The Amazing Afterlife of Old British Phone Boxes

As quintessentially British as double-decker buses, red phone boxes are essentially obsolete. But thanks to heritage-minded reuse efforts, they're not at risk of going extinct. (Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

Inclusive, emotional and ethnically diverse, the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, a biracial American feminist and (former) television actress, served as proof in the sticky toffee pudding that the British monarchy is capable of modernizing and adapting to a changing cultural landscape.

The royal family — a stodgy, protocol-bound institution with a famously stiff upper lip that’s only just recently begun sagging — isn’t the only quintessential element of British life that’s remaking itself to match the needs and wants of 21st century Britain.

Vintage photo of phone box in Manchester, England circa 1950
Vintage photo of phone box in Manchester, England circa 1950. (Photo: Three Lions/Getty Images)

In a photo-driven piece for the New York Times, Palko Karasz explores how blazing-red pay phone booths (or phone boxes, as they’re better known across the pond), which for nearly a century have served as an enduring symbol of London and the United Kingdom as a whole, are experiencing "something of a comeback" after a long stretch of neglect hastened by what Karasz calls "the march of technology." And by and large, they're coming back as completely new things.

Claustrophobic, crown-emblazoned phone boxes are a non-necessity to a vast majority of modern-day Britons for obvious reasons. But even if rarely used for their intended purpose, there’s something familiar and comforting about these iconic cast-iron kiosks that have been kicking around since the mid-1920s. (It wasn’t until the 1930s with the introduction of the classic K6 model, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V, that these emblematic street-side fixtures became widespread across the U.K.)

Mirroring popular sentiment regarding the monarchy, it seems that most Brits are proud of old-school phone boxes — they’re beloved pieces of British heritage, after all — and don’t mind having them around, so long as they’re useful, modern, different.

British Telecom is steadily removing many remaining public phone boxes across London and beyond due to plunging usage rates.
British Telecom is steadily removing public phone boxes, which once numbered more than 92,000 across the U.K., due to (predictably) plunging usage rates. (Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Timeless icons, reborn

And Britain’s newfangled red phone boxes are certainly different.

With a keen eye toward historic preservation, an impressive number of red phone boxes have been plucked from junkyards and transformed into ATMs, free little libraries, info booths, pop-up art galleries, cellphone repair stands and dainty coffee dispensaries. In some rural stretches of England where emergency medical help can be slow to respond, outmoded phone boxes have even been outfitted with defibrillators. And because this is Britain, there's also been a one-night-only phone box pub.

"Today, they are once again a familiar sight, fulfilling roles that are often just as important for the community as their original purpose,” Karasz writes for the Times.

In 2014, a disused phone box was painted green and converted into a free solar-powered charging station for mobile devices. Some heritage-obsessed Brits — i.e. those who have no practical use for pay phones but who believe that losing them for good is on par with "losing the Empire State Building from New York" — likely viewed the screamin' green paint job as sacrilege. Still, you have to admire that the so-called Solarbox scheme stuck with the telecommunications theme.

Solarboxes debut in London
So familiar yet so new: Solarboxes, vintage pay phone kiosks converted into solar-powered charging stations, debuted in London in 2014. (Photo: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)

"They are so much against the times," Tony Inglis, an entrepreneur who restores decommissioned phone boxes, tells the Times. "They are everything that you wouldn’t do today. They’re big, heavy."

Inglis got into the business of giving old phone boxes a new calling somewhat by accident. In the 1980s, long before repurposing the kiosks became a thing, Inglis operated a transport company tasked with collecting scores of old phone boxes being phased-out en masse by British Telecom (BT). Instead of hauling the clunky old kiosks to the scrap yard, Ingils had an ingenious plan: why not just buy the lot of them from BT, refurbish them and then resell them with the idea that they’ll be used as something else?

British phone box-turned-smart phone repair kiosk
Fixing cracked screens for frazzled Londoners, this smartphone repair kiosk is located in an authentic British phone box that's been retired and converted. (Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

"I think they are an honest construction," explains Inglis, who is now the proud proprietor of Unicorn Restorations, a BT-approved business based in rural Surrey that bills itself as "the acknowledged experts when it comes to the restoration of red telephone boxes and cast iron street furniture."

With his immaculately revamped kiosks gracing high-traffic locales like Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and Olympic Park, there's no doubt that Inglis' handiwork ranks amongst the most Instagrammed public pay phones in the world.

"I like what they are to people, and I enjoy bringing things back," he says.

Phone booth-turned-coffee shop in London
Street vendor Umar Khalid sells coffee, pastries and more out of a defunct phone box located near Hampstead Heath, London. (Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

From calling cards to salad bars and souvenirs

Ingils isn’t the only one salvaging redundant phone boxes and transforming them into something new and useful. In 2016, Bloomberg profiled Edward Ottewell and Steve Beeken of the Red Kiosk Company, a Brighton-based startup that specializes in developing and leasing "self-contained retail pods” located within the "carcass of unused iconic phone boxes.”

Paying special mind to charitable giving, the Red Kiosk Company’s carefully retrofitted phone boxes (they can also be purchased with prices starting at £3750 or about $5,000) can be found from Ashford to Uxbridge and everywhere in between. Red Kiosk Company-leased boxes have been converted into everything from beachfront ice cream stands, espresso shacks, souvenir shops, millineries and even salad bars. (As Bloomberg details, permitting can be tricky for phone box-based businesses that operate like mobile food trucks but are very much stationary.)

Another article on British phone box reuse, this one published by CNN Travel in 2017, details even more uses for something that no one really has much of a use for but dread seeing disappear altogether: a teeny-tiny internet café in remote Ballogie, Scotland; a micro-library in the southeast London suburb of Lewisham; and a chain of phone box-based work stations complete with printers, power outlets and coffee makers that cater to commuters and tourists alike.

"At the moment the phone boxes are derelict, they are becoming a bit of an eyesore," Lorna Moore, managing director of Pod Works, the (now defunct) firm that transformed a score of old phone boxes into miniature business centers, tells CNN. "We wanted to re-purpose them for the 21st century."

A book-filled old British phone box.
This retired telephone kiosk in suburban south London is now stocked with literature for loan thanks to an adoption program operated by British Telecom. (Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

Don't discard, adopt

It’s worth noting that BT makes procuring old phone boxes incredibly easy, particularly for rural communities that seek to breathe new life into defunct pay phones. Through its Adopt a Kiosk Scheme, BT enables qualifying entities (town and borough councils, registered charities and private individuals who own land where phone boxes have been installed) that meet specific criteria to essentially take over defunct phone boxes for a very modest adoption fee of £1.

A phone box-turned-defibrillator in the UK
A phone box-turned-defibrillator in the UK. (Photo: Martin Pettitt/flickr)

According to BT, 4,000 different communities and organizations across the U.K. have "seized the opportunity to do something wonderful with local phone boxes that have little or no use” since the scheme was first launched in 2008. BT mentions the Community Heartbeat Trust, the U.K.'s largest defibrillator charity, as one organization that has gone above and beyond in putting them to good use.

"With something as serious as a cardiac arrest, time is of the essence. Unfortunately, ambulance services often can’t reach country villages in time," Martin Fagan of the Community Heartbeat Trust explains. "To install defibrillators in disused phone boxes is ideal, as they’re often in the centre of the village. And it means the iconic red kiosk can remain a lifeline for the community."

Surviving phone box in rural U.K.
Phone boxes have disappeared quickly from rural communities, where they are seldom used. Once a staple of British villages, mobile phones have rendered them largely obsolete. (Photo: Christoper Furlong/Getty Images)

Lucky for nonprofits like the Community Heartbeat Trust as well as entrepreneurs and visionaries of all stripes, there are more than enough decommissioned phone boxes to go around. In 2017, BT announced plans to do away with half of its remaining phone booths — roughly 20,000 of them — due to declining usage and rising maintenance costs. At their peak in 1992, there were 92,000 BT-operated phone boxes spread across the U.K. Roughly 2,400 of them are now listed as historic landmarks and will stay put for the foreseeable future.

In total, usage has declined 90 percent over the span of a decade although an estimated 33,000 calls a day are made from pay phones in the U.K., most of them in urban areas. Still, a third of pay phones are used only once a month, if at all. While many of these obsolete kiosks will be removed and then junked or sold, others will stay put and go up for adoption by BT.

"We want to protect and save as many as we can," Ottewell of the Red Kiosk Company tells CNN. "It's going to create employment, it's going to regenerate an area that's been left, and do some good. We want to protect our heritage."