2012 marks the centenary of the famous 'lighthouses of the road'
The so-called “lighthouses of the road” were introduced in 1912 – Box no.1 was at Newingreen, near Hythe, Kent – and were originally intended as shelters for passing patrols.
Each box was soon equipped with a phone allowing contact with patrols and members to make emergency calls. The wooden structures were also equipped with a fire extinguisher, small fuel supply, first aid equipment, cleaning materials and local information.
From 1968 the wooden sentry boxes were phased out – with the exception of those that were listed or in areas of scenic beauty – in favour of more modern, pedestal phones. AA boxes eventually numbered around 800, cementing their position in the British motoring landscape.
When early AA patrols stood by their sentry box, the mobile phone – never mind 4G – was the stuff of science fiction
Andy Smith, AA patrol of the year
The AA decommissioned all of its roadside phones in 2002 due to the widespread use of mobile phones but now one of the iconic black and yellow boxes is making a comeback in a new AA online advert for AA breakdown cover. The video features a box ‘magically’ appearing at the scene of a breakdown to illustrate the AA’s national coverage.
Andy Smith, AA patrol of the year, says: “When early AA patrols stood by their sentry box, the mobile phone – never mind 4G – was the stuff of science fiction.
“Ultimately the mobile phone called time on our roadside boxes but we use its technology to help get to our members even quicker. We can pinpoint someone’s location using their phone or the AA app and we’re developing a new, state-of-the-art patrol despatch and diagnostics system* that works over the mobile network.”
There are now only 19 remaining AA wooden sentry boxes on public roads, eight of which are Grade II listed. They are either still maintained by the AA or by the respective local council, highways authority, Welsh Assembly or Scottish Parliament.
Andy Smith continues: “AA phone boxes were a familiar and welcome sight on the nation’s roads for 90 years and are a treasured part of our motoring heritage. We’d like to trace any remaining wooden sentry boxes that are now in private ownership or collections, so would welcome hearing from anyone who has one.”
If anyone has an old AA sentry box or any other significant item of AA memorabilia, particularly old patrol vehicles or uniforms, please email details to: firstname.lastname@example.org
1912 First AA roadside ‘sentry’ boxes installed to give shelter to patrols, who literally patrolled sections of road. Box no.1 was at Newingreen, near Hythe, Kent, on the A20/A261. They were soon equipped with a telephone to allow contact with patrols and members were entitled to make free local calls.
1920 AA members issued with a key to open boxes, now numbering 61, in the absence of a patrol. Mostly the ‘stable door’ type with the upper part of the door giving access to the telephone, fire extinguisher and local information; and the lower part to a small fuel supply, first aid equipment and cleaning materials. Most of the boxes were illuminated at night either by gas or electricity operated by a timer switch.
1923 AA road signs introduced showing the direction and distance to the nearest AA telephone box.
1925 ‘Super’ telephone boxes were constructed at major crossroads, equipped with direction signs on a twenty-foot high central pole and illuminated by lamps on the roof.
1927 New more solid design introduced with greater attention paid to the colour scheme and location to make them fit in with the scenery. Patrols were encouraged to improve the appearance of their ‘patch’ by planting flowers and bushes, and some even built special features such as flower gardens, mock wells and dovecots.
1938 638 telephone boxes in operation throughout the UK.
1947 AA and RAC phone box keys made interchangeable. New slim-line ‘walk in’ telephone boxes introduced with older ones being adapted to offer complete protection to members.
1956 Another change of style with boxes in areas where the AA’s radio-controlled road service operated fitted with illuminated door panels. Patrols were now equipped with radio systems fitted to their motorcycle and sidecar so they were contactable while mobile.
1960 With rising car ownership and the building of the first motorways, supplementary roadside phone posts installed.
1968 Wooden sentry boxes phased out – with the exception of those that were listed or in areas of scenic beauty – in favour of more modern, pedestal phones. Keys no longer issued and number of boxes peaked at 787.
1992 Introduction of slim-line pedestal phones.
2002 AA phones decommissioned as mobile phones made them redundant.
(22 November 2012)