Heather's Monthly Articles
Evolution of an Icon
October 2013

When is a post office not a post office? When it's in Britain of course, because there it is so much more than a place to mail packages, or purchase stamps. You can do your banking, pick up your pension, pay your bills, purchase foreign currency, buy lottery tickets and even get a fishing license. In fact, attending to one's mailing needs seems almost an afterthought.

Small local Post Offices also act as general stores, with canned goods, sweets, tobacco products, toiletries, newspapers, x-rated magazines, and milk. Sort of like a 7-11 without the Taquitos. At least that's how I remembered it, until this summer when I discovered my parents' local Postmistress, Ivy, had been forced to call time.

Post Office and Phone Boxes
Heather in a K6 kiosk,
with letter box in background,
in Durham, Northumberland.

Granted, Ivy's domain was what was known as a sub-Post Office; just a counter with a plexi-glass screen situated at the back of a convenience store. But to the locals it was the hub of the village. Post Offices like that though are now on the "endangered species" list with the number of them being halved over the last 30 years.

British Telecom, which along with the Post Office came under the umbrella name of The General Post Office (the GPO) until it was split into two businesses in 1981, did something similar after it was privatized in 1984. They introduced new modern phone kiosks which lead to the removal of many of the older red telephone boxes. This treatment of an iconic British symbol brought out the King Henry the Fifth in the English Heritage folk. They immediately stiffened their sinews, summoned up their blood and declared the older kiosks of national import and special interest. This ultimately led to a statutory intervention for the phone boxes' protection.

Britain's band of brothers was jubilant. If they'd had them, they would have thrown their mobile phones to the ground in triumph. Widespread mobile usage was, however, a few years off. So for now all they had to throw was caution to the wind, as the British phone-going public continued to step into the usually wet, and always cigarette-butt-littered, concrete floored, three quarters of a tonne boxes. Although regal looking from the outside, the older type British phone kiosks have always been widely regarded as a health hazard. The world's leading general medical journal, The Lancet, once dubbed them "a bacteriological box" and also warned users against the "growing danger arising from the use of the common mouthpiece by promiscuous callers".

Post Office and Phone Boxes
Giles Scott.

That's assuming of course that the kiosks actually contain a phone. Like blood to a shark, phone boxes have always held an attraction to vandals. Severed wires, broken glass, and tattered phone directories - which somewhat pretentiously hang from a security chain - make one question their salvation as an English Heritage Grade II listed building.

The first telephone kiosk was introduced to Britain in 1921 and was given the unimaginative name of Kiosk No 1 (abbreviated to K1). Its design was considered by many to be conservative and old fashioned, so in 1924 architect Giles Gilbert Scott beat out two other leading architects in a competition to design a new kiosk. K2 became Britain's first red Telephone Box, the GPO having rejected Scott's initial design for it to be painted silver, with a blue-green interior.

Constructed of cast-iron sections, bolted together, atop a concrete base, the K2 had a domed roof, decorative moldings, illuminated signs, a teak door and a pierced Tudor crown for ventilation. Each kiosk proved not only expensive to produce (a little over £35 each) but because of their size, costly to transport. Scott was requested to go back to the drawing board and come up with a more cost-effective design.

Post Office and Phone Boxes

 

The K3 was a smaller, concrete version of the K2 and was an instant success. 12,000 were installed nationwide, but the cheap concrete proved a problem and the boxes started to crack. Today only a handful survive. The GPOs next strategy was to implement the old "if you want a thing well done, do it yourself" policy and so called upon their own Engineering Department to design the K4 kiosk.

Building on the successful design of Scott's K2 kiosk, the K4 was expanded to include a post box and a stamp machine. Departmental communications must have been down the day the Engineers received their design orders, because the K4 ended up being half as big again as the K2. They had overlooked the fact that the K2 was replaced because it was too large to be installed outside of London.

Post Office and Phone Boxes
Heather in a phone kiosk,
with letter box in background.

The monolithic size of the K4 upset pedestrians and motorists, who gave it the nickname of the "Vermillion Giant". Its size wasn't the only problem. The stamp machines were excessively noisy, making it virtually impossible to hold a telephone conversation. The kiosks were also not weather-proofed, which meant the stamps got wet and lost their stick. Not being able to make a call, or use one of the stamps it spat out, rendered the K4 virtually useless. Only 50 kiosks were ever produced, which was 50 more than the next version.

The K5 is a mystery. Evidence of its existence is limited to working drawings and a photograph in which the kiosk appears to be made of wood. Correspondence confirms that a number of sample kiosks were constructed, but none of them appear to have been commissioned. No examples, or traces of parts, have survived. Varies theories exist about the K5; that it was a prototype sample, or a temporary kiosk for exhibitions and fairs. My own notion is that, like most wooden boxes of that size, the K5s were used as burial caskets. Most likely in which to inter the Engineers responsible for the design of the K4.

Post Office and Phone Boxes
A repurposed phone box, in the Somerset
village of Westbury-sub-Mendip, is
now Britain's smallest library.

The GPO turned again to Sir Giles and his third design attempt proved a charm. The K6, brought out in 1936 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of the Coronation of King George V, was produced en masse and 60,000 were installed all across Britain. Country dwellers that didn't approve of the bright red kiosk color were allowed to paint them in colors that fit in better with their surroundings. Regardless of their color, the K6 became a National symbol. Full of charm and character they were recognized and loved the world over. With everyone that is but the GPO who, being immune to flattery decided in 1965 it was time for an update.

The K7 was designed by leading post-war architect Neville Conder, who proposed it be constructed in aluminium, a material not conducive to the British climate. Only twelve prototype K7s were produced of which none survived. The official replacement for the K6, therefore, became the K8, which went into production in 1968 and was designed by architect Bruce Martin. Gone was the domed roof and glazed bar window section and in their place a flat roof, with all four sides being made up of large single windows. Of the over 11,000 K8s that were installed between 1968 and 1983 only 54 remain, as opposed to the K6, of which approximately 11,700 still remain.

Over the next few years various designs for new kiosks were considered but none adopted. Then in 1985, British Telecom came up with a radical announcement. Not only new designs, but also a new name. No longer would the kiosks be known simply as K followed by a number. Instead the four new variants known as 100, 200, 300 and 400, would be prefixed by...drum roll please...KX.

Post Office and Phone Boxes
Tom Jones in "his" K6.

Subsequently thousands of the traditional K6 boxes were auctioned off to private buyers, one of whom was the singer Tom Jones. Apparently the kiosk did more than remind the singer of the Green Green Grass of his hometown near Pontypridd, South Wales. It was the very same kiosk he had used night after night to call his future wife Linda when they first started courting. It was also the same box that he'd received a call on telling him he'd become a father. Memories like that are priceless. So I guess Mr. Jones got a bargain when he paid just £50,000 (about $75,000) to have his memory box shipped over and installed in his California mansion.

I wonder what the going rate might be for Post Mistress Ivy, now that she's been decommissioned. She's very quiet and, after sitting behind plexi-glass in a 5' x 5' sq. foot space the last 40 years, obviously doesn't require much room. Let the bidding begin.

 

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