The Police Telephone Box – the ones that do not travel in time.

The recent orgy of TV and radio coverage about a certain wandering police box caused me to wonder how much was known about them, by which I mean the non wandering variety that were common when I was a lad and can still be seen in a few places. The answer, it would seem, is not very much.

Before looking at the police box we should first look at what problems the police were encountering to which the police box was the solution.

What is said here predominantly relates to towns, as policing in country areas presented slightly different challenges. The police as we know it today, it must be remembered, was conceived as a preventative force where an organized body of constables were out and about in sufficient numbers (a) to discourage the commission of crime, (b) to be on hand to discover crime quickly and pursue those suspected of committing it, and (c) to arrest those suspected of committing crime and bring them before a magistrate. In the age before either the telephone or mechanical transport were available, the uniform police attached to a police station were organized into shifts (called reliefs) and subdivided into sections (under a sergeant) and further subdivided into beats.

Each beat was arranged to occupy the majority of a shift and consisted of a route which might take (say) an hour to perambulate. There were a number of beats attached to each police station such that between them they covered the entire ground. Although every single minor road or alley might not necessarily be walked, all would have been in sight at some point, and a beat would never have been far away. By this means the police soon became familiar with an area and could immediately spot something suspicious; in addition the public either knew when and where a policeman was to be found quickly, or could simply shout for one as there would have been a good chance there would have been one fairly close. Beats were closely timed, but policeman were not expected to walk quickly as that made it difficult to pay attention to surroundings, did not leave time to help members of the public (for example to give directions) or to check something that looked odd. The sergeant was supposed to visit every man in his section during the shift, which meant having a good idea where all the officers would be along their beats at any time. This beat system was certainly adopted by the Metropolitan Police on its formation in 1829, and in a form not all that much modified carried on until the late 1950s when patrol cars began to insinuate themselves into the system, with gradual loss of contact with ordinary members of the public that give rise to some concerns today, but that is another story.

The problem faced by the bobby on the beat was that if something irregular was spotted it could take a long time to get it reported. Something very urgent would cause an officer to blow his whistle (using a particular code) when nearby officers from other beats would rush to assist; for this to work, police whistles were of a very particular type that exuded a very characteristic sound that could not be mistaken. Before telephones were invented the officers would either have to deal with the matter entirely on their own or one of them (or a deputed member of the public) would have to run to the police station to get assistance, perhaps from ‘reserve’ officers located there. This took time. In addition, once an officer was out and about it was very difficult to get hold of him, and tied up another officer in doing so. It was also difficult for a member of the public to get hold of a policemen quickly if one were not actually in sight.

To improve on all this, the police box (strictly police telephone box) was devised. The first examples appeared in Glasgow as far back as 1891. In England, the earliest examples seem to have been in Sunderland (1923) and Newcastle (1925). Perhaps rather surprisingly the earliest Glasgow boxes were also fitted with a signal light arranged (with great ingenuity) to be illuminated by gas when the station required to contact an officer on the beat. Later Glasgow boxes, introduced by Chief Constable Sillitoe from 1930, were similar to London ones, but the doors had three panels rather than four.

Met Police instructions describing the system. This is the ninth issue and moves me to see if I can see a copy of the first.

The Metropolitan Police began to install telephone boxes in 1929, to a design by Gilbert Mackenzie Trench, surveyor to the Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District. The box is essentially of concrete construction, with wooden doors; there were detailed design changes during their period of introduction and by 1938 some 685 were in use within the MPD, all painted blue. Glasgow followed the Metropolitan design and installed 325, originally painted red (but later blue). Edinburgh was another user of police boxes, of an entirely different design, and a recent visit there suggests that many are still in place, some out of repair and at least one used as a coffee bar. A few remain in Glasgow, after pressure was brought to retain some on heritage grounds when the bulk were scrapped.

A surviving Edinburgh police box.

The Metropolitan Police boxes were used by officers on the beat who were expected to call the station from one at predetermined times as part of their beat patrol (spending no more than two minutes in doing so). The instructions note that to prevent criminals becoming overly familiar with the movements of the beat officer the beat schedules were selected daily from a set of four, each of which was timed differently. The boxes were equipped with a desk and stool, and an electric heater. They could be used as a place to take refreshment if the beat was remote from a police station and officers were expected to use them as a location within which they could write reports about incidents that needed to be written up; some divisional superintendents had a particular aversion to seeing beat officers in a police station during their duty without a very good reason (and, in a few cases, for any reason at all). Police boxes could also be used to keep a prisoner out of the way while a vehicle was summoned to collect them both. It was very much part of the system that motor transport was part of all this, and each police station was allocated two motor cars and a van. An additional inspector was provided on each subdivision, and he was supposed to be out and about all the time, often in one of the cars, and was required to keep in touch with the stations using the box telephones. For some reason they were supposed to be internally illuminated at night, despite pleading the need for economy in the use of electricity.

Metropolitan Police Box showing officer using the telephone from the outside

If the light were seen flashing, then any officer was expected to go to the box immediately and call up the station to see what was wanted. All boxes had a common key which became part of the officer’s appointments and had to be shown before starting duty. Special constables were not issued a personal key, but were given one to use during their shift. Each box contained a first aid outfit and a fire extinguisher (and the outside of the box sported a St John’s Ambulance badge). Arrangements were made for the boxes to be cleaned regularly.

In London the placing of police patrols in cars, coupled with the introduction of pocket radios, meant that the boxes were no longer so useful and removal began in 1969, being completed in 1981.

The BBC regarded the police box as a well recognized piece of street furniture when it was selected for use in the Dr Who programme, but strange to say it was only in 2002 when the ire of the police was created. It seems that permission had originally been sought from and granted by the police when the BBC originally wanted to use the design (for they used a wooden or fibreglass copy not a real one), and there the matter might have rested. However, in 1996 the BBC found themselves using the design on commercial and promotional material and felt it prudent to register the design as a trademark. At this, the police baulked, and challenged the application on a number of grounds, but essentially arguing that the design was a trademark of the Metropolitan Police, albeit an unregistered one. Detailed and abstruse arguments were put forward on each side but the examiner, after referring to a number of precedents, concluded that it was unrealistic for the Metropolitan Police to argue that this particular piece of street furniture could be regarded as a police trademark and that the BBC’s commercial use of it to support a fanciful television programme was most unlikely to clash with anything the police were using it for, and the risk of any confusion or abstraction of ‘trade’ was not tenable. The objection was therefore dismissed. (There had been plenty of opportunity since 1929 for the police to register it as a trademark and commercially exploit the idea for toys and so on, but they had not.). 

The Metropolitan Police do still use a police box which at first sight looks like an ‘ordinary’ one, and this is located outside Earls Court Underground station. It was installed in April 1996 as part of an exercise to improve local security. This one is made of wood, based on police designs and was constructed by London Underground carpenters at their Lillie Bridge works as a contribution to the scheme. It was opened by the mayoress of Kensington and the local borough police commander and has an emergency telephone to enable the public to call the police, while inside it has CCTV monitors so that someone on the spot can watch the local area. Some police forces also used police pillars where it was not possible to install a box. These had a telephone and a calling lamp. Several survive in the City of London (by no means necessarily in use), and the Metropolitan Police still have one at Piccadilly Circus. The City ones were a paler blue. 

The Tardis, incidentally, was based on the Met Police Mk II design. However, how many of you have noticed that this prop was not only never a correct representation but also varied considerably between the various series of the programme. Yes someone has done a study, and you can find it HERE.

There is a website that seeks to collate photographs of Metropolitan Police telephone boxes in their original surroundings, and it can be found HERE.

Excellent drawing of the Metropolitan Police box and some information about its history can be found HERE.

There is a Flickr stream devoted to surviving police boxes (of which there seem to be a lot) and can be found HERE.

A useful illustrated history of the Glasgow system can be found HERE. It also contains more general information about other police box systems.

Happy hunting.

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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