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Communication: Old Telephones and Telegrams UK

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How to use an old dial telephone

As the pages on domestic phones and public phones illustrate, all the 'modern' telephones in 1940s and 1950s Britain had a handset which rested on a cradle. The handset contained a mouthpiece and an earpiece.

Making a phone call: the dialling process

To start making a call, the caller lifted the handset from its cradle and waited to hear the dial tone, also known as the dialing tone, in the earpiece. If there was no tone, the phone either wasn't working - a not uncommon situation in and after the Second World War or was one of the very early phones.

On hearing the dial tone, the caller put a finger into the dial hole with the first letter to be dialed and dragged the dial round to the 'stop'.

Dial of an old UK phone

Detail of the dial of a 1940s phone. Photo taken in Farnham Museum.

dialling on an old UK telephone

Dialling by pulling round the telephone dial with a finger in the hole above the number/letter.

On removal of the finger, the dial returned itself to its original position, ready for the next letter to be dialled. As it returned, it made a clicking sound: one click for the first hole, two for the second, etc. After dialling the last of the three letters of the area code, the process was repeated with the numbers part.

Where the phone to be connected with was not yet part of subscriber trunk dialling, i.e. all numbers with no letter area code, the connection had to be made via the operator. Most people kept note books of numbers that they often wanted to dial. Some of these were designed for the purpose along the lines of card indexes.

Personal telephone directory with index cards

Personal telephone directory. The central slider was moved down to the initial letter of a person's name. Then the catch at the bottom was pressed which lifted the top to show the phone number.

To call the operator you simply dialled O. Having to dial the operator was relatively common in the 1940s and 50s because something often went wrong with the call that needed to be put right by the operator. Also long-distance calls couldn't be dialled directly.

The Q, O and 0 on old telephone dials

Guest contribution

Most of the old telephone dials seem to have Q, O and 0 at the far end of the dial, i. e. the O and Q are not in alphabetical order and the zero is not in numerical order.

Perhaps this may be because the three look so similar that it avoided misdialling. In other words, if someone meant to dial O and dialled 0 by mistake, it would not matter because the same code would be sent to the exchange. It is interesting to speculate whether the order of the letters on the old dials could be the origin of zero being frequently pronounced as 'owe' or whether the placement merely accommodated an existing practice.

Interestingly, an image search on old telephone dials shows that the Q was missing altogether on some dials.

Peter Simmons


Receiving a phone call

The phone rang when a caller was on the line. To receive the call - or 'answer the phone' as it was called - you just lifted the handset from its cradle. The correct procedure was to let callers know that they had the right number. Our telephone number was Stonegrove 9804 - yes it was called a number even though it contained a word. So our family would simply say into the handset "Stonegrove 9804" and wait for the caller to respond. At that time it was considered socially incorrect just to say, "Hello", and it would never have occurred to anyone to say their name instead.

Returning the handset to its cradle cut off the call and was known as 'putting the phone down'.

Embarrassing experiences of 'putting down the phone'

Guest contribution

Phones in households were comparatively unusual while I was growing up. So I was in employment before I needed to answer a phone call. The bell rang, so, being alone, I picked up the handpiece and gave the name of my employer, as I had heard others do. (Good manners and Post Office instructions demanded that one never merely answered "hello"). The caller asked for a person I would need to go to find. Naturally, I could not take the handpiece with me. So I put it back on its cradle. This cut off a number of calls this way. Eventually it was explained to me that I should leave the handpiece on the desk, off its cradle, to keep the connection alive.

Jan Clifford


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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