Between the years 1911 to the 1960s, British roads were littered with what are known as AA call boxes. Produced and built by the AA, today a well know breakdown cover provider, these fascinating boxes make up an interesting chapter of British motoring history.
In their heyday, these boxes were abundant and used by AA members as well as the general public. Although almost entirely obsolete in the modern world, with there being less than 20 still standing, these AA boxes give you a fascinating peek into how the roads worked and operated just when cars and motoring were taking off in the mainstream.
AA boxes are small, compact shelters that used to be common on the side of busy roads all around the UK. In appearance, they look very similar to standard red telephone boxes found in towns and cities. However, they had the distinctive AA look to make it clear that they were for the members of that group.
Inside AA call boxes were telephones, which could have been used for calling for aid and assistance. Being able to call for help was the main purpose of the AA box, as it was a way for broken down or troubled motorists to call for assistance from the patrolling AA.
As well as being a refuge for motorists, who could have also used the shelter to stay out of bad weather, the AA boxes were also used by patrolling members of the AA.
Back in 1911, when these boxes were first installed, The AA was mainly a group of individuals who would patrol the highways on their bikes, alerting motorists and other road users of any dangers and police speed traps. These patrolmen would be on the roads all day, so these boxes became places where they could rest, keep out of bad weather, and even communicate with other patrol members. This made the roads safer and helped the UK’s motor industry grow.
In 1925, the AA started to mount an improved version of telephone boxes. These were called ‘super’ telephone boxes and had signposts installed on the roofs to give motorists directions to help them on their journeys. These boxes were useful because they were illuminated a night, making travelling during these hours slightly more convenient.
When motoring was still finding its feet, these boxes were incredibly useful. It’s hard to think that motoring wasn’t as widespread as it is now, and back in 1912, these cars were expensive and also extremely unreliable. With breakdowns being so common, it was important that a driver could find shelter and an AA telephone box quickly to call for assistance and seek shelter from the elements.
AA telephone boxes had a distinctive look when they were first installed. They were usually made of timber, with the main body of the box tapering outwards towards the base. Most of the boxes had black gloss paint, with yellow vertical stripes on each edge of the phone box. This gave the box the distinctive AA look that made it very recognisable to drivers and motorists. The door to the phone box would have the AA car badge logo of the time on it.
These boxes had pointed roofs and resembled the roofs of houses. These roofs were painted white with the intention that the cars’ lights would reflect it, making them more visible. The box would also display its individual number, as well as the location of the box, which may have been helpful for travellers who have become lost.
The inside of the box would have a telephone, usually positioned on the right-hand side of the box. The AA box would also contain a fire extinguisher and other useful tools and equipment to aid with car breakdowns.
After some time, the design of these boxes changed, as the government ordered that the boxes had to carefully consider the scenery around them so that they better blended into the environment. Many patrolmen whose duty it was to look after the AA box would plant flowers around it to make it more appealing, and many would also add other features to boxes as well, such as installing artificial wells and birdboxes.
The number of telephone boxes that existed in the UK has altered and changed throughout the years. In the first eight years that these boxes were put up, there were around 61 boxes dotted around the UK, although the majority were around the south of England, where the AA first originated.
In their heyday, there were around 1000 of these boxes, although, with the rise of more accessible telephone technology, no more of these boxes were being built by the 1960s.
From 2002, when mobile phone technology essentially made these boxes obsolete, the network was discontinued, and many of the boxes were removed or dismantled.
Only 19 of these boxes remain, and many of them are in a state of disrepair. 8 of the 19 that remain have Grade II heritage listings, meaning they’ve become national monuments and can’t be removed or taken down.
The 19 callboxes that remain are scattered all around the UK, with many found in Scotland and the south of England. If you’re interested in seeing these call boxes for yourself, you can find one at:
As you can tell from the location of what remains, these boxes were usually placed in remote areas where it may have been hard to find other forms of shelter.
The AA is not the only motoring organisation that created and installed roadside call boxes. In 1912, just when the AA was putting up their call boxes, the Royal Automobile Club, which is what RAC spawned from, we’re also putting up telephone boxes around the UK.
At the height of its network, the Royal Automobile Club had around 500 telephone boxes in the UK. This means that with the AA and RAC combined, there were over 1500 telephone boxes, meaning they were rather abundant on the UK roads.
Furthermore, in 1947, RAC and the AA agreed to make their keys interchangeable. To get into a roadside call box, a member must first unlock it with a key. With these keys now being interchangeable, it meant that members of both the AA and the Royal Automobile Club could use any call box. This made driving even more convenient and was really helpful for motorists of the day.
It’s disputed who created the first roadside telephone box, but popular belief is that the AA just beat the RAC to the punch, and because of this, they have become the organisation that is most synonymous with these boxes.
Sadly, unlike the AA, no RAC telephone boxes remain on the roadside. Those that do still exist are either held in museums or belong to private collectors.
In addition to RAC and AA boxes, there were also police boxes. These were more commonly found in areas of a large population, such as in towns and cities, and were used for contacting the police or emergency services directly. Much like AA boxes and RAC boxes, police boxes were also widely discontinued in the late 1960s, when officers started to use personal radios to communicate.
The telephone lines used to connect the network of AA boxes were discontinued in 2002, meaning that out of the few remaining, no AA telephone box still works.
Some have been refurbished and repaired so that they appear as they did back in 1912; however, these are just cosmetic changes, and the AA boxes no longer work.
The handful of AA telephone boxes that remain, which only represent less than 2% of the number of boxes that were built, will continue to serve as a relic of a different era of motoring. These boxes helped countless AA members to contact assistance and were sure to have provided shelter from the elements to standard travellers.
Being well over 100 years, the AA is a historic organisation that has played a massive part in British culture, with their telephone boxes being a massive example of this. Although most well known today for breakdown cover, the AA and their boxes, salutes, and badges make up a big part of the history of the roads in this country.
Despite how obsolete they are now, for lovers of British history or for current AA members, these telephone boxes are a delightful item from the past that, although they have been lost to time, will be looked back on fondly and with curiosity.