Return to Appendix One Index

Postal, Telegraph and Telephone Services

Postal Services

Note: The railway's involvement in post office traffic is discussed in Volume 1 under Non Passenger Coaching Stock Operations.

Postal systems had existed for many years, they are mentioned in the Bible (II Chronicles Chapter 30) and an efficient postal system operated in Persia in the 6th century BC. In Britain Henry the Eighth established the Master of Posts in the sixteenth century and a system was set up for official mails using horse riders on a network of major roads connecting London with various important towns. In 1635 Charles I threw open the Royal Posts to the general public and Thomas Witherings, who became postmaster in 1635, began to improve the postal system within Britain. In 1657 the Government, concerned about National Security, passed an Act giving them control of internal posts and when a private 'penny post' was set up in London by a chap called Dockwra in 1680 the government took it over as soon as it started making money. The network was restricted in its scope however, Manchester did not have a direct postal service until 1785, a year after the improvements in road building prompted the introduction of the Royal Mail's distinctive black and red horse drawn road coaches.

Post offices were usually combined with other businesses and they operated as commercial enterprises, the first 'post office box' service was established in Edinburgh in 1830.

One problem with the early letter post service was that the recipient paid for letters when they were received and although this largely precluded 'junk mail' it made the system inconvenient. The postage stamp was invented by a chap called Rowland Hill, "a piece of paper just large enough to bear the stamp and covered at the back with a glutinous wash, which the bringer might, by applying a little moisture, attach to the back of the letter". When he first presented his idea to the Postmaster General Lord Litchfield he was informed that his 'wild and visionary scheme' was 'the most extravagant ever heard or read of'.

In 1840 Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, the last convicts to be 'transported' arrived in Australia and the national 'penny post' system and the postage stamp were introduced, producing a sudden increase in mail (local penny posts had been in existence for forty years or more). The national Penny Post brought in the idea of a standard one penny charge for any destination in Britain. This was a major price cut in postal services and was brought in to encourage people to use the post as this made better use of the expensive collection and delivery services.

The Penny Post was the origin of the 'penny black' stamps and on the 7th of May 1840 a chap called John Tomlynson began collecting stamps as a hobby, this was the day after the Penny Black was introduced and it was the only stamp in the world. He had to wait a year for a second stamp to appear,the colour of the stamp changed to red in 1841 as the post office found red ink used for franking did not show up well on the black stamp but black ink showed up well on the red. In 1856 a man called Stanley Gibbons purchased some foreign stamps which had a printing error and sold them for a profit and the stamp collecting hobby took off. Stamps with perforations to allow them to be torn from the sheet without scissors appeared in 1854 (these were still the Penny Red).

The penny post proved a great success and attracted international interest. Brazil was the first country to adopt the British pre-paid stamp idea but within ten years over a dozen countries had introduced the system. Postal services based on pre-paid stamps were at first entirely national affairs but in 1874, after some ten years of talks, the Universal Postal Convention was signed by most European countries. Under the terms of the convention each country recognised the stamps of another and does not require a surcharge for delivery. Not all countries signed this convention however and as recently as the 1970's Albania remained outside the system. To send a letter to Albania you had to post your letter with a covering letter and some money to the Albanian Embassy in a neighbouring country. They would then forward the letter and the money to Albania where a local stamp would be attached and the letter delivered.

Meanwhile, in 1851, the British inventor Warren de la Rue and a chap called Edwin Hill jointly invented a machine for making gummed envelopes. Envelopes had been hand-made in Switzerland as far back as the seventeenth century but a Mr. Brewer of Brighton is credited with inventing them in Britain in about 1820. Prior to this letters were simply folded and secured with a strip of ribbon held in place with a blob of sealing wax. In legal circles documents are still bound with 'red tape' as a matter of tradition, the colour comes from the Safflower plant and was originally reserved for 'official' correspondence so they would stand out.

Sticking stamps on things soon became a problem for business and metered postage franking machines appeared in 1922.

Parcels post was introduced in 1883, and every one of the fifteen thousand post offices had to be enlarged and otherwise modified to handle this new business.

The post office began handling money in 1838 when they began to operate a 'money order' service. This proves a success at the time and the Post Office Savings Bank was established in 1860, in many areas this was the first savings bank available (in at least seven counties in England it was the first bank open to the general public). Other services followed, in 1871 the 'dog licence' appeared (every dog had to be licensed and registered, the fee remained set at about 35p until the system was abolished in 1988), in 1881 the postal order appeared allowing people to pay for goods without sending money through the post, in 1897 Ordnance Survey Maps were placed on sale at all post offices, the Old Age Pension followed in 1909, car licences in about 1910 and from 1912 health and unemployment stamps were sold on an agency basis. In 1968 the Post Office set up the National Girobank offering cheque accounts not available with the existing savings account service (since when it has become a separate limited company).

The Post Office has always been torn between being a financially successful business and being a public service, in the 1848 books were given a special reduced rate to encourage literacy and in the 1850s a special rate was introduced for pre-printed materials such as catalogues and price lists.

In the 1980s the business of the monolithic Post Office was divided into Royal Mail for letters, Post Office Parcels and Post Office Counters all within the Post Office Corporate structure. The powers that be at Post Office headquarters invested in 'direct mail' services for business (what most people all 'junk mail') which has brought in a considerable profit and the general expectation was that the government would sell off the individual businesses to raise some cash. In the event this has not happened by the end of the 1990s.

Letter Boxes

The street 'letter box' was invented by Anthony Trollope the novelist, he was a post office official at the time and arranged to have the first four installed on the Channel Islands in 1852 (he got the idea from France where they had been around for a while). The post office introduced posting boxes remarkably slowly, the first on the mainland appeared in Carslile in 1853, the first in London only appeared in 1855 (on the corner of Fleet Street). The Trollope boxes were hexagonal and about five feet tall but on the mainland the early designs were generally quite small, perhaps four feet tall and often square. The letter box evolved into a series of designs including wall-mounted boxes (introduced in 1857 as a cheaper alternative to pillar boxes, mainly for more rural districts), and even a box designed to be mounted on a pole when a wall was not available. The latter were introduced in 1897, based on an American design and were knows as 'lamp boxes' as the initial idea was to mount them on lamp posts. By the 1960's there were over 20,000 in use attached to lamp posts, telegraph poles or on their own free standing pedestal and a few remain in use in 2004. These are physically about the same size as the wall mounted type (about eighteen inches high by a foot wide and about a foot deep).

The colour was originally red but soon changed to mid bronze green (a matter of the green being a better paint). The familiar pillar box red colour was introduced in 1874 in London but it was 1884 before all letter boxes had been repainted. In the 1920s some pillar boxes had a sign added on top indicating the direction to the nearest post office. I cannot recall seeing one of these signs in use in the last thirty years (I could be wrong on that) but I have seen a couple of boxes with the bracket but no sign. The double fronted box was first used in London in the late 1890's, the two sections being marked Town and Country. The idea spread to other towns and cities and they were apparently popular in the 1960s when a plain rectangular version was produced in some numbers (I live in a quiet residential area and we have a rectangular double fronted box outside our post office).

Fig___ Letter Boxes

Letter boxes

The first 'air mail' services were operated by the RAF transporting mail to the troops in occupied areas of Germany after the First World War and by 1919 regular air-mail flights were in operation to the Continent. By 1920 the demand for air mail had risen to the point where the surcharge was greatly reduced and a plain blue envelope was introduced to distinguish air mail from surface mail. In the 1920s blue posting boxes were set up for 'air mail' letters (which cost more than mail sent by sea), although these were only seen in major towns. No more boxes of this type were installed after the mid 1930s but there is at least one remaining example in Windsor and possibly another in central London. The development of the post box has continued, the photo below shows a 1980s design.

Fig___ Air Mail and modern box

air mail letter box and modern post box

For those interested in such things there is an excellent history of the letter box; The Letter Box by Jean Young Farrouia (Centaur Press 1969) although in N Gauge most of the details are small enough to be ignored.
When revising this section for use on the web site I was directed to a useful website containing photographs of a number of letter boxes - Click here to take a look. Also there is the Bath Postal Museum, worth a visit if you are down that way, they have a Website and once claim to fame is that they are located at the address where the first stamp in the world was mailed.

Postal Workers Uniforms

In the 1830's postmen (called 'letter carriers' at the time) were issued with coats and hats and in the 1850's a full uniform of scarlet coat, grey trousers and leather and fur 'top hat' (actually called a 'beaver') was issued. We have the Robin on our Christmas cards as the red-breasted bird was considered by the Victorians to be reminiscent of the postman delivering Christmas mail.

The 'beaver' hat was of the same type as issued to many early police forces and was also used by the fire brigades of the time, apparently the police selected it as it was strong enough to stand on and so could be used to help scale a wall when chasing criminals. The post office discarded it in 1861, replacing it with a small leather peaked cap (called a 'shako') similar to the type worn by the American cavalry. Scarlet had proved a difficult colour to keep clean and along with the new hat they issued a new dark blue uniform which was applied as a nation-wide standard (some of the London postal workers had used blue uniforms for a few years before this change). The dark blue uniform had red 'piping' (a stripe) down the trouser leg with red cuffs on the jacket and bright shiny badges on his lapels.

The uniform was very military in style with a high necked tunic with his number in silver on each side of the collar similar to those used by the police. The neck was not buttoned up however and the postman wore a starched collar and tie. In 1896 the shako hat had a rear 'peak' added, again similar to the type often issued to police in this period.

In 1910 a single breasted jacket with conventional lapels was issued to replace the tunic and the collar number became an enamelled badge worn on the lapel. Women were recruited as letter carriers and telegram delivery girls during the First World War. They wore a long skirt and white blouse with a three quarter length coat (reaching to between the knee and ankle) over the top and straw 'boater' type round hat.

In 1922 the buttons on the jacket changed from brass to black and the cap badge changed from a metal GPO to an oval enameled badge, duplicated on the lapel of the jacket. The men's uniform retained the shako and this remained the standard uniform until 1932 when the officer style 'flat cap' was introduced (the change over to this new cap took several years).

Meanwhile post women's hats changed from the straw boater to a dome topped wide brimmed felt hat in 1929, by the time of the second world war this was worn with the left side looped up and secured with the post office cap badge. The women's headgear changed to the standard flat peaked cap in 1949 (at which time they started wearing trousers).

In 1956 the uniform jacket for both sexes changed to a double breasted design and in 1969 (1970 for women)a grey uniform was adopted (similar to LMS 'goods grey') was trialed but then changed back to blue in 1986. In 1992 postmen began wearing dark blue shorts in hot weather and in 1995 'high visibility' gear was issued consisting of a sleeveless orange jerkin with retro-reflective white strips. In 1996 a 'storm proof' waterproof jacket was issued, yellow with white retro-reflective tapes. In 1999 the 'all American youth' uniform of sweat shirt and a baseball cap was introduced, presumably on the grounds of cost.

The big canvass post bag appeared in the later nineteenth century as postal volume increased, these always seems to have been a brownish grey colour until 1984 when a blue bag with a red patch was introduced.

Fig___ Postmen


Post Office Vehicles

Up to the First World War postmen had to buy their own bicycle (although they were given a weekly allowance for it once they got one), I am not sure when this changed but by the 1950s bikes were issued by the post office. These were distinctive machines, painted red with silver handlebars (black or red rubber hand grips) and white mudguards. They have a small front wheel and a shallow frame fitted to the handlebars to carry their bag. The modern machines are all made by Pashley and have rear panniers as well, I believe the type shown appeared in the mid 1990s. Bicycles were used for both letter post and telegram deliveries into the 1930s, after which I believe the telegram people switched to motorbikes.

The burgeoning use of the letter post in the early nineteenth century meant that the postman on his rounds could not collect all the mail from the letter boxes (although this was done into the 1920s in remote locations). Collections from letter boxes soon involved large grey mail bags for which a horse drawn or later a motor vehicle was soon required. A motorcycle with sidecar was a common option for this work, the sketch above includes a BSA machine (sketched from a photograph dated 1933, found by Ian Mackay in an old BSA Owners Club magazine). The metal leg guards may have been black not red as shown. On motorbikes used for telegram deliveries, which did not have a side car, the leg guards were red and had GPO vertically in white as large as the guard would allow. The BSA bike was partially obscured and I am no expert on these machines so there may be minor errors. The livery is cited as including the royal crest but this is not well reproduced in the photograph and George V seems to have had two styles of crest, one ornate the other plain. The livery as shown is taken from a makers pre-delivery photograph (there is no number after the No in the lower part of the black circle) which appears to match the shades of dark grey on the original photograph, I have added the crest as I believe it should be.

All Royal Mail vehicles carry the royal cipher consisting of the first letter of their first name and the letter R. For reference Queen Victoria started the Royal Mail, she died in 1901 (ending the Victorian era) when Edward VII came to the throne (heralding the Edwardian Era). He died in 1910 and George V became king (his reign is not the Georgian Era however, that was in the early 19th Century). George V died in 1936 when Edward VIII ascended to the throne (briefly), abdicating to allow George VI to take over. George VI died in 1952 and Elizabeth II came to the throne. There have always been two versions of the cipher, one with plain letters surmounted by the crown, the other in the form of a 'monogram' again surmounted by the crown. Traditionally the more ornate form has been used on letter boxes and the plain form on vehicles, however there are exceptions to both of these. Only the plain EiiR logo seems to have been used throughout on both letter boxes and vehicles.

Mail coaches appeared in 1731 but after the 1830s the GPO operated standard designs (these were rented not owned). The long distance mail coaches disappeared quite quickly in the mid 19th century replaced by train services but motor road transport was used a few years later. Much of the road transport of the mails was handled by private contractors up to about 1920 when the GPO began using their own vehicles. The standard livery for mail carrying vehicles was settled before the coming of the railways as red and black, the roof being black with the sides of the vehicle in red. When motor vehicles appeared they usually had a black bonnet and black roof, I believe the black roof was abandoned in the early 1950s but the front wheel arches remained black a few years longer. On forward control vehicles such as the Morris J type van the front wheel arches were painted black but the rest of the vehicle was red. By the later 1950s all over red was the norm (technically BS No.38), this changed to the new BS 381C colour 538 'Post Office Red'. This changed again in 1968 to a slightly different shade (BS No. 539)

In the sketch below I have included the royal ciphers taken from letter boxes. The sketch also shows a 1914 Rover machine with the George V crest in the plain style. The driver of the bike in the original photograph was wearing a flat cap and civilian looking overcoat so it may have been a manufacturers photograph. The Austin Seven van is a photo of a preserved example, I have altered the colours and markings to produce the GPO variant.

Fig___ Post Office Vehicles

Post Office Vehicles

There is an excellent selection of photographs of GPO vehicles, dating right back to their first motor lorry, at Royal Mail (Grimsby Delivery Office), an unofficial but well presented site.

The Post Office has used a very wide range of vehicles over the years, in the 1950s they had some electric perambulators similar to those used by dairies for milk deliveries. These were essentially a red box about four feet high, three feet wide and six feet long running on four ten inch diameter wheels with a full width black battery box under the centre and a black handle sticking out at one end for the operator. They had Royal Mail and the royal cipher in yellow on the sides. The GPO also operated a number of Reliant Robin vans in the 1970s but I believe these had all gone by the end of that decade.


Telegraph and Telephone Networks

Telegraph systems carry simple signals, either beeps which a human operator translates into letter or electrical signals which can be used to deflect needles or even to cause a pen to make marks on paper. Telephones carry the human voice and can also carry signals used by facsimile machines and computer modems.

The principals of telegraphy were first proposed in 1753 by someone living in Edinburgh who signed his article with the initials CM. In 1819 a Dane called Oersted discovered that a wire carrying an electric current would deflect a magnetic needle and in 1835 an American called Samuel Morse developed a device in which a relay caused a pencil to mark a moving strip of paper (true 'telegraphy'), the famous Morse Code was developed for use with this system. The big advantage of the Morse Code was that it required only a single wire (the return loop being via the Earth), this was much cheaper than alternative multi-wire systems with multi-position indicators but the latter remained in use on the railways into the 1990's.

In Britain various people were experimenting with telegraphy and in 1839 Wheatstone and Cooke introduced the world's first telegraph service between the railway stations at Paddington and West Drayton (Great Western Railway).

In 1845 a man called John Tawell murdered a woman in Salt Hill by putting cyanide of potash in her glass of stout. He was seen leaving her cottage and the Vicar of Upton cum Chalvey hurried to the station and saw a man of similar description board a London train. The telegraph was used to signal to London where police officers were waiting when the train arrived. They followed Tawell to his home and arrested him.

The telegraph system spread slowly through the country as the technical problems of making the wires, insulators and instruments were solved. In 1868 the Post Office took over the national telegraph network, absorbing nearly three thousand telegraph offices.

Telegrams could be dictated at the office in person or over the telephone, they were delivered by young men (women only did this work in wartime as far as I am aware) who were classed officially as 'Junior Postmen' but commonly known as messenger boys and later as telegram boys. The telegram was carried in a black leather pouch carried on a black leather belt, the size of pouch seems to have increased slightly in the early 1950s. Local deliveries were made on foot or on a red bicycle but by the 1920s motorcycles were being used for more distant destinations.

The colours on the motorbikes used are difficult to assess as red often shows up as black on early photographs but I believe the frame and seat were black, the engine and crank case was dull metal, the petrol tank was red. I think that pre war bikes had black mudguards, changing to red in the early 1950s. From the 1930s to the 1960s GPO bikes had curved metal leg guards,intended to protect the rider from stones thrown up by the front wheel. The leg guards were painted red and were marked with the letters GPO one above the other in white, changing to black in the mid 1950s. The telegram delivery boys wore a tunic with an official badge on the breast. The badge moved to an arm band in the 1930s or possibly the early 1940s. Things changed again in the 1950s when they changed to the open fronted jacket and lost the arm band (this being replaced by the standard circular enamelled post man's badge worn on the lapel. On a motorbike it was usual to fold the lapels inward and button them up when riding. By the very early 1950s GPO motorcyclists were all wearing crash helmets, from photographs these appear to have been a dull silver colour. These were the older style helmets, a domed protective top with leather flaps below. They were never issued with motorcycling boots but they did wear gauntlet gloves when riding.

Fig___ Telegram delivery boy and bike

Telegram delivery boy and motorbike

The men working maintaining the lines did not receive a uniform, the photo below shows two line engineers maintaining the overhead telephone wires in the 1930s. By the 1940s the boiler suit had become standard wear for this kind of work.

Fig___ Line engineers at work in the 1930s

Line engineers at work in the 1930s

The average human being can reliably write a message down at a speed of about fifteen words a minute, an average telegraph operator would easily be able to match that (operators can 'chat' at up to 40 words per minute) and as the message is sent letter by letter the telegraph usually suffered less errors in transcription. Telegraph systems were therefore rather better for many purposes than telephones and they remained in widespread use into the 1990's for specialist applications such as handling distress calls from ships at sea. The radio 'Morse code' system, with its distinctive SOS distress signal was finally phased out in 1998 when it was replaced by a new global system based on radio teleprinters and satellite links. SOS did not stand for anything, the three dots, three dashes and three dots sent as a single group was simply a highly distinctive signal, easy to pick out from the general background chatter on busy airwaves.

Incidentally the average number of letters in written English is five per word, although for accounting purposes the messages were charged 'by the word' at fifteen characters per word. However the telegraph companies refused to accept messages where words had simply been joined together and the practice of charging by the word lead to the evolution of a cryptic style known as 'telegraphese'. An example of this was when a newspaper correspondent working abroad failed to send any news back and his editor sent a cable saying simply 'why unnews' (the telegraph company would have objected to nonews but unnews is not a word so they couldn't argue about it). The man replied 'unnews goodnews' to which the editor replied 'unnews unjob'.

Telephone Exchanges

Telephone calls were not as straightforward as today, in the early years every connection was made by the 'Operator' who sat at a desk in the local tlelphone exchange. You picked up the phone and waited until the operator at the local exchange plugged a wire into your line (a small light came on in the exchange when the phone was lifted). You told the operator the number you wanted to call and he or she (almost always a she) would then make a physical connection using plugs on the end of long flexible insulated wires.

Operators were notorious for listening in to calls during slack periods and in the 1890s an American undertaker by the name of Almon B. Strowger became convinced that his rival was getting calls redirected to him as the man's wife was a local telephone operator. He developed the first automatic exchange, the basic design of which remained in use into the 1990s at some exchanges. The original model had three levers or keys on the telephone which you used to tap-in the required number, this was replaced fairly quickly with the rotary dial. The dial had both letters and numbers marked on it, each exchange had a name and each subscriber had a number, to make the call you would typically dial the first three letters of the exchange name followed by the subscribers number. The first British exchange of this type opened in Epsom just before World War One.

Making a telephone call outside your own area (a 'trunk call', the Americans say 'long distance') prior to the 1960s involved calling the operator and asking to be 'put through', the operator would then contact an operator closest to the number you wished to call, who would then use small jack plugs on wires to link the call to the required number. Hence every exchange would have a room for the operators, sitting at their large desks physically connecting people using plugs and wires. The photo below shows such a room, this one for international calls, in the later 1930s.

Fig___ Telephone operators in the 1930s

Early Telephone operators

The human operator system was replaced by a developed form of the automatic exchange which allowed 'subscriber trunk dialing' or STD calls. The first were installed in about 1960 although the system took several years to implement across the country, the last manual exchange (on a Scottish island) closed in 1976. Up to the 1950s the telephone system was expensive to use, few people had one and on average each telephone only made about two calls a day, the government wanted people to make more use of the telephone system. The change to STD calling also saw a simplified and reduced set of charges (it could still take months to get a phone installed however).

It was this change to using STD that brought the end to having an exchange name followed by a number (for example the old number for Scotland Yard in London was 'Whitehall 1212'). For some time before this (certainly by the later 1960s) most local calls could be dialed using an abbreviated three letter code followed by three or four numbers. STD extended this system to nation wide calls by using numbers instead of the three letter code and adding another two, three or four numbers at the start. This system evolved over time with more numbers being added as the sheer number of telephone and fax machines grew across the country.


Teleprinters, usually called 'telex', were developed by a Canadian called Frederic Creed (1871-1957). Telex consists of two electric typewriters linked by wires (the telephone wires were not used, a separate network was built instead). Letters typed on one machine are printed out on the other in 'real time' but the system was and remains rather crude. Basically each machine has an electric motor set to run at a fixed speed, this is then linked to a set of five rods which select the letter or number to be printed (the five unit code was originally developed by the French inventor Emil Baudot in the 1870's). The sending machine sends a synchronising signal then each letter is transmitted using the sequence of five pulses, essentially a binary system using a pule for 1 and no pulse for 0. Most teleprinters used a revolving drum with the letters on them which was stepped into position using a set of five relays with associated arms, fascinating to watch in action but somewhat clumsy. They were first used in Fleet Street in 1912 and spread quickly in the business world.

The telex operator could prepare a punched paper tape, carrying up to five holes across, corresponding to five 1's, five holes was a 'null' character (it did not print anything or move the print head along so the operator could step back and use five holes to eliminate an incorrectly types letter. The resulting tape could then be checked and sent at the maximum speed of the system. The international standard for telex was fifty words a minute, making it a viable alternative to the telegraph where accuracy and legibility was important. There were alternatives to the standard telex, David Hughes, a British inventor working in America, devised a system in 1855 which was widely used in Europe but the simplicity and reliability of Telex secured its dominance.


The world's first fax machine, the pantelegraphe, was invented by Italian physicist Giovanni Caselli in 1866. He set up a service between Paris & Lyon in France which handled about five thousand documents in its first year of operation. Electronic facsimile systems appeared in the 1960's, the principle is simple. A light sensor is moved across the page, when it sees a dark point it sends a signal, when it sees a light point is sends no signal. The signals are sent down a wire to the receiver which has a pen moving over a blank sheet of paper at the same speed as the 'reader'. The signals are used to mark the paper, making a copy of the page line by line as the two machines work downwards over the paper. The original fax machines used either a 'wet' printing system that produced damp paper liable to tear, or an electrical paper-scorching system that produced poisonous gasses. A single A4 sheet took about ten minutes to send and the print quality was poor. In the 1970's 'thermal paper' was developed and improvements in technology reduced the purchase cost and improved reliability, making the fax a practical office tool and thereafter transmission speeds were gradually increased.

The standard Group-3 fax system arrived in the 1980's and increased the speed of transmission to 9600 baud. This does not translate to words per minute however, the system has to draw each letter, line by line, at 180 lines per inch, so a page of solid text takes about as long to send by fax as it does by telex. Print quality remained pretty grim with a resolution of about 180 dots per inch, similar to that from a cheap nine-pin dot-matrix computer printer. Although acceptable for text it is poor at reproducing photographs and the like. Telex produces legible text reliably and it is often faster than fax for sending text messages. Telex therefore remained preferable to fax for industrial users such as oil companies until the later 1980's, after which it was replaced by computer data and from the mid 1990's (when access to the internet had been made available to the general public) by e-mail.

Data (Computer) communications using the telephone system

After the Second World War the Post Office telephone engineers developed the 'modem' (modulator-demodulator) which allows computers to send (digital) information to each other over a (analogue) telephone line. The system was originally developed as a replacement for telex and operated at similar speeds. Progress was initially rather slow but by the 1980's things began to improve when people started playing with computers which provoked a greater interest in the system. By the mid 1990's the typical home-user modem was able to operate at speeds equivalent to about 50,000 words per minute which the telephone system was pushed to handle.


Public Telephones and Kiosks

Telephones came into service in the 1880's, initially these were local services connected by small local exchanges but over the years 'trunk' lines were laid, linking the local services in a national network. Meanwhile the various telephone companies amalgamated and gradually a monopolistic National Telephone Company came into being. In 1892 the Post Office took over the long distance or 'trunk' lines and in 1911 they purchased the local exchanges as well.

The early telephones were of the 'candlestick' type, a pillar with the microphone on top and a separate ear piece, wall mounted telephones had the microphone on the front of a box, again with the separate earpiece. In 1929 the revolutionary Siemens Neophone telephone appeared, this resembled a modern phone with the microphone and earpiece in a single handset. It was made possible by the development of a new type of microphone which produced a stronger signal and would work at any angle. The GPO produced the Type 162 telephone, jointly developed with Siemens, and this was one of the first telephones to make use of plastic in its construction (Bakelite, a rather brittle type of plastic invented in 1907 by a Belgian called Leo Baekeland who was living in the USA at that time), older telephones were made with wood and metal. The candlestick telephone shown below is made of black enamelled brass, the desk top telephone beside it has a shell made of Bakelite. Both of these utilised an external bell box (as shown between the two phones), mounting the bells inside the telephone was only introduced in the mid 1930s.

Fig___ Early telephones

Early Telephones

It is worth noting that in 1911 there were only about 360,000 telephones in the whole of the country but by 1930 there were well over a million phones in use in Britain. A reduced night time rate was introduced in 1935, to encourage use of the phones at night the night time 'trunk call' or 'long distance' (involving two local exchanges) rate was reduced to 3d (about 1p) for an unlimited length of call

The first public telephones were installed in shops and pubs, there presence being indicated by a sign. Up to 1911 the signs were blue with white lettering (the colours of the National Telephone Company) and these signs remained in place into the 1930s (rare examples were seen into the 1960s). The examples below show typical designs, the most common was I believe the You May Telephone From Here type, these could be mounted on a frame as shown or mounted flat against the wall. The Post Office introduced its own red sign but by this time the telephone box or kiosk in the street was becoming the norm.

Fig___ Telephone signs

Telephone signs

Telephone kiosks appeared in the mid 1880's, by which time there were about thirteen thousand telephones in Britain. The word Kiosk is actually Turkish, it means a small open sided pavilion, which is a poor description of a telephone box. Most public telephones were installed in shops but a few were set up on the streets. By the turn of the Century the National Telephone Company had bought out most of its rivals and they painted a blue 'bell' shape on the sides of their brown wooden kiosks.

In 1912, when the Post Office took over the telephone system, there were quite a number of the public call boxes in service. They were wooden structures with a pitched roof and some of the very early types had an attendant who made the call for you, waited outside until you finished, then advised you of the cost. Telephone boxes were not welcomed by all the local councils however, in Eastbourne the council required them to have thatched roof. In 1924 the Post Office approached the Royal Fine Arts Commission regarding the colour for their telephone boxes and on the Commissions recommendation Post Office Red was selected as it was easily seen and was recognised by the public as associated with the Post Office.

The first standard box (Number One) appeared in 1923 and most lasted in service for perhaps fifteen years with a few making it into the 1980's. There is a preserved example on display at the East Anglia Transport Museum (and a rather good photo of it on their website). In 1929 twenty two new coin-operated 'Public Call Boxes' were set up in London with much fanfare, this may not seem like a lot but at the time there were less than one and a half million telephones in the whole of Britain.

There were a series of kiosk designs, none of which found much favour with either the public or the Post Office, but in 1935 the Kiosk No.6, the familiar red box, appeared. The design was selected from a number of competing entries and was approved by the Royal Fine Arts Commission, the winning entry was designed by the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Originally used in London the design proved popular with the general public and soon spread all over the country.

The No. 6 design remained the standard into the 1960's when the telephone in the box changed from a black rectangular pay box with a heavy telephone handset on top to a smooth grey box with a black handset attached by a silver cable. In the early 1960's a new box appeared, Kiosk No.7, which featured the now standard glass sides and door and was designed to be vandal-resistant if not vandal proof. The No.7 kiosk did not see widespread use and the robust if old No.6 boxes remained common although the old black telephone handsets were replaced by the new grey type.

In 1968 Kiosk No.8 appeared on the streets, and re-introduced the illuminated 'Telephone' sign on the upper sides of the box. The No.8 box harked back to the popular No.6 design with its red frame but had large single sheet window panels and was generally regarded as a success.

The change to British Telecom following the separation from the Post Office in 1984 saw the new KX100 box appear, these flat roofed boxes had a wide red bar across the door, black bars at the sides and the yellow British Telecom 'T' symbol on the glass side panels.

During the late 1980's BT commissioned a designer to produce a new 'corporate image' to replace the existing 'T' logo. The result was a stylised two-tone figure with twin trumpets and is generally regarded as one of the less successful image changes of that image conscious decade.

Fig___ Telephone boxes

Telephone boxes

It was during the mid 1980's that the No.6 boxes were largely replaced regardless of their condition. This wholesale removal of the old boxes was proposed by British Telecom on the basis that the old boxes cost too much to maintain in the vandal-prone 1980's. There was a public outcry and arrangements were made so that villages and towns could petition to retain their familiar boxes. In practice few applications were approved and by the end of the decade almost all the old boxes had gone.

In 1997 a further new box was introduced by BT featuring a domed roof with the now standard large glass door and sides but red had returned as the basic colour. In 1996 the telephone industry was de-regulated, allowing other companies to operate their own services. The first Mercury (Cable & Wireless, later NTL) telephone boxes appeared on the streets in 1998 however this did not work out as hoped and BT took over the boxes that had been installed. Mr N Johanses sent in a correction to this section:
The Mercury payphone service closed down completely during 1995, with most of its sites being taken over by another licensed public payphone operator called 'Interphone.' In 1997 a further new box was introduced by BT featuring a domed roof with the now standard large glass door and sides but red had returned as the basic colour. In 1996 new operators were given licenses to operate payphones on the street (most notably Interphone and New World) and they introduced several new housing designs of their own.

Fig___ 1990s Telephone boxes

Telephone boxes from the 1990s

The box on the left is the 1997 BT type, the centre box is re-dressed ex-Mercury box operated by Interphone. The box on the right is a BT-managed unit, unique to Manchester Metrolink stations.

GPO and BT Personnel and Vehicles

The Post Office Telegraph Department (who operated the telephones) wore the same blue uniform, by the 1940s they were wearing blue coveralls when working. They were equipped with a range of vehicles many of which were equipped with 'ladder racks', this included a motorcycle combination with a bay in the bottom of the sidecar for the ladders so the ladders did not need to be removed when opening the lid on the sidecar.

By the end of the Second World War the motor van was the standard kit, painted green with a crown on the side and the legend 'Post Office Telephones'. The ladders were wooden and painted or stained a reddish brown colour. Vans equipped with a radio did not have ladder racks. The base colour of the vehicle changed to 'golden yellow' (BS No.356) in about 1968, with the lettering in a reddish brown colour. Yellow was considered to be more visible and hence safer than the rather military green.

Following privatisation in 1984 the vans were repainted in British Telecom livery, in about 1988 the 'man with pipes' logo appeared in two tone blue with the red and dark blue logo repeated on the doors, this was in turn replaced in about 2003 with the letters BT in black with the 'globe' logo to the right.

Fig___ GPO Telephone and BT Vans

GPO Telephone and BT Vans

Non public telephone services

Police telephone boxes appeared in the 1920's, not all were of the familiar Doctor Who 'Tardis' type (dating from 1929). Each police force had its own ideas on the subject and there were many types ranging from a small handset box mounted on a short pole to the full size type able to accommodate two people. Some had windows, many did not, but all police boxes had a flashing blue light on the top, normally this was switched off but if the station wished to contact the bobby on the beat they would turn this light on. Members of the public could use the telephone (accessed via a small hatch on the outside of the box) to contact the station in an emergency. See also Background Information - Emergency Services. With the introduction of personal radios the boxes were no longer required (and most have been removed) but in 1996 a new 'tardis' type box was installed just outside Earl's Court Underground Station. This box is equipped with an emergency call system for civilians to contact the police, the box itself was built by the London Underground in their workshops and is intended to reassure passengers.

The AA and the RAC operated a network of road side 'sentry' boxes, they were originally intended as shelters for patrol men who operated on motorbikes with a side-car full of spares and tools (see also Background Information - Civilian Uniforms). I believe the first AA sentry box was installed at Ashtead in Surrey in 1911, the RAC followed suit in 1919 and in the 1920s telephones were installed in these boxes which members could access via a small hatch to call for assistance. These boxes were for many years a regular feature beside major roads and close by cross roads in country areas (at their peak in the 1940s there were over a thousand of these boxes in use). Information on the design of these boxes is hard to come by but by the 1950s the AA seem to have settled on a standard design which they then retained into the 1970's. The RAC also used a similar design but they had a number of other designs in use, some of which are easy to model. In modeling terms the 1950s AA/RAC box is the usual offering from suppliers which is fortunate as these have a distinctive and rather complicated roof shape). The exact colour scheme seems to have varied, for example the AA boxes sometimes had a yellow plate bearing the three digit number in black but on some boxes the plate was black, edged in yellow and with yellow numbers. Some of the RAC telephone boxes (smaller than a sentry box) had the word telephone following the lower part of the frame on the side logo.

Fig___ AA and RAC telephone boxes

Telephone boxes

In 1968 pedestal units using a fibreglass hood on a steel post were introduced by both the AA and the RAC to replace the sentry boxes. In 2002 the AA decided to abandon the road side telephones but about forty old AA and RAC boxes still exist as they have listed building status, almost all of these are the AA box as shown in the sketch. When the Motorways were built it was soon realised that roadside telephones were required for emergencies but these have always been a simple metal hood on a pole, early designs were square and only large enough for the handset, more modern types have a more rounded shape and are larger to offer a degree of acoustic shielding.

The National Telephone Kiosk Collection is kept at Avoncroft Museum Of Buildings, nr Bromsgrove. I have recently found a web site which has pictures of a number of less common telephone boxes, the site may be found at Red Phone Box.

Cellular Telephones

The fist cellular telephone networks were set up in the early 1980s, one of the first firms to set up was Vodophone (part of Racal Electronics) and I believe they opened their first shop in 1985.

Go to top of page

International Good Guys ~ Making the world a better place since 1971 ~ Site maintained by Disabled Access to Computing
All material Copyright © Mike Smith 2003 unless otherwise credited