A Phone Box Prototype

One of the things we like to do for people who might be enjoying a day in London when they are going to join our evening Jack the Ripper tour, is suggest out of the way places that they might like to visit prior to joining the walk.

When it comes to curious locations, they don’t come more curious than Old St Pancras burial ground.

You could easily while away an hour or so in this lovely place – which is located behind King’s Cross and St Pancras Railway Stations – as there are many fascinating things to see here.


Amongst the fascinating treasures to enjoy here is a grave – or to be precise a mausoleum – that became the prototype for the ubiquitous red phone boxes that dot the streets of London in ever diminishing numbers.

It is, in fact, the family tomb of the Soane family.

The Soane family vault.
The Soane Mausoleum In Old St Pancras Churchyard.


Sir John Soane (1753 – 1837) was an extraordinarily prolific architect whose chief legacy to Londoners (apart from the design for the Bank of England, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and Holy Trinity Church on Marylebone Road) is the wonderful Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. If you’ve never paid this time-capsule of a house a visit then delay no longer, get yourself over (it’s free) and prepare to be astonished.

The museum features an eclectic mix of exhibits that include a massive Egyptian sarcophagus, paintings by JMW Turner and William Hogarth, and numerous mementos of Soane’s beloved wife, Eliza, whose death, on the 22nd November 1815, left her husband bereft.


For the remainder of his life (he died in 1837) he was convinced that the cause of her death was the heartbreak of discovering that a series of anonymous critical reviews of Sir John’s work had, in fact, been written by their son, George.

Indeed, such was the animosity he felt towards his son that he even went so far as to hang the reviews in black frames on his wall beneath a headline that read:- “Death Blows given by George Soane.”

In a way the feud proved an immense benefit to posterity as Sir John opted to leave his house to the Nation, rather than to his son, which is why we can still enjoy the wonderful treasure that is the Soane Museum.


What wasn’t realised at the time, was that Eliza’s demise would have a direct and major impact on the streets of towns, cities, villages and hamlets all over the British Isles, not to mention the streets of Malta, Gibraltar and Bermuda.

Elia was laid to rest on 1st December 1815 in the rural pastures of Old St Pancras Burial Ground – well it was rural then, before the coming of the railways and the rapid expansion of London that took place in the first half of the 19th century.

Following her interment, her heartbroken husband noted in his diary:- “Melancholy day indeed! The burial of all that is dear to me in this world and all I wished to live for.”

In 1816, he erected an elaborate mausoleum over her burial site and adorned it with an inscription which read:-

“Sacred To The Memory of Elizabeth, The Wife of John Soane, Architect She Died the 22nd November, 1815. With Distinguished Talents She United an Amiable and Affectionate Heart. Her Piety was Unaffected, Her Integrity Undeviating, Her Manners Displayed Alike Decision and Energy, Kindness and Suavity.

These, the Peculiar Characteristics of Her Mind, Remained Untainted by an Extensive Intercourse With The World.”

Following his death, on Friday 20th January 1837, Soane was laid to rest in the mausoleum, alongside his wife and his eldest son, John, who had also predeceased him.


In 1924, the Royal Fine Arts Commission announced a competition for the design of a phone kiosk that would be acceptable to the London Metropolitan Boroughs, many of which had been resisting attempts by the Post Office to erect their concrete phone Kiosks (k1’s) on their streets.

Amongst the entrants was the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880 – 1960) who, as it happened, had just been made a trustee of Sir John Soane’s Museum.

As a genuine admirer of Soane’s Mausoleum, Scott opted to submit a design that was, in many respects, reminiscent of it; and the judging panel, as it transpired, were equally enamoured by Soane’s final resting place and Scott’s was declared the winning design.

However, they opted to make a few changes before the K2 went into mass production.

Scott had, for example, suggested that it be constructed from “mild steel”, whereas the Postmen Pats of the roaring 20’s opted for cast iron. Scott had also wanted it to be painted silver, with a “greeny blue” interior; the Post Office, on the other hand, favoured red.

A red phone box.
A Red London Phone Box


And thus it came to pass that red phone boxes began appearing in ever increasing numbers across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

Over the next few decades the ubiquitous red box went through several incarnations, K3, K4, K5 and K6.

But the basic style of Scott’s K2 is the one that remains the most iconic.

Admittedly, those that have survived the onslaught of the mobile phone are more for display than for use, but they remain a popular tourist attraction in their own right and every day you can see people squeezing into them to have their photos taken in something that is as much a part of the London streetscape as Tower Bridge and Big Ben,

And yet, very few of those people know that, just a short distance from King’s Cross Railway Station, they can actually visit the mausoleum of the man whose grief for his wife led him to create a design that would become the prototype for the red London phone boxes they admire so much.


So, to end the article, I thought it might be nice to give you the opportunity to compare the two.

Below are two photographs, one of which shows a red London phone box, the other of which shows Soane’s Mausoleum in Old St Pancras Burial Ground.

The question is, can you tell which is which?!

A red phone box.
A Red London Phone Box
The Soane family vault.
The Soane Mausoleum In Old St Pancras Churchyard.