Police call boxes, they are generally a piece of the past – even in Glasgow, home of six of the still existing 14 in the United Kingdom. But in pop culture they live on and on. As the Tardis of Doctor Who. Now if I have to explain this … okay, I will.
The Police Call Box
Police call boxes were installed when telephones were still rare, and mobile phones were unheard of. Today, should an accident happen, there are generally two or three people nearby, ready to dial 999 (not mentioning the other dozen or so filming the carnage on their phones). And, of course, policemen carry two-way radios. Think back just over a hundred years ago, and this was not the case. The most advanced, two-way communication of that time was … the telephone.
First police telephones were installed in Albany, New York, in 1877, and dedicated call boxes for police use followed in Chicago in three years later, housed in little kiosks. The first public police telephones reached the UK in 1891. They were set up in Glasgow in 1891, and had the form of tall, hexagonal boxes, made out of cast iron and painted red.
More than thirty years later, Chief Constable Frederick J. Crawley introduced rectangular wooden police call boxes in Sunderland and Newcastle, these were “miniature police stations”, and for the first time the general public had free access to the phones, enabling everyone to contact police, ambulance, and fire services.
The Metropolitan Police in London then had Gilbert MacKenzie Trench design a call box … this design became known as the “Trench pattern” and is, in essence, the public image of the police call box – despite being only the basis for many a provincial development between the 1920s and the 1960s. Glasgow adapted the Trench design in 1933, simplifying it a bit, and painting them in the traditional red … only changing to blue in the 1960s.
Police call boxes retained their important role well into the 1970s, but then personal radios were issued to officers, and the availability of private and public phones was almost universal, so the end of an era was near. Police call boxes, seen as obsolete technology and costly to maintain, were disappearing fast. And those that remained were soon sold off, used as sales points and mini coffee bars in many cases.
The death knell for Glasgow came in 1994, when Strathclyde Police decided to do away with the remaining police call boxes. Some of them, however, were left standing, not serving their original purpose, but still very much part of the cityscape. Hence Glasgow would be the one city in the UK were Doctor Who might make an unscheduled landing without raising a few eyebrows …
Doctor Who and the Tardis
Who? Yes, the Doctor (currently in his 12th incarnation and fittingly played by Scotsman Peter Capaldi) – a national treasure of British television and pop culture.
Basically, Doctor Who is a long-running TV series featuring a time-traveller who tries to save humanity over and over again. It has developed its own mythology, and created spin-offs on television, book series, audio dramas, comics, games, toys, and some very memorable additions to pop culture, the most striking being the Tardis (a name that is owned by the BBC, by the way). The Tardis is a time machine, a space ship, and generally describes as “being bigger on the inside” (Don’t ask!), the name is an acronym of “Time And Relative Dimension In Space”.
During the development of the Doctor Who series in the early 1960s, a problem came up – what a time machine, also doubling up as a spaceship, would look like. To make it simple (and within budget), a police call box was chosen. An unusual choice at first glance, but explained in the series as a very clever disguise, created by the time machine’s “chameleon circuit”. This was a disguise mechanism, which allowed changing the outside appearance of the contraption when it lands, instantly fitting in with its current environment. Unfortunately, this very circuit was broken, leaving the Tardis permanently in the shape of a police call box. Bigger on the inside, but still a blue box.
Choosing a police call box as a very cunning disguise was a genius idea … well, in the early 1960s at least. When the show was first aired on BBC in 1963, police call boxes would still have been a very familiar sight in the UK, and nobody would have blinked if one appeared at a street corner overnight. Well, nobody except a policeman maybe, and in Doctor Who (episode “Blink”), Detective Inspector Shipton actually identifies the Tardis as not real: “The phone’s just a dummy, and the windows are the wrong size.”
The Tardis was based on the Trench design, but not 100% correct … and if you look closer, it also is different from the Glaswegian design. Which will now be shown in all its glory, as we found them during a visit to Glasgow in May 2015:
The very first police call box we encountered was just outside our hotel (the recommended Premier Inn), slap bang in the middle of Sauchiehall Street.
This box was originally in Glasgow’s old Transport Museum, then reinstalled at the busy intersection and the start of the pedestrianized area of Sauchiehall Street. It was then used for selling the Evening Times, and painted in a bright red (which would have been the original colour anyway). When we visited, a bloke sold some Australian beauty products out of the box.
The next police call box was found just down the road, heading towards Central Station, in Buchanan Street.
It had been in use as a coffee kiosk for some time, but seemed disused (with the wood a bit rotten at the bottom) at the time we spotted it. But see more below …
On towards the Barras and the People’s Palace (where some crime drama was just filmed – we had fun watching some guys getting into fisticuffs over a gun) – and just behind the railway arches, there stood another police call box.
The location is London Road, and according to the Whovian Guide to Glasgow this is “the only police box in Glasgow which is still used for its original purpose by Glasgow City Council’s Community Safety Team and Police Scotland”. Did not look any different from most others, so we have to take their word for it.
This box seemingly had another life as a coffee kiosk, but that function seems to be gone. So alone it stands. But it also shall serve here to show the main difference between the Glasgow call boxes and the Trench pattern – namely panels in the door area:
And also take note that the Glaswegian Tardis have no St. John Ambulance sticker on the right door. That is because the St. John Ambulance was never active in Scotland, on the basis of an agreement with the St. Andrew’s Ambulance (now St. Andrew’s First Aid). Who instead stored first aid kits in the police call boxes, the access to which was by key.
Great Western Road
The next police call box we spotted was quite outside the city centre, in Great Western Road, but it might be the most spectacular location in itself:
This box was built right into the long fence that surrounds Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens. If you ever needed an illustration what a Tardis emergency landing looks like, this would be it. But then we do well to remember that the Tardis has a bit of a mind of its own, often dropping the Doctor not where he wants to be, but where he needs to be instead.
Which left us one police call box short … and we found it while tramping through the Merchant City back to the hotel, slightly off the main route, but central again, in Wilson Street:
This police call box would have been coloured red just a few years ago, I have found images from as late as 2009 showing that colour. And mentioning colour …
The Chameleon Circuit Rebooted?
On our last day in Glasgow we not only witnessed a very unsuccessful election stunt by the Labour Party, featuring Eddie Izzard, but also were slightly puzzled when walking down Buchanan Street again. Because the police call box there had changed colour. Was it a Tardis after all? Did it try to camouflage itself as Kermit?
Well, upon closer inspection it was a brand-new coat of paint (still quite smelly) – and it seemed to be a publicity stunt for an upcoming exhibition on eco matters. Still a striking image, I think.
The Irony of History
Strathclyde Police could have used the Doctor for some fact-gathering, it seems – because eleven years after the police call boxes were decommissioned, it was suddenly found that they were not such a bad idea as one thought at the time. And with mobile phones taking over left, right, and centre … Glasgow installed its first modern police call box in 2005.
Sleek, space age design, eh? These “boxes” are not quite boxy, and are not booths. Instead Strathclyde Police went for a computerized kiosk, which in an emergency will connect callers to a police CCTV control room operator. The contraption is about ten feet high, has a chrome finish, and sports no less than three screens. These provide information on crime prevention, police careers, and tourist attractions.
So, Does Glasgow Need the Tardis At All?
Maybe, just maybe … who knows what fate will befall the dear green place in days to come? And there is quite a sinister hint at what could be lurking at the bottom of the Clyde – in Clyde Street, one of Glasgow’s many murals shows not a Tardis. But a Dalek.
Sssssh, listen … do you hear that? “Ex-ter-mi-nate! Ex-ter-mi-nate!”