From early call boxes to the Post Office Tower, Timeshift tells the story of how Britain's phone network was built over the course of 100 years, and its impact on the public.
Browse content similar to Dial "B" for Britain: The Story of the Landline. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
How could we live about it?
I think it is abominable.
I think it's costly, and I think it's a thundering nuisance.
Incredibly, there was a time
when phones weren't pocket-sized wireless devices
but bulky objects, wired into our homes and workplaces.
Historians call this distant era The Age Of The Landline.
Over the course of 100 years,
engineers rolled out a communications network
that joined up Britain -
a web of more than 17 million miles of wire,
one of the most ambitious engineering projects
in British history.
Yet telephones were initially regarded with suspicion.
Who is going to answer the telephone?
Will there be improper conversations
between the maids and gentlemen callers?
They were agents of social change.
They were looking for educated, well-spoken young ladies
who would be able to enunciate clearly.
But when you wanted a phone, you often couldn't get one.
They say, "Well, sorry. Bad luck, chum.
"In two years' time, you might get a telephone."
This is the story of the battle to build Britain's phone network,
He said, "Tradesmen to the rear."
I said, "Does the doctor go to the rear?" He said, "No."
I said, "I'm the doctor of telephones."
It was really comical,
trying to have a tin hat on with these things stuck to your ear.
You would shout down the phone in the hope that they would put
the phone down so that the line would be restored
and you could actually use it yourself.
Don't you think it will be rather fun? Don't you think anybody
who goes up 500 feet would like a panoramic view
of the greatest capital in the world,
just spread out in front of them?
And why it is that now, when we're more connected than ever,
it's not the telephone that's keeping us on the landline.
inventor Alexander Graham Bell sailed by steamship
from America to Britain, the land he once called home.
He'd come to showcase a revolutionary new electric device
that was taking the US by storm -
At Osborne House on the Isle of Wight,
Bell faced his sternest test yet.
The stakes were high
as he awaited the audience for his latest demonstration.
He had to impress none other than Queen Victoria.
This no doubt entirely historically accurate film from the 1930s
sets out Bell's meeting with the Queen, who politely makes no mention
of the Scottish inventor's strangely American accent.
I think you had better speak into it.
After all, one does not converse with a wire.
Beatrice, Major Phipps, come closer.
If you please, ma'am, we're ready to begin.
You may proceed.
Sir Thomas Biddulph.
'Yes, I'm here.'
That is Sir Thomas' voice.
Bell's telephone arrived at exactly the right moment.
The rise of the office, a new phenomenon in Victorian society,
had created an eager market of businessmen.
There are legal changes to the notion of "company"
and the modern corporation is born at that time, legally.
And with it is somewhere for it to live -
an office block.
In America, a skyscraper.
So you suddenly need to be able to talk to each other.
Queen Victoria was amused enough to buy two devices from Bell,
and the telephone was away.
Flush with royal approval, Bell and his partners set up a firm,
imaginatively named The Telephone Company.
The fledgling service provided the most basic systems.
The first subscribers could only make calls to the other end
of their own phone lines.
Telephone communications were private circuits, point-to-point,
which is to say they connected
floors in a big house or in a factory,
there was no network, no public network as such.
No telephone exchanges. They were sold as private instruments,
initially by Alexander Graham Bell's agent, Colonel Reynolds,
who came across the Atlantic on a steamship
with a bag full of these telephone instruments
which he sold to the very wealthy and to businessmen.
As the potential for telephones in Britain became clear,
Bell's company was joined by myriad competitors
in a technological Wild West.
But businesses wanted to talk directly
to their suppliers and customers,
so the phone companies began to create networks of telephone lines,
connected by exchange switchboards.
Early phones didn't have dials,
so calls were put through by an operator.
Hello. What do you want?
The operator would physically have to take a plug, an electrical plug,
and plug your wires into a socket, which was then the two wires
connecting to the person you wanted to speak to.
Networks began to spring up
in commercial centres across the country, a tangled web
of cutting-edge engineering and financial opportunism.
But progress wasn't pretty.
So if you looked up in the sky,
you would actually see this cobweb of wires, crisscrossing the streets.
The height, the danger of actually putting men up there
to put the cables in, the risk when it snowed,
with snow falling on those wires, creating a lot of weight,
would sometimes bring down telegraph poles,
and some of the derricks would actually collapse.
The sprawling mass of wires expanded
as fast as the companies could put them in.
The network was changing the face of our cities.
But what started out as a service for businesses
soon began to stray into other areas of Victorian life,
where it wasn't anywhere near as welcome.
In Victorian society, the home was sacrosanct.
Here, telephones were treated with outright suspicion.
A whiff of scandal clung to the wires.
Who is going to answer the telephone?
Will there be improper conversations
between the maids and gentlemen callers?
Obviously, it was also lunacy, you know, fake news lunacy -
ie, "Will I catch a cold if I answer the telephone and other people...
"the person at the other end has a cold?"
That was going on, but there was a very real sense
that this was a leveller, a social leveller,
and that that was really not necessarily a terribly good thing.
Gradually, though, the changing view of the telephone as something that
could be tolerated by the wealthy, if not exactly cherished,
was reflected in new handset designs for the Edwardian era.
A bit like the camera, the early telephone started
as a kind of scientific experiment,
the sort of thing you might find in a lab at Cambridge University -
mahogany and brass and bits of wire
and huge dials and details like that - and the big leap, I suppose,
was the candlestick, which turned this piece of engineering equipment
into something that you'd actually give houseroom to,
a consumer object, you might say.
The stylish design of the candlestick
encouraged the domestic use of telephones.
But they would only be seen in the wealthiest of homes.
If the rest of society wanted to get their hands on a telephone,
they were going to have to work for it.
At the heart of the telephone network were the exchanges.
They were run by switchboard operators,
who helped keep the system going for nearly a century.
At first, the phone companies used young messenger boys
to connect the calls,
but it soon became apparent that this was a bad idea.
Very quickly the boys were dispensed with
because they were seen to be too rude and cheeky to customers.
Instead, phone companies started recruiting women en masse.
This change is actually creating
respectable jobs for lower middle-class girls.
Um, so women are joining the workforce as exchange operators,
telephone operators, it's a respectable job for a woman.
And that is not an inconsiderable factor
in the changing way we were organising society at this time.
There's a really simple reason why women were operators -
it's because they were cheaper workers than the men.
So there were also preferences for the sort of cultured, civilised,
soothing tones of the "Hello Girl", the female telephone operator.
The phone companies had very particular requirements.
The phone companies were looking for telephone operators
who would be able to answer in a particular manner.
They were looking for educated, well-spoken young ladies
who would be able to enunciate clearly
and say, "Number, please?" when you called up.
So they had this imagined middle-class style worker,
although, in fact, lots of varieties of women went into that profession.
Women would be recruited as operators for decades to come.
They obviously took notice of your speaking voice
because you needed to speak clearly.
A light would come on in front of the operator,
we would put a plug into that hole
next to your light and say, "Number, please?"
So you had an experienced telephonist
sit with you for a week or so
and they very rarely said, "Number, please?"
It was always "rubber knees!"
Go ahead, please.
If you wanted to go to the toilet,
you had to put your hand up and ask the assistant supervisor,
"Can I have an urgent or a run-through?"
And you weren't allowed off that board
until there was a vacancy for you to go.
There was one funny call, which I only remembered the other day.
I'd walked back into the switch room from a break
and one of the operators said,
"You'll never guess what I've just had to look for."
She said, "I've spent hours looking for the Countess of Ayr.
"Countess of Ayr, I've looked everywhere,
"do you think I could find it...?"
And eventually, in desperation, you would ask them to spell it.
It turned out to be the county surveyor.
She had a bit of a plum, this lady!
For the first few decades of its existence, the telephone was
the exclusive preserve of businesses and wealthy households.
But places began to spring up where anybody could use one -
early phone boxes, known as public call offices or silence cabinets.
Some of them were, believe it or not, attendant-operated,
so they would be manned.
The attendant would open the call box for you to go in,
they would make the call connection for you,
they would take your payment
and then they would close the door behind you
whilst you made your telephone call.
Others had coin boxes on them,
which actually required you to put 2p or 3p into the box
before you made your call.
Believe it or not, when you walked into a silent cabinet,
the floor moved and the roof lifted, so it was ventilated,
bearing in mind we're talking about a time
when people's personal hygiene wasn't as good as it is today,
and therefore people would spit into the microphone
and those sorts of things.
It wasn't long before a love-hate relationship with phone boxes
began to develop.
One of the earliest reports of kiosk vandalism,
phone box vandalism, was Samuel Wartski in 1907,
who had got really annoyed because he'd got into a call box,
inserted the money,
the operator claimed that they hadn't heard him insert this money.
He knew he had, so he got absolutely riled by this
and set about wrecking the phone box apparatus,
and they say he cost 19 shillings' worth of damage to the phone box.
But strangely, when he was brought to court, the magistrates obviously
took pity on him and only fined him one shilling.
And there we are, vandalism begins.
In 1912, the private phone networks
were all taken over by the General Post Office,
which was the branch of government in charge of communications.
This effectively nationalised the whole system.
Phone boxes came in a multitude of shapes and sizes,
but the GPO wanted to spread telephones as widely as they could.
So, in 1920, they tried to come up with a standard design
that could be rolled out across the whole country.
But they were soon to learn how hard it was to please the public.
They introduce, in 1921, the first design, which they called the K1.
K1, first of all, is reinforced concrete.
It has a door with windows in it.
On that it would say, "Public Telephone".
It would also say, "Always Open".
Try as they might, the GPO couldn't please everyone with the K1.
In Eastbourne, the council wanted a phone box
to fit in with the bowling club pavilion.
So the GPO gave it a thatched roof.
But the K1 just wasn't doing the trick.
So, in 1924, the GPO tried again.
This time they got it right...
A new competition was held to design, yet again, a standard kiosk.
The winner of that was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott,
who produced what became Britain's second standard design, the K2,
and it was radically different to anything which had gone before.
As an architect, he saw this kiosk, this phone box,
as a miniature building.
It has a lovely domed roof,
which they say he took inspiration
from the Soane Memorial in St Pancras Old Churchyard in London.
It's a cast-iron construction,
so you've got moulded columns, architectural features.
You have a telephone sign, opaque glass, back-illuminated at the top.
It looked imposing, but the K2 was too expensive
to be installed anywhere outside the capital.
So, to celebrate the King's Silver Jubilee in 1935,
the GPO had one more try.
The General Post Office once again turned to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott
and what he produced has really become
Britain's ubiquitous red phone box, the K6.
The K6 had the stylish features of the K2,
but it was smaller and cheaper to make.
It is well proportioned,
the domed roof from the Soane Memorial is preserved.
But there was one thing about this new phone box
that many people really didn't like -
that shocking, un-British red colour.
Countryside campaigners demanded a rural version,
initially insisting on a colour that was much more appropriate
to this green and pleasant land...
And then there was Hull.
Kingston-Upon-Hull was the only municipality
that remained independent from the GPO's telephone network,
and it had its own ideas about colour schemes.
If you are from Hull,
then your identity as a person from Hull is slightly bound up
with the telephone system. The cream phone box
is really the icon of the city and you will still see them everywhere.
You can buy little biscuit tins in the shape of a cream phone box.
If you see the cream phone box, you know that you're home.
It's extraordinary how versatile the K6 turned out to be.
In rural communities,
the red phone box on the edge of the village
was the place which kept the place going.
People actually would go out and use it to communicate.
In cities, it fitted in all kinds
of sensitive architectural environments. They were great.
They belonged to an era when we still believed in privacy.
I'm so sorry to keep you waiting.
Not at all.
The smartphone might put you in constant contact,
but it also means everyone knows where you are.
If you're a spy or planning a bit of adultery,
forget it with a mobile phone.
K6 is a much better bet.
The Post Office had reached a crossroads by the 1930s.
The business world had felt the benefit of telephones,
but only the wealthiest actually had one in their home.
Calls were just frankly too expensive and there wasn't enough
of an appetite in Britain to pay those high tariffs,
so the Post Office had two tasks -
they had to increase the numbers of people using the service
and the way to do that was to reduce those costs.
But by increasing the number of people who were using telephones,
they could also release more money
into developing better equipment for the public.
So the GPO turned their attention to the aspiring middle classes.
Despite the Great Depression, THEIR living standards were on the rise,
but it was going to take an enormous effort
to convince them to get hooked up.
The first step was to make the telephone itself
an object of desire.
The real change came with the introduction of the new plastics
in the 1920s, because that meant you could make a one-piece moulded body.
The all-in-one pyramid phone
is something that you can actually relate to.
it's the start of it as an object,
rather than something which is fitting into its setting.
You could see its time...
It was actually that moment when Art Deco was giving way to modernity
and so the new look of the phone
was something which actually did hint at this modern world.
But if these new phones had more than just panache -
they also had a dial.
This meant you could make local calls by yourself
without the need to go through an operator.
Automatic exchanges allowed the GPO
to massively increase the number of people on the network,
but they didn't come cheap.
The Government, through the Post Office,
had invested hugely in the telephone network.
At one point in the late '20s,
they were opening a new automated telephone exchange once a week.
Instead of thousands of operators,
row after row of electromechanical switches connected the calls.
The system was invented in the 1890s
by an undertaker from Kansas called Almon B Strowger.
When his business went through a lean period,
Strowger discovered that the local telephone operator
was the wife of his rival,
who put anyone phoning up for an undertaker through to her husband.
Peeved in the extreme,
Strowger set about making a machine that replaced operators entirely.
He gets very worried that the women in the patch exchange, right,
have power. So somebody rings up and says,
"I want to talk to an undertaker..."
And come to think of it, it's exactly the argument about Facebook
and Google and what comes up if you punch something in.
So he's... So this guy was saying, "I am losing business."
Here's how it worked.
When you selected a number,
an electrical contact would generate a series of impulses
as you let go of the dial. So the number nine gave out nine impulses.
The number three gave out three.
These went to the exchange,
where the impulses drove a series of selector switches,
one from each number you dialled,
and they connected you to the right line.
-Here, on the distribution frame,
is the converging point of 10,000 pairs of private telephone lines.
The sheer cost of automation meant it took decades to roll out.
Manual operators would still be around until the 1970s.
But Strowger's machine had other consequences,
like creating more jobs for the boys.
The telephone exchange is now a machine,
so a whole new generation of telephone engineers
have to be trained on the understanding
of the Strowger system,
they have to be trained on how to maintain it.
So you now find that telephone exchanges
have their resident engineering staff
who have to look after this machine
and care for it 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
With new phones, exchanges and an expanding network,
the Post Office was ready to attract new subscribers.
But to make the phone as ubiquitous as the letter,
the GPO needed to get its message out there.
By the end of the 1920s, early '30s,
up to 25% of the network was not being used.
The whole situation changed, really,
with the appointment of Clement Attlee
as Postmaster General for only a few months in 1931.
But he saw immediately that
the Post Office had to change its whole approach.
He brought in Stephen Tallents, who was a pioneer in publicity.
He brought in press advertising,
he commissioned artists
to produce very colourful artwork.
A lot of the artwork which they submitted was very imaginative,
very leading-edge, very modernist, almost Bauhaus.
He also worked with young film-makers
and established the GPO film unit.
So there was a big push to really change the look of the Post Office
to attract new subscribers.
Do not abandon a call without allowing a reasonable time
for a distant subscriber to answer.
The GPO had begun its campaigns
at a time when the competition for middle-class cash was heating up.
The radio was becoming popular, cars were cheaper than ever before.
The telephone needed to boost its credentials as an essential service
for everyday life, particularly in an emergency.
A tragic house fire in 1935 led to criticism
that the phone system performed poorly in a crisis.
What was needed was a dedicated number,
a short cut to the emergency services.
What shall I do?
Dial nine-double nine.
Oh, thank you!
So the question arose - what number to give it?
It couldn't be a one because the Post Office technicians,
the engineers, were concerned that there was more chance of a misdial
or the equipment not working correctly
if the first digit dialled is a one.
They wanted another distinctive number
and it was decided it would be nine,
but then 9-9-9.
Why not 9-1-1, I don't think anybody knows.
But it was the phone as a source of instant information
that really impressed the public.
In 1936, the GPO again showcased its technical prowess
and eye for publicity to launch the most famous service of all,
the Speaking Clock.
-At the third stroke, it will be 8:57 precisely.
The Speaking Clock was designed by E Speight
at the Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill,
which was in North West London,
and he brought a new way of recording sound to disc,
and it was recording the voice onto glass plates,
which were then synchronised and when a phone call was made,
it intercepted that signal and told the time.
In order to promote the service,
they had a competition called The Girl With The Golden Voice.
But there was a slight problem.
The winner's voice made it hard to distinguish between certain numbers.
At the third stroke, it will be 4:33 and 40 seconds.
It was won by a London telephonist, Ethel Cain,
and she became Jane Cain and took up a film contract.
Has to be said that when the engineer who made the recordings -
Eugene Wender, who had designed the optical disc system
that the clock was using -
heard the voice, he said, "Well, this is unsatisfactory.
"Can we have the runner-up?"
And then they said,
"No, you can't because there's been so much publicity about Jane Cain
"that you're stuck with her," and she had a slight speech defect,
which the judges hadn't noticed.
Well, I'm thrilled,
absolutely thrilled to have won this competition.
So, if you want to know the time,
there's no need now to ask a policeman,
just give me a ring sometime.
And Wender had to spend a lot of time
working on those optical soundtracks with Indian ink,
just changing the shape of the soundtracks
to get rid of this speech defect
and there still were complaints for years afterwards
that you couldn't distinguish between 30 and 40.
# Ring the supervisor
# She's sure to be at home
# It's me, you see
# The fairy of the phone... #
The British attitude to telephones was being transformed.
More and more people wanted to join the network
and the GPO encouraged them.
But the failure to deliver on their promises
would haunt the service for a generation.
AIR RAID SIREN WAILS
With the outbreak of World War II,
the drive to get the masses connected
came to a sudden, grinding halt.
The telephone network was redirected away from civilian use
to serve military needs.
After a decade of being constantly encouraged to make calls,
the public was now told to get off the line as quickly as possible.
The 1930s advertising was so successful
that the network is at capacity
and the network was needed for the war effort.
Lines are all engaged.
No, no, I can't get back Saturday night.
Darling, I'd rather go and see...
The Post Office introduced a whole range of posters
with messages like, "Be brief,"
"Telephone less, telegraph less,"
"Don't phone if a letter will do,"
because the network was needed for military purposes.
The demand for new lines was relentless.
There were so many new installations to put in -
all the arms of the services, all the new airfields,
all needed to have their telephone systems
and also other landline communication networks
for radio systems, and the Post Office did all of those.
Keeping the network going was a major concern.
Telephone operators found themselves at the spearhead
of the GPO's war on the home front.
Gene Toms began working as an operator in 1940.
When the air raid went, we just put on our tin hats,
it was as simple as that,
which were, looking back on it, pretty useless
because it wasn't the bombing that bothered most of us,
because if the bomb dropped, I mean, then that was it.
It was the shrapnel coming from our own guns
then falling on these tin hats.
Wouldn't have had any impression at all -
they would have gone straight through...
But it made you feel better.
Even getting to work could be a challenge.
You turned the corner to go to work
and there was a land mine up in the tree outside the building.
The Germans used to drop these things by parachute
and they were exactly like the mines that you see at sea.
So there was no work that day
and, of course, poor police officers standing there,
waiting for the bomb disposal squad to arrive.
Gene was moved from a local system
to the Central London Faraday Exchange,
one of the largest in the country.
It was quite quiet.
You could hear a hum, but never any real noise,
not unless the air raid siren went and then, of course,
everybody ran to put our tin hats on, which was really comical,
trying to have a tin hat on with these things stuck to your ear!
With the German bombing campaign in full flow,
operators had to keep calm and carry on.
We didn't go anywhere.
People still wanted telephone calls and, of course, in Faraday,
they were all long-distance calls, of course, that's why we were there,
and some of these, of course, were very urgent.
We had the Air Ministry, War Office, Admiralty -
all their switchboards came through to us.
Sometimes we couldn't get a call through.
If we'd had a bad raid on London, we had no lines out,
we had to find those that we'd got
and I have actually called to Glasgow via Cornwall
and then to Wales because they were the only ones that had lines.
But in wartime, with many calls urgent in one way or another,
determining who should be put through first wasn't easy.
I must get through straight away.
The people who were entitled to priorities one and two
were no problem at all.
It was those who thought that they were very important
who, with a bit of luck, would have priority three,
and I'll call him Major Smith, which wasn't his name,
he was a terror. You had to be extremely polite, of course,
but tell him that it wasn't his job.
You're holding up vital war work.
But Major Smith, he was definitely my nemesis.
Not all calls from Army personnel were about operational matters.
Ordinary soldiers often wanted
to speak to loved ones from phone boxes.
That was the thing I disliked most,
cutting servicemen off after three minutes.
He was talking to his wife or his children or whatever.
That was the worst bit.
Occasionally, you would risk letting them stay.
Fortunately, I never got caught.
In the exchange, news about the progress of the war travelled fast.
I was on duty the morning of D-Day.
The rumour rang through the exchange,
"They've landed and, no, they haven't..."
And I don't know who found out
and by the time they'd actually landed,
we knew they were on the way.
With the end of the war, thousands returned to civilian life.
But it wouldn't be business as usual.
Austerity meant long waiting lists
and Britain's telephone infrastructure
had taken a battering.
A new generation of roaming engineers took on the task
of getting the post-war network into shape -
rebuilding, repairing and expanding it.
This was an enormous challenge,
but, despite limited resources, they would embrace it.
Well, you had a stepped...
What was known as a stepped trench.
And you slid your pole down to the bottom, pushed it up with a ladder
and then filled it in.
And then you climbed the pole.
You've got the arms, wooden arms,
and you put the insulators and everything on before it went up,
so all you had to do was to climb up and put the wires on the insulators.
Initially, it was a bit daunting to go up a pole.
You used to have leather belts.
Once a week, you used to have to coat them
with a special kind of polish to keep them flexible
and you all had your own belts,
you were responsible for your own belt.
You got up the pole, holding one hand on a step
and you flicked the belt and if you got used to it,
it would come right round the pole, right up to your safety device,
you buckled up, and then put it into the safety buckle
and, bingo, you were there.
And I think the worst thing was leaning out, that was the time,
and your feet are on two steps.
That's the time that, you know, wow, do you hold on or what?!
Once you got used to it, it was all right.
Attitudes to safety were rather laissez-faire.
Health and safety didn't really exist.
I can remember being on one pole and it was known as a D-pole -
it had a red label saying "danger".
And we had to transfer the wires off it
and the only thing that was holding it up were the wires.
So when I got rid of the last pair,
the pole began to go like this, you see,
and I thought, "Oh, dear, I'm going down."
So I had to unlock my safety belt,
jump onto the new pole that was alongside
and the old one just went down.
So I thought, "That's one up!"
In the '50s and '60s,
the sheer scale of the network meant that modernising it
was a perpetual struggle.
Much of the equipment in the exchanges was ageing
and needed teams of engineers to keep it all going.
Even in London, there was quite a few exchanges
that dated from the 1930s still working well
virtually to the end of the Strowger system,
until about the 1990s.
There was a lot of routine work, which meant taking switches out,
lubricating, cleaning, adjusting.
So, at each telephone exchange, you would find a team of engineers
whose job it was to actually maintain,
that meant cleaning the Strowger equipment,
the switch banks and keeping it in tiptop condition.
And there's also the fault-finding aspect of it.
Things obviously went wrong, bits dropped off...
You could find yourself being involved on a fault
for several days.
Parts of the network truly did belong to another era.
We were converting telephone exchange to automatic
cos all around this particular area was manual.
And when we done Esher and Oxshott,
it was like going back in a time warp.
He's in a hurry, Joe.
So are we, we've got to have this back in service by morning.
And we had to do everything from scratch - rewire every house,
bring it up to date...
And the Oxshott Telephone Exchange was all in one room -
the frame, the equipment, the lot.
And at night-time,
it was manned by a husband and wife team who lived upstairs.
Now, it was a very, very personal service,
because the people used to say,
"Um, I'm going out. I'll be back about ten o'clock tonight."
So people were ringing in...
They used to put what we called a peg in the multiple
with a little note,
and they used to take notes, just like an answer service,
but it was very, very personal, you see.
And they'd come in and say, "Did anyone leave any...
"Call me?" "Yes, yeah, Mr So-and-so, called you..."
"Thank you very much." And at Christmas time,
you could not move in that exchange
for hampers sent in by the customers.
It wasn't just the technology that could be tricky,
but the customers, too.
When I was told that a customer was possibly very obnoxious
and been shouting and all the rest of it,
I would ring and knock on the door in a bright manner
and turn my back on the door,
and the moment I heard the latch go and the door open,
I would swing round with a bright smile on my face
and say, "Good morning, telephone engineer!"
And, of course, they go... They go to say...
Well, they think, "Well, I can't be rude to this fella,
"He is being pleasant."
Good morning, the exchange here, just testing the line.
Have the engineers left you a directory and a dial code list?
I've worked in houses where, you know,
the butler came to the door and I said, "GPO."
He said, "Tradesmen to the rear."
I said, "Does the doctor go to the rear?"
He said, "No." "Well," I said, "I'm a doctor of telephones," you see?
In I go, and I actually had tea, the tea was pushed on a trolley in,
and you sit down, you know, this...
It was that type of area.
The limited resources available to expand the phone network
presented a conundrum.
People WANTED to get connected,
but there just wasn't the capacity to give everyone a phone.
One cheaper solution was to double up with another household,
the so-called party line.
It was a lot less fun than it sounded.
-Here's the tea.
-Thank you very much, lady.
We had a party line for a while,
which was something that you did.
You got it on a slightly different rate,
it was cheaper and you shared the line with somebody else.
So you had to kind of gingerly pick it up just to check if there was...
If the people, whoever they were, I mean, they weren't the...
That's the mysterious thing, they weren't...
Were they the people next door?
I don't know, they almost seemed like occupants of another realm.
-Oh, good morning.
You are Mr Health, aren't you, number 14?
-Aye, that's right.
-How do you do?
-My name's Richards.
-Oh, how do you do?
Pleased to meet you.
I believe we're sort of sharing a line now.
You would pick up the phone and find
that you were connected to somebody else's house
and it meant that the person who you shared the line with,
whoever they were talking to, hadn't put the phone down.
And I can remember doing things like, you know,
when it was stuck in this position, as it were,
yelling down the phone to try and attract
the attention of a person who...
You know, we had no idea who...
Who they were, where the were in the world.
But you would ring and you would shout down the phone
in the hope that they would hear it and put the phone down
so the line would be restored and you could actually use it yourself.
Of course, not everyone wanted to share.
A lady, she refused to go party line.
She utterly refused.
Couldn't get past the front door.
And it was on my patch.
I went to see her and I said, "Look, you've got to go."
"But I can't," she said. "It'll ruin my business."
So I said, "How is it going party line ruining your business?"
Well, she was lady of the night.
So she didn't want to go party line in case the neighbour picked up
and could hear the customers applying for a time and place.
Eventually, we did get in and converted to party line
but we never said nothing to the other half
of what she was doing, obviously,
cos he'd be listening on the phone all the time!
The party line enabled more subscribers to get on the network,
even if some were unimpressed.
But behind the scenes, the GPO were making advances in technology
that would change how people used their phones.
In 1958, the Queen visited Bristol
to unveil a new system with the slightly unfortunate name of STD -
Subscriber Trunk Dialling.
STD meant you could make long-distance calls
without the help of an operator and they cost less.
The Lord Provost of Edinburgh speaking.
This is the Queen speaking from Bristol.
Good afternoon, Lord Provost.
STD also made phone calls more complicated.
It inevitably meant telephone numbers got larger
because you had more numbers that had to be used
to represent the whole country,
rather than just a small region.
So we get regional codes.
This is when Manchester becomes 061,
it's when London becomes 01 and so on.
What is your number, please?
Well, all very charming but no more of that.
It took a while for the nation to catch up.
This is Subscriber Trunk Dialling.
You, as a subscriber, is dialling your number
through the trunk network and they used to kind of...
"Oh, I can see what we're doing."
'Let us look up the code for Bristol in the code list.
'Here it is, OBR 2.
I picked up a coin box one day and I said to this gentleman,
"You can now dial these calls yourself,"
and gave him the code and he said to me,
"Oh, Miss, I would try and dial it myself,
"but there's three letters and only one finger hole,
"and so I don't know what to do."
So then I dialled it for him.
When you talk about the introduction of Subscriber Trunk Dialling,
you're talking about the continued automation of the telephone network.
So, inevitably, more engineers are needed
because of course the network has got more complicated,
there's more technology in the network.
It would take a long time before everyone had access to STD.
Meanwhile, the GPO once more turned its attention
to getting as many people connected as it possibly could.
A new post-austerity era was dawning.
Oh, two pennyworth is all I can afford.
See you Friday. Bye!
-Bang on time.
-Wish I were coming.
There you are, tuppence.
In the '60s, having a telephone was about living the dream
in a very modern way.
Everything from music to design demanded the fresh and new.
Just as in the 1930s,
phones needed to rediscover their sense of style
and appeal to a new generation of potential callers.
'The telephone age.
'Yes, indeed it is.
'The telephone is everywhere around us.
'Part of our lives, as modern as the jet plane,
'as familiar and as taken for granted as an electric cooker.'
We were going in the '60s from a period of austerity,
of post-war rationing,
to a time of consumer abundance and that spilled over into everything,
the colour of the phone, its shape,
the idea that you might actually change it regularly,
that you had some kind of choice,
that you weren't just being provided.
Just here. There, on the hall table.
The introduction of modern plastics into the telephone
also brought with it colour,
and now you had a choice of colour for the phone.
It didn't have to be black any more.
And I had one lady one day, she said,
"Now, I'll arrange the hall table with the phone on it.
"Don't fix it yet."
And she opened the front door and she walked down the path
to the front gate and she said, "Oh, yes, that's ideal."
And what she was looking for was that when the front door was open,
the neighbours would be able to see the coloured phone
through the front door!
If you wanted cream, you could have cream.
If you wanted red, you could have red.
The phone is becoming fashionable.
It's tuning in to that interest in home decoration.
'There are some more over here, you know.'
The coolest phone of the lot was the Trimphone.
'Mrs Lund takes it all in her stride
'and she dictates that a blue Trimphone
'will match the new decorations in the hall very nicely, thank you.'
The General Post Office actually wanted a more luxurious home,
a different style of phone.
And that brought along really quite a novel design,
the so-called Trimphone.
Trim Ringer Illuminated Model - Trimphone.
And this was quite different
to any of the other handsets of the time.
First of all, the actual handset you held was L-shaped.
It sat vertically on the body of the phone,
rather than horizontally at the top.
It was also, as it turned out later in life, controversial.
It had an illuminated dial - it glowed in the dark.
And the controversy was over how that glow was on done,
which was a small amount of radioactivity in a glass tube
underneath the dial.
Changing the shape, the form, the shape of handle,
the Trimphone was trying to be a revolution.
You could say maybe it was the Mini Cooper of telephone design.
It looked lighter, it was less ponderous,
it sort of belonged to this modern drip-dry nylon world.
'Satisfied that everything's working correctly,
'it's over to you, Mrs Lund, and that's all there is to it.
'It's off to the next job for him...
'..and for her, a chance to try the new phone for herself
'and guess who she calls first?'
'Why, Mr Lund, of course.
'She tells him she's speaking from their very own phone.
'Well, isn't that nice?'
With new colours and shapes available,
phones were more appealing than ever before and more people wanted one.
In 1965, the Post Office had 4.3 million subscribers,
many of whom had bought into the aspirational lifestyle
that the new telephones represented.
But the reality of the service was often considerably less inspiring.
We'd just pick up the phone and there'd be nothing happening
and you'd hear clicks and things and know that someone was there
and they wouldn't speak to you.
I have to wait sometimes 15 to 20 minutes
before I can get hold of the operator to make a call.
I find that quite often,
my calls don't ring straight through and you have to try at least
four or five times before the call actually registers.
Mr Wedgwood Benn, as Postmaster General,
why is it, do you think, that the Post Office's telephone service
has got such a bad name?
Well, first of all, I don't think it has.
We commission independent surveys
and 70% are satisfied.
Not good enough, but the people
appearing in the programme
were not representative, of course.
Obviously, they were picked because they had complaints.
Well, we are investigating complaints...
Well, I appreciate this.
I mean, any viewer looking at it would want to know
that this isn't, of course, a cross section.
I can't hear you...
Even a well-known mayor waded into the debate.
Oh, it's no good. Try again later.
"I've had the same trouble," says Mr Troop.
"Every time I ring anybody up,
"there's this crackling noise and I can't hear a thing."
There is an episode of Trumpton
where the phone system goes totally haywire, really,
and it creates chaos in the town.
Nobody's calls are connected properly because this character,
he's just some guy from the GP...
Actually, he's not even from the GPO, he's from the PO,
which perhaps tells us something about Trumpton's attitude
to the telecommunication system.
# Engineers... #
And he makes all these connections in the wrong way
and all of these cross-purposes conversations happen,
including a false call for the emergency services of Trumpton
and we know how hard-pressed they are,
because they're called out every week to deal with something.
During the '60s, phone subscriptions doubled.
But for most of the country,
making a call still meant using a phone box
and the service could be even worse than home lines.
-But there are 20 times as many complaints
about public telephones as about private ones.
Complaints about broken instruments, directories missing or torn up,
cracked glass and filthy floors.
Of course, the Post Office is well aware of these problems.
In 1962, they designed and launched these brave new kiosks,
all glass and aluminium.
Three years later and the total number
of these super kiosks throughout the land...
The GPO needed to dispel the nagging doubts about telephones
and reassure the public that the future would be bright.
And they did it with a dazzling, unmissable symbol
of technological prowess.
By the early '60s,
the GPO needed to find a new way of meeting the growing demand
for connections and get ahead of the game.
Simply winding out ever more landlines wasn't going to cut it.
Instead, they went wireless, turning to a technology
that transmitted microwaves through the air.
In 1961, construction began on the Post Office Tower.
The tower was actually built essentially as a tall radio antenna
and throughout the country,
there was a whole series of these towers built,
not quite as elegant as the Post Office Tower in London,
but as functional.
So this whole network was built in order to provide the capacity
for the handling of the phone calls we were now making.
The tower could handle 150,000 calls simultaneously.
The GPO built it so tall
that nothing else would get in the way of the signal.
It was part of a network of 130 stations throughout the country,
and the tallest building in London when it was finished.
But the tower was more than the sum of its parts.
It made you feel that the telephonic future was in good hands.
And you could stop by for a bite to eat, if you had the head for it.
You're going to have the floor of the restaurant revolving.
-Why did you do this?
-Don't you think it would be rather fun?
Don't you think anybody who goes up 500 feet would like a panoramic view
of the greatest capital in the world just spread out in front of them?
It won't go around too fast, you know.
About one revolution in half an hour.
So it won't put them off their food?
Well, I don't think so. I don't think so.
However, there was a downside
to this growing technological transformation.
Creating a network that could cater for everyone
meant removing people from the process.
Operators had been at the centre of the system since the outset.
But in the 1970s,
the last manual exchanges were finally replaced by machines.
We were a family. Everybody looked after everybody.
We grew up through those teenage years,
learning from each other,
learning about boys and life.
Everything was done together as a real family.
We all realised that was the end of an era.
It was a sad time for operators.
But automation and the Post Office's new technology meant
that the infrastructure was finally in place to begin to match demand.
During the '70s,
having a phone in the home became considered a necessity.
The baby boom generation were starting families of their own
and consumer culture had given them
very different expectations from their parents.
They wanted their mod cons
and they had the disposable income to buy them.
Uptake in the 1970s was particularly marked
and that may have been because
families were moving around the country.
You see higher levels of geographical mobility,
so Britons had a stronger need to phone home,
to try to maintain contact, for example, with the families
who were being rehoused outside of London
in the overspill developments
and who wanted to maintain their links
with their prior friends and family.
'Your phone could get you closer to someone.'
Ever more of us were joining the network.
But even with access to our own phones,
we weren't exactly a nation of chatterboxes.
Most people kept a wary eye on the length of calls.
The public needed convincing to loosen up,
relax and stop worrying about the cost.
In 1976, the Post Office came up
with just the thing to help us along -
a yellow bird called Buzby.
TRILLING, PHONE RINGS
TRILLING, PHONE CLICKS
Hey, listen to this.
'# Happy birthday, dear Grandma
'# Happy birthday to you. #'
Buzby was the state-owned bird
who represented the phone system
and who, I think, used to hang around in telephone boxes,
um, encouraging people to use them.
First, I fell out of the nest this morning and hit me head.
And I sprained me ankle on the way to the shop.
The 1976 Buzby campaign really changes the pace, in my view,
because suddenly you've got a campaign
which has gone truly national.
It was truly a massive campaign,
probably the largest and first of its type.
And that really brought the telephone
into the consciousness of the general public.
And if you dial direct on your own phone during cheap rate,
you get at least three minutes for less than 10p -
so why not phone someone you love tonight?
It could be the happiest 10p you've ever spent.
After a few years of Buzby flapping around,
the burgeoning network was making millions.
By the 1980s, we'd become the nation of phone users
that the early pioneers had dreamed of.
What had once been a service was now very much a business -
with what appeared to be a lucrative future.
So, in 1984, the Government sold it off.
But as the shareholders of this newly privatised business
dreamed of their coming balance sheets,
a quirky piece of new technology arrived on the scene
that would go on to change the world.
No, not the C5.
Right, now, then...
I've got my cellular radio phone here.
That's it. You see, no cables attached at all.
Now, of course, we all use mobile phones.
But in true telephone tradition,
we still complain about bad service and dodgy lines,
and sometimes we even use them to speak to people.
The popularity of the mobile phone
appeared to signal the death of the old landline,
but that was before the arrival of something nobody was expecting -
A communications revolution that used the landline network
to transmit digital data.
All that effort by the pioneers and builders of Britain's phone system
was vindicated by a technology they could never have imagined.
So the landline lives on,
the epic achievement of a century of struggle to connect the nation.
It was part of history and something that I don't really think
I would wanted to have missed.
I was very proud of the work I did and I'm still very proud.
I saw a revolution outside.
I never thought it would happen, but it did.
It was changing every day.
Before your eyes, you saw a vast advancement in communications.
Timeshift tells the story of how Britain's phone network was built. Incredibly, there was once a time when phones weren't pocket-sized wireless devices, but bulky objects wired into our homes and workplaces. Over the course of 100 years, engineers rolled out a communications network that joined up Britain - a web of more than 70 million miles of wire. Telephones were agents of commercial and social change, connecting businesses and creating new jobs for Victorian women. Wires changed the appearance of urban skylines and the public phone box became a ubiquitous sight.
Yet despite ongoing technical innovation, the phone service often struggled to meet demand. When the mobile phone arrived, it appeared to herald the demise of the landline. Yet ironically, now we're more connected than ever, it's not the telephone that's keeping us on the landline.
In 1877, Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell returned to Britain from America to showcase a revolutionary new electric device - the telephone. After impressing no less than Queen Victoria, Bell helped drive uptake of the telephone in Britain, tapping into the growth of a growing commercial phenomenon - the office. Soon, whole networks of telephone lines were being built, connected together by exchange switchboards. Female switchboard operators were preferred by telephone companies as they were cheaper and perceived as more polite, opening up new employment opportunities for women in late Victorian Britain.
At first only the wealthiest people had phones in their homes, but the public call box soon emerged, although when the GPO - the General Post Office - took over the private networks, it initially struggled to find an acceptable design for its box, and met some resistance to its now iconic bright red colour.
The introduction of direct dial telephones and automatic exchanges, as well as services like the 999 emergency number and the speaking clock, helped drive private uptake of phones in the 1930s. However, with the onset of World War Two, military concerns took priority. Gene Toms, a switchboard operator, recalls her time during the war, trying to work while wearing a helmet during air raids, dealing with self-important officers and doing her best to assist servicemen phoning home.
A renewed drive to restore, modernise and expand the network after the war kept a legion of engineers busy. Former GPO engineers Jim Coombe, Bryan Eagan and Dez Flahey share their memories of dubious safety practices and difficult customers. Despite the expansion, the network still had limited capacity relative to demand, and one cheaper solution was the "party line", shared with another household, although it created problems of privacy.
The introduction of STD - subscriber trunk dialling - in the late 1950s enabled callers to make long distance calls without the help of an operator. But STD, like the network itself, was taking a long time to roll out; and despite the introduction of stylish coloured telephones and the Trimphone in the 1960s to tempt customers, the service acquired a bad reputation among many users. Even an episode of the children's series Trumpton reflected the general frustration. Archive footage shows the then postmaster general, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, being grilled by an interviewer about the shortcomings of the phone service.
But there was an exciting new symbol of the future under construction - the Post Office Tower, part of a network of towers designed to expand the capacity of the network using a wireless, microwave system. By the 1970s telephone supply was catching up with demand. People were increasingly moving home around the country, relocating for work, and young families expected to have a phone as a standard mod con. An advertising campaign featuring a talking cartoon bird - Buzby - encouraged customers to make more calls. What was once a service had become a thriving business, and British Telecommunications was privatised in 1984.
The arrival of the mobile phone soon threatened to supersede the landline - but the internet, a technology that the founding fathers of telephony could never have dreamed of, has given the landline a new lease of life.