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Communication: Old Telephones and Telegrams

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What happened between a telegram being sent and received

A guest contribution by David Pickles

My experience of telegrams from sent, to transit to receipt

My first job in 1972 was as a Post Office Telegraphist based at the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) just off Fleet Street in central London. This involved accepting telegram messages from the general public over the phone and then forwarding them by teleprinter for delivery to the appropriate post office in the UK or Eire.

When I joined the service, it was already in decline but I learnt a lot about how it had previously worked because some of our equipment was quite old. In fact using the mix of old and modern equipment was fascinating.

How the public sent telegrams

The person sending a telegram would use a regular phone and dial 190 for the CTO, which was free. Then they would speak their message to us and give details of where it should be delivered and what type of telegram they wanted.

The costs of the telegrams sent from private phones were added to their next phone bill. For calls sent from telephone boxes, we would tell the caller the total cost once they had dictated the telegram and they would insert the money into the coin slots. We knew how much was going in as we heard different pips for each coin.

At the CTO, we telegraphists had roughly 50 phone positions where we would wear headphones and plug them into the 'jack' which lit up to connect to the caller. We would type the messages using very old pre-war teleprinters, known as '3 bank' ones because they had 3 rows of letters and figures, unlike commercial home typewriters which were 4 bank. Telegraphists could reach speeds of around 69 words per minute on these teleprinters.

Volumes of telegrams handled

We usually handled around 2,000 telegrams per day even in the mid-1970s when the service was rapidly declining, but on Fridays there were even more - around 2,500. On Saturday mornings we were inundated with wedding telegrams. Then the traffic died off for the rest of weekend, although we operated a 24 hour service 7 days per week.

How local post offices handled incoming telegrams

1938 standard style telegram issued by the British GPO (General Post Office), thumbnail

A handwritten telegram, 1938. Tap/click for a larger, legible image


1937 UK greetings telegram showing the message received on teletype strip and stuck onto the greetings paper- thumbnail

A teleprinted telegram, 1937. Tap/click for a larger, legible image

In the smaller post offices in rural locations and in earlier times, destination post offices usually received the telegram messages as the spoken word over a regular telephone. Then the telegram form was accordingly hand-written by whoever answered the phone.

By the 1960s and early 70s, though, most post offices received telegrams on gummed tape via a teleprinter. The gummed tape was approximately half an inch wide and came on a round coil which was fitted to the side of the teleprinter. The telegraphist receiving the telegram would wear what was called a 'thimble cutter', which was similar to a ring with a flat piece of steel on the bottom. This would enable the him or her to activate the gum by running the tape over a small container of water with a brass wheel at the top and cut the tape. The gummed tape was then stuck onto the telegram form as shown in the image.

The telegram form

The top line of a telegram was known as the 'preamble'. It would show the letter and number of the forwarding teleprinter, the time the telegram was handed in, the office where it was handed in (the name of the receiving post office or the phone acceptance office) and the number of words. The second line would show the delivery name and address, the third line the message, and at the bottom would be a repeat of any unusual words and figures so that the receiving telegraphist could double check. Finally the telegram would be folded, put into an envelope and handed to a telegram boy for delivery via a senior postman.

Types of telegrams

At the end of the service in September 1982 there were several types of telegram:

Celebrities I met

Telegraphists often used to talk of the celebrities they 'met' on the phone. Some were regulars and we felt we got to know them on an almost personal basis. Our regulars included Barbara Cartland, Spike Milligan, Anthony Armstrong-Jones and Ned Sherrin the broadcaster.

I was one of many at the CTO who took Spike Milligan's infamous telegrams. He had many dark moments when he would go into hiding for weeks on end at the top of his house in Bayswater. These self-imposed lockdowns were probably an essential part of his creative genius. During such times, rather than talk to his wife, he would send her telegrams to ask for cups of tea or food. So, he would dial the 190 telephone number and get telegram instructions delivered to his own house! Biizarre but it kept us all amused and in employment!

We had a private teleprinter links to Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Sandringham and Balmoral although the latter two were rarely used. On the Bank Holiday Monday that Lord Mountbatten was murdered every single phone position at the CTO lit up with callers from all over London and the South East sending telegrams of condolence to the Queen. I was eventually dispatched to Buckingham Palace to help with the load of messages coming in from all over the world.

On first nights at West End theatres, the thespians would send greetings telegrams to one another. The hoary old chestnut message was, "A warm hand on your opening" which usually made up over 70% of all the opening night telegrams. For the life of me, I will never understand why the senders of such telegrams always used to laugh as they recited their message to us, as they had probably sent the same message dozens of times before, over the years, but as politeness and civility was something that we were strictly taught to observe, most of us used to join in with a laugh, even though it was, to all intents and purposes, fake.

The end of telegrams

Although record numbers of telegrams were sent during the Second World War, sometimes over a million per day, afterwards the service began to decline. This gathered speed in the 1960s and 70s due to people becoming better off and having telephones installed in their homes.

In the late 1970s, British Telecomm (BT) took over the service from the Post Office, but it made increasing losses. In early 1981, the decision was made to close the inland service, which finally closed at midnight on Friday 30th September, 1982.

The facility to send telegrams overseas continued for around another 15 years or so.

Page contributed by David Pickles


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


Text and images are copyright


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