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Communication: Old Telephones and Telegrams UK


Phones in the home 1940s-1960s UK

In early 1940s wartime Britain, only a very few well-off families had phones - or were 'on the phone' as it was called. There were public telephones, and shops or businesses which were 'on the phone' might be encouraged in an emergency to let valued customers use their phones. There were of course no mobile phones.

Domestic phones in the 1940s

There was no choice of supplier for phones, and everyone's 1940s phone was identical to everyone elses. These phones were supplied as part of the whole deal of 'being on the phone'. 'Candlestick' phones from before the war were still in use in some businesses and better-off families, but, as far as I know, were no longer supplied.

The 1940s phones were black and made of Bakelite, an early plastic which chipped easily. They were in two parts, the handset and the base unit.

Domestic phone from the early 1940s

Tap/click the image for a larger version. Then note the pull-out drawer in the base for a dialling code card and the typical woven flex.

The handset was just the right size and shape for speaking directly into the mouthpiece while holding the earpiece to the ear. Although these handsets might look cumbersome compared with today's phones, they were comfortable to hold and had clear sound reproduction. Any lack of clarity was normally due to the line rather than the phone.

The base unit held the dial with its ten dial holes, each showing reference letters for the exchange and numbers underneath.

The telephone cable

The base unit was connected to the handset and the wall socket with a rather ugly long brown cable, known as 'flex' - see the above photo. This consisted of three strands of wire, insulated with cotton or some other fabric and loosely platted together. It seemed second nature to fiddle with it while on the phone and to put one's fingers through it, separating out the three strands. It frayed dreadfully, but no-one seemed particularly concerned.

Domestic phones in the 1950s/60s

Phones which became standard some years later had much neater coiled, plastic-covered cable which extended when stretched. The design was also rather more elegant and colour was an option.

Phone with the option of several colours, and a neat coiled cable.

A phone from the 1950s/60s with the option of several colours and a neat, coiled cable. I am told that the picture is actually of an American phone but it looks just like what I remember in the UK.

Rental cost of the coloured phone

Guest contribution

The coloured UK phone was known at the time as a Modern Phone for which an extra rental charge was made of £2 per quarter. This was well towards the end of the 1960s. You had your choice of colour for the £2 !

Ian Jolly,
one-time telephone engineer

It is possible that customers had to pay for these replacement phones, as my parents kept their old-style phone way into the 1960s when the phone company exerted some pressure to make them change.

Privacy and the location of the house phone

During the 1940s and into the 1960s, being on the phone was regarded as a luxury by ordinary families. Even then, there was only one phone in the house. It was set up in a fixed position which was invariably in the hall or passageway, to provide the easiest access from every room. Consequently there was no privacy from other members of the family.

To overcome the lack of privacy, my friends and I developed our own language for talking to eachother privately. My mother could not help but overhear and it drove her to distraction. She called the language "hager-pager" which was really quite apt as it involved saying "ag" after every consonant and before every vowel. We actually became totally fluent at it.

Some decades later domestic phones became more portable because they could be moved around and plugged into sockets around the house. These first plugs were robust affairs, which served their purpose well.

Lines shared with neighbours - party lines

My father's work wanted him to get onto the phone as soon as he returned from the war. However, everything was in short supply then, so there was a waiting list for phones. Then when we did eventually get one, we had to share a line with neighbours.

Guest contribution

How widespread were party lines?

Well into the 1970s from the end of WW2, it was a requirement for a residential subscriber to share a line if the GPO/PO so deemed. In fact I remember coming across businesses on party lines.

Ian Jolly

Shared lines, also known as party lines, caused all sorts of problems. When we tried to use our phone we frequently found someone else talking on it. The accepted polite thing to do was to immediately 'put the phone down' (ie return the handset to its cradle), and then wait a while before trying again. Similarly when we were talking on the phone, clicks on the line would indicate that a neighbour was trying to make a call and could therefore hear what we regarded as our private conversation. With polite neighbours, another click indicated that they had heard that we were talking and were no longer listening in, but it was disconcerting and it disrupted the flow of the call.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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