Skip to main content

Pressures to economise

Post Office Tower under construction, Sept 1963

Changing Britain (1960s) : white heat of technology

In 1964 the new Prime Minister Harold Wilson was talking about a new Britain being forged in 'the white heat of technology'. The reality was less glamorous - one business in every ten was still having to make do with a shared telephone line.

By the late 1960s, everyone wanted telephones - partly because rising living standards had made them more affordable, partly because families had become dispersed, and partly to 'keep up with the Joneses' - but mostly because the telephone was increasingly seen as an essential tool of everyday life.

The Post Office was changing too - the signs were all around from the microwave towers dotting the landscape, to the huge dishes at Goonhilly and the awesome Post Office Tower soaring over London.

By the end of decade, the Post Office had nearly caught up with demand and increasingly was able to supply telephones to order.

Optical Fibre

British disease : going backwards

The 1970s began with high hopes for British telecommunications. The technologies of satellite communications, UHF colour TV, digital telephone switching and data networking had all been proved. The Post Office was in the vanguard of up and coming technologies such as fibre optics - pointing the way to ultra high-speed communications.

But from there, things just seemed to get worse. In common with the rest of Britain, the Post Office became beset by a creeping paralysis of bad industrial relations and disputes.

As Britain's economic malaise deepened, spending restrictions on the nationalised industries tightened.

The change to public corporations hadn't made the Post Office much better off. As one of Britain's few growth industries, Post Office Telecommunications was a prime national asset with its revenues used to reduce the public borrowing requirement. The dearth of investment funding led to an 18-month waiting list for telephones, and more faults as exchanges suffered maintenance backlogs.

Telephone user (using the neighbour's) : Bill Philips

Bill Philips, a retired lecturer, was born in 1924 and grew up partly in Weymouth on the South Coast and partly in London.

Despite travelling between the two towns, he and his family never used the phone until he was 15 years old, although the family did use telegrams for urgent news.

He made his first phone calls to arrange meetings with his girlfriend at his aunt's house but soon realised the value of the public phone, before eventually having one installed at his home in the early 1950s.

Audio clip


At that time in 1940, I became acquainted with a girlfriend and in the summer holiday I went up to our old house in London. Next door my neighbour, who happened to be my aunt, she had a telephone. Well the girlfriend lived on the other side of London, so that was my first experience of using the telephone to phone the girlfriend to arrange meetings. I cannot remember ever coming across a public phone that was out of order. We had a phone installed when I started work, I worked for a research organisation gas research board in Poole, and I commuted to Poole from Weymouth each day, so I needed a phone. I remember having to wait and wait to have one installed because there was a waiting list but I did get some priority because of the job I was doing, and so we had a phone installed 1951.

Party line user : John Graham

John Graham, born in 1932 was introduced to the phone at an early age. His family had a candlestick phone on the hall table at home, for his job as a Fleet Street journalist, but he was forbidden to touch it at first.

Following a schoolboy fascination with electronics, he became a TV and radio engineer.

When he had his first phone installed himself, he remembers that he was able to jump the waiting list because his wife was pregnant. Their new conncection was a party line, although sharing the phone could be an annoying experience.

audio clip


We'd moved to a house at Farnham, and because my wife was expecting a baby soon afterwards, we were allowed to have a telephone and sort of short circuit the very long waiting list. We had to share lines in those days. If after waiting two or three years you were eventually granted a telephone it was often a shared line and you'd lift up the telephone to use it only to find your partner was on it and then you'd have to wait and keep lifting the phone until it was free. It was a very frustrating business.

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.

what's on

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

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

featured story

100 years of automatic switching!
In 1912 the GPO installed Britain's first automatic telephone exchange in Epsom.

Discover the early days of the telephone...