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The Inescapable Melancholy Of Phone Boxes

May 20, 2022
by the gentle author

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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 witness 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 closed forever.

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

23 Responses leave one →
  1. Jane Annesley permalink
    May 20, 2022

    They’re still alive and well in the Highlands of Scotland and a godsend when your car is giving trouble and there’s no mobile signal!

  2. Amanda permalink
    May 20, 2022

    My favourite photos here are the 3 sets of twin phoneboxes gleaming against the beautifully intricate wrought iron backdrop of Smithfield Market and also the Bethnal Green scene where the adjacent pillar box is kindly keeping him company at a safe distance, probably due to the pungent odour.

    No spy movie was worth its salt without Michael Caine making an anonymous ‘tip off’ from an untraceable number in a West End phonebox.
    Or the suspense of the suddenly abandoned phone receiver left swinging on its black flex in a murder scene and the shrill emergency operator : “Hello Caller! …are you still there?”
    Thank you for conjuring this nostalgia.

  3. May 20, 2022

    Ah yes, the telephone boxes. What a sad chapter. In England they still seem to be around, but in Germany they have largely been abolished or replaced by simple pillars.

    The few remaining telephone boxes are at least used as a place to exchange old books. That works very well.

    Love & Peace

  4. Greg T permalink
    May 20, 2022

    Old London Rd in Kingston?

  5. Marcia Howard permalink
    May 20, 2022

    I have also been saddened to see them disappear, and like yourself, have taken many photos of them; Royal Mail post boxes too! Not everyone is ‘tech savvy’ or walks around with a mobile phone, so there is still need of them – especially in the case of an emergency.

  6. Jo N permalink
    May 20, 2022

    I agree with your sentiments, but am pleased there are still quite a few ‘ghost boxes’ around (and often listed) in London, where they’re seen as part of the traditional British streetscape. In most parts of the country they were all removed many years ago when BT was privatised, with just the odd one protected in a picturesque location.

  7. Jane permalink
    May 20, 2022

    Very melancholy, though so stylish and distinctive, used to be part of the backcloth of living in London or in deepest rural remoteness. So interesting how a metal box can add panache to a space.

    They hold some memory of a time when the ‘public goods’ were much more important and taken for granted versus our current wildly individualised, privatised lives. I agree with the person who mentions that we don’t all walk around clamped to a mobile, or go to places where there is no signal, so to have a phone box in sudden need can be a lifesaver…

    What a beautiful stone water trough too, reminding us of when animals did so much work for us and were so often living alongside us even in cities.

    Thanks for another set of great photographs.


  8. Akkers permalink
    May 20, 2022

    Another good article. I remember going on holiday with my family as a child queuing up with my mum and sister outside a phone box so that mum could ring my nan to let her know we had arrived safely at our holiday destination. It always seemed like she took hours in there with her bag of 2p or 10p coins. My dad who sometimes waited outside or in his car depending on the location of the phone box, always said I don’t know what she finds to talk about she only saw her this morning (nan lived with us). If mum’s money ran out before she said goodbye properly then she would be back the next day to chat to nan again or during the holiday. Happy days ?

  9. Annie S permalink
    May 20, 2022

    There are a few round Parliament Square and one in Lower Regent Street which seem to be very popular with tourists from abroad for taking photographs outside!

    We had no telephone until I was a teenager, any calls we needed to make were from a box in the next road – put your pennies in, dial the number and when the call was answered press button A, no reply button B to get your money back.
    Ah the good old days!!

  10. May 20, 2022

    It seems to me that we in the UK always go all in or nothing: in with the new and out with the old! – The rapid demise of the public phonebox being a prime example. In Japan, a country where new technologies such as the mobile phone are seemingly ubiquitous, they very much keep the old and the new operating side-by-side. At all train stations in Japan you will still find banks of public telephones, complete with paper telephone directories! – I assumed this might be for the benefit of older generations who maybe aren’t so “new tech” savvy, but I’ve been told it’s also to do with the frequent risk of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and typhoons. If one infrastructure gets knocked out then the other might still be operating. And I have to say, it does feel reassuring to see the old telephone system still there, looking neat, clean and cared for. Dead telephone boxes and phone booths really are a forlorn sight to see in these atomised days when our shared past is increasingly an empty façade, simply propped up and devoid of its former substance.

  11. Milo permalink
    May 20, 2022

    When i first moved to London in 79 i conducted my entire early career as an actor via the nearest group of public phoneboxes as i couldn’t afford to have one put in my flat.
    Running back and forth betwixt Westbourne Grove and my tawdry little gaff with a sweaty handful of 10 p’s and a ,er, hatful of dreams must have been rather stressful looking back but then it seemed exciting.

  12. angela permalink
    May 20, 2022

    If those boxes could talk, what stories they would tell. Would make a great movie to hear their observations on human lives. Wonder what they might misunderstand about us, too, if they only had our calls to judge us by?

  13. Saba permalink
    May 20, 2022

    Wow! Perhaps a psychotherapist phone box could help all those abused and forgotten phone boxes. In some of the photographs, several boxes huddled together, so they could keep each other company.

  14. May 20, 2022

    As a teenager growing up in deepest Kent the phone box provided social communication and romantic encounters that sometimes never needed the pressing of Button A. Walking in the countryside nowadays, it’s cheering to see that the ones that remain have become libraries, parish council notice boards and (regretfully) food banks.

  15. David Antscherl permalink
    May 20, 2022

    Well, today’s offering brings nostalgic memories of rotary dials, ‘Press Button A’, the swing-up telephone directories (in those days not vandalised or absconded with) and the pervasive odour of stale cigarette smoke….

  16. Robin permalink
    May 20, 2022

    National monuments! Keep the phone boxes!

  17. Cherub permalink
    May 20, 2022

    It’s the same here in Switzerland, most of the phone boxes are just there but never used. There are a few together by a tram stop in the city centre that for years were known as a meeting place for people going out in the evening. When they stopped being used the city government wanted to get rid of them and the public went mad so they had to take a vote on it ?

    Others along the Rhein and in the small towns around me are fitted out for books.

  18. May 20, 2022

    It’s sad to see elements of our lives phased out and on reading this I certainly felt nostalgic for the red boxes, now sad and abandoned. Glad you managed to photograph as many as you did as undoubtedly they will eventually disappear for ever.

  19. May 20, 2022

    ahhh like you, that era was also a large part of my life. Though the phone boxes were vital, the ones near me in the 80s and 90s were always used as toilets and full of tart cards. It’s wild to remember that a home telephone in london was often prohibitively expensive. Lovely photos and reminisces as always, GA.

  20. Anthony Wardley permalink
    May 20, 2022

    It is absolutely outrageous how the people responsible for these iconic pieces of our history have let them go to rack and ruin, particularly in London.

    Yet look at at any publicity concerning London and they always seem to include, red telephone boxes, black taxis , route master buses etc etc.

    You can still see tourists to London clamouring to have their photographs taken in or out of these telephone boxes that have become no more than advertising spaces or urinals

  21. permalink
    May 20, 2022

    Very beautiful photos though.

  22. jennifer galton-fenzi permalink
    May 21, 2022

    This piece evoked so many memories including the ker-chung! when you pressed Button B to get your money back. In the 1960s my mother had no phone in the house, and used the box on the corner. Once, it was occupied by a man making a lengthy call. Eventually, as there was by now someone else waiting too, my mother banged on the glass and indicated to the man inside, by holding up her fingers, that there were two people in the queue. The man opened the door and called her a rude old woman. She had absolutely no idea what he was talking about!
    What a pity this most handsome piece of street furniture is now mostly neglected. A wonderful design by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who was involved in many other iconic buildings.

  23. Martin David Ling permalink
    May 21, 2022

    Recent story in the Guardian Long Read was very informative:

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