Listed Building, Coffee Shop, Miniature Gallery, Time Machine
On the Royal Mile there is a castle, a cathedral and a courthouse – and down the bottom end somewhere there’s an old palace and a new parliament. There is also a police box. Funny that isn’t it – I never notice it either. There is also one on Princes Street, on the Grassmarket, The Mound, Heriot Row, Rose Street, Lauriston Place, Dean Terrace … you get the picture. So commonplace are these wee blue boxes around the streets of Edinburgh that they seem to trick the viewer into passing them by as one would a bus stop or a row of parking meters, completely unnoticed.
Now this just won’t do. Concealed within those four small walls the Police Boxes of Edinburgh offer us a compelling slice of history. They remind us of a time when every corner of the city had its own beat bobby who worked from a box at the end of your road. And we’re not talking Dixon of Dock Green here – these guys were real policemen with a real job to do. They were the men at the front line, so to speak, between the public and the police stations. The boxes remind us of a time when domestic phones where uncommon and the public needed assurance of prompt help from the authorities.
The first police boxes appeared in Glasgow at the end of the 19th century. They were little more than a hexagonal phone-stand with a signal lantern on top to alert officers that they were being hailed by the local station. The telephone had only been invented a decade or so earlier and the police were quick to see the benefits of this revolutionary communication device. Edinburgh’s boxes came a little later on, around 1930. They were designed especially to complement the city’s neoclassical architecture by the architect Ebenezer James MacRae. Macrae designed many public buildings (housing, schools etc) and was a well known architectural conservationist in the immediate pre-war period.
Inside the boxes police officers had only a little bit of room to work with, enough for a sink, a kettle, a chair or two. On winter nights they might warm up with a one bar electric fire or an old oil heater. On night-shifts, officers carried round a battery hand lamp and the beat keys and reference book which gave them access to properties to check the security and contact the owners if something was amiss. The boxes doubled up as a handy place to lock up unruly drunks found causing trouble after dark. Unfortunately what the boxes didn’t have was a loo. It is said that each policeman was armed with a bottle of bleach and that when it came to it (particularly in residential areas) he had to do his business in the sink. One rather grotesque story I stumbled across was that during the 1970’s when women officers began working from the boxes a rumour began circulating that one unlucky lady had broken the sink! Although if The Sweeney is anything to go by, perhaps this was just a smutty office wisecrack from a macho male copper.
In total 142 boxes were installed in Edinburgh, of which about 75 remain – sadly in various states of disrepair and neglect. They are substantial cast iron structures (in other locations they were made of concrete) and appear to have been made at Carron Ironworks in Falkirk, which was once one of the largest ironworks in Europe. Much like the Police Boxes though, this powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution is now a thing of the past. After 223 years, the company became insolvent in 1982.
As police officers began to be issued with personal radios in the 1970’s the Police Boxes were eventually phased out. This happened across the UK. From being an omnipresent sight on Britain’s streets they promptly disappeared. In London there were almost 700 at one time (so it’s not surprising that a certain timelord chose it as the design for his intergalactic time machine) now there are only a few left, scattered around various museums. One of the most novel things about these miniature police stations is that for each British City there was a different design. Edinburgh is unique in that it kept a large number of its boxes in the spirit of architectural heritage.
It is something of a shame then that many of our Police Boxes are now covered in flyers and graffiti, their paint faded and flaking. This isn’t the case throughout Edinburgh though, particularly in the wealthier areas of town where many of the boxes seem to be very well taken care of, take the Heriot Row box for instance.
Some of the boxes have even been bought up and revitalised by businesspeople and social groups. Many of you will be familiar with the Police Box Coffee Stands dotted around the Edinburgh University area. This is a great little idea (a doff of the cap to the old beat bobby and his cup of tea) and a money-spinner too. What’s more the police box at the corner of Drummond Street and The Pleasance has been turned into a miniature art gallery for exhibitions, performances and installations. ‘The Wee Blue Box’ group organises for artists to come in every few months and redecorate. It’s quite a surprise walking down and seeing it for yourself. I’ll bet many of the festival goers on their way down to the pleasance this year turned their head for a second take. One artist, Malcolm Irving, has actually published a book of photographs of the city’s Police Boxes. The pictures are all taken with an old camera, and film that isn’t made anywhere anymore, playing on the idea of obsoleteness and decay.
So if you’re walking through Edinburgh and you catch a glimpse of one of these little structures (and no doubt you will) spare a thought for the old policeman freezing the night away, cherishing his cup of tea (and of course his bleach bottle) a long long time ago.