The Glory Days of the Payphone

A look at Tameside’s payphones, past and present

When Vince Met Giles: two K6 telephone boxes in central Manchester, seen outside the Town Hall Extension. A chance meeting between a creation by Vincent Harris and two of Giles Gilbert Scott’s finest. One of Tameside’s best known K6 boxes is the one on Bow Street and Market Street behind Ashton-under-Lyne’s indoor market hall. Image by Ian Livesey, 05 March 2016 (Public Domain).

In the last thirty years, the way we kept in contact with our friends and loved ones have changed dramatically. In 1987, having a mobile phone meant you were: 1) pretty loaded; 2) the head of a drugs cartel; or 3) a bodybuilder able to pick up the damn thing. Whilst City types were cavorting in and out of London in flash cars with car phones, the average Ashtonian struggled to find ten pence for the phone box outside Woolworths.

I never saw anyone with a mobile phone in Tameside till the mid-1990s. A lot of us still used telephone boxes or public phones if we couldn’t use our home phone. I knew of there existence in 1987 except they were known as car phones. Not because of a trip to London that year; it was courtesy of Yorkshire Television’s Sunday night drama series, Flying Lady. In this programme, we saw Frank Windsor (as Harry Bradley) bumming about in a Rolls Royce as part of a family-run car hire company. He drove cars, had a fancy phone, and a business. Hardly Howard’s Way but good enough for what would later be Heartbeat’s slot.

The landline was still king. At least until pay-as-you-go mobile phones arrived in the late 1990s. There are probably more mobile phone shops and stalls in Ashton-under-Lyne than there are telephone boxes in the town centre. Even more so if you count Cash Converters, CeX and Argos.

At this time of writing, the gap would have been more stark. A plan to close further phone boxes by BT was announced near the end of last year. Their proposals would have affected 23 phone boxes in Tameside alone with the boxes going this month. Instead, we have learned that Tameside MBC has refused to grant planning permission. How long the reprieve may last we don’t know.

Sadly, there is no going away from the fact that fewer phone boxes are used for their original purpose. On the other hand, they are needed for emergencies. Even retired phone boxes could house defibrillators or mobile phone charging points. Where do you go if you’ve ran out of credit or battery on your state-of-the-art smartphone?

Thirty years ago, they were the only game in town for Mr/Mrs/Dr Average. For this post, we go back to the times when this was the case.

So, if you have some spare change or a green Phonecard on you, let’s find the nearest K6 or K8 box and begin our journey through time.

The telephone boxes

Throughout the early 1980s, most of Tameside’s phone boxes were of the K6 kiosk design by Giles Gilbert Scott, dating from 1936. A handful of them were of the later K8 design by Bruce Martin from 1965.

Then came the privatisation of British Telecommunications in April 1984. The company was created four years earlier within the GPO to allow for its future sale. Within a year of BT’s privatisation, the K6s and K8s gave way to the KX100. The modern KX100, designed by DCA Designs in 1985, lacked the distinguishing features of the K8, let alone the legendary K6.

The first version of the KX100 had bright yellow handles with vandal-proof aluminium frames. The original BT logo was on the top half of the door window and side windows. ‘Telephone’ was written in a sans-serif typeface at the top. In 1991, the yellow gave way to BT red and blue which was more aesthetically pleasing. The circled ‘T’ gave way to the present BT logo. Sans-serif gave way to serif in the typography department. In 1996, they added domes topped with a red roof.

There was some deviations from the original 1985 design. BT phone boxes that took Phonecards had lime green plastic handles. Today, multipurpose phone boxes (with SMS text messaging functions, internet access, and a phone) have a blue roof.

Non-BT telephone boxes

As well as BT’s privatisation, another company was created to increase competition. Mercury Communications was established in 1981 as a subsidiary of the then newly privatised Cable and Wireless. With a private competitor against a then state-run provider, this meant an alternative to waiting months for a new telephone.

In addition to BT’s phone boxes, Mercury dabbled with public phones. These appeared in the early 1990s and were kiosks rather than phone boxes. They were arched and decked in the blue and silver of Mercury’s corporate livery. As for privacy, non-existent and a pain to use in winter. From 1995, they were replaced by Interphone’s grey and orange boxes which continued till 2004.

Tameside’s lost and not-so-lost telephone boxes

A lot of the borough’s ‘phone boxes were culled in 2003 and 2004. This was consistent with BT’s last large scale removal of phone boxes. With the power behind the button much diminished, this meant some thinning out in densely packed locations. For example, fewer kiosks beside the Ashton-under-Lyne Post Office building. At Dukinfield Town Hall, just the one kiosk where there was once three.

The most common telephone boxes are the KX100 and KX100 Plus versions. Away from the town centres and within residential areas, the former dominates. (Surely the boxes on Boyd’s Walk are worth a dome or two?)

K6 boxes

The most recognisable K6 box in Tameside is on the corner of Bow Street and Market Street in Ashton-under-Lyne. This is close to the Market Hall’s south-eastern entrance and still in regular use today. The other example was inside the market hall close to the butchery stalls. This was destroyed in the fire in May 2004.

Outside of Ashton, a K6 phone box has been used as an entrance for the Red Food Takeaway on Talbot Road, Newton. Before being displaced by KX100 boxes, there was a row of K6 boxes on the forecourt of Victoria Market Hall in Stalybridge. They faced the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery and Public Library and, at one time, the underground toilets that were superseded by the block on Armentieres Square (also gone).

K8 boxes

The modern lines of the K8 phone box were a pretty rare beast in the UK. Before being replaced by a KX100 box, the telephone box at Concord Way, Dukinfield was a K8. This backed onto the Post Office and Mundy’s Newsagent, close to the site of the present one. A second K8 backed onto Sorby’s shop in the 1980s. Another was seen at the end of Lodge Close. Before being replaced by a KX100, there was another example on Boyd’s Walk close to Glenmore Grove. Unlike the iconic K6, there are no K8s left in Tameside.

Mercury telephone booths

There used to be a Mercury telephone booth opposite the entrance of Ladysmith Shopping Centre. This was erected in the early 1990s prior to being replaced by an Interphone kiosk. Their service ceased in 2004 though the kiosk was moved long after its cessation.

Another difference with the Mercury telephone booths were the fact they didn’t take cash. Only prepaid phonecards or credit and debit cards. The former were known as Mercurycards and you could buy them from selected department stores and newsagents. They were also available in Little Chef restaurants.


K6’s Last Stand

Throughout 1986 to 1987, Units 12 and 13 of Shepley Industrial Estate were acquired for the dismantling of the old K6 and K8 telephone boxes. Outside the unit, there was dozens of boxes in full view of anyone on a Manchester-bound 220 bus.

Phonecards and Chargecards

Before mobile phones became affordable, the Phonecard was a must-have accessory of any wallet. They were popular in the early 1990s offering modest savings on standard call rates. (Or handy if you had no change). With different designs available, they became collectable items in their own right. Not only for BT’s boxes, also Mercury’s.

Previously available to business users, the BT Chargecard was extended to cover home users in 1989. This enabled you to add to phone home from any landline and add it onto your telephone bill.

The BT Shop

With customers free to buy their own phones (instead of there being a long wait), there was also The BT Shop. Tameside’s branch was situated on Market Avenue.

The Phone Book

Today’s version of the BT telephone directory is a modest A5 paperback with a bog standard BT cover with around 200 pages. Before its recent fall from grace, it was relaunched in 1984 as The Phone Book with 800 or so pages of A4. Each region’s book (Tameside comes under North East Manchester) was distinguishable by a picture of a local landmark. For example, one year had Bury Transport Museum on the front cover.

In 1984, the Argos Catalogue was thinner than the North East Manchester edition of The Phone Book. Today, the reverse applies with the Argos Catalogue being four times thicker almost twice the size.

Your follow-on call

Do you have any memories of trying to phone home in the pre-mobile phone era? Could you remember trying to queue up to use the things? Or the frustration of trying to speak as much as you can before the pips went? Feel free to comment but, whatever you do, please don’t reverse the charges.

S.V., 27 January 2017.


2 thoughts on “The Glory Days of the Payphone

Add yours

  1. A little obtuse, Stuart, but I do have something to add: BT’s old documents used to refer to “Public Call Offices” and I always assumed that these were different from phone boxes. In a early 90s visit to Manchester I remember that the BT building at near Manchester Coach Station had an entrance hall lined with phone booths. I wonder whether this was a “Public Call Office” and when these closed?


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