In some ways, they started as refreshment kiosks and returned to their fate as refreshment kiosks.
Chief Constable Frederick James Crawley introduced police boxes in his area of Sunderland, beginning in April 1923.
Chief Constable Crawley realised that all of the hours spent travelling to and from a police station wasted too far much of a valuable police officer’s time. If, for example, a constable needed a refreshment moment, he’d have to come all the way back to his station and then back to his beat. But what if the constable could go somewhere close by for his cup of tea? Chief Constable Crawley introduced the police-box system as a way of saving time and money.
Of course, you’re not going to put police boxes on the street just for tea-making purposes. Each was effectively a miniature police station; you could read and write reports, check in with your commanders. If you apprehended some local criminal types, you could lock them in the box until the Black Maria turned up.
Another useful feature of the police box was its telephone that put you straight through to the police station. Members of the public could call to report alarms, crimes or even fires. This was particularly useful as the numbers of households who had telephones of their own were limited for many years in the twentieth century.
Technology never stands still. The 999 emergency services number arrived in 1936.
Police officers started carrying two-way radios. Then they started carrying mobile phones. Much more efficient than finding a fixed kiosk somewhere on your beat. Most police boxes and police telephones are now not in service.
The boxes are now so rare that some are listed buildings although the police boxes in Glasgow and Edinburgh, however, survived in greater numbers. You can still see them on the city streets, some of them, like their friends the red public telephone boxes, now functioning as refreshment kiosks.
The one police box you will see however, functions as a time machine in a TV series. The TARDIS in Doctor Who is supposed to able to transform itself to blend into its surroundings. In England, in 1963, when the programme began, a police box would have been a perfect choice. Sadly, the ship’s “chameleon circuit” broke and the shape of the TARDIS is stuck.
This is probably because the BBC didn’t want to spend their limited budget making a new exterior for the machine every time the Doctor arrived in a new century or on a new planet. Still, that police box is now perfect for baffling children everywhere.