In Case of Emergency, Open Box (AA and RAC telephone boxes, UK)

There are 19 remaining in-situ examples of this week’s transport beauty at the sides of roads across Britain, making journeys more interesting and attractive, and acting as a reminder of an age in which emergency communications were much more difficult than they are today. They are AA emergency telephone boxes, and they’re quite fabulous little buildings. Here’s one:

Humphrey Bolton [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
AA Box 442 on the A684 near West Burton. Photo by Humphrey Bolton [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Roadside emergency call boxes were installed in the early part of the 20th Century by the two great British motoring organisations, the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) and the Automobile Association (AA). The RAC was formed as the Automobile Club in 1897 (it got its “Royal” in 1907) to promote “the rights and best interests of motorists”. The AA was founded a few years later, in 1905 “to consider ways to overcome the perceived police oppression of early motorists and their use of speed-traps”. While both organisations ended up offering very similar services to their members, the subtle difference in outlook still characterised them years later.

Both the RAC and AA were early pioneers of road signage, at a time when there was no national standard for directing motorists. Post the Worboys Committee of the early 1960s and the introduction of national road signage standards, the AA and RAC were permitted to install only temporary signage, and you’ll still see such AA signage on the roads.

Back in the early 20th Century, with cars still virtually experimental and far from reliable, one of the major problems was car breakdowns. Both the AA and RAC deployed large numbers of patrolmen (and it seems they were all men) around the country. Initially the AA’s priority was detecting speed traps and warning AA members of their presence. Both AA and RAC patrolmen were supposed to salute members of their organisations, identifiable by a metal badge affixed to front of their cars, and failure to salute indicated to the motorist that something – usually an imminent speed trap – was amiss. The practice ended in the 1960s.

The RAC’s patrols had an early focus on assisting members with emergency repairs, and the AA followed suit later. In the case of both organisations, their patrolmen needed somewhere to shelter. In 1912, both the AA and RAC began installing wooden sentry posts.

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Until the invention of portable radio sets, telephones were the only way that AA and RAC offices could communicate with patrolmen, and the boxes were soon fitted with telephones. It was quickly realised that communication could work the other way round, and by 1920 (when the AA had 61 boxes) members were being issued with keys so that they could get into the boxes and call for assistance in the event that there was no patrolman at the box.

Although the early AA telephone/sentry boxes were fairly primitive structures, in 1927 the AA introduced a new and improved box design.

It’s this one that remains the most famous, and the remaining examples on British roads are of this type (actually one’s in Jersey: box 687). Made of wood and finished in black with vertical yellow edges, the boxes sport moulded AA badges also in yellow. The badges are the winged version, eventually replaced by a more modern but less glamorous square logo. Each box is also fitted with plates carrying its number and its location. Members of both the AA and RAC received copies of maps showing the location of their emergency telephone boxes, but even if you didn’t know where you were, once you reached the box, all you had to do was call, repeat the information on the plates, and the AA or RAC would be able to find you. At the top, the AA boxes have perhaps their best design feature, a distinctive cross-gabled roof with a neat little ventilator.

There were near on 1,000 of these boxes at one point. Seven of the remaining 19 AA boxes are listed in England at Grade II (the AA says eight, but I think it might be including the Welsh one), six in Scotland (at Grades B or C) and one in Wales. Some boxes remain at roadsides but not in their original position. This one, for instance, is in Eastbourne:

AA Box 73 at the Wish Tower, Eastbourne. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
AA Box 73 at the Wish Tower, Eastbourne. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

The AA keeps a list of all its original telephone box locations, and if this genuinely is box number 73, then it used to be at Maidenhead. It’s now the booking office for vintage car tours of Eastbourne, demonstrating the enduring attraction of these pieces of roadside infrastructure. Several are in museums, while box 472 actually is a mini-museum in its own right, having been restored by volunteers.

The RAC, meanwhile, also installed a number of roadside emergency telephone boxes.

RAC sentry box near Saxondale in 1983. © Copyright David Hillas and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence via this geograph page
RAC sentry box near Saxondale in 1983. © Copyright David Hillas and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence via this geograph page
They were never as numerous as the AA’s, and perhaps lacked the kerb-appeal of those of its competitor. Finished in RAC blue with white details, there were several designs. The RAC’s ‘Hudlass’ box can be seen via the excellent “The Telephone Box” website. Later versions were made of concrete panels, and there’s one at the East Anglia Transport Museum:

1960s RAC Telephone Box at the East Anglia Transport Museum. © Copyright David Hillas and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence via this geograph page
1960s RAC Telephone Box at the East Anglia Transport Museum. © Copyright David Hillas and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence via this geograph page
Keys for the AA and RAC boxes were made interchangeable in 1947, and the AA and RAC operators would relay messages for assistance when an AA member used an RAC telephone box or vice versa. Calls would be handled in offices like this unbelievably stylish London AA call centre, seen in the 1960s.

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By the 1960s, however, the wooden boxes were being removed from British roads in favour of groovy pedestal-type phones, one of which you can see on the AA’s website, and later on, even smaller pedestal phones like this one. Even the pedestal phones were phased out by the AA in 2002, because motorists invariably carried mobile phones with them by this point.

For many younger motorists, the whole idea of landline phones at fixed points on the road network is a bit bizarre, though there is a school of thought that using a motorway emergency phone will allow your location to be pinpointed faster than calling from a mobile. In fact, for many youngsters the idea of any kind of phone box is very difficult to comprehend. I once looked after a foster child, and told them we needed to look out for the red phone box on our way home, because that’s where we needed to turn off the road. They proceeded to ask me why they were called phone boxes, and I said because they had phones in them (obvs). “But why?” they asked, in a state of utter confusion, and I realised I’d been overtaken by history…

These days, the remaining roadside emergency phones are provided by the big highways agencies; Highways England, Traffic Scotland and Traffic Wales. They’re smaller and more streamlined than their ancestors but do very much the same job. I rather like this photograph of a modern Traffic Scotland emergency phone, standing alongside one of its illustrious predecessors.

AA Box 714, on the A96. © Copyright Peter Aikman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
AA Box 714, on the A96. © Copyright Peter Aikman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence via this geograph page

Further Reading and Bibliography

AA’s telephone box history page, here

AA history page, here

A complete listing of all the AA boxes, their locations and their phone numbers, here

Royal Automobile Club history page, here

RAC’s history page, here

Box 472, here

The Telephone Box, a website with gorgeous drawings of telephone kiosks, including but not limited to AA and RAC boxes, here

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