Friday, May 25, 2018


Base station

I’ve meant for a while to take a photograph of one of London’s few surviving police boxes – those blue kiosks from which police officers and the public could get in direct contact with a police station – but the other day I saw this rather different one in Sheffield and thought it would make an interesting alternative.

Sheffield’s police began to install boxes like this one by the Town Hall during the 1920s and continued to use them until the 1960s, by which time officers were equipped with personal radios. Each one had a telephone that any member of the police or the public could use to report a crime or other emergency – it was accessible from the outside by opening the small cupboard door beneath the window. In addition officers, as well as calling out from the box, would visit it every hour, when the station telephoned through any important information. Officers out on patrol often used the boxes for meal breaks or even for doing a bit of quick report writing. The Sheffield boxes, which had a generous, squarish plan as opposed to the smaller London boxes, had just about enough space to make this possible.* The box also contained a first aid kit – I wonder if people got to this through another small door located where there is now a silver plaque outlining the history of police boxes.

Anyone familiar with London’s police boxes (and that is a lot of people since the Doctor in the TV series Dr Who uses one¶) will be surprised that this Sheffield example looks very different – green, not blue and with a curved roof rather than the stepped pyramidal roof of the London design. Police boxes in London were blue and boxes in some cities were red, apparently: I suppose any strong colour worked provided that the box was recognisable. One feature that was common to all the boxes was a blue light (long gone from this one) which was controlled from a central point and a could be made to flash to summon an officer.

Before the advent of proper mobile communications, police boxes must have been invaluable to the constabulary. According to one source, they were even used as temporary lockups in some towns – although I doubt that the wooden walls and glass windows of this one would have made it very suitable for this. But as a communications aid, this simple design, smart enough to take its place on a city street, big enough to contain a desk and a stool, and bright enough to be seen, no doubt served the city and its police force well.

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* Edinburgh’s fine blue police boxes, of neo-Classical design with broken pediments, were of a rectangular shape and also roomy.

¶ The Doctor’s time machine and spacecraft, the Tardis, took, and takes, and will take the form of a London police box. Such is the success of the long-running series that many British people are now more likely to think of the Doctor than the police when they see one of these.

† For more on police boxes, see the Old Police Cells Museum, here.

1 comment:

Stephen Barker said...

The Police Boxes of Edinburgh are roomier and have a strong classical influence on their design. Most have been sold off now and being larger this meant that they have found alternative commercial uses.