If you listen to BBC Radio 4’s Round Britain Quiz you’ll know the tortuous format of the questions that are posed. So, on the same lines, here’s one especially for Ripon: ‘One restored it; two generations on, another’s work appeared uphill from it, in a row of four – his inspiration was a tomb near St Pancras station. Who are they?’
Give up? The answer is, briefly, Scott. Sir George Gilbert Scott, one of the most prolific and hard-working architects of the 19th century, was responsible for the restoration of Ripon Cathedral in the 1860s, when it was in a precarious state of repair. His grandson was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. His greatest work is the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool. One of his best-known is Battersea Power Station with its four great chimneys dominating the south bank of the River Thames in London. But what did he do for Ripon? And how does St Pancras fit in?
The story goes back to June 1875, when Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful telephone call. His invention received its patent in March 1876, and soon the telephone was big business. The first telephone for use by the public appeared in the 1880s. The Post Office was responsible for the telephone system, and by 1920 it wished to standardise the look of what by then were called telephone kiosks (originally a Persian word). Their first approved kiosk – called, unsurprisingly, K1 – was a tall concrete box with a pyramid roof and tall windows with glazing bars. Around 6,300 still survive in Britain – there are examples in Hull.
The K1 was generally unpopular, and there were various attempts to find a better design. One was led by Birmingham Civic Society, founded in 1918; its concrete design was rejected by the Post Office’s Director of Telephones. He preferred the official version, leading the Architect’s Journal to comment, ‘No one with any knowledge of design could feel anything but indignation with the pattern that seems to satisfy the official mind.’ Little changes!
Eventually, in 1923, the Royal Fine Arts Committee invited the leading architects of the day to come up with designs in a limited competition. The winner was Giles Gilbert Scott.
Scott, son of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s son (also George Gilbert, and also an architect) had been an architectural pupil of Temple Moore. Moore’s buildings include St Wilfrid’s church in Harrogate. Giles Gilbert Scott had early success when he won the competition for Liverpool Cathedral in 1903 at the age of 22. By the time he won the kiosk competition he was 43 and at the height of his powers. He had moved on from the Gothic style of Liverpool into a relaxed classical style with influences of Art Deco and what was known as ’moderne’.
His telephone kiosk design – K2 – had all the elements we now recognise at the traditional phone box. It was tall and narrow, had the word TELEPHONE on an illuminated sign, had windows with glazing bars – influenced by the KI – and a crown symbol below the roof. Most importantly, it had its distinctive domed top – and that’s where St Pancras comes in.
In the churchyard of old St Pancras, just to the north-east of the railway station with its great Gothic facade designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, is the memorial to another architect, Sir John Soane. He designed it in 1815 for his wife, and was buried there himself in 1837. At its centre is a tombstone under a shelter consisting of four columns and a domed top. The dome is like a shallow bowl chopped off on four sides – exactly like Giles Gilbert Scott’s K2 kiosk. This shallow dome was a favourite device of Soane’s – it appears in his design for the picture gallery at Dulwich School, for example, and in the breakfast room of his own house in Lincolns Inn Fields.
Giles Gilbert Scott used the dome to give character to the kiosk – and it has been used ever since – at least until the uninspired glass boxes that were introduced from the late 1970s. Around 1,700 K2s remain, and almost as many K3s. On the other hand, if you have a K4 its very rare (around 50 surviving). There are, apparently, no K5s at all.
What Ripon has, in a row of four on the Square beside the Cabmen’s Shelter, are K6s. These are the most common surviving type, with about 60,000 left. This was Scott’s redesign in 1935 to mark the Silver Jubilee of George V the following year. Ripon’s four became Grade II listed buildings in June 1987, emphasising both their role in design history and their iconic status as part of the Market Square’s history. Even in these days of mobile phones they serve a practical purpose, and their colour helps to enliven the Square. Odd, then, to think that Scott didn’t want them painted in the Post Office’s red livery. Would we have loved them so much – or noticed them at all - if they were, as he wanted, silver outside and blue-green inside? Probably not.
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