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Communication: Old Telephones and Telegrams UK


Button A button B public phones

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

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.

Locations of old public telephone

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 rural areas they were close to post boxes, outside village shops or at crossroads.

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

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.

However, finding a public phone box did not necessarily mean that you could use it straightaway. It might not be working or 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.

How to make a phone call from a button A and button B public phone

In order to make a call from a public phone box, you 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.

Callers put their coins into the coin slot, dialled the number they wanted and pressed Button A to be heard or Button B to get their money back if no-one answered.

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

Old public phone as seen in pubs and guest houses, showing button A and button B

Pressing button A of old public phone

Pressing button A of an old public phone; note the slots by the caller's fingers for paying in coins

Guest contribution

Queues for public phones

In busy cities queues would form for public phones, although in urban and rural areas where I lived this was unusual. I recall in the teenage years that if my friend and I wished to 'accidentally' bump into special young ladies, we would cover their likely routes of travel and use the public telephone to advise where a fortuitous meeting could occur.

Colin Benbow

Money from unpressed button Bs

Guest contributions

Legal returns from 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

Naughty but not illegal cash returns from Button B

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

Inside a red public phone box

The following photo which enlarges on tap/click gives a very good idea of 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 largish compartments for telephone directories. Telephone directories were always supplied, although they often went missing as they are in the photo.

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. Photographed in Milestones Museum. Tap/click to enlarge for more detail.

Changing uses - red phone box libraries

Red phone boxes grew out of use once people started using their personal mobile phones, so BT started selling them off for other uses. Most common is the free library where local people donate books that they no longer want and borrow from the stock that is there. Most of these libraries that I have seen rely on honesty, in that borrowing is free and no record is kept of who donates or borrows.

Red public phone box taken over as a library

Red public phone box taken over as a library

I understand that other uses of the sold-off red phone boxes include food banks, mini museums, art galleries or even life-saving defibrillator stations. Buyers have included local councils, parishes, town centres, registered charities and private land owners. The cost was generally just one pound.

Text and images are copyright

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