A new life for Derbyshire’s red telephone boxes

Quarndon's phone box - now used as a library

Quarndon's phone box - now used as a library - Credit: Archant

Mobile phones may be ubiquitous, but some Derbyshire communities remain passionate about their red telephone boxes. Peter Naldrett puts in a call to those maintaining this icon of rural Britain

The launch of Tideswell's 'history box' Photo: Bill Bevan

The launch of Tideswell's 'history box' Photo: Bill Bevan - Credit: Archant

Superman likes to change in them, Dr Who travels about in one and most ordinary folk have a memory of finding one to make an important call at some point in their lives. Public payphones have been embedded in our culture as an important method of communication since they were introduced in 1921. But less so these days. Gradually disappearing from our streets, the heyday of the phone box has long gone and some people even believe the days of dialling from them are numbered.

British Telecom tolled the death knell of the red payphone 30 years ago when it announced it would be switching to the more bland grey kiosks. There was opposition to the change – and there is still opposition today when BT apply to remove more boxes from our streets. So several villages have taken up the chance to buy their red phone box for £1 and run it as a community facility instead of a telephone, with uses including art galleries, libraries, information stations and even coffee shops.

Some may wonder why there is such a rush to cut the iconic red boxes off the phone network in the first place and find other uses for them. The reason can be found close by to most of us – in the shape of a mobile phone. There is just not the demand to make calls from public telephone boxes in today’s world of contracts, texting and 150 minute bundles.

At their peak in 2002 there were 92,000 BT payphones across the UK – this has been reduced to 58,500 today and the number is still falling. Another 1,500 will disappear this year. That will leave us with 10,000 of the much-loved red telephone boxes left, most of them found away from city centres in more rural areas. And therein lies another problem; although 63,000 calls are made each day from the remaining payphones, they tend to be the ones in built up areas. This leaves the rural red box a loss-maker; 12,000 countryside boxes are used less than once a month.

Listening in to living history in Tideswell Photo: Bill Bevan

Listening in to living history in Tideswell Photo: Bill Bevan - Credit: Archant

With the disappearance of red telephone boxes seemingly inevitable, communities across Derbyshire have rallied round to take advantage of the BT scheme to adopt their local payphone shell for a shiny pound. Paul Harrison, of the Tideswell Living History Group, heard about the chance to get hold of a community telephone box for £1 and jumped at the chance, working with the Parish Council to make it part of their oral history project.

He told me: ‘As a group we have been recording people’s memories of the past in Tideswell and the plan to use the village telephone box as part of that oral project was put forward as part of a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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‘If you go inside the phone box now you can pick up the receiver and listen to ten audio clips of local people talking about times gone by. We have focused on areas of childhood, celebration and employment. The ten clips are changed regularly so you will hear different stories in there.’

There’s another phone box in Tideswell – but that one is still in use so there are no plans to extend the initiative. But thought was given as to what colour the ‘history box’ should be when the group gave it a new lick of paint. There was talk of moving away from the traditional red to make it stand out and attract the attention of visitors. But the original colour won the day and the phone box remains as red as a field of poppies.

Shirley Photo: Ashley Franklin

Shirley Photo: Ashley Franklin - Credit: Archant

Paul added: ‘They have been around for so long, it is part of our heritage a little bit like the red post boxes are. Sometimes we don’t notice how important things are until they start to go.’

In Little Eaton, the red phone box was in a shabby state and sat close to residents who had formed a book group. In a flash of inspiration, they urged the Parish Council to buy it and it’s now set up nicely as a book exchange on Alfreton Road. The village had a doctor’s surgery, pub, butcher and a chemist – but it lacked a library. Now keen readers can pick up a book free of charge, leaving one they have just finished behind for others to enjoy.

The bright red boxes in Quarndon on the outskirts of Derby and in Shirley and Hollington, near Ashbourne, have also attracted bibliophiles and you’ll now find so much more than a Yellow Pages inside them.

After Shirley Parish Council paid their £1 to adopt, they put out an appeal to see what locals wanted it to be used for. Up stepped local postie Martyn Glover, who put together custom made shelves to fit inside and lined them with 100 of his own unwanted books. And so a public library was born, albeit a teeny weeny one. Nearby residents soon got involved and contributed to the collection, meaning the catalogue was soon in the hundreds and a few DVDs were also made available to borrow.

But attempts to preserve the old telephone boxes do not always get a good reception. In 2009 there were plans to turn three of Dronfield’s cast-iron classics into community phone boxes – the initiative was turned down by the Town Council because of fears they would be used as public toilets and targeted by vandals. The decision had its critics.

Ironically, as we make every effort to cling onto these Derbyshire landmarks it’s worth remembering what people thought of them during their installation in the 1920s and 30s. Letters were written to MPs and opinions given to local newspapers calling on them to take away these ugly eyesores. How times change!