Communication in the Fifties

31 December 2014
imports_CESC_red-phone-box-59002_78976.jpg Communication in the Fifties
Bob McMillan recalls the days when the quickest way to communicate was via a telegram - or a red public phone box. ...

Bob McMillan recalls the days when the quickest way to communicate was via a telegram - or a red public phone box

Telephones were very rare in domestic premises in my childhood, only doctors and the like had such things. Of course, there were the very familiar red cast iron phone boxes, the K6, to give them their Post Office title. The phone, a rectangular black metal box with a coin slot, coin return slot and two buttons, had no dial; you could only contact the operator at the telephone exchange and ask for the number you wanted. You were instructed to insert the requisite coinage into a slot in the front of the box and instructed to press button A when the call was answered. If you got no answer you pressed button B to get your money back.

In the case of medical emergencies, it was usual for someone to run to the doctor’s surgery or home address to get help rather than to try to find a phone number and a phone. Telegrams were used only in emergencies, as these were costly. They were hand delivered by the telegram boy on his bicycle.

The telegram was paid for by the word and so messages were usually brief and to the point. The message was written out on a form at the post office and handed over the counter. Once paid for, the message was passed to a teleprinter operator (originally it would have been Morse telegraph) who would transmit the message to the main post office nearest to the recipient. Here, it would appear as printed characters on a long paper tape. This tape was cut up into suitable pieces and pasted onto a telegram backing sheet. This was folded up and sealed in to a buff envelope clearly marked ‘telegram’, with the recipient’s name and address on the front.

I can only ever remember one telegram coming to our house and I still recall the feeling of fear that passed between Mum, Dad and I, as this could only be bad news. It was brief and to the point: ‘Mother dead, Mary’. No words wasted on niceties, sympathy or information that could be imparted face to face later. How typical of the times.

The telegram boy would wait to check if there was to be a reply and if so, would write it down on his message pad and collect the necessary payment. If I remember correctly he had a dark, suit-like uniform with a pill-box hat at a jaunty angle.

With the modern, ultra sophisticated, and universally available phone, fax and e-mail systems we have today, it’s easy to forget just how few years ago it is since we had to rely on letters and telegrams. I wonder what the next millennium will bring?

(Image copyright Dunpharlain)

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