Calling from the grave

If you ever felt slightly claustrophobic using a traditional BT telephone kiosk, this might be down to its unique architectural history – the design of the UK’s world famous red telephone boxes was inspired by a nineteenth century tomb.

Only two graveyard memorials in London are Grade I listed – the grave of Karl Marx and Sir John Soane’s tomb.

Sir John Soane’s tomb was erected in the churchyard of St. Pancras Church in north London.  It was built in 1816 and designed by Sir John Soane in memory of his wife who died in 1815. The tomb follows a simple but striking design, and was certainly unusual when compared to more typical Christian burial markers. The English Heritage listing description describes the structure as comprising a:

“central domed structure supported on four panelled piers with ornamented capitals covering a pedimented structure on four Ionic columns in a decorative style of Soane’s own invention, each side filled with an inscribed slab. Balustraded enclosure sets out north, south and east of central structure with staircase approach down at west end to sealed basement vault. Dome with open spandrels having wavy line ornament to face, topped by a small drum banded by a snake (with tail in mouth) surmounted by a pineapple.”

Columns, a snake and a pineapple make this an idiosyncratic design – something that won’t surprise anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting the Sir John Soane’s Museum. But look more closely – does it remind you of anything else? Lop off the pineapple and drum and you are left with the slight, domed top and rectangular base of the iconic red telephone box. The comparison is unmistakable and it is no coincidence.

Some of the capitol’s most striking buildings from the early 20th century sprang from the mind of Sir Gilbert Scott. He was responsible for both Battersea and Bankside power stations and the William Booth Salvation Army Training College. But by far his most ubiquitous legacy was the K2 Telephone Kiosk.

Gilbert Scott was an admirer of Soane’s work and had recently become a trustee of the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. The great architect’s work was very much on his mind when he was invited to enter a competition to design a public telephone kiosk. His design was inspired by the central domed structure of Soane’s tomb and was chosen as the winner. Thus a structure heavily drawing on Soane’s sepulchral designs would soon be found in every town and many villages across the country.

If you are interested in finding out more about Sir John Soane, or have some spare time in London, do visit the unique and peerless Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It is one of the most atmospheric and interesting spaces in the whole city and made even more remarkable by being one of the capital’s admission free cultural gems.

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