The Red Telephone Booth

The red telephone booth was ubiquitous in the Jamaica I grew up in. You’d find them outside post offices in districts and towns across the island. There was one outside our post office too. It stood like a sentinel at the intersection of the two main roads that dissected our district, looking square at the Anglican Church on the opposite side. To its right were the parish council office, shops, a movie theater, gas station and the market that was active from Thursday to Saturday and where we Anglicans had our annual Maypole Dance.

The phone in the red telephone booth was our district’s only connection to the world where it had sent scores of its children – to the ‘Big War’ (World War II), to England, Canada, the United States and beyond.

Iconic Red Phone Booths
Red Telephone Booths, near Burlington Gardens, London

When the phone in the red telephone booth rang, anyone nearby would answer, ask the caller to call back at an agreed upon time then rush (or send someone else) to deliver the news to the family. (One of the good things about a small community is that everyone knows everyone.)

To make a call, you gave the operator the number and she (it was mostly young women) would place the call for you and tell you how much to deposit into the coin slot for the first 3 minutes. Public phones took only coins then so you had to have a pocketful in case you exceeded the time. If you were calling a private number, you would tell the operator to ‘reverse the charges,’ that is, have the person on the other end pay for the call.

Because it was illuminated, the red telephone booth attracted moths and young people – and some older folks too. During the rainy season, children (as many as possible) would cram themselves into the booth to wait out the rain. It was near the phone booth that my first boyfriend broke up with me on a Sunday afternoon after church. I was devastated and convinced that my world had ended.

Red telephone booths, London
My cousin in a telephone booth in London. Notice the homeless man?

I never thought much of the red phone booth beyond its use as a means of communication until I saw one in the Cotswolds that had been repurposed as a defibrillator. I wondered what had happened to the booth that had occupied such a prominent spot in our district and our lives.  

A little research on Google revealed that the red telephone booth was the creation of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect who also designed Waterloo Bridge. There were several versions over the years and even the red color, BS381C-B539, was defined. The design, or an adaptation, was exported to the colonies, which is how they got to Jamaica.

Repurposed red telephone booth, The Cotswolds
Repurposed red telephone booth, The Cotswolds

Our telephone booths had 4 large panes of thick, clear glass on each side that were framed by red strips. They were not soundproof so people nearby could hear your conversation if you were a loud talker and during the day, they got quite hot.  

I don’t know when the red telephone booth was removed (it was still there in the 1980s when I took a photo of it), but it sure occupies a special place in my memory.


Linking with Travel Photo Thursday and The Weekly Postcard.

Budget Travelers Sandbox
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8 comments on “The Red Telephone Booth

  1. Those red phone booths have always been iconic (in my mind) with Britain, and they are a fond memory of my first visit to the U.K. when I was a kid. I didn’t know they made their way to the territories, but I guess it stands to reason, doesn’t it?

    I’m waxing nostalgic and a little sad that no one needs them anymore, but if they are repurposed, I guess I could live with that. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this great story with #TheWeeklyPostcard.

  2. We had them in Australia as well, but not more. No I am telling a lie, because I saw one on our recent road trip to Rainbow Country in Northern NSW. It was inside a pub at The Channon (name of a town) and it had a working phone inside of it. We still have phone boxes but they are made of aluminium and are a natural aluminium colour like silver.

  3. This is so interesting. I had no idea there were red telephone boxes in Jamaica and I love that you used them for sheltering from the rain! I like to see them used for other purposes now that people don’t have so much need for public phone boxes. In our little village the phone box is piled with paperbacks and used as a village library! #TheWeeklyPostcard

  4. I really enjoyed reading your recollections of the red phone booth and its role in your childhood years. To me, they seem so quintessentially London that I didn’t realize it’d been exported to the colonies. My kids don’t even really understand the concept of a public phone anymore. I’m glad that people have been able to figure out a way to repurpose them instead of removing them or having them be an empty shell.

  5. I’ve never seen a red phone booth in person, but I must see one some day!! I love the memories you have of them. I remember needing coins for the pay phone. My, the world has changed so dramatically. The photo of the Defibrillator seems also a sign of the times. Thank you for sharing!!

  6. Hi Nancie, thankfully, there are still some in London.
    You;re right – the world has changed quite dramatically in the last 20 years or so. I was very glad to see the phone box reused as a defibrillator. Very inventive!

  7. Thanks, Michele! You’re right about kids. There’s so much they don’t understand about our world (even writing is becoming obsolete since kids these days use laptops, notebooks, etc., they don’t know how to write!).

  8. We had red telephone booths in Australia too when I was young. This post is a great trip down memory lane. I wonder what happened to them all. I know where one ended up. A few streets from where I live in Sydney there is one in a front garden.

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