Police call boxes were in wide use from the 1920s until the 1960s and provided a method of communication between the street and police station, for both police and public use. They contained a telephone, and the lights on the top would flash if the control room needed to communicate with the PC on the beat.
There were two main types: police kiosks (think Dr Who), and police call posts (like in the picture here).
The Metropolitan Police and City of London Police were established in 1829 and 1839 respectively. Constables would patrol a beat. The idea that a constable would regularly pass through all parts of his beat was difficult to achieve and anyone requiring the services of the police would more than likely have to visit a police station, rather than wait for the constable to come by.
Fixed points were established where constables would be available continuously, or at set periods during the day to provide assistance where required. From the 1880s, shelters were provided for the constables at these fixed points.
Trials of police call points containing communications equipment were in operation in Islington between 1888 and 1894. Brixton and Clapham had ten street call lampposts installed as a trial in 1892. Whilst the trials proved popular, the systems were not adopted on a permanent basis.
The Met first had telecoms equipment installed into a police kiosk in 1897 in Cricklewood. The police kiosk had a direct line with a police station.
By 1907, 30 kiosks were in use.
At this time, The City of London Police introduced 52 white call points in the City, which people could use to summon the City of London Police Ambulance.
By 1920, 60 police kiosks were in operation in London.
In 1928 a police kiosk was created in one of the pillars on Trafalgar Square. This was connected by telephone with Cannon Row police station, Great Scotland Yard and New Scotland yard, and was particularly valuable for summoning assistance should any trouble break out at demonstrations.
In 1934 an information room set up at New Scotland Yard reachable by dialling ‘whitehall 1212’ which developed into the ‘999’ service in 1937. This enabled people to contact the police in an emergency using private lines or from public telephones.
In the 1930s, ‘PA1’ police call points were widely established outside of London. These had flashing lights on the top, which could be activated from a police station to signal to the constable they needed to get in contact. They also had a telephone line to the police station. Members of the public could simply open a door on the pillar, and speak into a grill to communicate with the police station.
The Met police didn’t want to introduce these call points due to the loudspeaker system preventing privacy of calls. Instead they continued with the ‘telephone handset in a kiosk’ system.
In congested areas around Central London this wasn’t practical. Gilbert Mckenzie Trench designed a new type of police call post, the first of which was placed at Piccadilly Circus in 1937. By 1938 there were 662 boxes and 58 call posts in operation by the Met, and by 1953 this had risen to 685 kiosks and 73 posts.
These new police call posts performed better than the PA1 call posts, and were used as the basis of the PA2 which replaced the PA1 systems.
The PA2 was made of cast iron and weighed around 350kg.
The top compartment contained the phone and also the lamp for the police sign and door.
The middle and lower compartments contained switches to control lamps and the signalling unit - these two compartments were locked and a key to open these was carried by constables.
In 1958 the PA3 call post was introduced made of a thinner metal. This weighed around 100kg, and could be secured by bolts to a concrete base which made installation much easier.
The City replaced it’s PA2s with PA3s in 1965.
Police radios were introduced in the late 1960s. Police could have immediate communication with control wherever they were on their beat.
As time went by, private subscriber lines were installed in more and more private homes, in addition to the public phone boxes on the street. These factors all contributed to making police call boxes less relevant.
The role-out of radios was completed in 1969, and widespread demolition of the Met kiosks and posts took place in the 1970s. The last of the kiosks was demolished in 1980. City police maintained the systems longer than the Met and it wasn’t until 1988 that the city stopped using its PA3s, with the instructions changed to request users use a nearby public phone box.
Eight of these City of London call points have recently been restored and painted their original City of London light blue. In addition there are two Met police boxes still standing - one in Grosvenor Square and one at Piccadilly Circus.
In the 1990s a new police kiosk copying the original design was set up outside Earl’s Court tube station. This new box contains CCTV equipment.
I can highly recommend doing a walking tour of the City of London PA3 police public call posts, ending with a visit to the Police museum in the Guildhall Library. View the locations on a map