AA Call Boxes – A Complete Guide

AA Call Boxes – A Complete Guide

AA Call Boxes

These characteristic black and yellow buildings were once “the lighthouses of the road.” (1) In times past, motoring enthusiasts relied upon them for directions, breakdown help, and support throughout their travels.

Individually numbered, each AA call box had its own sentry and well-documented location.

At first, these buildings were intended as shelters for road patrols. Over time, they came to be used by AA members. A stranded motorist had nothing more to do than call and give the number of the kiosk, and help was on the way. The easily recognized logo meant that a traveller could find a light, maps, fire extinguisher, and many other items whenever they were needed.

As technology progressed, telephones and other communication devices were added. Ironically, however, it was the further development of technology that eventually caused the AA sentry box to become obsolete. Shortly after the turn of the century, the number of AA call boxes had shrunk from over 1,000 to a mere 21. By 2010, there were even fewer.

Not even one of them had been in use for years. Many were in dire need of repair or relocation.

AA Call Boxes Offered Assistance for Early Motorists

  • 1911 First call box installed: Ashtead, Surrey (RAC).
  • 1912 First AA call box manufactured.
  • 1912-1919 AA call boxes used by sentries. Well-connected network and communication.
  • 1920 AA members receive keys to call boxes for independent use.
  • 1921 Design Standard: Cross-gable roof.

In the early 1900s, AA sentry boxes were an innovative way to make motoring about the countryside safer for everyone.

Up through the year 1919, AA watchmen (who were called sentries) manned the booths. They stood at the ready to serve any travelling member of the Automobile Association. They provided roadside assistance, communication, directions, and even sometimes medical help or transport.

Their uniforms and bright yellow vehicles were welcome sights for virtually everyone on the road. By the 1920s, AA members were given their own personal keys to open the buildings (3). The term “call box” began to replace “sentry box” in common parlance.

Their unique cross-gable roof design made AA’s boxes easily identifiable. Boxes were fitted with oil lamps to provide light for travellers who might be taking shelter within.

AA Phone Boxes

The Prime of AA Call Boxes

  • 1930 Design standard: AA plaques, box numbers, ridge louvres, gables.
  • 1930-40 individual numbering of AA call boxes complete.
  • 1942-49 Box 472 built. Includes oil lamp and pulley.
  • 1956 Manufacturer contracted: Enham Industries, Alamein, Hampshire. Enham Mk IV model introduced. Designer unknown.
  • 1956-67 Design standard: Black and yellow, winged livery logo, door with glass window. Interiors include 1- button telephones, chipboard flooring, and cupboards. Box 472 modified to suit new design.

In their prime, AA call boxes were rectangular black kiosks with bright yellow detailing. Each was numbered individually for easy location and identification. A stranded motorist had only to use the key, open the box, and pick up the one-button telephone inside.

A simple “I am at box 472” would be all that was needed to dispatch help immediately. All kiosks were equipped with fire extinguishers, pulley lamps, maps, and sometimes other supplies. They were large enough for adequate shelter from the weather.

There were over 1000 call boxes throughout the UK. All were used frequently. Around the middle 50s, Enham industries was contracted to design and manufacture the boxes. The company employed many ex-servicemen. One of them may well have designed the popular Mk IV style that soon became standard (4).

Up to 1967, AA call boxes were all fitted with identical yellow”winged livery” logos, number plaques, and telephones (5).

Popularity of AA Call Boxes Began To Fade

  • 1967 AA call boxes re-badged with new square logo
  • Post 1967 AA sentry boxes no longer produced
  • 1970 AA call boxes phased out in favour of more economical designs
  • 1970-80 Small cabinets and free-standing phones replace manned booths
  • 1980-1989 Final phones installed on posts. Box 472 obsolete
  • 1990-99 All remaining call boxes re-branded: Square logos returned to original winged logo

No new call boxes were produced after 1967. However, in that same year, all the boxes were re-fitted with the company’s new square logo. This began the decline of the AA call boxes. There was a gradual phasing out of the boxes during the 1970s.

Newer, smaller, and cheaper cabinets took the place of the full sized constructions. Later, these were reduced further to simple free-standing pedestal phones. By the mid 1980s, the final phones on posts were installed.

The remaining call boxes, few of which were ever even visited, did receive a bit more attention in the 1990s. The square logo badges were re-branded- back to the original winged design. (5) Nothing was done to the box numbers. The AA call box was slowly becoming a piece of the past.

Soon, new technology would make them even less important.

AA Box 44

New Technology Made AA Call Boxes Obsolete

  • 2001-02 Many AA call boxes become government property. Boxes relabelled. Connected to local telephone services.
  • 2002 AA shuts down network, plans for disposal and transport of buildings. Only 21 AA call boxes remain standing.
  • Sept 2002 Box 472 restoration project idea begins.
  • 2003 AA call boxes listed as historic landmarks.
  • Aug 2009 Restoration of AA Box 472 completed.
  • 2009 Public appeal for restoration or re-siting of other AA call boxes.
  • April 2010 Box 472 survives first winter. Becomes mini-museum with regular visitors.

By 2001, over half of the AA call boxes had been taken over by government agencies. Those that were taken were relabelled and connected to local telephone networks (2). A phone call would now summon not the AA patrolman, but a uniformed official.

Fewer and fewer people eve needed these phones. Mobile technology and cellular devices made them unnecessary. By 2002, the Automobile Association shut down its network, and began to provide for disposal and transport of the buildings.

They were soon listed as historic landmarks, rather than functioning roadway items. A small group of gentlemen took interest in one particular sentry box, carefully restoring it to its former condition (1). Box 472, as it was called, survived its first winter, and became a mini-museum of AA call box history.

Public appeals were made for others to join the respiration effort in other communities (4). At present, some boxes have been re-sited, others transported to museums, and some remain in need of attention.

AA Box Locations

Here are the locations of the last remaining AA call boxes, if you happen to know of any we’ve missed or would like to share some photos or clearer directions for the boxes, then please contact us.

Box 753 – B974, the Cairn o’ Mount road south of Banchory, Glen Dye.

Box 746 – Looking south towards Grantown-on-Spey. At the junction of the A939 and A940 at Dava.

Box 723 – A708 Cappercleuch St Marys Loch.

Box 714 – A96 Aberdeen to Inverness road at Threapland near Lhanbryde.

Box 573 – Garrowby Hill.

Box 530 – A149 near Brancaster.

Box 504 – Sutherland on the old A9 between Tain and Ardgay.

Box 487 – A591 North of Grasmere, Lakes, Cumbria LA22 9RS.

Box 472 – Cambus O’May, A93, Aberdeenshire AB35 5SE.

Box 456 – A3052 towards the junction with the B3180 road. Its postcode is EX5 2JP.

Box 442 – A684 south, just over a mile east of the turn to Aysgarth Falls.

Box 372 – A556/A50, Mere.

Box 189 – Bakewell, Derbyshire.

Box 175 – Glasgow’s Museum of Transport.

Box 161 – Junction of A479 with A40.

Box 44 – Amberley Working Museum.

Box 45 – National Phone Museum, Avoncroft.

Box 162 – NPM, Avoncroft.

Box 645 – Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

AA Call Boxes Have Become a Part of History

The AA call box is a uniquely UK phenomenon, a long-standing piece of history. It calls to mind the days when a young woman out motoring could count on assistance for a sprained ankle. She fell while driving, and so summoned a passing AA patrolman. He relayed the message to every single AA sentry box on the road to Southampton. The girl’s parent were flagged down and informed of their child’s injury (2). This kind of personal connection with strangers seems nearly impossible today.

Perhaps it is not only the AA call box that has become a part of history. Perhaps something that is less tangible has also faded into the past.

AA Phone Call Boxes

Sources:
1. http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/Article.aspx/1357379?UserKey
2. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2267539.stm
3. http://www.aabox472.webs.com
4. http://www.thisisplymouth.co.uk/news/Devon-s-AA-box-needs-new-guardian/article-721454-detail/article.html
5. http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/search?q=AA

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19 Comments

  1. is call box 746 on the isle of wight a listed building. seem to remember our tour driver mentioning this fact. can you please verify this
    obliged geoff plant

     
  2. gavin Frankland says:

    I have a box that I am restoring, it was missing all badges but after a time I have found all the large top ones.I would like to re-number it as the one from the storey arms near Breacon if anyone has a good clear photo of it, to get the right number and also the correct location names in the 2 top windows.

     
  3. Thomas Victor Jones says:

    My father was a Patrolman with his motor bike and sidecar No kyv 492 for ten years in North Wales,his route was on the A499 Cricieth to Abersoch and had a box No 656 outside the old Butlins Pwllheli. I have several photos of boxes in Wales,one about 4 miles from my home on the A497 in Boduan No580,I failed to purchase it in 1993 as it was a listed building.How many boxes standing by the roadside today ? I have a list of 22 locations from 2002 .

     
  4. Under a reciprocal arrangement the RAC share box access with the AA. I asked the RAC of which I am a member where exactly is AA Box 487 and they replied that all repeat all AA and RAC boxes and phones on posts had now been removed. It seems this website knows summat the RAC does not? I would attach a Sept 2011 photo but do not know what a gravatar is.

     
  5. Box 530 brancaster still looks good after all these years. andrew from stevenage

     
  6. The AA box at Devil’s Bridge(near Aberystwyth)is not on the main website list (as someone has pointed out), but the number for it is 289.

     
  7. Martyn Thacker says:

    Recently spotted Box 817 in Northumberland. The box is on the B1340 at Beadnell village.
    Will keep checking for any others.

     
  8. Chris Brooks says:

    I can remember an old AA box at Tiptree Heath, near Colchester, Essex in the 1950s. Its not there now, does anyone know what happened to it and when?

     
  9. I can confirm that there is a box at Devil’s Bridge and have a photo. Unfortunately my picture doesn’t show the number either. The box still has a phone inside.

     
  10. Chris Lovelock says:

    I go to box 530 at Brancaster, video camera at the ready, old AA badge in hand. I try the key…

    …it does not fit! What a swizz! After my father being a member of the AA for over fifty years, they have gone and changed the locks!

    I did take a photograph, but it’s just of me with the AA badge and key standing outside the locked box, so not very interesting really.

    Harrumph!

     
  11. Clive Purnell says:

    Box 817 still stands in Beadnell, Northumberland. As a child, I remember it being an easily visible box, albeit well back from the road. A plantation has since grown around it (with a carefully left path from the road), which hides it from view — and which has probably saved it from our youth and the North Sea gales.

    It’s listed at http://www.imagesofengland.org.uk/details/default.aspx?id=410953

     
  12. Some great comments on here. Something to be borne in mind when counting the remaining boxes in the UK is that very few remain in their original locations.

    Several are preserved in museums etc. but the ones currently in situ are diminishing rapidly. My estimate (only an estimate)is that as few as 10 to 12 actually remain in situ.

    Of those, many are in a dire state of repair and will ‘disappear’ within the next 3 to 5 years unless rescued by volunteers. The individual National Heritage organisations have little or no hands on interest in saving them, other than ‘on paper’.

    If you have one of these fantastic examples of social history close to you then if you or others leave it to degrade then before long, unfortunately, it will disappear.

     
  13. Box 687 survives in situ in Jersey

     
  14. I just found my (recently deceased) father’s car badge and key on the window sill in his study. He had been an AA member for over fifty years. I cannot wait to get back to Brancaster (where we often go) and try an see if the car will breakdown somewhere close to box 530!! Hopefully the car will not break down and I can just unlock the door and see what’s inside. I promise to take some photographs…

     
  15. Marv Proctor says:

    As a Yank with UK friends that have turned me onto the history of AA, callboxes, Keys, badges and Members handbooks. I think the history of these important pieces of automotive archieval physical elements and the entire AA background story is absolutely worth the effort by involved organizations and concerned individuals to save for the future enjoyment of motoring entusiasts. Good luck to you all!

    Marv Proctor
    Rockford, Illinois
    USA

     
  16. To view many pictures of AA boxes please visit:
    http://www.flickr.com/groups/aaboxes/

    There are very few boxes remaining in their original location, a high number of those are in dire condition and will not last much longer.

    It is such a shame that Historic England & Historic Scotland state that they are ‘listed’ and ‘protected’ buildings but just leave them to fend for themselves and eventually these serious pieces of social history disappear through lack of care and attention.

    Unless local volunteers take on the task as in the case of Box 472 at the Cambus O’May, Nr Ballater, Royal Deeside, Scotland (www.aabox472.webs.com) it will not be long before the UK is void of these pleasant reminders of days gone by.

     
  17. On the program “Heart Beat”/ITV an AA box appears from time to time, the AA Box number is 493, is it just a prop or is it located somewhere?

     
  18. Martin Quick says:

    I am writing with details of two AA call boxes I have discovered recently. The first (which I have a picture of, but does not show its number) is located at Devils Bridge, 10 miles East of Aberystwyth on the A4120 at junction with the B4574. The second, box 137, on the A39 at the top of Porlock Hill, Nr Porlock, North Somerset.

    I hope you can add these to your list.

     
  19. M. J. Pope says:

    I am fairly confident that there used to be an AA box
    situated at the junction of the A513 Stafford – Rugeley Road and the A51 Rugeley – Stone Road the location being called Wolseley Bridges.

    This is 10 miles south of Stafford and the co-ordinates are SK021202.
    Can you confirm that this is correct and if so do you have a photograph please.

    Do you also know where I could purchase an old AA
    box – I would like to reinstate it in its correct position.

     

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