There’s something about the iconic blue police box that captures the public’s imagination. I have, of course, seen and read about the famous blue police box in popular culture with the Dr. Who phenomena. However, I have always assumed that it was a British invention, and it wasn’t until I started to research for this post that I found out otherwise.
There have been some great inventions that have started in the United States, made their way across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom, and managed to have staying power here despite their disappearance in the U.S. (Irn Bru anyone? More about this in a future post). And the well-known police boxes are one of these inventions. In this post, I will be looking at a brief history of the police boxes and the way they’ve been re-purposed here in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 21st century.
A Brief History- Chicago, Milwaukee,…Glasgow?!
According to the Chicago Public Library blog, with the invention of the telephone in 1876, a need was created for the Chicago police department to be able to use this system in a practical way between stations. The idea was taken further when they realised that the telephone system could be useful to the police on the streets as well as to public- most of whom did not own a telephone at that time. In 1886, the department set up police call boxes that were a sentry-style design (see picture below). They housed a telephone (used only by policemen), and an alarm system that citizens could use via pre-set buttons to alert their local police station of various criminal activity such as thievery, public intoxication, and murder (Chipublib.org, 2014).
Photo Credit: Chicago Public Library
Various forms of these police boxes could be found throughout the United States. For example, Milwaukee also had a sentry-style box as seen in this photo from the Milwaukee Public Museum (Mpm.edu, 2019).
Photo Credit: Milwaukee Public Museum
Interestingly, when this idea showed up across the Atlantic, it wasn’t in London as many people probably assume, but Glasgow. According to R.W. Stewart in his article, The Police Signal Box: A 100 Year History, the first police call box in the United Kingdom was setup in Glasgow in 1891. Their design was similar to the ones used in Chicago, but the Glasgow ones were more ornate and sturdier as they were made of cast iron by the Macfarlane and Co, Saracen Foundry in Glasgow. Furthermore, the Glasgow call boxes were set up to allow police officers to call into the station and receive signals via a gaslight system that would illuminate a lamp at the top of the box a red shade. This signalled for the police officers that they needed to call into the station (Stewart, 1994).
Eventually the police call boxes would become standard throughout the UK and their shape would take varying forms. However, in general, they became bigger and more of the rectangular, kiosk design we recognise today. This was done in order to allow police officers to have a sort of “miniature police station” on the streets (Stewart, 1994).
Edinburgh: Delicious Re-purposing
As you will find with many things here in Edinburgh, the police boxes here have always been different than their counterparts located elsewhere in the UK. From 1931-1933, city architect, Ebenezer MacRae, was responsible for their design which he did to match Edinburgh’s classical architecture. In their heyday, there were over 80 Edinburgh police boxes littered throughout the city to help with public safety issues (Scotsman.com, 2012).
Of course, with modern technologies such as walkie-talkies and police car radios, the police call boxes eventually became obsolete and most were shuttered up. The good news is that, unlike the rest of the UK, Edinburgh still has many of these police boxes and many have been given a new life and purpose. In 1995, the Lothian and Borders Police started to sell some of them off and then again in 2012 (Scotsman.com, 2012) and 2014.
You can now find many of the police boxes throughout the city selling everything from coffee to haggis (you'll find the picture of our friends at the Haggis Box at the top of this post- make sure to check them out online here ). Here are a few other re-purposed police boxes here in Edinburgh:
The next time you visit Edinburgh make sure to keep a lookout for the wonderful re-purposed police boxes. Of course, you can always join us for a walking tour where we would be thrilled to be able to show you them ourselves. If this strikes your fancy, please make sure to check out our private walking tour information page .
Until next time- Explore & Discover!
*Update*- Our friends at the Haggis Box no longer use the police box. However, you can now find them at the cafe in the Scottish Storytelling Centre here in Edinburgh.
Chipublib.org. (2014). Technology that changed Chicago: Calling 911. 1877-1900. [online] Available at: https://www.chipublib.org/blogs/post/technology-that-changed-chicago-calling-911-1877-1900/ [Accessed 5 Jan. 2019].
Mpm.edu. (2019). [online] Available at: https://www.mpm.edu/sites/default/files/images/media/color/_DCS0460_PoliceBox.jpg [Accessed 5 Jan. 2019].
Scotsman.com. (2012). Police box sale could give blues to buyers. [online] Available at: https://www.scotsman.com/news/police-box-sale-could-give-blues-to-buyers-1-2265349 [Accessed 6 Jan. 2019].
Stewart, R. (1994). The police signal box: a 100-year history. Engineering Science & Education Journal, 3(4), pp.161-168.