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In these days of instant mobile communication it may surprise readers to know that fifty years ago you couldn’t even make a telephone call without the help of an operator.

For a number of years after the telephone service was first introduced if you wanted to make a call, even a local one, you lifted the instrument and an operator would ask you which number you wanted to be put through to, and then connect you. Then in the 1950s it became possible for subscribers in major cities to dial local numbers on their telephones.

In December 1958 the Queen inaugurated the new “Subscriber Trunk Dialling” (STD) System in Bristol. This enabled business and home subscribers to dial long distance calls but users of telephone boxes – and remember that only a very few people had their own phones back then – still had to use an operator to get connected.

So this new service, designed to replace the “Button A and Button B” pre-payment system was quite a revolution. However it wasn’t universally welcomed as the trade unions opposed it on the grounds that it would lead to 25,000 job losses as operators would no longer be required.

The Button A and Button B pay phones, first introduced in 1925, connected callers via an operator on insertion of the call fee. The caller then pushed Button A to deposit the coins and make the connection. If a call could not be connected for some reason, or if there was no reply, Button B was pushed and all the coins were returned.

It was not until 1976 that the whole country was connected to the STD network. I was living in Portree, on the Isle of Skye, at the time when the manual exchange closed and a new automatic one opened. Until then our telephone dial had no rotating dial or press buttons as we had to “jiggle” the receiver to attract the operator’s attention and ask to be connected.

When the changeover happened engineers had to call and fit new instruments with dials! I was on holiday when they came and they had to come back a week later so it’s possible I had the last manual telephone in the UK.

11 Responses to “5th September 1959: The UK’s First Direct Dial Long Distance Call from a Phone Box”

  1. Fred M McDavid says:

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  3. James Green says:

    Thanks for that Ian. It doesn’t really surprise me that the BT info may be wrong. I remember the celebrations when the “new” BBC Radio Nan Eilean studio opened in Portree (above the Clydesdale Bank). They “forgot” that I’d broadcast live from the studio several weeks earlier on the BBC World Service. Still, I suppose that didn’t count as it was in English rather than Gaelic.
    Actually it was quite funny. I was self-operating the broadcast and talking with a presenter in Bush House, London when we both heard a strange knocking sound. I turned around and say the window cleaner rapping on the glass (triple glazed) with a coin. When the broadcast ended a few minutes later I went downstairs to see what he wanted – you guessed it, he was asking for his money. Not sure if I ever got that three quid back now I think about it!

  4. Ian Jolly says:

    Re Message 13.
    Soay did actually have a telephone exchange on it. It was a 10 line system which worked over a radio link to Mallaig Radio then on to Mallaig exchange. I have the mainland end of the system in my collection of old telephone exchanges. Sadly the info from BT is not always accurate! For instance their Archives website states that the last electro-0mechanical exchange in service was Crawford which ceased on 23rd June 1995 – I was present on that occassion. However I was also present at the changeover of a tiny 20 line electro-mechanical exchange on the island of Foula (Briatain’s most remote inhabited island) to the west of the Shetland Islands, on 12th July 1995 ! I make that AFTER Crawford ceased in service by several weeks! The ‘subscribers’ on the island were until then, dialling two digits to get each other and could talk between each other all day for less than 5p ! Again the exchange is in my collection.

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  7. James Green says:

    Hi Ian,

    I’ve checked with BT who confirm that the last manual exchange in the United Kingdom was at Portree in the Isle of Skye and when it closed in 1976 the UK telephone system became fully automatic. That’s the one I was on. They confirm however that there are still a few handsets with no dials “mainly in remote phone boxes”.

  8. James Green says:

    Thanks Ian, I’ll have a look into that. There may well have been a few odd ones scattered about. For example just of the west coast of Skye is another island called Soay (means Sheep as it used to be used to graze sheep) which had a solar powered telephone box which “rang” through to the Broadford exchange. Soay is uninhabited and has been for years and this is/was an emergency call box for stranded sailors. Probably doesn’t count as a normal exchange number.

    As I remember Rheinigidale is pretty remote and didn’t even have a road until about 20 years ago. You had to go by boat or walk 10 or so miles. It may be that the number was a bit similar to Soay but who knows. I’ll see what I can find out.

    By the way, Soay was where Gavin Maxwell (of otter fame) set up a commercial shark fishery after the second world war. It wasn’t a success – shark liver oil was not in great demand and neither was the meat. When I lived on Skye the old factory buildings were still standing on Soay which I occasionally went to.

  9. Ian Jolly says:

    Hi The last manual telephone in BT’s UK network was in the early 1990s. It was ‘Rheinigidale 1’ on the Isle of Harris. I have a BT ‘Highlands & Islands Phonebook’ for the early 1990’s which lists it. You’ll find an excerpt from a BBC Radio 4 program on ‘Telephone Numbers’ which mentions Rheinigidale on Harris (01859) 598001 !

    Ian Jolly

  10. James Green says:

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    As to the header image, I did design this myself.

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