Now it’s the twenty-first century, whenever we see a police box – especially a navy blue concrete Met Police 1929 model – we think it’s a time machine. In the 1950s, it was just an anonymous part of the urban landscape. In 1963, when the Doctor Who team picked it as the Doctor’s transport, it was about to move in two directions: the real boxes vanished, while the fictional box went from strength to strength. It’s because there was a Doctor Who fan in my house, not a police communications fan, that my cellar door has been reconstructed to look like one.
The police box went from being a cutting-edge symbol of modernity, to being landfill, in about a generation. Modernity moved fast, then. Because of this, the choice by the BBC of a police box as a timeship turned out to be an inspired one. Its looks tied into the retro feel of later series such as The Prisoner, partly because its neo-Georgian style nodded to Edwardian Britain as well as to Art Nouveau.
Police kiosks had been used in an ad hoc way from the 1890s – in London they were often placed in newly-built suburbs; as a way of ‘showing the flag’ and an excuse not to connect nervous householders directly to nearby police stations. But boxes took off nationally in the 1920s, when Sunderland Police, needing to find cuts in a period of austerity, demonstrated that a system of police boxes could cheaply control the constable and allow many police stations to be sold off.
The classic Met concrete box which we know and love was designed by the force surveyor, Gilbert Trench, and constructed first in wood, then in concrete: the first mass-produced batch cost £43 each. The box system was launched by the Met with a press fanfare that claimed it would help to suppress ‘motor bandits’ – a now largely forgotten crime panic. In fact, boxes were mainly there to save money and make it easier to control constables.
In many cities, a PC didn’t have to report for duty in a station, but could go straight to the box and ‘ring in’ to his control centre at regular intervals. This saved time at the cost of making the constables’ life far more isolated. In nearly all boxes the telephone could also operated by the public through a cubby-hole door, and would connect them with the police switchboard.
Like the TARDIS, some police boxes could also contain a remarkable amount of kit: cupboards, books of orders, gas lights, electric lights, heaters and cookers, fold-out writing desks, sinks, and places to keep your bicycle or your prisoner. But none of it was particularly comfortable: stools were designed for perching on, and heaters were kept underpowered to stop police lingering on their ‘refreshment breaks’. There were no sonic screwdrivers, but some boxes had toolkits, up to a five-ton jack. At least there was never an irritating robot dog which never knew the answer when it was important.
In 1963 the box was a pretty unremarkable piece of street furniture, which William Hartnell could use to blend in when he was in the present. Its status quickly changed. Since the 1930s, police forces had been trying to develop a personal radio which could keep the constable in touch with his control room. WW2 ‘walkie-talkies’ were too heavy to carry round all day, but by the 1960s radios which were increasingly small and light and decreasingly unreliable were coming on to the market. As part of Labour’s ‘White heat’ plan to use technology to solve social problems, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins ordered ten thousand transistorised UHF radios in 1968 . . . and the fate of the police box was sealed.
Much sledgehammering ensued. The last London one – lingering on the Barnet bypass where there were no payphones - was scrapped in 1980. By the time that Tom Baker and K9 were using it, the police box had become as anachronistic as Hartnell’s formal suit and was contributing to the way that the Doctor has been a timeless Time Lord: sometimes in our present, but not of it.
Nowadays the police box is agreeably twee – a few are preserved as local landmarks like old red telephone boxes: much more rare, but about as useful. Some of the larger ones have found a new role as coffee stalls or flower shops. Like the TARDIS, they are travelling from the past to the future, and have surprising things inside them.
You can learn more about police boxes from the excellent The Rise and Fall of the Police Box by John Bunker (Brewin Books, 2011), or if you have more patience and money, my own Police control systems in Britain, 1775–1975, out in 2014 from Manchester University Press. The best book about the policemen who used them is Joanne Klein’s Invisible Men: The secret lives of police constables in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, 1900–1939 (Liverpool University Press, 2010).