The Volunteer Phone Box Painter

By Maggie Chambers

“Why have all the phone boxes in Primrose Hill turned pink?” was a question directed to me last autumn. I really hadn’t noticed, but suggested it might be undercoat. Later that day two separate people informed me that a man named Rob Pammen had volunteered to repaint them.

I called Rob who told me he began to repaint the phone boxes last year after seeing a shabby-looking one in St John’s Wood. He contacted BT, told them he was a qualified painter, and asked if he could repaint it for them. They agreed and sent him a can of red paint. The following six months saw him restore nine more boxes, or kiosks as they’re officially known. He’s mindful that the preparation needs to be thorough, so he sends before-and-after photos to BT. An initial drawback to his project was that despite doing a good job of repainting them, their appearance was often let down by old graffiti on the glass, or broken and missing panes. He asked BT to repair the damaged glass, and happily they obliged. He finds it heartening that, so far, the ones he’s restored haven’t been damaged.

Rob has a fondness for the old kiosks; he says that they looked after him in the past when he needed to make calls, so he’s happy to look after them in return, “I’m giving back the love they gave me.”

Now 65, Rob has been a painter and decorator since he was 18. He gets enormous satisfaction from painting the kiosks and says “As long as I’m good, I’ll keep going. I get very excited knowing it’s going to look so nice again.” And he’s not the only one who gets satisfaction from his refurbishment: he’s warmed by how many passers-by are intrigued by what he’s doing. Several have stopped to chat to him in St John’s Wood, but nowhere near as many as in Primrose Hill, where everyone is keen to know his story. He is overwhelmed by how friendly everyone is here!

Interestingly, the original inspiration for the design of the kiosks is situated not far from Primrose Hill: the shape of the phone box is remarkably similar to the tomb in Old St Pancras churchyard which Sir John Soane, architect of the Bank of England, designed for his wife.

In 1912, the General Post Office took over the control of phone boxes. They started to standardise the design, and the first prototype was the K1 in 1920 (K standing for ‘kiosk’), which was box-shaped and made of concrete. Two of these still remain, in Hull and the Isle of Wight.

Then in 1924 the Post Office invited three prominent architects to submit designs for a K2. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (grandson of George Gilbert Scott, who designed the St Pancras Hotel) won the challenge. Scott had been only 22 when he won the competition to design Liverpool Cathedral in 1903, but he was inspired by the Soane tomb in Old St Pancras Churchyard, and was a trustee of the Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. His prototype phone kiosks were made from wood, and an original one can still be found just inside the entrance gates of the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly. The K2 design included the royal crest of George V on all four sides of the top of the box, formed in holes to provide ventilation. The kiosks were painted red so they could easily be seen on a busy street. Around 1,500 K2s were produced, but only a few remain.

The K3 design was introduced in 1929, again by Giles Gilbert Scott, and a rare example exists at London Zoo by Penguin Beach. K4 incorporated a postbox and stamp machines, but only 50 were ever built, and K5 was just a temporary design for exhibitions. But then in 1935, the Post Office commissioned a new K6 from Scott for George V’s jubilee. By 1940 there were 35,000 kiosks around the country.

But by the 1970s and 80s, problems with vandalism and lack of repair resulted in the newly privatised BT selling them off and replacing them with new, less visually appealing versions, designed to withstand vandals. Around 2,000 listed K6 kiosks remain, with some having received permission to be converted to other purposes, such as libraries, ATMs, or to house garden displays and artwork.

Perhaps one of the most famous kiosks in London is the one in Heddon Street, off Regent Street, reproduced on the back cover of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Thank you, Rob, for sprucing up our phone boxes in Primrose Hill and keeping this interesting heritage alive.

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