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The Post Office takeover

Cover of publicity leaflet titled You Are Wanted On The Telephone

Post Office marketing : telephones for all classes

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a combination of factors finally made the telephone a service for all people. The Post Office had rolled out nationwide coverage that gave almost everyone access to the telephone network, prices had come down considerably and the new plastic telephones had been introduced. These cost more to hire than the old candlestick telephones, but were very popular.

These developments were reflected in the work of an expanding marketing department, which brought about significant improvements in the presentation of leaflets, posters and at exhibitions, heralding the service as the 'telephone for all classes'.

However, the greatest marketing tool was word-of-mouth. As increasing numbers of people subscribed to the system, it made more sense for their friends to join up as well.

GPO - General Post Office

GPO (General Post Office) (Pre 1830) : stamps, telegraph, phone

The GPO was created by Oliver Cromwell's Parliament in 1657, which declared: 'There shall be one General Post Office and one officer styled the Postmaster-General of England.' However, Charles II recognised none of Cromwell's laws so issued a very similar act in 1660, which confirmed the formation of The Post Office.

The law made the GPO the sole carrier of post in the UK and forbade all competition. This made it easier to create an effective postal service, although profits did go directly to the state and were often used to fund British military campaigns. A major innovation was the introduction of cheap flat rate postage in 1840 with the 'Penny Black' stamp.

In 1870 the GPO took control of Britain's telegraph network and assumed complete control of the telephone network in 1912. From then on the GPO was monopoly supplier of both the telephone and telegraph networks until 1982, when the first carrier was licensed in competition with the new British Telecom (successor to Post Office Telecommunications).

Temple Avenue

Temple Avenue (1899) : the holy of holies

Telephone House in London's riverside Temple Avenue was the headquarters of the National Telephone Company. It is an impressive building, boasting all the classic design features of late Victorian architecture, and opened in 1899. Its exterior is liberally decorated with telephone related motifs, and on the roof is a figure of Mercury, the winged messenger.

The National Telephone Company (NTC) was formed in 1881 especially to introduce telephone systems to Scotland, the Midlands and Ireland. In 1889 the company went through a period of massive growth, merging with several other concerns. Within a few years it needed a building that could house the swelling numbers of its employees in London.

Telephone House was the answer and it was home to the NTC until it was taken over by the Post Office when the industry was nationalised in 1912.

It continued to be occupied by the Post Office, and later BT, until the lease expired in 1997. In its later years, it was home to the office of Prestel, the Customer Communications Unit and the BT Archives.

Telephone stamps - now at the Amberley Museum

Telephone stamps (c1884) : stamping out payment problems

Don't be surprised if you don't recognise the face on these stamps. He's not a king, a president or a religious leader. The bearded gentleman is the chairman of the National Telephone Company (NTC), Col. Robert Raynsford-Jackson.

In fact the stamps aren't exactly stamps at all. They wouldn't get your letter anywhere if you put them on an envelope. They were used as an early method to pay for telephone calls at early call offices, particularly in Scotland.

Users had to pay an attendant for their calls. However, when large discrepancies were discovered in the accounts between the cash in the tills and the calls registered, these stamps were introduced to avoid the need for money to change hands. The attendants had no need to deal with cash, and by sticking used stamps in a ledger the NTC accountants had a strong grip on things. In many ways, they were the Phonecards of the day.

The Post Office believed there could be confusion with normal postage stamps and, finally, the NTC withdrew the stamps in 1891.

NTC Handset Display Case - a Connected Earth artefact, now at the Amberley Museum

Telephone handset display case (1900s) : keeping in touch in the home

This handset display case would have been kept clearly on view in the sales and payment section of a main National Telephone Company office. It served a couple of functions; one was to show interested customers the variety of handsets available to buy, in the same way a shopper can browse around a mobile phone shop looking for a model that's right for them. The second was to try to prompt impulse buying.

These handsets were only available to buy, they were a different range from the rental models. They were for intercoms (handy for summoning the servants) rather than for the main telephone. The display case would have been put in a prominent position by the payment desk to catch the eye of a subscriber settling his bill.

For the avid shopper, the NTC also made a catalogue of their full range of telephone equipment available.

fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

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The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

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