A look back at Britain’s ‘lighthouses of the road’

PUBLISHED: 07:02 07 June 2015

The AA Box on the junction at the halfway house. Ref exe 7437-22-15TI. Picture: Terry Ife

The AA Box on the junction at the halfway house. Ref exe 7437-22-15TI. Picture: Terry Ife

Archant

Sat by the side of the main route in to Sidmouth is an increasingly rare piece of British motoring history.

An AA roadside box in the 1920s. Picture: Automobile AssociationAn AA roadside box in the 1920s. Picture: Automobile Association

Despite its size, the wooden structure on the A3052 is quite easy to miss, owing to its black exterior and home in the shadow of several large trees.

Today, AA Sentry Box number 456, near the Halfway Inn, is just one of 18 surviving examples dotted across England, Scotland and Wales - and the only one in Devon.

But if you were to travel back 80 years, boxes like number 456 would have been a common sight – and a safehaven for broken-down motorists.

When it was first placed, in around 1930, it would have served as an emergency phone for members of the Automobile Association.

Box number 187, in Moor Lane, between Exeter and Honiton on the old A30. Picture: Automobile AssociationBox number 187, in Moor Lane, between Exeter and Honiton on the old A30. Picture: Automobile Association

Members were issued with keys for the boxes, which contained a telephone, as well as equipment such as lamps, fire extinguishers and maps of the area.

As well as providing a way for members to summon help, the phones in the sentry boxes allowed drivers to make other calls during their travels.

Local calls were free of charge, but for longer distance communication, people were expected to either reverse the charges through the operator, or leave payment for the call in the box.

As well as providing a phone, the boxes doubled as a rest point for the AA’s patrolmen.

By 1938, the organisation had a fleet of 1,500 motorcycle and 850 bicycle patrols, which roamed the roads in search of motorists in need.

Their vehicles were stocked with tools, spare parts and fuel, and the smartly dressed patrolmen would often use the sentry boxes as a spot for a rest.

In the 1970s, the AA had begun to install modern phones, alongside busy A roads and motorways.

By 2002, out of the 5.5million calls received by the AA, fewer than 6,000 came from drivers who stopped at AA telephones.

The organisation made the decision to cease operating all of its roadside phones, and the line to box 456 was decommissioned.


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