Monday, September 22, 2008

The Postal Service

Back in the 50s the Postal Service was the cheapest form of long distance communication. Telephones were expensive and uncommon - a few minutes telephone conversation might cost four times the cost of sending a letter. Nowadays those relative costs  have been reversed.
The General Post Office, built in the 1930s, has changed little externally. The main entrance led to a public area on the left with counter stations where one could buy stamps, postal orders, pay for parcels etc. The rest of the building was given over to a sorting office and administrative offices. I think there was a public call box inside the front door.
Until the creation of British Telecom the Post Office had charge of the telephone service. The telephone exchange may have been located here. I am not sure.
Telephones were rare in the 1950s. A few residences had them and people who provided services like doctors and plumbers. Not many retail businesses had a telephone. I don't suppose they saw the point. Shops were open during strictly enforced opening hours. Shoppers bought from the stock you had on hand. It would not have occurred to anyone to phone up and ask if they had such and such in stock and what was the price.
To give some idea of the general scarcity of telephones, Wolverton was in the Bedford Telephone Directory which was about 1cm thick in 1955 and covered Bedfordshire, North Bucks and North Hertfordshire. Public call boxes were also rare. Apart from the one at the General Post Office, I can only remember one other - at the works entrance by the Station. There may also have been another by Anson Road. Even if they wanted to use a phone Wolverton residents would have had to walk a long way  for a call box.
There were still two daily postal deliveries in the early 50s. There was never as much in the "second post" as in the first one in the morning. At Christmas time delveries were constant. 
Our postman was a man called Charlie Phillips whom we children regarded as rather strange. He used to call across the street to us phrases like "Ows yer mother off for soap?" To which there could be no reply because we did not understand what he meant - possibly something to do with rationing.  He was regarded as quite harmless.


Andrew said...

We didn't get a phone at home until about 1976. There were a pair of old phone boxes on The Square and another at the end of Furze Way near where it joined Windsor Street. On the day we had our phone installed, I was given 2p to push into the Furze Way phone box on the way home from school to test out our new number!

Andy Baxter said...

Wolverton telephone exchange was located on the first floor of the Post Office building in Church Street. Wolverton then had an automatic Strowger-type exchange with four figure numbers. In 1973 the new crossbar exchange in Glyn Square came into service and Wolverton's numbers became six figure by prefixing the existing numbers with "31". In March 1976 the "Wolverton" name became "Milton Keynes" (and on the same day Stony Stratford's new crossbar exchange became live, also became "Milton Keynes" and their old four figure numbers became six figures by prefixing with "56"). Prior to the new crossbar exchanges going live, the demand for service exceeded the existing exchange equipment availability and the Post Office needed to introduce relief exchanges which were typically housed in green mobile trailers. These relief units were given different names to their parent exchange and in the Bedford Telephone Area there was a policy to name them after birds. Wolverton's relief was Condor. Nearby there was Goldcrest (Newport Pagnell), Starling (Whaddon), Bunting (Hanslope). Stony Stratford's relief differed from the policy and was named Calverton End. A mobile relief trailer can be seen at the Milton Keynes Museum's telephone section.

Bryan Dunleavy said...

Thanks for the clarification and detail. It's interesting how the system grew in a piecemeal and somewhat ad hoc fashion.
One of my grandfather's had a telephone in the 1930s which was simply "Wolverton 4". In either 1939 or 1945 (I forget which) it became Wolverton 3104 to comply with the then new automatic exchange.
I remember my father's telephone being installed in the early 1950s, which meant a large bakelite box with a bell on the wall with a cord the thickness of a rope going to the telephone and of course the dial which click-click-clicked slowly through the numbers.
The convention of answering the telephone was to give your number - e.g. Wolverton 2278 rather than your name or any other kind of greeting. In fact you can find these instructions in telephone directories of the period.