Friday 23 July 2021

Porlock Hill's listed AA box

 The AA box was once a familiar sight to Britain's motorists. When cars were both less numerous and more unreliable, these distinctive black and yellow structures offered help and reassurance to members of the Automobile Association. From their introduction in 1912 until 1919, each box was staffed by a sentry who would assist motorists with directions, first aid, and roadside repairs. Thereafter, the boxes had several functions, acting as shelters for road patrols, numbered landmarks for stranded motorists to pinpoint their location when calling for help from the dedicated phone inside, and stores for helpful items such as lights, fire extinguishers and maps. (Members had a key to access them.)

Photograph of a square, black wooden structure with yellow-painted edges, set behind a low wall with trees behind it. There are signs on it including an AA logo, 'PORLOCK HILL', and 'BOX 137'

From 1927, the boxes were of a standard design, made of wood painted in black gloss. Their apparent decoration was also functional: plaques with distinctive yellow accents included logos, the box number, and the name of its location. Edges of the walls and door were also picked out in bright yellow strips. Even the roof finial doubled as ventilation for the interior. The examples in this post are the newer, 'Ennam' model introduced after the Second World War: still black and yellow, but without the highly tapered walls of its predecessor, and with internal panels made of melamine. 

Photograph showing the top of the AA box in detail: 'PORLOCK BOX' is clearly legible.

In their mid-century heyday, over 1000 AA boxes were installed in Britain (with close to 800 in operation at their peak). As public telephones became more readily accessible, and patrol officers had well-equipped vans, so the boxes became increasingly redundant and by the 1970s, their numbers began to decline. The AA abandoned boxes in favour of telephones on poles, most familiar along motorways. Today, only a very few boxes remain - fewer than two dozen are known, of which three are in museums. One of the finest and best-known survivors is the one at the top of Porlock Hill, Exmoor, whose notoriously steep road must have brought plenty of customers in overheated vehicles! It is now Grade-II listed and was recently restored so it looks particularly fine. 

Photograph showing close-up detail of the AA box: a sign, 'CALL BOX NO LONGER IN USE AND HAS BEEN CLEARED OF ALL COMMUNICATIONS EQUIPMENT'

The AA's original activities were perhaps a little questionable. Founded in 1905 as the Motorists' Mutual Association, it dates from a time when cars were not only a rarity but also subject to highly restrictive laws, particularly around speed. Teams of cyclists were employed by the association to alert drivers to speed traps so that they could avoid being caught and penalised by the police! Its services quickly changed and expanded to include motor insurance, road signage, hotel ratings (still much used today), and roadside repairs. Its competitor, the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) is even older, having been founded in 1897 and becoming 'Royal' a decade later. It had its own network of (rather less stylish) boxed, and by the 1960s members of either organisation could use each other's boxes. 


Photograph showing the full length of the AA box

Today, motorists are expected to use their mobile phones to call for help. The demise of these boxes has removed more than telephones, however: as well as shelter and simple equipment, we have lost a reassuring landmark along our roads. 

Full-length photograph of one side of the AA box


Ralph Hancock said...

As late as the 1950s there was a conventional AA warning for speed traps. Normally an AA motorcyclist would salute all oncoming cars that had AA badges. If the rider did not salute, this meant that there was a speed trap behind him for which you were headed. No one could accuse the AA of giving warning, as the rider was not doing anything.

Brian Harrison said...

Even in the 70s, buying a car for the first time was often accompanied by joining the AA or RAC as cars weren't the most reliable of transport. It was a real rite of passage to receive a key to fit the roadside boxes. In a display of chivalry among the community of motorists not likely to be replicated today, the key would unlock both AA and RAC boxes to ensure you got the assistance required. Alas, the AA soon after seemed to be preoccupied with using its membership database to bombard people with mail order and insurance junk mail.

Hels said...

Good that three are safely preserved in museums. The grandchildren don't know what RAC boxes were, nor public telephone boxes.