I Spy… The Thin Blue (Telephone) Line

Hasteful MammalAfter my recent dragon-hunting adventure I started to wonder what else might be dotted around the City of London’s streets that I had failed to ever really notice.  The most immediate answer, when I opened my eyes and looked about me, seems thematically obvious: if you’re going to place dangerous fire breathing reptiles on your streets, you had better give people the means to call for help when attacked.

Police Boxes & Posts

Origin & Purpose

In the days after the invention of the telephone but long before practical two-way radios were common, the public could contact the police and the police could contact each other by using a police box.  These were dedicated phone kiosks erected on street corners all over the land.  They have long since vanished of course, except on television where the shape of the TARDIS on Doctor Who—once a clever disguise as an everyday object — now just seems an arbitrary design.  It’s a TARDIS, that’s what it looks like; what’s a “police box?”

The police telephone is actually an American idea; the first phone post appeared in Albany, New York, within a year of Scottish emigrant Alexander Graham Bell patenting his new and exciting “improvement in telegraphy”.  The first proper boxes went up in Chicago in 1880 and had spread to a number of other US cities by the middle of that decade.  Britain’s first city to follow this trend was Glasgow in 1891 — where they painted them red for some reason that presumably made sense at the time — and London quickly followed suit.

London Calling…

In the late 1920s, a standard design was developed by the Metropolitan Police and subsequently adopted across much of the country. By 1937, almost seven hundred police boxes dotted Greater London’s streets along with approximately seventy smaller police call posts

Within the ‘Square Mile‘, City of London Police erected around sixty police call posts, the City’s narrow streets largely precluding the larger box design.  And because the City is a super special snowflake and its police are different, they were painted sky blue rather than the dark blue favoured by the Met. 

By the late 1960s, as radio technology advanced, the police call posts became obsolete.  Some survived, disused, until the 1980s when they were removed and sold to collectors. Today just eight posts remain in situ.  Except it’s actually seven — the Aldgate Project, which you may recall has displaced the Aldgate dragon, has also ousted a call post from outside Aldgate Church.  I expect both will probably return when the works are complete.

The Survivors


So, where are these seven surviving relics of police telecommunication?  Let us start at the ceremonial and administrative home of the City of London Corporation, the Guildhall:

As befits a thing hidden in plain sight, not one of the crowd of excited tourists noticed it.
The post is clearly labelled and emblazoned with the city arms (ooh look — dragons!).  The red lamp atop the post would light up if the bobby on the beat needed to contact HQ; essentially it acted as a pager.
The actual phone was behind this door. Another door beneath it opened horizontally to form a makeshift writing desk while at the bottom of the post was a cupboard containing a first aid kit.
Mansion House

The Guildhall was completed in 1440 and is the City’s only secular building to have survived from that time.  The Corporation’s other key ceremonial building — the Mansion House — is more recent, having been completed in 1752.  It is the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London and was formerly also a court of law, the Lord Mayor being Chief Magistrate of the City.  The suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was held there for trial at one point. A police call post stands outside.

Officer? Come quick! There’s a madwoman here who wants to be able to vote!
Queen Victoria Street

West of the Mansion House is the tube station of the same name, where Queen Victoria Street and Cannon Street cross each other.  Slightly further west still, Friday Street links those two streets together and at its southern end, on the corner of Queen Victoria Street, another police call post stands:

The Olympic marathon ran down Queen Victoria Street in 2012 so this call post was potentially televised to — and unnoticed by — three and a half billion people (the estimated viewership of London 2012).
St Martin’s Le Grand

Almost directly north of Friday Street and appropriately close to the Museum of London (which is well worth a visit), stands another police call post. This one can be found in St Martin’s Le Grand, which is an awesome street name.  St Martin’s Le Grand takes its name from the former parish in which it can be found and the call post is at its northern end, outside the entrance to Postman’s Park.  The park occupies the site of the former churchyard and burial ground of St Botolph without Aldersgate. A statue of Sir Robert Peel (former PM and founder of the Metropolitan Police — the terms ‘bobby’ and ‘peeler’ derive from his name) stood in the park from 1952 to 1971, when it was removed to Hendon Police College.

Hello? I want to report a theft. Some blighter’s nicked Sir Robert Peel. He was jus… oh. Right.

Like Queen Victoria Street, St Martin’s Le Grand was a part of the 2012 Olympic marathon route, so this post too may well have hidden in plain sight from billions.

Liverpool Street

The north end of St Martin’s Le Grand turns into the street known as Aldersgate. Heading east from there along London Wall — named for the Roman wall that originally defined the City’s northern limit — brings one to the vicinity of Liverpool Street station, opened in 1874 as the new terminus of the Great Eastern Railway.  I spent two years working a stone’s throw from the station and am no stranger to the streets that surround it.  I therefore recognised the police post that stands right outside it, whilst simultaneously realising that I’d never really noticed it before.  But why would I?

I mean, it’s not like it’s bright blue and right in the middle of the street or anything.
Old Broad Street

The London Underground roundel in the photo above marks an entrance to Liverpool Street tube station on the corner of Old Broad Street.  Heading south down Old Broad Street one crosses London Wall and comes to a fork in the road.  To the left Old Broad Street continues. To the right, Throgmorton Street branches off. And by the side of the junction, next to Adam’s Court, is a police call post that is unique amongst its brethren.

Spring is here and this post is sprouting. Soon it will be a lantern tree
Victoria Embankment

With the Aldgate call post on administrative leave, the final survivor in the City of London is to be found on the Victoria Embankment not far from the two Bunning dragons.  It stands with its back to the Thames and South London, tucked in beside one of the Embankment’s gloriously ornate street lamps.

In case of dragons, lift receiver and burst—screaming—into flames.

Evening all.

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