Ever noticed the golden crown on London's phone boxes? The royal connection is stronger than you might think.
Few things stamp their names onto the London map like royal anniversaries. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the Golden Jubilee Footbridges, Jubilee Gardens, the Elizabeth Tower, the Jubilee line... all owe their appellations to landmark years in the Queen's reign.
Her granddad, George V, left a very different legacy. To celebrate his Silver Jubilee in 1935, thousands of Jubilee Design phone kiosks were rolled out across Britain. They are now iconic of London.
A quick bit of history
London's had phone boxes for more than 100 years. The earliest, known as the 'K1', was introduced in 1921. These were soon superseded by the first true 'red phone box' (the K2), many of which can still be found around London today.
The K2 was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who also gave us Waterloo Bridge, Bankside Power Station (now Tate Modern) and Battersea Power Station. His iconic phone box was reputedly inspired by the tomb of architect John Soane in Old St Pancras Cemetery. (Soane's tower on Dulwich Picture Gallery is another contender.)
The K2 proved popular, but was expensive and cumbersome to install outside large towns and cities. Various lighter alternatives were trialled and produced. But it was in the jubilee year that the winning solution was found.
A new icon for London
Giles Gilbert Scott was back to improve upon his earlier masterpiece. The new phone box, known today as K6, was initially called the Jubilee Design, as its announcement coincided with George V's 25th year on the throne.
The boxes were outwardly similar to their predecessors, but with three major differences. They were a fair bit shorter and lighter; the window patterns differed (see photos above), and the solid gold-coloured crown decorated the roof section, where previously the crown was picked out in ventilation holes. The Jubilee Design needed something a bit more regal than perforations.
Inside, the Jubilee Design offered a 'de luxe' experience. A press account from the time gives a neat summary of the changes. The kiosk was:
"...much more 'roomy' and better ventilated than those now in use, and the instrument panel is most tastefully finished with black and chromium fittings. A special recess is provided for parcels and another for the directories, while there is an umbrella hook and an ashtray provided. The notices, too, are in clear modern type, and there is a small looking-glass for the ladies." (Western Morning News, 18 September 1936, via British Newspaper Archives)
The mirror, incidentally, was not primarily "for the ladies". It had been installed as a psychological experiment. Earlier kiosks were prone to vandalism, with callers idly scrawling on the walls while waiting for their call to be connected. The inclusion of a shelf and mirror helped to cut this practice, by providing a horizontal surface on which to take notes and a reflection to discourage naughty behaviour.
It seems to have worked to a degree, though this was hardly the end of phone box vandalism. It's telling that we don't find kiosks with mirrors inside today.
The Jubilee Design proved a success and became by far the most populous type of kiosk (thanks also to reforms in how the Post Office budgeted for phone boxes in smaller towns and villages). Some 8,000 were installed as part of the "Jubilee Concession", eventually rising to 60,000 over the following decades.
Sadly, the King never lived to enjoy his anniversary phone boxes. In grave health, George was euthanised by his doctors — the first act of regicide in this country since the beheading of Charles I — on 20 January 1936. The first K6 boxes would be installed a couple of months later.
Phone boxes are, of course, of dwindling use these days thanks to the rise of mobile technology. Happily, though, some 11,000 Jubilee Design booths can still be found on our streets, many of which have found a new lease of life as bookswaps, coffee booths, flower stalls and cash machines. The much-photographed kiosk near the House of Parliament now has a cult following. The royal legacy lives on.