What is the Ghost Monuments project about?
Between 1929 and 1980, there grew to be around 700 Metropolitan Police boxes across London, starting off in the borough of Richmond upon Thames in December 1929 following a two-box pilot in Dagenham.
By the end of 1973, all but seven of them had been demolished. The last of them, sited at the Barnet Bypass, was removed from service on 19 November 1980.
Photographs of the boxes are few and far between and of variable – but mostly poor – quality. It is this fact that was one of the main inspirations behind my Ghost Monuments project. I wanted to capture and convey a sense of what it must have been like when there were police boxes all over London.
Not that they could ever again seem as mundane to modern eyes as they must have been to Londoners for five decades in the mid-twentieth century; ever since the first broadcast of Doctor Who in 1963, the police box has been imbued with an aura of mystery and wonder.
The 3D model used in these photos is based on the Mark 2 version of the police box designed by Metropolitan Police Surveyor Gilbert MacKenzie Trench. Not all of the police boxes across London will have been Mark 2s, but this project aims to be aesthetically pleasing rather than forensically accurate! (This would be impossible anyway, given the scarcity of photographs and archive records.)
That said, I make efforts to ensure that the location of the police box is as accurate as possible, making use of archive maps from the early 1950s – you can see the maps in the comments beneath each photo in my Flickr album for the Ghost Monuments project.
What were police boxes used for?
In an era before mobile phones, home landlines and police radios, police boxes provided the means by which the public could make emergency calls to the police for assistance, and the means by which the police officer on the beat could call in to the station. When the police station needed to make contact with the officer, the station switchboard operator could activate the light on top of the police box, which would flash until the officer telephoned in.
There was an extensive network of police boxes positioned at strategic points in beat areas, meaning that the officer on patrol would never be too far from the means of communicating with headquarters.
Many police boxes housed a first aid kit, indicated by a St John’s Ambulance badge on the door. While police officers were meant to spend minimal time in the boxes during their duties, there was a small surface inside the box on which they could write up reports. And on occasion, the box provided the means by which people under arrest could be detained until they could be transported away to the police station.
The police boxes were made of concrete, with one hinged door made of teak wood. Due to the materials used, they were cold and damp with condensation in the winter, and uncomfortably stuffy in the summer; as such, they were not much loved by police officers. What's more, the general public were reticent about using police boxes to make emergency calls. However, the boxes did make a difference to the efficiency of police divisions across London. And they played an important role in the Second World War, when many had air raid sirens mounted on top, or on tall poles alongside; these boxes were continuously manned, and the equipment for operating the siren was housed within the police box.
With the growth in the use of wireless communications during the 1950s, a decision was made in 1958 to remove one hundred or so police boxes from service. By the end of the 1960s, thousands of police officers were using personal radios. The decision was made to remove the remaining police boxes, with the majority being demolished between 1969–1971. The final few disappeared steadily throughout the 1970s, until the demolition of the final box in 1980.
Only one of London's police boxes remains intact and is now owned by the Crich Tramway Village Museum. You can view here my photos of the Crich police box on Flickr.
Why 'Ghost Monuments'?
In the Doctor Who story The Ghost Monument, the Doctor and her friends get caught up in the final leg of the Rally of the Twelve Galaxies, a race towards a site known as the Ghost Monument – which is in fact the Doctor’s missing TARDIS. With its engines stuck in a loop, the TARDIS has been phasing in and out for millennia, becoming a site of legend – until the Doctor arrives in time to reclaim her ship and continue her travels.
With the idea of a photography project to conjure police box shapes back into existence where they once stood, there was only one name to go for!