New life for England’s iconic red phone booths


In a crowded workshop with historical memorabilia – from rusty fuel pumps to old road signs – Carl Burge is carefully putting the finishing touches to the red, British telephone box he is restoring.

“They are iconic,” says 54-year-old Burge, who has been breathing new life into the aging telephone booths for 20 years in his workshop in the town of King’s Lynn, in the east of England.

It is a symbol of the United Kingdom (UK) worldwide and these distinctive red booths, which were initially introduced in the 1920s, have survived everything from the country’s famous wet weather to vandalism.

“If you were to send a postcard anywhere in the world with nothing written on it but with a picture of the phone booth, the chance is 95% that people will say ‘that’s England’.”

The number of telephone booths in Britain reached a peak in the 1990s – there were around 100,000 – although not all of them had the famous red design.

With the widespread use of mobile phones, there are today around 20,000 working payphones in the booths nationwide.

However, redundant red and other phone booths are increasingly being harnessed by local communities for anything from facilities such as mini-libraries, visitor centers and even small businesses. One of these businesses is a tiramisu shop called “Walkmisu” in central London.

Daniele Benedettini set up her shop in two of the red boxes and sells the famous Italian dessert and coffee there.

“I think it was a brilliant plan to use something so traditionally English for something so extremely Italian,” she says.

Hidden treasure

The operating costs for a business in a telephone booth are also much lower than those of a traditional shop, says Benedettini. The 29-year-old entrepreneur, who rents the booth from a private owner, says it was his first venture before he also opened a small restaurant in the area.

The telephone booths have been restored and equipped with shelves; there is also a fridge and coffee machine. On the outside, however, it looks as it always has.

Burge says it takes about six weeks to restore a telephone booth. The process begins with the stripping of all elements until only the skeleton of the box remains.

“You don’t know what you’re going to find under that paint; you might just find a hidden treasure.”

Burge has seen numerous phone booths come and go through his workshop over the years. The cubicles are often damaged with broken windows or rotten doors.

Once the iron frame is stripped, it is sanded to remove all paint, rust and other impurities.

The next step is using a filler and then sanding off any mistakes. This is a time-consuming process that is done manually and can take several days to complete.

Finally, the booth is spray painted post office red again, laminated glass is put in and the door gets a new frame.

Great enthusiasm

Burge, who worked in the car industry for 20 years, turned his passion for British collectibles into a full-time business.

He saw his first telephone booth when he drove past a property that was offered for sale. He bought the booth from the owners, restored it and set it up in his front garden.

Burge later sold this booth, but says he “missed” it and decided it would be nice to restore another one.

One booth led to another and now Burge is working on several phone booths at once.

Between these telephone booths is an example of the famous K2; it was Britain’s first red telephone booth, introduced in 1926 and designed by English architect Giles Gilbert Scott. Scott is also known for his work on London’s Battersea Power Station and other government buildings.

Many years – and many phone booths – later, Burge says he still hasn’t lost any of his enthusiasm for this job.

“I’m getting a little older now. Everything feels a little heavier. But I think my level of enthusiasm is exactly where it was 22 years ago. I’m probably just even more enthusiastic today.”