Street furniture is so commonplace in our cities, towns, villages and countryside that it is hidden in plain sight.
But its deceptively simple, everyday functionality ensures the generally smooth operation of the public realm, as well as often providing subtle local character and style to streetscapes.
Here we walk down some of the country’s streets and roads, taking a look at the remarkable range – from old to ultra-modern; from familiar to lesser-known and unsung, in four broad categories – that helps paint a picture of how street furniture has evolved in response to changes in society, developing technology and threats to the nation.
1. Beneficial Utility
Pumps, Drinking Fountains, and Cattle Troughs
For centuries, water for domestic and agricultural use was drawn via a bucket from wells. By the 18th century, communal water pumps became common. Early ones were rudimentary with lead pipes and wooden boxes. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution from the mid-18th century, pumps were made of tougher cheaper cast-iron, often elaborate in style.
Many villages did not have piped water until the late 19th century, with some places still having to depend on wells into the 20th century.
By the mid-19th century, rapid population growth and unregulated private water suppliers, especially in urban areas, meant that drinking water for most of the population was dirty and polluted. Cholera was rife, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. It was realised from around the 1850s that the disease was water-borne. Communal pumps were closed on sanitary grounds and there was an acceptance of the need for a clean public water supply.
Liverpool led the way erecting around 30 public drinking fountains between 1854 and 1858, with London following shortly after. The pictured fountain’s Romanesque style was influential. Drinking fountains, many made of granite or marble, spread across the country, becoming the most stylistically and varied form of street furniture.
Animals played a key part in everyday life in the 19th century, with horses used for transport and live cattle, sheep and pigs brought to market. Charities funded drinking troughs for them.
Most well-known was the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association (the ‘Trough’ was added to the original name in 1867) which provided over a thousand troughs in London and across the country, many made of granite. The Association is still in existence today, looking after around 800 historic troughs and drinking fountains.
The development of gas lighting in the Victorian era had a profound effect on the domestic and working lives of the British population. Gas lighting, derived from coal, had been invented in the 1790s, but it was not until the early years of the 19th century that it started to spread nationally.
The first gas street lighting was in London’s Pall Mall in 1807. By the 1820s, many towns and cities had followed suit with the gas produced by local gasworks. Ornamental cast-iron gas lamp posts proliferated. Even though electric street lighting started to be used in the latter part of the 19th century, gas lamps continued to be installed until the mid-20th century.
Recently there has been some controversy as councils are modifying or replacing gas lamps with eco-friendly LEDs. London’s Westminster Council, for example, has 305 gas lamps and has to date replaced 30 with replica lookalike LED lamps. There was anger after historic Victorian gas lanterns were photographed in a skip. Westminster has now paused the work and is consulting residents and conservation groups about further upgrades.
Public seats and benches date in the main from the 19th century, when local authorities and private individuals started to pay for their installation on streets and in other communal areas. During the Victorian and Edwardian period, seats (either of wood, cast-iron or stone) often became highly elaborate.
Some modern public benches are designated as memorials, or as ‘listening benches’- carrying sound recordings of the history of the area; others have internet access – the first reputedly in Bury St Edmunds in 2001.
Litter first became a national problem in the 1950s. Litter levels started rising with the birth of the consumer society after the Second World War. Mass production increased and the use of plastic packaging boomed. Local councils started to make their litter bins more visible by using brighter colours.
To counter the litter epidemic, in 1954 the Women’s Institute initiated a government-backed campaign – ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ – a grassroots drive to change the public’s attitude to litter. Over the decades, celebrities such as the Bee Gees helped the charity.
‘Keep Britain Tidy’ continues to the present day, with its annual national litter-picking event planned for 25 March to 10 April 2022.
There is no national standard colour code for recycling bins. The Cheltenham bins pictured above use red for plastics and cans, yellow for empty coffee cups, blue for paper and card, black for general litter.
Human waste had fouled Britain’s towns and cities for centuries. George Jennings (1810 to 1888) was a sanitary engineer who invented the first public flushing toilets, demonstrating them at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London’s Hyde Park where they were hugely popular.
In 1858, Jennings offered to set up public conveniences in the City of London, and by the late 19th century many local authorities across the country were providing public conveniences, including urinals. These were for men only. The first female public toilets were opened at Piccadilly Circus in 1889.
Among early bike stands were concrete slabs where the bike’s front wheel was pushed into and supported by a deep groove, or a forked piece of metal to hold the front wheel. Such basic designs offered no security.
Sheffield in South Yorkshire pioneered the revolutionary ‘Sheffield rack’ – thick metal tubing bent into the shape of a square arch where bikes could be secured. The hoops pictured above are a modern take on the design.
Around 7.5 million people use bikes in the UK. Nearly 80,000 a year are stolen, with London the hotspot. Bike security is constantly evolving in a bid to stay ahead of thieves.
2. Traffic Measures
A significant amount of street furniture is associated with horse-drawn transport, followed by that connected with the dawn of motoring and its aftermath over the decades.
Road signage increased markedly in 18th century Georgian Britain as manufacturing and overseas trade boomed and there was a need to move goods round the country. But roads were in a poor state and travel difficult. At the dawn of the century, Turnpike Trusts were established, with local worthies building roads and charging users a toll to pay for the upkeep. Milestones became compulsory from 1767 to give information about direction and distances, as well as keeping stagecoaches carrying passengers on schedule.
At the peak of the Turnpike Trust age, around 20,000 miles of roads had milestones, but the coming of the railways from the 1830s, as well as the later growth of motorised transport, saw their importance wane.
Signposts – initially made of wood, then cast-iron; with square or curved or triangular-ended fingers – were used extensively by the Turnpike Trusts. They proliferated with the increase in motorised traffic from the late 1890s, and continued to be produced well into the 20th century. Sign posts were erected by cycle clubs, or the AA or RAC.
In 1932, government regulations stated black-and-white capital letters should sit on a white background, with a black-and-white post. Most councils followed this ruling, although some had their own local variations – including green sign posts in Jersey.
Many signs were removed by law during the Second World War (1939 to 1945) to confuse would-be invaders, and not all were reinstated. More were lost following the Traffic Sign Regulations Act of 1964 which modernised signs and which also prohibited local authorities erecting new sign posts. However, existing old sign posts remain an important part of rural identity today. Dorset, for example, still has over 700 examples.
Bus shelters largely date from the start of regular services for horse-drawn omnibuses in the 1820s, with the first official bus stops established in London in 1829 – the route running between Cornhill and Paddington. By 1890, there were around 25,000 bus stops for horse-drawn buses in England. Early shelters were built of cast-iron, wood and glass, with many handsome examples in seaside towns.
Urban transport was undergoing a transformation by the end of the 19th century. The electrification of streets for trams in the 1880s led to their widespread use by the first decade of the 20th century. Also, by 1899, the first privately-run motor bus services began in London, with such services becoming a standard feature of urban transport.
The pictured bus shelter is part of a new initiative to improve the Leicester’s 479 shelters.
Car owners who were members of the Automobile Association (AA) were issued with a key and could use the phone within the phone box to call an AA Patrolman if their vehicle had broken down. The RAC had their own similar blue call boxes). New phone technology rendered them obsolete. The few that survive have become historic street furniture.
The first traffic light system in Britain to control ‘vehicles and horses’ used railway signalling technology – semaphore arms as pictured. A few months later the system exploded, injuring a police officer.
The first true traffic lights in Britain date from 1926 when red/amber/green lights were installed in London’s Piccadilly, manually operated by a police officer. The first fully automatic traffic lights were established in Wolverhampton, West Midlands, November 1927, becoming widely adopted across Britain from around 1933.
Today, smart traffic light schemes are being rolled out that will change sequence according to traffic demands. Artificial intelligence will also detect when a certain number of pedestrians are waiting to cross the road, changing the lights to red without waiting for a button to be pressed.
Leslie Hore-Belisha was Minister of Transport in the mid-1930s. He introduced pedestrian crossings as part of the Road Traffic Act of 1934. 9,000 pedestrian crossings, with their distinctive flashing yellow globes (‘Belisha Beacons’), were erected in London that year, with the scheme extended to the provinces in the November. Initially crossings were marked with steel studs; zebra markings not appearing until 1949.
The Road Traffic Act of 1957 legalised the installation of parking meters on public roads, with London’s Westminster City Council inaugurating a pilot scheme of 647 metered spaces in Mayfair July 1958. Parking cost 6 old pence an hour. From the 1960s, pay and display machines proliferated, dispensing a ticket for cash. Traffic meters become a common type of street furniture across the country.
Today many machines are cashless, with drivers required to pay remotely using a mobile phone or credit card.
Low Traffic Neighbourhood Measures
Concern about the environment, along with a drive to make localities safer for the public to walk and cycle in, has led to a reshaping of some residential streets into Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs). As well as wider pavements and cycle lanes, vehicle traffic is banned from certain streets by erecting temporary or permanent barriers called ‘modal filters’, such as the planters pictured above.
Electric vehicle charging points
Transport in the UK accounts for over a quarter of all emissions. The government has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 28% by 2035 and net zero by 2050. The future lies in electric vehicles, with widely available on-street charging of electric vehicles key to this vision. Forecasts suggest that up to half a million public charge points of various types may be needed by 2030 – a potentially significant addition to the country’s street furniture.
The Department for Transport in 2013 (latest data) estimated that there were around 4.57 million traffic signs in Britain, a number that had increased over 111% in ten years. Over 120 categories of signs were listed, of which the most common were waiting/loading restrictions, speed limits, and parking regulations.
Up until the 1830s, the general system for posting letters in Britain was costly, slow, corrupt and inefficient. Social reformer Roland Hill championed a uniform postal rate of one penny which would encourage the sending of letters by the growingly literate Victorian society. In 1840, postal reforms formally introduced the Penny Post – a pre-paid adhesive postage stamp, costing one penny, that would ensure delivery of a letter weighing up to one ounce between any two places in Britain irrespective of distance. In 1839, 76 million letters were posted annually in Britain. After the introduction of the Penny Post the number was 168 million.
However, letters still had to be taken to the nearest letter-receiving office which was often miles away. Anthony Trollope, the novelist and General Post Office official (the GPO was the state postal system until 1969), had seen the European practice of using locked roadside pillar boxes with regular collection times. He introduced this system to the Channel Islands in 1852 and on mainland Britain the following year. By the end of the 19th century there were 33,500 Royal Mail post boxes. The postal system is known as the Royal Mail as it had originally delivered Royal and government documents from the 17th century.
Today, there are over 115,000 post boxes – 800 different types from cylindrical, oval and hexagonal pillar boxes, to wall boxes and those fixed to posts – each bearing the insignia of the reigning monarch when manufactured.
The earliest phone boxes – the unpopular concrete K1’s, painted cream with a red door – date from the end of the 19th century, but it was a GPO competition, won by the eminent architect Giles Gilbert Scott, that saw the birth of the seminal red cast-iron K2 in 1921. Around 200 still survive.
The most common red phone box today is Scott’s slightly smaller K6, introduced in 1935 to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of King George V. By 1960, there were 64000; 11,700 of these survive. 2,000 are listed. Many phone boxes are not in working order, but some have been ingeniously repurposed, including as a library, mini art gallery, micro night club, ice-cream parlour, coffee shop, pub, bakery and defibrillator booth.
British Telecom (BT) assumed responsibility for the phone boxes in 1980 and made sweeping changes, including creating new phone box designs to prevent vandalism, and controversially removing many K6 boxes and selling them off.
4. Control, Enforcement and Security
Bollards are among the most common forms of street furniture. Early examples were made of wood, then cast iron, and were used from the 18th century onwards to prevent horse-drawn carts and carriages – and later motorised transport – from mounting pavements. Bollards also protect buildings, walls, and entrances opening directly onto streets, as well as prohibiting traffic in certain areas.
CCTV was first used in Britain as a temporary measure in 1960 to oversee crowds at London’s Trafalgar Square during a visit by the Thai Royal family. Over the decades, CCTV has become a permanent and highly visible feature of every aspect of modern life. Recent analysis in 2020 estimates that there are over 5 million CCTV cameras in Britain, the majority operated by private businesses and homeowners, with the state controlling less than 4%.
Anti-Rough Sleeping and Anti-Skateboarding Measures
The public benches pictured above are examples of ‘defensive’, or ‘hostile architecture’ – designs intended to deter and discourage rough sleeping.
There are many other examples of defensive architecture, especially in cities, that have attracted controversy and accusations of urban design negatively influencing normal human behaviour, including ‘skate stoppers’ to discourage skateboarding along edges, studs set in ground level window sills to deter sitting, spikes to prevent loitering or rough sleeping in small underused sections of modern estates, and bus shelter seats that are tipped and narrow, again to deter loitering, but also making it difficult for the elderly, infirm or pregnant to rest on comfortably.
Over the last 30 years, the increasing number of threats and acts of terrorism, here and abroad, have altered the look of many of Britain’s towns and cities. Attacks include the IRA’s 1990s bombing campaign in the City of London, 9/11 in New York, the coordinated suicide attacks on London’s transport in 2005, the Westminster Bridge attack in 2017 using a van as a weapon to kill, and the 2019 London Bridge fatal rampage.
Local authorities across the country have responded by installing anti-terrorism measures to protect their citizens and buildings. This new ‘street furniture’ has become an accepted part of today’s urban landscape.
Written by Nicky Hughes.
Banner image: Modern public seating at the O2 complex, Greenwich Peninsular, London. The London Docklands’ white Skyline tower and cable cars are visible in the distance across the River Thames. Source: Nicky Hughes.
The role of Historic England
Some street furniture is protected by listing. You can find out more from the National Heritage List for England.