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The Inescapable Melancholy Of Phone Boxes

April 15, 2024
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 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 shut.

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.

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

23 Responses leave one →
  1. Winnie permalink
    April 15, 2024

    I remember so clearly as a tiny child being lifted up to sit on the shelf in a phone box then my mother putting in the coins after dialling and the pushing of button A then button B when the call was answered. And the smell of the telephone directory’s that were kept under the shelf on levered metal arms.
    Ah, those were the days.
    And they had small mirrors attached to the wall above the phone.
    The demise and desecration of the red phone box is a sad thing.

  2. Esther permalink
    April 15, 2024

    Always loved the red telephoneboxes… here in Germany the telephone boxes which are still standing are all turned into free bookstores 🙂

  3. Greg T permalink
    April 15, 2024

    “Out of Order” – Kingston?

  4. Marcia Howard permalink
    April 15, 2024

    I know of an ‘obsolete’ telephone kiosk in East Sussex which is used as a book bank, where one can take a book to read, to keep, or return to the box as desired. However, I visited an Open Garden Day with friends on Friday just gone and as we walked through the village (12 miles south of Darlington), came across their Telephone Kiosk. Although the panes of glass needed a jolly good clean & polish, I opened its door and picked up the Receiver, to find it was live and had a dialling tone! In the lovely old Georgian town of Richmond just a mile away, the two telephone boxes at the top end of the Market Place have long had their equipment ripped off their hinges, and all the panes of glass or whatever material it is, are broken and left with their jagged edges. A sad sight indeed.

  5. Julie permalink
    April 15, 2024

    Some here have also been repurposed as bookstores and other things. My sister’s partner looks after one in Brockley which is a free library. They aren’t all melancholy.

  6. Martin Ling permalink
    April 15, 2024

    During the first weeks of lockdown when central London was a joyous empty new world for pedestrians and cyclists I had a similar epiphany about our abandoned public phoneboxes, scattered around like lost orphans, ignored and unloved. I undertook a similar photo project and produced a booklet full not just of our lovely red boxes but the far less attractive and generally battered and bruised collection of ugly post 1980s boxes and booths that remain without any affection whatsoever!

  7. Wendy permalink
    April 15, 2024

    Dialling in to “Dial a Disk”, the speaking clock to check my watch, Dial a Recipe, reversing the charges service.

  8. April 15, 2024

    Phone boxes played an important part of growing up.
    Calling friends from them, waiting for calls in them ,reversing charges in them, sheltering in them, wading through the huge telephone directories for phone numbers.

    I have seen one now a free libraly/ book exchange and in Hampstead there is one that is a coffee kiosk.

    These London icons must be saved and can surely be repurposed.

  9. April 15, 2024

    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

  10. Milo permalink
    April 15, 2024

    I was so poor as a fledgling actor living in a tiny flat in Bayswater that I conducted my entire job seeking process via the phone boxes on the corner of Westbourne grove and Pembridge villas.
    I remember those times so vividly. I made and received some very vital calls in one or other of those boxes, rushing from my flat and heading back, sometimes elated, sometimes broken. Ah, those heady days. pocketful of change and pen and pad.

  11. ms linda hird permalink
    April 15, 2024

    What a wonderful account, so evocative GA. I too had to use the public phone during my teenage years. I wonder if the red pillar box will go the same way as people send fewer and fewer missives by post?

  12. Lisa permalink
    April 15, 2024

    Have you seen the artwork “Out of Order” in Kingston? It’s made of 12 toppling telephone boxes by artist David Mach. They are not at all melancholy but quite joyfully anarchic!

  13. April 15, 2024

    What I find encouraging is that there are still phones in them—at least, in London. Whilst the mobile phone has become ubiquitous, if your mobile doesn’t work or you’ve lost it, you can still make a call if you need to. In the U.S., I think you’re just entirely out of luck.

    Well done, BT.

    I was in North Norfolk last fall and had a chat with a man who was painting a red phone box on the village green. It was owned by the council and housed a book-swap, but I was happy to see it being kept up.

    And there’s a charming phone box in Ripley painted with Queen Elizabeth and her corgis making a call!

  14. April 15, 2024

    When l was in London I saw two phone boxes that had been repurposed as art installations. One at St. Pancras was a vintage WWII phone box and one by the British Museum had stuffed squirrels. Phone boxes today don’t even have the business cards of sex workers anymore.

  15. Christine permalink
    April 15, 2024

    They were part of growing up! I used to call 160 for Dial a disc and cost 6d, then when I met Mark I would call him at the red telephone box in his street from the red telephone box in my street at 7pm on a Tuesday and Thursday! x

  16. Sue permalink
    April 15, 2024

    As children we would always race into one and press the button to see if any money had been left in the machine.
    The two in our village on Exmoor are used for poetry and photographs now. There is still a working one down at the harbour as the mobile signal is so poor. I think you have to use a card though.
    Thanks for the memories.

  17. Cherub permalink
    April 16, 2024

    There is something iconic about red phone boxes. When I lived in London I used to be fascinated by the business cards of the “working girls” who advertised in them.

    Many of the phone boxes around Basel have been shelved out as book exchanges. There were 2 at a city centre tram stop which were known as meeting places for couples going on dates, as they were no longer in use they moved them to a museum as locals didn’t want to lose the memories.

  18. Bill permalink
    April 16, 2024

    “Phone boxes today don’t even have the business cards of sex workers anymore.”

    Well, I wasn’t going to say anything, but then I saw the above, sooo…

    I spent January 2001 in London. A very nice visit. I was surprised to see the interiors of the charming telephone booths plastered with said business cards. Fully a third of these workers identified as trans. So surprising, I thought.

    This ratio struck me as consistent, from booth to booth. And, no, I wasn’t conducting a running analysis. And, no…

  19. April 16, 2024

    It is a shame as they are so iconic. I often see tourists taking photographs of one another standing in front of a red telephone box. I like the idea of them becoming mini-libraries but why not tourist offices too. Picking up the phone could play a recording of information about the location. There could be tourist leaflets of local attractions. I appreciate that this may leave them open to vandalism but surely we should try?

  20. Cherub permalink
    April 17, 2024

    On one of the tramlines from Basel city out to the suburbs I pass a house that has a red telephone box in the garden. I often wonder if the house is owned by a British ex-pat.

  21. Peter Holford permalink
    April 18, 2024

    …and then there are those that are used to house defibrillators. Well, here in the South Pennines anyway.

  22. April 21, 2024

    I too have been photographing and logging the locations a types as I walk around London.
    Not for any specific reason, you understand but as a personal record of things from my past that are, sadly, disappearing.
    Indeed, we should all celebrate the mundane as, sooner than you might expect, it will no longer be there.

  23. Liz Aitken permalink
    May 4, 2024

    These poor abandoned phone boxes break my heart. They were so vital to our lives.

    Where I live – The Bow Quarter – there is a box which the developers converting the buildings from factory (Bryant & May) to flats bought at auction and installed in the grounds. Due to no calls being made from it any more, BT eventually removed the equipment and so it was standing idle – but not for long…

    My neighbour and I arranged to have some shelves put in and it is now a popular book swap, enjoyed by many residents. It is a vital part of our community – and we are proud of it.

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