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London: The Only Colour is Red

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by Sandra Lawson (subscribe)
To paraphrase Dorothy: 'There is no place like London.' I hope I can convince you of that here. Also check out my blog at and my theatre reviews at
Published December 18th 2012
Take it as read, London is a red city
Have you ever noticed how many of Britain's and London's iconic sights are red? Once I opened my eyes (and I wasn't wearing rose tinted spectacles either) I started to take note of how much red is around us on our city streets.

Going back into the nineteenth century with its wheeled water pumps and horse drawn steam fire engines, the London Fire Brigade's choice of vehicle colour has always been red. This is the colour we recognise as symbolising both fire and danger and when we don't see them on our streets, we can't fail to miss their sirens as they hurry to extinguish fires, attend road traffic accidents and rescue kittens that are stuck at the tops of trees.

Old London Fire Engine
Old London Fire Engine

7,500 red buses carry more than 6 million passengers around Greater London every weekday. In 1907, the London General Omnibus Company (one of several public transport operators) decided to paint its livery red so that its fleet would be instantly recognisable. When London Transport (now TfL) was formed in 1933 the colour was adopted and has remained ever since. Buses may come and buses may go, designs change, bendy buses are introduced and then axed and the Route Master has been revived, but the colour of London's buses will never change.

London Buses
London Buses

 Oxyman/Wikimedia Commons
Route Master Bus

London's bus shelters have red roofs, and the recently introduced ticket machines are also painted in red to match the rolling stock.

Bus Shelter
Bus Shelter

Bus Ticket Machine
Bus Ticket Machine with a Post Office Van in the Background

If you live in, or have ever visited, London it would be difficult to ignore the role played by London Underground in moving people around and under the streets of the city. The tube map is a semiotic splurge of colours, each one signifying a different line. The Central Line, bisecting the capital from west to east, is red. Originally opened in June 1900 and running between Shepherds Bush and Bank (in the City of London) it has been extended in stages until its completion in 1957. Since then it has shrunk back a little when lack of demand meant that no trains would run beyond Epping; this section is now operated as a heritage line by the Epping Ongar Railway.

1992 Central Line Train
1992 Central Line Train (Image Courtesy of Wikipedia)

London Underground's classic signage is denoted with a red circle divided into two halves by the word 'Underground' on a blue background.

Holborn Underground Station
Holborn Underground Station

Communication in the city is also signposted with red. Letter boxes, also known as pillar boxes, have given rise to the shade 'pillar box red'. Several colours were experimented with until the final choice was made in 1874. The sizes and shapes may vary, from cylindrical free standing to rectangular, wall mounted boxes and well as lamp boxes that are fixed to telegraph or lamp posts. In some parts of the country you may also come across older receptacles, dating back to Edward VII or Queen Victoria. You can see who was on the throne because the monarch's initials are usually on the front. The official Post Office colour is also red, the shade used for their vans and lorries. Back in the day when postmen used to deliver letters by push bike, these were also painted red, although you are more likely to see them pushing large carts nowadays.

Letter Box framed by London Buses
Letter Box framed by London Buses

Early Queen Victoria Wall Box
Early Queen Victoria Wall Box (Image Courtesy of

Before we all had mobile phones, the only way to keep in touch whilst out and about would have been to use a coin operated telephone. Most of London's classic phone boxes, originating from 1924, have been sold, but there are still a few to be found around the city. If you leave your mobile at home, or if your battery has run flat, just make sure to find a kiosk that hasn't been vandalised. While you are waiting for somebody to answer your phone call you could admire the business cards supplied by ladies offering all kinds of extra-curricular services.

Telephone Box
Telephone Box

The colours of the Union Flag may be red, white and blue, but red is the dominant colour of London. Next time you are standing, or sitting, in a vehicle at a red traffic light have a look and see what I mean.
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Why? To see how much red you can spot around London
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Your Comment
I used to see red when I couldn't get onto a train at Lewisham because it was too overcrowded!

Very thoroughly covered Sandra.
by Dave Walsh (score: 4|11307) 3295 days ago
Congratulations for coming 1st!
by Bastion Harrison (score: 4|12626) 3293 days ago
You've got me noticing red everywhere too. Interesting article
by Oxford Explorer (score: 2|655) 3307 days ago
London does indeed have a lot of iconic red objects; it's really interesting to hear about their history.
by Bastion Harrison (score: 4|12626) 3300 days ago
Good observation. A lovely article.
by Wendy (score: 2|890) 3289 days ago
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