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.
Finding a public telephone
Public phone box.
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.
Wooden booths of public telephones as found in
stations and other public places. Detail of a photograph in Milton
Keynes Telephone Museum.
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.
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.
Making a phone call from a public phone
A phone and paying mechanism in as found 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.
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.
For local calls, only pennies were needed. I can't remember how many and
probably the number increased with inflation. They were of course 'old' pre-decimal
pennies. Larger denomination coins were needed
for non-local calls which were known as 'trunk calls'. Alternatively, with the
agreement of the person receiving the call, charges could be reversed by going
through the operator.
Once the handset was lifted, 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.
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.
Phone calls were expensive in real terms, and if chatting it was all too
easy to run out of coins. 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.
Making illegal free calls from public phones
In the 1950s when I was a teenager - and possibly in the 1940s too - it was
well-known that public telephones could be made to give free calls. I knew fellow-teenagers
who did it, and I knew how to do it, but I never dared do it myself. I thought
that if I did, a police car would come roaring round the corner, sirens screaming
and cart me off to a police station. As far as I know, though, on-one ever was
The procedure was to mimic the clicks that came from regular dialling, ie
one click for one, two clicks to two etc. The clicks could either be made by
tapping the mouthpiece or the cradle, but they had to be made rapidly at the
same speed as dialling, which was easier said than done.
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is © Pat Cryer.