This article has been reposted from The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/apr/28/last-phone-boxes-bt-payphones-uk
Five million payphone calls are still made each year in the UK. Who is making them – and why?
by Sophie Elmhirst
There used to be a phone box at the top of my street. It stood in the middle of a traffic island, near a bin, a lamp-post and a bollard. I never questioned the presence of the phone box, just as I never questioned the presence of the bin, the lamp-post or the bollard. Often, when we passed, my daughter and I would play the phone-box game. I had to stand to one side and pretend to call the phone in the phone box, which didn’t work. She would then pretend to answer, before making a series of further calls in a complicated unfolding of phone-related business that involved making plans, changing plans and then ringing everyone she had just spoken to again to tell them she was going to be late.
It was fun, this game, and it became hard to pass the phone box without playing it. The phone box, to her, was the best kind of toy. It was a real object that no longer worked, and therefore had the gravitas of something adults had once used, but could now be deployed to her own imaginative ends. It also had an extra, loopy charm. A giant phone housed in its own little shelter outside in the middle of the street made absolutely no sense. A phone, to her, was a small, shiny rectangle that lived in my coat pocket. This outdoor cubicle with a handset on a cord and fat, squishy buttons was both hilarious and mysterious, as if it had landed from the sky.
Walk round a city, a town, a village and you see them. The last phone boxes. Once you start seeing them, you see them everywhere. For a while, I became preoccupied by their contradictory presence, often standing proudly on a street corner, completely ignored. At their peak, in the mid-1990s, the British population of phone boxes was about 100,000. Now, there are just over 20,000 working boxes left, which still sounds like quite a lot, given it’s hard to imagine anyone actually using one. And yet, they do. According to Ofcom, 5m calls are still made from phone boxes annually. Five million! It seems impossible. A number so surprisingly large it made me think there must be a lone guy in a box somewhere obsessively making one-minute calls all day to random numbers.
Many of the phone boxes you still see are shells of their former selves: not working, not yet gone. Just there, a remnant of a former time, often used as a bin. Some have been repurposed. Since 2008, when BT launched its adopt-a-kiosk scheme, more than 7,000 phone boxes, mostly the old red ones, have been bought by local communities for £1 each. Now, they house things such as mini libraries, art galleries and plant displays; many contain defibrillators, for ready access in a medical emergency.
Those that remain occupy a particular place in Britain’s idea of itself. On Oxford Street, I passed a tourist shop whose window display included a shelf of miniature red phone boxes sitting alongside its close relations: the doubledecker bus, the black taxi and an old-fashioned post box, all symbolic of a storybook, Enid Blyton-ish Britain. “If you were to do a painting of an English village,” said Nigel Linge, professor of telecommunications at Salford University and probably Britain’s premier phone-box expert, “you’d have a duck pond, a church, a pub and I’d bet you’d have a phone box.” (Linge’s first phone-box memory: calling relatives from the one on his estate in the mining village of Willington, County Durham; his family didn’t get a phone in the house until the 1980s.) “I don’t think any other country is as passionate about their phone boxes as we are about ours,” he added.
To understand this unlikely passion, I started going into every phone box I passed. Typically, there was broken glass, discarded cider cans, an unmistakable smell of piss. Not much to love. One old red box in Camden was a wreck – no door, plastic bottles and browned leaves carpeting the floor, a handwritten note in the glass advertising a hot blonde. I picked up the receiver and heard, unbelievably, the long tone of a line open for calls. An old, old sound. And then, a memory dump from a mid-1990s adolescence. Back then, out with friends, I used phone boxes quite a lot. They were near bus stops, outside tube stations. The odd reverse-charge call in a mishap, begging lifts or forgiveness.
Now, the phone box is an object caught between existence and obsolescence. They seem pointless, and yet they endure, on our streets and in our culture, covered in creepers in the music video for Adele’s song Hello; clambered all over by One Direction for the cover of their 2012 album Take Me Home; being stroked by Molly-Mae Hague, in beige shorts and waistcoat, for a recent Pretty Little Thing campaign. (“A lot of youngsters seem to want to be photographed near one,” noted Linge.) Thousands of people apparently still use them. I wanted to know who they were and why, when technology had long ago surpassed what a phone box could offer, they were still heaving open their weirdly heavy doors and making a call.
People, remembering them in their prime, often talk about the smell. Cigarettes and cleaning fluid. A metallic odour on your fingers from the buttons. Once, there were phone directories on a shelf, then sex-worker cards wallpapering the door. In the early days, until the last manual switchboard closed in 1976, you spoke to an operator and told her – it was always her – what number you wanted to call.
Often, there were queues. “You’d have to walk round the corner shop and wait your turn,” said Martin White, owner of a company, X2 Connect, which repairs and resells old phone boxes that BT has removed. I visited White at his offices on an industrial estate in Newark, Nottinghamshire. His business has an inevitable limit, given the dwindling numbers of boxes. “Another thousand or so will do,” White told me. “Then that will be the end of that.” Surely White would know who was making all those calls. But no. He’d last used one “six years ago?” His kids, aged 38 and 36, had never been inside one, as far as he knew.
To one side of White’s office was an open space that had been turned into a kind of phone-box purgatory, crammed with battered boxes awaiting their new life. Once refurbished, White sells them on to all sorts. Old people’s homes to jog the memory of residents; private clients who fancy a bit of heritage in the garden; nostalgics embarking on a quest, like the old man who wanted to buy the box from which he’d called his wife when they were teenagers. They get plenty of overseas buyers, too, who want their own bit of British kitsch. White had recently shipped one off to a shopping mall in Dubai.
In their weathered state, you could just about pick out a potted history of the British phone box. White didn’t have the earliest standard model, the cream K1 (Kiosk One), which appeared in 1921, after the General Post Office had taken over the operation of phone boxes in 1912. (The link was logical: the Post Office and phone boxes were both a public good in the business of connecting people.) But there were plenty of the most common of the old red boxes, the K6, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and introduced in 1935, in celebration of King George V’s Silver Jubilee. (It was embossed with the Tudor crown.) And there were more than anyone could hope for of the unlovable 1980s version, dull grey and black with a boxy, flat-topped shape that abandoned all of the blazing-red, domed-roof chutzpah of the earlier version. No Dubai shopping mall was coming for those.
Even in their heyday, phone boxes were problematic. “They’ve never made money,” said Linge. The boxes – free to enter and full of cash – were like invitations to vandalism. But they were always heavily used. When BT became independent of the Post Office in 1981, and was then privatised in 1984, the company kept increasing the population of boxes until the 1990s. It was only when mobiles became ubiquitous in the early 2000s that BT began culling their numbers. The boxes, many now unused, were a cost whatever their state: the working ones needed maintenance, the broken ones required removal. In the year to April 2020, the company’s net loss on its provision was £4.5m.
But even if it wanted to, BT can’t just scrap them all. The company is under a “universal service obligation” to provide phone boxes, regulated by Ofcom, which, as its director of connectivity Selina Chadha told me, has to ensure that “everyone in the country can communicate”. BT can only remove a phone box if it has the approval of Ofcom and the local authority, and the box isn’t in a location with no mobile signal, where there are frequent traffic accidents, if more than 52 calls have been made from the box in the past year, or if there are “exceptional circumstances” such as the phone box being frequently used to call helplines.
BT is therefore left in a bind, required to maintain thousands of phone boxes that dent its profits. James Browne, BT’s “head of street”, assured me that it “takes its responsibility to provide street-based telephony very seriously” and as such, the company has come up with a new ruse, the Street Hub 2.0 – a tall, flat screen wedged into the pavement offering rolling advertising space and, if you look closely enough, free wifi and calling facilities. (A small percentage of the ad space is given freely to councils and local businesses.) “Yes, it’s a commercial endeavour,” said Browne, cheerfully.
Redundant as they seem, there are times when phone boxes prove essential. After Storm Arwen last November, which left thousands of people in the north of England and Scotland without power and mobile service, Chadha told me she had received reports from communities wishing they still had their phone box. According to Ofcom, from May 2019 to May 2020, 150,000 calls were made from phone boxes to emergency services. And then there are the other emergencies: the 25,000 phone box calls made to ChildLine that year; the 20,000 calls to Samaritans. Calls made by people who can’t make them at home or on a mobile, for reasons too private or painful to know.
The phone box in Seathwaite, in the valley of Borrowdale in the Lake District, is probably the most remote in England. It sits at the edge of a farmyard, next to a path that leads to Scafell, the country’s highest mountain. Last August, a man made a 999 call from the box after his 13-year-old son fell and injured his leg on their way to the 140ft waterfall at Taylor Gill Force. The boy couldn’t walk. The emergency operator alerted the Keswick mountain rescue team, who sent out nine volunteers to stretcher him off the mountain. Recently, when I stopped to pay my respects to the box that had so recently been of active service – one of the 5m calls! – I picked up the phone and heard the reassuring hum of the dial tone, surely a beautiful sound if you’ve just stumbled down a path leaving your child up there in pain.
According to Freda Chapman, who has lived in Borrowdale all her life, BT had been trying to remove the area’s four phone boxes for years. “Each time we get consulted, and each time we have objected to their removal,” she told me. In one consultation in 2016, BT revealed that 378 calls had been made from the Seathwaite box in a year. “Only one a day,” conceded Freda, “but that is still one a day.” BT also suggested the Borrowdale villages – Rosthwaite, Seathwaite, Seatoller and Stonethwaite – adopt their phone boxes for community use, flowers or books, which as Chapman put it, “is a nice thing to do if you don’t need the phone box any more. But we said we’d rather have the phone box, actually.”
Borrowdale’s phone boxes vary. Rosthwaite’s is the 1980s version, as is Seathwaite’s, while the ones in Seatoller and Stonethwaite are the classic reds, objects whose decorative crowns and distinctive shape, modelled on Sir John Soane’s family vault in St Pancras churchyard, are located in such arresting settings, backed by dry stone walls and rising dark hills, that any photograph of them looks like the kind of stock shot you find in a picture frame.
Pretty as the villages might be, up there on the mountains, conditions can be rough. Walkers fall all the time. The Keswick mountain rescue team performed 126 rescues last year. Rob Grange, one of the team, told me that even if you’re able to scramble down for help, half of the few cottages in the valley are holiday rentals and dark for most of the year. “You come down off the fell,” said Grange, with a faraway look that suggested sleet and adversity, “and there’s nobody there.” When BT issued its 2016 consultation about the Seathwaite phone box, the Keswick team posted the news on Facebook and overnight prompted hundreds of complaints to Allerdale borough council.
The Seathwaite box was saved, but in plenty of other villages in the Lakes there were boxes with blue BT posters tacked up next to the phone warning that the company was planning to remove it. In Chapel Stile, all that was left was a freshly tarmacked square where it had once stood, like an unmarked grave.
Three hundred miles south of the Lakes, on a parade of shops in North Wembley, resides the Borrowdale quartet’s perfect opposite: four unused and unloved boxes. “Not the pretty red ones,” said local councillor Mary Daly, regretfully. Three of them are the 1980s boxes, each in varying states of disrepair. One is more contemporary, installed about five years ago, and the only one that works. “I’ve never seen anyone use it,” said Katherine Cunneen, a local resident. “Never.” As hard as the residents of Borrowdale campaign to keep their phone boxes, Cunneen is fighting to have the defunct boxes taken away.
Cunneen has lived in North Wembley for nearly 50 years. When she moved to the neighbourhood from a local authority flat in Paddington, “everyone said, ‘You’re so lucky’”. She had a house, there was a Marks & Spencer, three cinemas. Over the decades, she told me, the good shops have left, replaced by endless takeaways. Rubbish is left on the streets. The housing stock has become run down. The phone boxes, she felt, were symbolic of the neighbourhood’s decline.
On a recent grey afternoon, she took me from one grotty specimen to another, the kind of boxes where no one wants to start a community library or pose in beige shorts. One had what looked like green algae spreading up its walls; another seemed to have been whitewashed on the inside, as if to obscure criminal activity taking place within, or just its regular use as a toilet. “Would you see these in Richmond?” said Cunneen, pointing at a particularly bleak kiosk by the tube station. That one, she said, was mostly used by people straight off the train: she had seen a man walk out of it just the other day, zipping up his fly.
Phone boxes have always been an obvious location for a variety of crimes, being both easily accessible and oddly private. There was a stabbing in one in Bolton in February. In Littlehampton a few years ago, a sex offender used to regularly call a phone box to target passing schoolchildren. In Nottingham, some boxes outside the Bridgeway shopping centre had to be removed after it was reported in 2018 that more than 3,000 calls were being made from them a year, mostly by drug dealers. (At the time, a BT spokesman valiantly suggested the source of all the calls “could well be tourists”, but as a local resident countered, “I don’t think we tend to see an awful lot of tourists in the Bridgeway Centre to be quite honest.”)
In North Wembley, Cunneen took up the situation with her local councillor, Daly, who tried to raise the issue at the council, and convince BT to take them away. But there they remain. Ultimately, it was BT’s choice to remove them or not. “I don’t accept that,” said Cunneen. “They’re on the pavement. They might own the structure, but they don’t own the pavement.”
Britain’s most attractive phone boxes, meanwhile, have become such beloved and valuable commodities that they now get stolen. Last summer, there were reports of phone box theft from the villages of Chelford in Cheshire and Holtwood in Dorset. “I drove past one day, and it had gone,” said Josh Pritchard, the manager of Holtwood Farm, a day centre for adults with learning difficulties. No one in the village could make sense of it. The box, next to the Methodist church, was about to be taken over by Pritchard’s farm and turned into a mini library.
It’s not easy to steal a phone box. They have power cables that run into the ground and are locked in place on a concrete base. A thief would need a lorry-mounted crane to yank it out of the earth and drive it away. They must have come at night, said Celia Moore, chair of Holt parish council, who sounded both mystified and mournful at the loss. “It was just always there,” she said. “It’s a bit disappointing for the community,” added Pritchard. “There’s a church, a post box and a phone box. That was it.” That painting of the village, now missing its most colourful feature. The parish council informed the police, who didn’t seem particularly moved by their case. Phone-box theft is not an urgent crime. Still, the villagers wondered why someone would bother. “Obviously there’s a market out there for them,” said Pritchard, “so someone decided to make a few quid.”
The phone box market has several dimensions. There is the BT-approved market in the form of companies that sell them on, and the eBay market where you can buy a box with mysterious provenance for £3,000, and then there’s another kind of market in the form of a company called RKC Estates, run by Eddie Ottewell, who around a decade ago bought a load of old red boxes from BT for £1 each through a charitable venture called Thinking Outside The Box, and then appeared to change tack and started auctioning business leases for the boxes online. (Ottewell did not respond to a request for an interview.)
According to Mat Harris, who knows Ottewell and runs the site that auctions his boxes, Ottewell bought up listed boxes in good locations – Brighton, Greenwich, Hampton Court, Hampstead – where his clients knew that their business selling coffee or sandwiches, or whatever else they could flog from a tiny box, would have plenty of passing traffic. In Hampstead alone, Harris estimated RKC Estates owned five or six boxes, which, according to RKC’s website, are rented out for £400 a month after an initial fee of somewhere between £1,500 and £4,200. A couple of well-positioned boxes near Brighton pier were put up for sale for £10,000 each. The one in Greenwich, meanwhile, Ottewell was apparently keen to hold on to, “unless he gets a really silly price”.
“His 100 quid investment is worth £1m now,” added Harris, confirming the final stage of the phone box’s peculiar arc, from public service via privatised anachronism through patriotic iconography to profit-making commodity. All that from a box.
But the question still burned. Who, who, was making all those calls? I spent so long lurking suspiciously around phone boxes, hoping, always hoping, that I might catch someone in the act. In the end, the only call I witnessed was the one I made myself, to the payphones hotline – a small team in a call centre in Wales – to report on the decrepit state of the Camden phone box in which I was standing. The only time I even saw someone else step inside one was when I happened to spot some engineers working at an electrical cabinet next to a box. One went in, lifted the phone and shouted in amazement: “It works!”
I’d listened to plenty of nostalgic stories, though. Like Martin White, ringing his future wife. Or Freda Chapman’s mother, whose only way of getting a message to her husband while he was at work was by popping down to the village box. Or Andrew Hurley, the phone-box curator whose mother would go to the local kiosk every Sunday night at 8pm to talk to his father while he was fighting in the second world war.
The most devoted phone-box user I heard about, however, was Eric Dewhurst of Bretherton, Lancashire. Dewhurst lived alone, opposite an old red box which he used as his personal phone. Most days, he’d take his bag of 20ps across the road and install himself for his daily calls, often to his older brother, Bill, or to his nieces, Carole and Elaine. They once bought him a mobile phone, but he refused to touch it. “He didn’t like change,” Elaine told me. (They tried to give him a duvet once, but he preferred to stick with having “hundreds of blankets” on his bed.)
If it was wet and cold, Dewhurst would be in there wearing boots and several coats, including a mackintosh tied up with twine. People would call him in the box, too. Everyone in the village knew it as Eric’s phone, so if someone passing heard it ring, they’d answer, then pop across the road to his bungalow and tell him he was wanted. When Dewhurst died in 2019, the phone box in Bretherton stopped being used – it was a one-man box – but the village decided to fill it with books and keep it in his memory. His name won’t mean much to a newcomer, but any Bretherton longtimer can picture Eric out there in all weathers, bulky in his coats, a bag of silver in one hand, chatting.
I wondered what Eric would have made of the new Street Hub 2.0. No shelter from the rain in one of those. You can’t get in it at all. I found a few newly installed around the corner from the old Camden box, all giving off a low hum from an internal fan. Close up, I realised they simply resembled giant smartphones – a black rectangle with a massive screen, with a keypad and ports for your charger and headphones. It was hard to imagine someone standing there, all plugged in, casually ringing a mate.
But then I remembered the father in the Seathwaite box, all those emergency services calls, the calls to ChildLine and Samaritans, the people after Storm Arwen who wished they still had their phone box, all the other Eric Dewhursts who must be out there, living alone, suspicious of mobiles. As Selina Chadha put it, “Some payphones are a lifeline.” When all else has failed, a rope thrown into the water connects one troubled hand to another. A cable from a phone box links voice to voice. Human connection can be an act of rescue in itself.
I started to think that Ofcom, in its touching insistence that a private company continues to provide the population of a country the chance to make a call from a box on the street, was on to something. As we look at a future where storms descend with greater frequency, where energy sources are compromised or unaffordable, where power is no longer something we can assume we will always have in our homes – perhaps Ofcom knew just how essential phone boxes may still be.
At the end of my wayward quest, I decided that if I couldn’t see someone make a call from a phone box, I could at least hear one ring. They must have rung so often, once. All those queues; a time slot long arranged for a parent to call a child who’d moved to the city; lovers waiting to hear each other’s voices. I texted my mother. Call me on this number! I’m in a phone box!
She didn’t reply, probably busy. I waited for 10 minutes until the awkwardness of standing in a phone box doing nothing became overwhelming. I texted her again and told her not to worry – the combination of technology and communication once again proving itself to be an imperfect work in progress. To scratch the itch, I ended up ringing the phone box from my mobile, and there it was, the tinny little sound of potential connection, drifting into the street.
(This article was amended on 28 April 2022. An earlier version said that “the last manual switchboard closed in Enfield in 1960”. Enfield was the last manual telephone exchange in London; the last in the UK was in Portree, Isle of Skye, which closed in 1976.)