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Bucking the system - 1970s

Export drive poster

Investment famine (1950) : post war realities

Britain went into the Second World War as a relatively prosperous country - and emerged virtually bankrupt. This central economic fact of life had huge implications for all the nationalised industries, dependent on Treasury funds and spending limits for their investment.

From 1945 the Post Office's need to rebuild, extend and modernise the telecommunications network would come under increasing strain, from the austerity climate of the 1940s, the dirversion of funds into Cold War defence works in the 1950s, the stop-go policies of the 1960s, and the increasing economic crises of the 1970s.

Between 1945 and 1965 the problems manifested themselves in waiting lists, enforced sharing of lines and high prices.

Moving into the 1970s the main problems were slow provision and lack of choice. 

Optical Fibres

Commercial pressures grow : meeting the new demands

By the early 1980s the commercial and political pressures facing the Post Office had become very severe.

The whole telephone network needed to be modernised from the old Strowger electro-mechanical switching system and copper trunk cables, into a modern system based on digital switching and fibre optics. This was a must if the network was to cope with the ever-increasing amounts of data traffic being generated by computers. At the same time, the political climate had changed - away from the idea of 'Big Government' and towards private enterprise and free markets.

There were powerful voices from industry calling on British Telecom to modernise - and powerful political forces calling for its privatisation.

Friendly Telephone' message from the Postmaster-General to staff

The friendly telephone : A new way of thinking

In March 1959, Postmaster-General Ernest Marples, announced the new Friendly Telephone policy. This was based on a report drawn up by a Post Office team who had studied the telephone system in the United States.

It anticipated greater automation on the network, recognising that phone users would only talk to the operator when there was some particular need or problem. That meant releasing operators from the strict rules governing what phrases they were allowed to use.

The new policy also recognised for the first time that phone users were not actually 'subscribers' but customers who were buying a service. Social surveys were conducted to discover what customers wanted, and an organisation set up to make sure their needs were met as far as possible.

Offical opening of PO Tower by PM Harold Wilson, 8 Oct 1965

Controlling the purse strings : the motivation to privatise

For over a century the Post Office was a government department that had to fight for funding from the Treasury along with all the other departments.

By the 1930s it was becoming plain that this system was no longer appropriate to the investment and planning needs of a vital national telecommunications network.

The idea of creating a new nationalised industry was first raised in 1932, with a proposal that the Post Office, as a large commercial undertaking, should be run along the lines of a business rather than an ordinary government department.

In 1965 the Labour Postmaster-General Anthony Wedgewood-Benn put into motion the process that finally culminated in the creation of the Post Office as a public corporation.

The Post Office Act of 1969 laid down the structure of the new organisation, split into two divisions - Posts and Telecommunications - which thus became distinct businesses for the first time.

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.

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