Thursday, September 5, 2019

Avoncroft, Worcestershire

Plain, simple, and solid

Before I leave the subject of telephone boxes, a recent visit to the excellent Avoncroft outdoor museum in Worcestershire reminded me that I have never featured an example of the first standard telephone kiosk, the design that became known as the K1. This is in part because K1s are rare: the survivors are mostly in museums – and they are baffling because there are variations in the design from one box to another.

Before the 1920s, telephone boxes were not standardised at all. Telephone services were provided by various local companies, who adopted their own designs for kiosks. But in 1912 the General Post Office took over most of these companies (Hull in Yorkshire was a notable exception*) and soon looked for a standard design. Kiosk No 1 (later known simply as the K1), a plain, simple, solid box on a square plan with a pyramidal roof, was the result, and was introduced in 1923. Some K1s were made of wood and some had concrete walls, metal glazing bars, and a wooden door. Some of the variations in appearance were linked with this difference in materials – the concrete boxes, for example, have a different pattern of glazing. Some were also given a roof sign saying ‘Public telephone’, which concealed the top of the pyramid roof and its finial.

This example at Avoncroft, part of the National Telephone Kiosk Collection,† which is housed there, is a concrete K1, painted in the combination of grey and red that was usual at the time. The design was simple, but not much liked visually. At Eastbourne, the local authority even insisted that the boxes on the sea front should have thatched roofs! K1s were therefore superseded when a design competition of 1924 produced Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s popular K2 design, which is most people’s favourite telephone box. We have to be grateful to Avoncroft for giving less illustrious but historically important kiosks a home.§

- - - - -

* My mother, who was born in Hull, told me with a certain puzzled pride that the telephone system in her home town was run by an independent company, and that the telephone boxes on Hull’s streets were painted cream, to mark this difference. They still are. Yorkshire: another country, it sometimes feels like, and in one corner of it they do things differently there.

† K1s, ‘Vermillion giants’, AA boxes, even a lovely Morris Minor telephone engineer’s van – they have it all in the National Telephone Kiosk Collection.

§ I am indebted to Gavin Stamp, Telephone Boxes (Chatto & Windus, 1989) for information about the history of these useful, interesting, and tiny buildings.


CHJ said...

Phillip, there's a green one in Okeford Fitzpaine N Dorset. And should you be in that part of the world the oldest working post box in the UK can be found at Holwell.

Philip Wilkinson said...

CHJ: Amazing. I knew about the post box but not this green kiosk! Not come across a phone box painted in the colour of a local estate before. Thank you.

Evelyn said...

I would be willing to bet that standardization originally was implemented so that the public could find a phonebox (phonebooth, we say) easily. When did it become a practice, however, to make everything the same without any difference at all? I remember searching around for red booths and it was easy for a foreigner but I don't think on the whole it's a healthy way of living. It teaches children that to be different is undesirable. My opinion.
Very interesting, however.
Evelyn Wallace

Philip Wilkinson said...

Evelyn: Agreed! Variety is best! With a bit of standardization for things like phone boxes that people need to find easily. Do you know the book England in Particular, by Sue Clifford and Angela King? It celebrates local distinctiveness in a very appealing way.

Jenny Woolf said...

Oh, I must visit that museum. I had the idea it had closed but I am clearly wrong.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Jenny: It's still going strong, and well worth a visit.