The days when sharing a telephone line meant a party!
PUBLISHED: 10:11 25 March 2017
Picture: COLIN TOOKE COLLECTION
It stood, black and ostensibly lifeless, on the hall windowsill.
At first, my mother and I were wary of it, reluctant to touch it or to pass by to other parts of our house...in case it rang and we either failed to hear it or made an embarrassing rush to answer it.
Yes, this was our first home telephone, Gorleston 930, installed post-war mainly so my deep-sea fisherman father could let us know he was safely back in harbour when working from distant ports around the British coast. His alternative was writing a letter - welcome, but with obvious drawbacks.
It was a party line, shared with a neighbour who was on call to do urgent repairs to equipment at Long’s Dairy in Englands Lane, but never once did we pick up the phone to find the Browns speaking. Gorleston was still a manual exchange, so there was no dialling - when you picked up the receiver to ring anyone, the operator in Baker Street asked, “Number please?”
Now 99 per cent of the population, from aged five upwards, seems to have a mobile phone glued to one ear or held up in front of the face while thumbs jab at speed at the keys.
People sit on seats, not admiring the view or watching the world pass by but staring at their phone screens.
Payphone usage has declined by 90 per cent in the past decade, leading to a decision by BT to remove more than 250 boxes from their locations in Norfolk towns and villages.
In my decades as a reporter, out in the sticks covering a fire, for example, a mobile phone would have been a god-send for instantly being able to dictate my reports to a typist in time to catch editions, instead of scouring the streets or countryside against the clock for a public call box that worked.
Of course, I could even have sent photographs to illustrate the report, provided it did not contravene trade union demarcation rules or freelances’ livelihoods.
Long-retired Yarmouth registrar Trevor Nicholls used a typewriter to convey his take on the current phone vogue, having just heard on radio that 84 per cent of British households still have land-line telephones whereas in developing countries, people often begin with mobiles.
When he joined our town hall staff (Yarmouth 3233) as a junior in 1965, learning how to use a phone was an early lesson. Calls went through “a museum-piece manual switchboard” in an attic at the old fire station in Greyfriars Way.
He recalls the frustration of engaged lines: “For instance, because of the amount of telephone traffic from the race-course to London, it was often difficult to get through to Somerset House when there was racing at Newmarket.”
Although Ferryside, where Trevor spent years, was in the Gorleston exchange area, it was an extension of the town hall switchboard.
“Some of the most important calls to have passed through the old Gorleston exchange must have been those from the top-secret listening post at Struan House, the now-demolished art deco property on Marine Parade, during the 1939-45 world war,” continues Trevor.
“The linguists there, all women, were monitoring German naval radio traffic and the telephone line to London was sometimes occupied all day as they reported what they had intercepted.”
Telephones were first installed in Yarmouth in 1884, the dozen subscribers linked to a Regent Street exchange.
Gorleston’s first exchange followed in 1897. D W Bellamy’s butcher’s shop in Baker Street was Gorleston 1!
Trevor reverts from the factual to the fanciful, recalling: “Telephone wires in those days followed the railway lines.
This former small boy can remember sitting in compartment carriages staring out of the window as steam billlowed back from the engine and, for mile after mile, the telephone wires rose and fell from post to post, to the accompaniment of the clickety-clack from the wheels.”