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Public telephones
in 1920s and 1930s Britain

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1920s public phone box

1920s public phone box, photographed in Amberley Museum.

I was born in 1939 and was well familiar with public phones while I grew up on the war years of the 1940s. Yet the public phones that I saw were all of the type described on the public phones 1940s and 1950s page.

I never saw earlier public phones, which is rather surprising as I would have expected some of the old technology still to have been around. Of course during the war years, I didn't travel much.

In fact, until recent years, I had no idea of the existence of versions of public phones before the 1940s/1950s type. Then I saw a 1920s type in a museum - see the photo. I assumed it was quite rare. Then, looking through my collection of older street scenes, I came across one of the same sort on a pavement of a busy street - see below.

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The experience of using a 1920s public phone

Inside a UK 1920s public phone box

Inside a 1920s public phone box showing the buttons A and B like in the 1940s and 1950s public phones, but with a separate earpiece.

According to the notice at the top left, the phone box, called a phone kiosk, was made from reinforced concrete with metal glazing bars. In 1925 it cost £13 excluding the apparatus inside.

Coin slots in a UK 1920s public phone box

The coin slots for shillings, sixpences and pennies. The photo shows the head of George VI which were probably all that the museum had available in the way of pre-decimal coins, although at that time George VI was not yet king.

From the photo of inside the box, it is clear that the user experience is almost identical to that described on the page about using the 1940 and 1950s public phones: There is the familiar button A and button B and slots for coins.

There are, though, also significant differences. The phone itself seems to bear more resemblance to a candlestick phone. I wonder whether the mouthpiece was moveable because it looks not, in which case it would have been difficult to use for anyone shorter than the standard height. The earpiece is separate like on a candlestick phone, and the telephone dial does not show any letters with the numbers. This implies that there were no area codes and that all but local calls would have had to go through the operator. I can't say whether the user had to dial 0 or whether there was some other way of connecting to the operator. If you know, please do tell me.

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Costs of public phone calls in the 1920s

In real terms, phone calls were very expensive. The coin slots show that calls costing shillings and sixpences were expected as well as those costing pennies although it isn't clear how much time these bought for what distances. In the 1920s quite a lot could be bought for these amounts of money and calls outside a local area, known as trunk calls, could be very expensive indeed.

The cost of a local call up to 5 miles was 2 old pennies (2d) when the A.B box was introduced in 1925. The cost of these calls was increased to three old pennies (3d) in 1951. Local calls on A/B boxes were untimed.

Ian Jolly, one-time telephone engineer

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Photo of a 1920s public phone box on a busy street

1920s or 1930s street scene showing the early public call box

1920s or 1930s street scene showing the first GPO public phone box on the left-hand pavement.

  

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.