What’s your number?

Nowadays telecommunication is considered so vital that even some children have mobile phones. Yet in 1940s Britain a landline telephone was so rare that barely ten percent of households had one. And if you did decide to have a phone installed you might choose to have a shared line to help reduce the cost. This would mean that when you went to make your phone call you may well hear another caller’s conversation and have to wait until they finished before you could be connected.

An example of a 1940s telephone.

But the iconic red public telephone boxes could be found on every street – in fact, there were around 52,000 of them. Alongside the coin-operated telephone, users would find a telephone directory where you could look up the number of anyone lucky enough to be on the phone. You put your coins in the slot, dialled the number and pressed Button A to be connected. If no one answered, then you pressed Button B to get your money back.

The organisation responsible for the telephone service during those years was the General Post Office. Depending on where you lived in the country you would either be able to dial directly through to your required number, or you would go through to a manually operated switchboard who would then transfer you. Early in the 20th century all switchboards were manual, operated in the main by women, with automatic switchboards gradually come into effect. The last one to be converted was in Enfield in 1960.

Long distance calls went through international telephone exchanges where individuals and businesses experienced the frustration of having to wait their turn for their call to be put through.

It’s hard to imagine such challenges when nowadays many people are ‘connected’ via their mobile phones almost every minute of every day.

Published by Isabella Muir

Isabella is passionate about exploring family life from the 1930s through to the 1960s. She has published five Sussex Crime mystery novels set during the 1960s, a standalone novel dealing with the child migrant policy of the 1950s and 60s, several novellas set during the Second World War, and two short story collections. All available in paperback from your local bookshops, or online as ebooks. Her novels are also available as audiobooks, and have been translated into Italian.

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