60s telephone service

In the 1960s, a home telephone was still regarded as a luxury item. For many people, public telephone kiosks were their only experience of using a phone.

'Are you on the 'phone?' meant do you have a private telephone? In 1951, 1.5 million households were on the phone. By 1966, this figure had risen to 4.2 million. However, by the end of the sixties more than half of households in the UK still did not have a telephone. By contrast, in 1961 75% of households had a television(1). More on television. In other countries things were different. In the USA, by 1966 eight out of every ten families had a telephone and in Sweden, nine out of every ten households.

So why did people not take to the telephone as readily as they did to the television? Cost was certainly a factor, but it was not the only one. In 1963, the Consumers' Association found that of families with an income of 1800 per annum or more, only two in three had a phone.

The GPO and Hull City Council

If you wanted a telephone in the United Kingdom you would have had to rent one from the GPO (General Post Office), who had a monopoly of all telephone services - except in Hull. Hull City Council provided its own telephone service at a cheaper cost than that provided by the GPO.

White Heat

The telephone service was improved at a considerable rate during the fifties and sixties. It could rightly claim to be part of Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson's 'White heat of technology' revolution. The first transatlantic cable was laid in 1956. It was opened for use at 6pm on 25 September of that year. However, this was not the first time subscribers (the GPO's word for customers until 1959) could dial the USA - they could have done so via radio link since 1927. In fact a GPO advertisement claimed in 1939 "The world was at your finger tip by overseas telephone" - no doubt you had to be quite rich to take advantage of it though!.

STD

For ordinary customers, the most important development was Subscriber Trunk Dialling or (STD) introduced for the first time in 1958. A trunk call was a long distance call. In fact it was a call of a distance greater than 15 miles.

Before STD if you wanted to make a trunk call you had to dial the operator and ask her to make the call. You would be charged a fixed rate in units of three minutes - in 1966 the cost was 1s to 4s depending on the distance - quite expensive as a pint of beer cost around 2s then ( more on old money). With STD the customer made the call him/herself. He/she was then charged for the actual amount of time spent. Most calls worked out cheaper with STD. The trouble with STD though, was that it did not cover the whole country. In 1966 two thirds of the country could dial on STD, but, of course, it was a two-way thing and some areas could not be dialled directly even though STD may have been installed in the caller's district.

Letters and numbers

Dial from a 300 series telephone

The other major change came in the sixties - the end of lettered telephone exchanges. All Figure Numbers (AFN) were introduced in the major cities in 1966. Previously, telephone calls were a combination of letters and numbers. Telephones in the sixties had lettered as well as numbered dials. The lettered dial was made famous by Alfred Hitchcock's film 'Dial M for Murder'.

How to use a lettered dial


Where to live by telephone exchange!

The magazine 'Queen' told us in 1965, in a list of what was "with-it" and what was "without-it", that amongst other things, the place to have lunch was the private dining room of Rothchild's; Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were to be preferred to David Frost; Donavan and Sandy Shaw were in and Cliff Richard was out; and a Mini-Moke was better than an Aston Martin DB5 (I'd have the Aston anytime - but they didn't like James Bond!). The list also told us that BELgravia, WEStern, FLAxman and LORds were the top London exchanges and that PRImose, FRObisher, MAYfair and GULliver were not.

So what was it like to use the telephone services in the 1960s?

The Consumers' Association conducted a survey into the telephone service in the UK in 1965. The results were published in the July 1966 issue of 'Which?'. They found that around one in ten calls actually went wrong, that was failed to connect, or did connect, but that the line was so poor as to need re-dialling. It took around 40 seconds for an average STD call to connect. That is an age by today's standards, but at the time it was considered good. Another problem that the report highlighted was engaged tones on a free lines. Quite often you would dial a number and get the engaged tone - although the person whom you were calling was not using the telephone. This happened because of general congestion on the line. Advice was given on how to tell whether the phone you were calling was actually engaged or not - as each digit was dialled, listen for the engaged tone. If you heard it before you had finished dialling, the phone itself was not engaged. 'Wrong numbers' were also possible. That is you dialled the correct number and got the wrong number. The 'Which' report said that these were rare and that customers may have mis-dialled. So "sorry wrong number" did not necessarily mean that it was your fault.

Another relic of the past was the party line. This was not a special service, but a telephone line essentially shared between two subscribers. If the other 'party' was using the phone you could not. You could also listen in on the other 'party's' calls. Subscribers, not surprisingly, got a reduction if they were connected on a party line.

The GPO provided a number of special services to customers in the sixties. These included sending telegrams by telephone and a 'dish of the day' recipe service, which was updated daily!

In 1967 the GPO published for the first time, a volume called "Telephone Companion". This was issued to new customers and was designed to help them get the most out of their phone. Suggestions on what to use the phone for included: 'Give her a ring', 'Exchange views on sport' and 'Arranging a bridge evening'. The booklet gave advice on how to speak on the telephone. You were advised to keep the earpiece close to the ear and speak directly into the mouth piece and to pronounce consonants clearly.

How much did it cost?

Actually quite a lot. To have a telephone installed cost 10 in 1966. This was increased to a whopping 20 in 1968. In 1966 there was a line rental of 14 per year. Call charges then depended on when and how far you were dialling. Local calls cost 2d for 6 minutes in peak times and 2d for 12 minutes at evenings and weekends. Trunk calls on STD were charged at 1s for 3 minutes up to 35 miles and varied up to 4s for 3 minutes for the longest distances.

(1)Figures taken from 'British Society since 1945' by Arthur Marwick, first published by Penguin 1982

Your comments

"A tremendously interesting article that's going in my bookmarks. Thanks for posting." reis 11/07/2015
"A point to note is that party lines were not optional. As part of the terms and conditions of service your line could be made into a party line if there were no cable pairs free to the exchange and someone wanted a phone installed. This could cause major disputes between neighbours. This of course did not pertain if you had enough influence." Peter Woff 03/04/2016
"What a delightful article! I was a GPO HELLO GIRL in 1961 in a large telephone exchange in London... Great memories!

Thank you and the lionk is in my Favorites." Chris Smith 10/07/2016
"Thank you very much for this article. It provided the information I needed as research for my children's story." Cloudette 28/03/2017
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