Strangely, their final adversary is what they were built for – telecommunications. Technology is marching on, and the mobile phone has rendered the phone box all but redundant. Something that appeared to be so permanent, seems no longer to have a place.
The first telephone boxes were introduced by the General Post Office in 1920, when the idea of the public telephone first came in to being. At the time, few people could afford their own phone as the infrastructure of cables and exchanges had not been established. The K1 – Kiosk No.1 – boxes were made of concrete and 1000 were erected around the country. Unfortunately, they didn’t meet with the approval of London’s planning authorities, and in 1924 a limited competition was held amongst architects to come up with something better. The winner was Giles Gilbert Scott, who came up with a design to be made of mild steel with a roof shaped to look like one of Sir John Soane’s mausoleums – which was not surprising, given that Scott was a trustee of the Sir John Soane museum. The GPO decided that the box – designated the K2 – would be more durable in cast iron (how right they were) and decided on a red paint finish, so that it would stand out more. It’s hard to believe now that there was a public outcry about this, and for some years, especially in rural areas, many boxes were painted grey. 205 K2 boxes still survive, with listed status and can be identified by the perforated detail around the crown and their substantial size. In 1935, Scott completed a major redesign. The K6 was brought into service to commemorate the silver jubilee of George V, and was the classic design of phone box that still decorates our land. Slightly smaller than the K2, over 70,000 were installed up and own the country, and in British territories around the globe. One final design tweak was the use of the St. Edwards crown to signify the advent of the new Elizabethan era, post 1952.
So the boxes in our area were installed as the phone network expanded. For many years they acted as the sole source of telephone communication for families throughout the area, and queues outside them were not uncommon. Few houses had their own phone line, but would often share a ‘party line’ with a number of other households. This would act as a great source of gossip for nosey neighbours who could listen in on other people’s conversations! Each town and often villages too, would have an exchange building where operators would connect calls by plugging cables into a patch panel, thus connecting calls into the larger network. Manual exchanges were gradually replaced by the automated mechanical Strowger apparatus which worked by responding to the electrical impulses from the telephone dial. The exchange at Longmoor Camp amazingly still has one of these! The Strowger was a very complicated system that required large buildings to house it, and highly trained engineers to maintain it.
Today, of course, that’s all changed. Digital exchanges, tiny by comparison, can handle a volume of calls far greater and incomparably faster than the old electro-mechanical exchanges or human operators. Yet for all that, the number of landline calls is falling as people make greater use of mobile technology. But there is still a valid and invaluable use for the network, the same copper cables installed all those years ago, as a means of connecting us all to the world wide web – our portal into the information age.
But what of those icons, those sentinels of that older age – the phone box? Perhaps now is the time to find a new use for Gilbert Scott’s iconic piece of street furniture. They might be small, but they offer a unique space and position. In Sandy Lane, we have a plan. We are going to turn our box into a tiny gallery or a miniature museum, using the windows as the display space. The residents are keen to see the box preserved and so this offers a chance to save it for future generations, and for it to play a new part in our community. There are plenty of ideas for exhibitions, as we live in a landscape with many historic and geographic points of interest – the Jumps, The Flashes, the barrows on the King’s Ridge, Hankley Common, the Atlantic Wall, the ponds. A number of fascinating people have lived here, both famous and unknown to the world outside: David Lloyd George, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and many others. Events too: there are also artists, photographers and printmakers who could contribute to exhibitions.
The box at St. Mary’s has two suggested uses at the moment – either as a book exchange, especially of children’s books, considering its location, or as an information kiosk for visitors to the area. A small team of local residents, together with support from the school, will deal with that.
The box outside the British Legion, will be looked after by the Legion itself and perhaps restored back to an earlier specification – to the golden era of the public telephone – if one ever existed!
So, with the boxes now adopted by the Parish Council, and with a budget set for their renovation and ongoing maintenance, the work can begin. If you’d like to be involved, please do get in touch with us.