a competition for the best idea?
    Off the top of my head . . . tourist information about the area and events for that day.
    Mini hot houses for tomatoes, basil, peaches and flowers. Or . . . public coffee machines like they have in Italy? Or a minibar? I think I’d better lie down now, my head is throbbing ! !

  15. Urban Fox permalink
    April 3, 2015

    Love your captions for those photos! It’s really sad to see them dying like this.

  16. Stephen Barker permalink
    April 3, 2015

    Locally some of the phone boxes are turning to a shade of pink as the paint fades. Traditional telephone boxes are such a wonderful design with its elements of classicism that made it blend in, despite the bright red colour. The perfect partner to red pillar boxes and London double decker buses.

  17. April 3, 2015

    I love this gallery of unloved phone boxes, before they are gone for ever! Thank you to Helen Cockerill above for linking to my post about the still loved phone boxes in my home town of Brockley. I love the fact that some old red phone boxes are getting a new lease of life. The mini library is totally thriving.

  18. Amy permalink
    April 3, 2015

    Turn them into Little Free Libraries! They are all the rage in the states. It would be so sad to see the phone boxes disappear. They are an English icon, and here’s hoping they will gain a new life purpose.

    Thank you for all that you do to preserve and showcase your spot in the world.

  19. Tony Clarke permalink
    April 3, 2015

    On holiday in Scotland two years ago, I saw more red phone boxes in two weeks than I’d seen in years in London. Admittedly, they appeared to be valued as something aesthetically pleasing rather than functional- one, somewhere close to the beach where much of the film Local Hero was filmed, had been reinvented as a home for giant sunflowers.

  20. John DLC permalink
    April 3, 2015

    Still got a few here near Victoria Park (I know you’re over here from time to time). Last time I can remember someone in them it was a couple of girls in Australia kit during the Olympics, more of a photo-op than anything else.

  21. Rebecca permalink
    April 3, 2015

    To this sorry tale one might add the sad decline in the graphic quality of the “tart cards” posted in the phone boxes.

  22. April 3, 2015

    Until I read this post, I’d forgotten something I saw last week — three people actually using a telephone box for its purpose (well, one — the other two were waiting outside). I don’t think they were tourists either. But it is a rare sight, that.

  23. April 4, 2015

    How ironic that the Clerkenwell Green photo also has the long gone livestock watering trough – and it would seem that the iconic red post box will be the next in line to become useless. But all these things have iconic value.

    I agree with the Little Free Library idea – since they’re very popular here in Seattle. There are about 5 of them in my neighborhood. But otherwise, I’m sure they will become valuable collector’s items before long.

  24. Erica W. permalink
    April 4, 2015

    When I lived in Bethnal Green in 1989, we didn’t have a telephone, either, so all calls were made from phone boxes. I remember the ringing tone like it was yesterday. When I returned to England in 2013 I needed to make a phone call (my US cellphone didn’t work there) and I popped into one of those brown BT phone boxes. It smelled like urine and the phone didn’t work (this was in Acton). It was so sad not to be able to just make a call. Their loss is a loss indeed.

  25. Maddie permalink
    April 4, 2015

    Some of these are K2 kiosks so will most likely be Grade 2 listed. The Councils should take more care of them as they cannot be removed, alternative uses is the beat option. Some remote villages put defibrillators in them!

  26. Steph permalink
    April 5, 2015

    One of the most beautiful eloquent poignant pieces of writing that I have read.

  27. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    April 6, 2015

    Morning from Australia!

    Such a delightful post, gentle author. My parents had no home phone either till approx 1972 when I’d left home. You really had me pondering and recalling certain moving calls from phone boxes up near our corner store.

    But then, so we know that the whole world isn’t going to pieces, there’s the Comment to you from the Broxley Boxes folk at Lewisham being so so creative and positive. I have great-grandparents and a great-aunt buried not too far from those red wonders.

    Hoping your arm is now fully healed.

  28. kate permalink
    April 6, 2015

    This prompted me to take one in Red Lion Court in Fleet Street. Up a small alleyway and there it is standing at the top with a wonderful sign above it . See link below.
    And just like yourself they conjure up memories of running round to the phone box to call your friends to have a good old chat out of earshot of the “oldies”- one myself now

  29. Stephen permalink
    April 7, 2015

    Picture it. A rural home in southern Ontario. Nothing for miles around, apart from a field, a house, and a Red telephone box in the middle of nowhere. How it got there, I do not know, but standing out in the open 365 days a year, come hail or snow, and -40 degree weather it still stands to this day, a ghost of it’s former self. I only see it but once a year at Easter, and its red today, is not the same red as it was last year as it fades away. Nice to see it like a friendly face every year, but sad to see it fade away.

    In the early 90’s when I lived in London, I didn’t have a phone in the house, and for some reason, in Northern London, it seemed that not a lot of people did. When I’d go to it to call back to Canada, I would risk being tutted at by the local who after 15 minutes or so were queued up to use the phone, and I’d finally hang up and sheepishly walk away.

    Move quickly to the iconic phone boxes of central London’s Soho. Smelling like stale urine and advertising Blondes, Brunettes and Redheads, with all sorts of fun things to sell to the local punters.

    I miss them really. Maybe I should take the rural phone box back to Ottawa with me and make a garden feature of it and preserve it as a reminder of days gone by.

    Thanks for these lovely memories.

  30. April 15, 2015

    I hope some are being repurposed (I love the idea of wifi hotspots and free libraries). As a university student in the UK just on the cusp of mobile phones’ ubiquity, I relied on red phone boxes and I’d be sad to see them go.

  31. Naomi permalink
    May 1, 2015

    I remember that back in the 70s and 80s even when the phone boxes were working they always smelled of wee. Very much part of the package whether in St John’s Wood or around Brick Lane. Yes, seeing the phone boxes today is a loud reminder of the relentless, frantic pace of technological advance. And my aging. So yes, I relate to the melancholic response provoked by seeing them in decline and redundant.

    But, in the same way that I am always trying to repurpose myself (!), a couple of old phone boxes near me are now planted out and open to the elements (the roof is off) – a little oasis of green in urban grey, nice to see. Libraries, free wifi spots and other ideas all good, but what about using them to house defibrilators? After a man collapsed and died right next to my husband as they were both waiting to cross the road, I looked into this and realised we need more publically accessible defibrilators. How to stop people peeing in the boxes though – and nicking stuff they think is of value – would be a perennial problem.

  32. Sue Condon permalink
    May 12, 2015

    Funnily enough, and ironically, I used one the other day to phone 3 the mobile phone provider to sort out my faulty mobile dongle signal! It stank of wee but I couldn’t possibly afford to use my PAYG mobile phone and 60p for half hour is still a bargain in my world. Stephen in Canada – what a lovely image you have given me of a red phone box in a field in Ontario. My cousin lives in Toronto maybe he could get a photo for me! I would love to see that! Love this wonderful blog so much!

  33. Huw permalink
    February 2, 2016

    There is an early phone box standing in the grounds of Dulwich Picture Gallery, so that visitors can see how the design of the top of the box was based on the lantern of the Gallery’s mausoleum. The box was designed by one of Britain’s greatest architects – can you imagine any public authority now asking Norman Foster or Zaha Hadid to design some street furniture? The smell of wee and the tart cards were always a failing, though!

  34. October 12, 2018

    These wonderful boxes are being removed at an alarming rates. Around 2000 are listed and are safe but the rest are all under threat. I think there’s around 11000 in total left.
    In the 90s, BT tried to make them more useful by adding the ability to email and send texts from them.
    The tactic didn’t really work. When was the last time you sent a text from a phone box?
    Amazingly this service is still alive although I can’t imagine anyone uses it. I wrote an article about about my quest to send a text from a phone box in 2018.
    You can read it at the link below.

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