SOME of Britain’s iconic red telephone booths are ringing with new life again.
Caring communities and enterprising organisations are adopting these traditional red boxes or kiosks and giving them a modern upgrade over there.
Most were no longer in use as the advent of mobile phones and technology resulted in fewer people using public payphones.
Closer to home, the English red telephone booths can be found in some towns in Peninsular Malaysia where the British settled during the colonial era.
These booths remain as decorative pieces to this day as they are unique as well as a reminder of the nation’s colonial past.
In Taiping, Perak, the red box is located beside the over a century-old clock tower in Jalan Tupai, off the main road of Jalan Kota.
It serves as a tourist attraction at the historical town where tourists never fail to stop for a photo shoot with the relic.
Another booth is located on the grounds of the Smokehouse Hotel in Cameron Highlands, Pahang.
It is a popular photography spot for guests of the colonial building as well as tourists to the highland resort.
According to the hotel, the telephone is no longer functioning.
In the United Kingdom, some public phones are housed in these bright red telephone kiosks of either the K2 or K6 designs by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, which were introduced in 1926 and 1936 respectively.
In an effort to preserve the much beloved structure, BT Group (formerly British Telecom) introduced an “Adopt a Kiosk” scheme to allow communities to keep and preserve the red phone booths.
According to BT’s website, the adoption is subject to criteria such as low use, those not required for the company’s future plans, adopted as seen (without any improvements made) and cannot be relocated.
Those that can adopt a kiosk are recognised local authorities such as a district, parish or town council, or a registered charity.
While the adoption from BT costs only £1 (RM5.20), it is the community’s responsibility to raise funds to refurbish the rundown structure and handle its maintenance.
More than 5,000 communities across the UK have converted the red kiosks into libraries, gardens, art galleries and to house defibrillators.
Companies that want to buy a kiosk to run their business or as an advertising space can buy an “as seen” unit from £1,750 (RM9,094) onwards and refurbished unit from £2,900 (RM15,070).
For rural communities and residences outside town centres, having defibrillators housed inside the phone booths could mean access to a life-saving device.
Community Heartbeat Trust (CHT) is a charity that aims to help and support communities in the correct provision of defibrillators. On its website, CHT explained that defibrillators (also known as AEDs) are medical devices that help and support a rescue for a patient in cardiac arrest.
In remote areas where accessibility to emergency medical services could take time, having defibrillators could improve the survival rate of those with cardiac arrests on reaching the hospital.
CHT said it could help communities with the phone booth adoption process or communities could apply directly with BT.
Its national secretary Martin Fagan said a colleague observed that BT was closing down its disused kiosk and suggested that they be installed with defibrillators.
“We partnered with BT on the initiative and since then, over 1,000 kiosks have been converted and installed with defibrillators over a span of 12 years,” he said, adding that the process to adopt a kiosk took 90 to 120 days as it had to go through a public consultation process.
“If a kiosk is identified as a protected monument or located in an area of conservation, it will need the local council’s permission for the adoption process.
People are more receptive to phone booth conversion these days. They objected in the initial years because there were no reliable phone networks and limited mobile phone usage in villages then,” he added.
“A key criterion is that the defibrillators require an electrical power connection. The structural condition of the kiosk, its quality and location are factors to consider as well, as they have to be easily accessible by the community and be safe for use,” said Fagan, adding that CHT would also train communities to use the defibrillators.
“It costs about £2,000 (RM10,369) to refurbish and convert a phone booth, instal a defibrillator and conduct training. This is followed by £130 (RM674) per year to maintain the device, which lasts about 10 to 15 years,” he said.
“Over the last 10 to 12 years, the survival rate of those with cardiac arrests has improved from 5% to 25% due to increased awareness and education,” said Fagan added that CHT received about 25 applications per month to convert phone booths to house defibrillators.
Converted booths comprised about 10% of CHT’s projects while the rest are installed in community buildings.
Residents in the neighbourhood of Lee, South East London, rescued a kiosk dating to 1927 and turned it into a mini library for book donations and exchange.
Friends of Dacre Telephone Box (FDTB) chair Trisha O’Reilly said it was run as a mini library during the Covid-19 lockdowns and feedback from the local community was tremendously positive.
“Many saw it as a lifeline and missed it when we had to close temporarily, so it’s wonderful to have it up and running again,” she said of the kiosk that was relaunched in December last year.
“Blackheath Society helped us to buy the kiosks from BT while the Lewisham Council’s Blackheath Assembly funding of just under £1,500 (RM 7777) was crucial to pay for the essential repair works,” she added.
After gaining support from local residents to rescue the structure, located opposite Dacre Arms Pub, O’Reilly said she contacted a group in a nearby neighbourhood that had successfully converted a couple of kiosks to get tips and guidelines for the adoption process.
“Giving away preloved books would be good for the environment and support literacy, particularly among younger learners,” she said.
O’Reilly said initial challenges included funding for repairs, having a registered charity to support its efforts and the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Book donations, she said, started appearing after temporary bookshelves were placed inside and it functioned through the difficult period as intended – as a book exchange.
“For many, the kiosk was a lifeline during the lockdowns. Official libraries were closed and our mini library offered people a focal point for their daily walk and the chance to pick up books to take home,” said O’Reilly, adding that the location of the mini library at a major neighbourhood crossroads was one of the keys to its success.
Children, parents and carers often stopped by on the way to school to see if there were new books, along with adults visiting the nearby public halls, church and pub.
The mini library was open round the clock and not locked as the facility was meant to be shared by everyone.
Seed swap and more
Inspired by the local allotments in her neighbourhood of Burgess Hill in West Sussex, keen gardener Simone Woods decided to convert a phone booth into a seed swap hub.
(In the UK, an allotment is an area of land, leased either from a private or local authority landlord, for the use of growing fruit and vegetables.)
“I also wanted to encourage locals to collect seeds from their gardens so we could keep old varieties and heritage seeds alive,” said Woods, the Blackhouse Lane Phone Box Group chair and founding member.
“Since it was introduced, the seed swap box has been frequented by the local community. They love that it encourages both children and senior folk to do gardening,” she said.
The seed swap concept is similar to the mini library, except visitors are there to exchange seeds for flowers, vegetables or herbs.
Blackhouse Lane also converted a kiosk on Royal George Road into a community box and a unit on London Road into a box containing a special light that glowed brighter and dimmer on a cycle.
“The community box that houses a children’s library and notice board is located opposite a local primary school.
“The light box was created by a resident who was inspired by the ancient beacons placed along English coasts centuries ago to warn people of danger,” said Wood.
For the group, the process to adopt the phone booths was not difficult. They only needed to get the West Sussex County Council’s permission to formally adopt the booths with the council purchasing them from BT. After the council bought the booths, the group could adopt them.
“I was lucky someone had pioneered the adoption of a kiosk in Burgess Hill. The council was reluctant for fear the kiosks would be vandalised and the project would be a failure.
“She fought hard to get them to agree and her success paved the way for me to take on the final three units,” added Wood.
She said almost £2,000 (RM10,369) was raised to refurbish the phone booths, which the group acquired through the council’s local community improvement fund and fundraising efforts at local supermarkets.
Jade Chan was a 2022 Khazanah-Wolfson Press Fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. This article is part of a series from her fellowship project on how placemaking can benefit the community and environment.