Throwback Thursday: Dial N for nostalgia... the early days of phones

Jo Kerrigan looks back to the days when, to make a phone call, you didn’t tap the screen, you put in two pennies and pressed Button A!
Throwback Thursday: Dial N for nostalgia... the early days of phones

Staff working at Christmas at the Cork Telephone Exchange in December, 1952, 

DID you get a text about your Covid shot this week? And book yourself in on an online site? Check the latest on Facebook about the kids’ school reopening? WhatsApp your cousin in Australia? See an update on Twitter about the latest rare birds to be seen in West Cork?

Where would you be without your mobile phone?

Well, it’s far from mobile phones, Facebook, or any other social media that most of us were reared.

As Alice Taylor, that wonderful Cork writer, puts it in her 1992 book, The Village: “Telephones were not part of the furnishings deemed necessary in Irish farmhouses, so I had only ever been within waving distance of one.”

Social media as a concept hadn’t been invented. Instead we used what came naturally — talking to everyone we met, writing letters (remember actually writing letters, by hand, with a pen, on real notepaper?), getting together for adventures as children or shopping trips as adults, and generally keeping in touch with all around us in a real way.

The first telephone exchange in Ireland was opened in Dublin as far back as 1880, with just five subscribers. These important people weren’t answered immediately when they got on to the exchange, but had to wait patiently till the operator rang them back to ask their requirements. And the service was only available from 9am to midnight.

By the 1940s and ’50s, we had moved on a bit, with exchanges in most large towns, and those businesses or private houses fortunate (and wealthy) enough to have a telephone would crank a handle and request a number from the operator.

All calls had to go through that local exchange, where busy staff pulled out some plugs and rammed others in, at breakneck speed, connecting business to business, doctor to hospital, housewife to housewife, mother to daughter.

Frequently, especially in smaller villages, the line was a party one, shared by many subscribers, with a specific number of rings allocated to each. It was two rings for Mrs So and So, three for the local shop, and five for that man who keeps a garage down the road.

And of course anybody could listen in on your call if they felt like it. In rural districts. where there wasn’t much else to do on a rainy day, everybody did.

“You could tell when somebody else was listening to your conversation,” recalls Richard.

“It was something about the atmosphere in the background. And if you were bold enough to say, ‘Is somebody else on this line?’, you might hear a hasty click, and knew you were right!”

Those old classic Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth thrillers rely heavily on the party line system, where someone who just happened to be listening in can contribute a vital clue to solving the murder.

KEEPING CORK CONNECTED: Telephone operators working at the General Post Office in Cork city in February, 1965.
KEEPING CORK CONNECTED: Telephone operators working at the General Post Office in Cork city in February, 1965.

And remember that movie Whisky Galore, based on the great novel by Compton McKenzie? The postmaster and his daughters, with their telephone exchange, are at the heart of everything that happens on the little island of Todday. When the unpopular Englishman who oversees the Home Guard tries to outwit them, he hasn’t a hope. An old bedridden man, going to his window last thing to look out at the sea, sees to his horror a Revenue cutter heading straight for the island. They must be after the salvaged whisky!

Barely pausing to grab his dressing gown, he rushes in surprisingly lively fashion out to the phone box on the quay. Fumbling for the two pennies necessary, he rings the post office (where an engagement party is in full swing) and gets the warning through in time.

OK, today we would probably do it in a nanosecond by (a) watching the maritime app to see what boats might be coming by at that time of night, and (b) texting the postmaster direct — but it wouldn’t be half as much fun.

More than that, it wouldn’t be as real, as redolent of human communication on a personal scale.

Direct dial made life a little easier than the ‘crank the handle and wait for the snappy ‘Ballyflanagan 35, what d’ye want?’ response, although trunk calls still had to go through an operator. We hadn’t reached international dialling codes yet, not by a long way.

But actually, having a telephone in your house made all the difference to your social life if you were a teenager back then.

It made a difference to your neighbours too. If you did have a home phone back in the ’50s, and indeed in the ’60s, you were often called upon by acquaintances who needed to make an urgent call, perhaps to a doctor, or to contact friends and family. Usually they discreetly left a sixpence by the phone when they had finished.

“We had this rather taciturn man who lived several doors up the hill from us,” remembers Jane. 

“He got into the habit of coming in once a week and making a lengthy phone call to somewhere — we never actually knew to whom —which would go on for an hour or more. Then he would nod, leave, and we wouldn’t see him again for another week.

“There was an Edgar Wallace thriller on in the cinemas at the time, The Ringer, and that’s what we christened him!”

Suppose you were a teenage girl with a boyfriend, and you had a phone but he didn’t? Then sometimes, if it was imperative to make contact (perhaps after a Great Misunderstanding) you might have to ring the family next door to his house and ask them if they would very kindly step over and tell him to come to the phone.

Strangely enough, by today’s exceptionally private standards, people were always co-operative, since it was well acknowledged that those who had the service shared with those who didn’t.

“I can’t remember any time that somebody refused to go and get the person needed,” recalls Mary.

Otherwise, you had to depend on the said loved one being motivated enough to go out, locate a telephone box, and put in the necessary pennies (2d very early on, then 3d, and perhaps 4d — can anyone with a better memory enlighten us?)

If you received a call at home and there was silence at the other end, you didn’t instantly think of stalkers or phone abusers — you simply said ‘Press Button A’ and then there would be the hasty sound of coins dropping, and the person at the other end saying ‘Hullo?’ If, by accident, he pressed Button B, then the pennies were returned, and he had to start the whole process all over again.

Remember those dials with all the numbers? Of course you do.

Somebody asked the other day if anybody could recall these antiques and we were shocked. Didn’t everybody use them?

The equipment in a phone box was mounted fairly high, so children had a job trying to reach up to the coin slots and the dial. And rather too often, said equipment would have been — let us say adapted — by local lads, who had worked out how to block the coin drop and retrieve a small haul of pennies later on in the evening.

It’s not just modern ATMs that carry warnings — the glimpse of a hard-packed ball of newspaper underneath the box was usually sign enough back then to leave and go to another kiosk.

A typical telephone from the 1920s .
A typical telephone from the 1920s .

In households, phones usually sat on a hall table, so you could at least see what you were doing. The notion of having the telephone somewhere more convenient, like the living room or the kitchen, or even the bedroom, wasn’t even considered.

The hall was the place for it, and late at night, many were the scrambles out of bed, through doors, and down unlit staircases, to reach the little monster before it stopped shrilling. After all, it might be urgent.

That it was all too often a wrong number, dialled confusedly by a cheerful home-goer on his way back from the pub, didn’t matter. It just might be vital, and so you started awake with a jerk at that insistent bell.

Later on, when phones became lighter, even other colours than black (!), the tone changed too, sometimes to a buzz, sometimes a brain-piercing shriek. It says much that when it became possible to choose sounds for your smartphone, one of the most popular was —guess what — yes, the old fashioned ringtone.

Dialling was of course a skill in itself. Even in a phone box it was all too easy to slip, miss one of those tiny finger holes, and get it all wrong, and have to start all over again.

On a house phone, if the equipment wasn’t heavy enough, the whole thing slipped around on the hall table so lovingly polished by generations of aunts, and you again got it wrong, and had to start over.

Ever go to London in the ’50s or ’60s? There they still had the very trendy habit of putting the district first, in letters, and then the actual number. ‘Marble Arch 5101’ coos the elegant Kay Kendall in the 1958 film The Reluctant Debutante. ‘Kensington 3585?’

With both letters and numbers on the dial, you had to put in the first three letters (MAR, awfully cool to first-timers over from Cork.

How did you arrange to meet up with friends, keep in contact with cousins, and share information back in those pre-smartphone days? Well, you made plans in advance for one thing, at school or at work.

“See you on Thursday afternoon under Mangan’s clock,” or “Let’s meet up on our bikes at the start of Carr’s Hill next Sunday, and we’ll go to Crosshaven.”

 Time wasn’t judged by the second or even the minute. If they weren’t there when you arrived, then you hung around until they did come. Arrangements were more open, more relaxed. (Well, being ‘stood up’ outside the Savoy on a Saturday evening wasn’t, but at least he could relax in safety, knowing that you couldn’t immediately text him and demand WTF?)

A typical phone from the 60s.
A typical phone from the 60s.

And when you did meet up, what did you spend your time doing? Talking, looking, noticing, discussing, living in the real world, for heaven’s sake!

This week saw the first day back at school for thousands of kids, juniors to seniors. At lunchtime, the expected little gangs of students had gathered outside supermarkets and other sources of fast food. But you couldn’t hear a thing from these circles of friends. Instead of the high buzz of excited conversation, there was silence.

Without exception, heads were bowed over mobile phones, everyone leaning inward the better to see their screens. They were together, yet poles apart.

Some years back there was a very successful TV comedy series called Drop The Dead Donkey, which featured a useless young executive manager, incapable of communicating in any sensible way. Finally setting up a blind date with an email acquaintance, he discovered that he didn’t know what to talk about, and neither did she. Finally they both pulled out their laptops and sat happily exchanging notes across the dinner table.

It was a joke — like Frazier in that other TV series ordering a ‘skinny decaff latte’. What a hoot we thought then. Isn’t a coffee just a coffee? Not now it isn’t, even in good sensible old Cork.

But it is really sad to see young people — and indeed those who are old enough to know better — looking inward at Facebook and an imaginary online world instead of outward at the rich life around us.

Will we Corkonians, famous for our line of chat, even be able to talk to each other in another decade?

Email your memories of telephones, or anything else, to jokerrigan1@gmail.com

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