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The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

Public telephones
in 1940s and 1950s Britain

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UK public phone box from the mid 1900s - bright red

Public phone box.

Few families had phones at home in the early 1940s. So public phones were in frequent use for keeping in touch and making arrangements. Telegrams were used in an emergency or for special greetings.

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Finding a public telephone

Wooden booths of public telephones as found in stations and other public places in 1940s abd 1950s Britain

Wooden booths of public telephones as found in stations and other public places. Detail of a photograph in Milton Keynes Telephone Museum.

Public telephones could easily be recognised on the streets because they were in bright red telephone booths. These were known as 'telephone boxes', and there were plenty of them in populated areas.

In bus and train stations, several were located together, usually in more subdued wooden booths.

However, finding a public phone box did not necessarily mean that it was working or that it was unoccupied. There was often a queue, and it was rather off-putting to try to chat while people were waiting outside, possibly even banging on the window, if they thought that a conversation was taking too long.

A UK paying mechanism on a public wall phone, as found in pubs and guest houses in the 1940s and 1950s: Button A and Button B

A phone and paying mechanism as seen in pubs and guest houses. Callers put in their coins and pressed Button A to be heard or Button B to get their money back if no-one answered.

Another reason for people waiting outside public phone boxes was that they were waiting for a call. Public phone boxes had their own numbers and could be phoned into. So people would arrange to phone one another at an agreed time and then wait outside the phone box until they heard its phone ring.

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Making a phone call from a public phone: button A and button B

In order to make a call from a public phone box, one had to have the right coins. This was not too onerous because coins were in everyday use as there were no credit cards. Nevertheless, it was not at all unusual to be stopped in the street and asked if one had change for a phone call. People always tried to oblige each other in this respect, and I never knew of anyone getting mugged when they got out a purse or delved into their pockets for money.

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Other uses for Button B

As a child, you did not pass a phone booth without pushing button B on the off-chance in case the last caller had forgotten to collect their left-over coins. It worked more often than you might have thought and 4d bought you a lot of sweets.

Neil Barnes

The really naughty children stuffed a rag up the refund chute on the way to school and on the way home pulled it out hoping that Button B had been pressed in the meantime. If so the refunded money, having been blocked by the rag, came tumbling out! As a telephone engineer, I often went to phone boxes with that problem!

Ian Jolly

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The cost of public calls

Local calls

For local calls, only pennies were needed. They were of course 'old' pre-decimal pennies.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s 4d (1.67p) was the minimum charge for a local call. It would have been less in previous years.

I believe the cost went to 2p when we were decimalised in 1971. However the 2p coin was the same size and weight as the old halfpenny and a lot of phones as well as slot machines would accept both coins - which made calls and purchases cheaper!

Neil Barnes

With the introduction of decimalisation in 1971, the A/B box slots were changed to take 2p and 10p The calls being charged at 2p for an untimed local call.

Ian Jolly

Once the handset was lifted from its cradle, the coins were fed into a holding slot at the top of the box. Then the caller dialled the number that he or she wanted. If someone answered, the caller had to press Button A in order to be heard. If no-one answered, the caller pressed Button B and the coins were returned through a shoot underneath.

Phone calls were expensive in real terms, and if chatting it was all too easy to run out of coins. With later phones pips would sound and a few seconds later, the line would go dead unless more money was fed in. If the caller expected a long conversation, he or she could feed in a lot of coins at the outset as pressing Button B at the end of the call returned unused coins. However, the process was fiddly and people didn't like to carry a lot of coins around because pre-decimal coins were so large and heavy.

Trunk calls

Larger denomination coins were needed for non-local calls which were known as 'trunk calls'. They normally had to be put by dialing O to be put through to an operator.

Reversed charges calls

Particular uses for reversed charges calls

In spite of the extra charge for a reversed call, it was useful, particularly if:

• You needed to make a phone call from a public phone, but didn't have any money, and

• You wanted to use somebody else's phone, but didn't want to put them to the expense of paying for the call.

Both of these were important to know about as a child/teenager in the 60's and 70's* if you needed to be able to phone your parents.

Martin Bonner

* In the 50's too - Webmaster

With the agree­ment of the person receiv­ing the call, charges could be reversed by going through the operat­or. These calls were free to the caller, but there was a premium for the recipient who had to agree to take the call.

Person to person calls

At an extra cost, a caller could go via the operator to put a call through to a particular named person. This was useful for expensive trunk calls if the person concerned was likely not to be available. Then the call would cost nothing.

On one occasion my friend and I got exceptional value for our money, albeit with a waste of our time: We made a person to person call to a friend in a London Hall of Residence. It took over an hour to find him and bring him to the phone, but in the end the call cost just a few pence because it was only charged from when he came to the phone and confirmed his name.

James Chalmers

Inside a 1940s / 1950s UK public phone box showing the arrangement of the telephone, the coin slots, button A and button B.

Inside a red public phone box. Note the telephone on its cradle, the fabric-insulated lead, the coin slots, the button A, button B and the compartments for telephone directories. These were always supplied, although they often went missing. Photographed in Milestones Museum.

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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.