Those of us over a certain age will know that, until 1984, when the GPO (Post office telephones) monopoly was broken up, one did not actually own one’s telephone, but rented it from the GPO along with associated installations. Thus there was very little choice over the type of telephone one could have. Collecting these instruments now is a relatively inexpensive hobby, with most types being available for under £50, although as usual condition is crucial and if an example has been adapted for modern plug in use, then the price is enhanced.
When I lived in my mews house in London in the late 1960s we had two lines – KNI[ghtsbridge] 1136 and 9226 – both equipped with rather sleek plastic ’phones in two-tone grey and plastic flexibly spiral cord. Yet when I got my first place in Derby, in Littleover, I inherited a hefty Bakelite job with a fabric coloured platted cord – much inferior to my way of thinking. This latter was a GPO type 332 introduced in 1937 (expect to pay between £20 and £80 depending on condition, but add £250-300 if originally supplied in cream). It had a ledge under the rest with a recess so you could carry it around – provided that you paid the GPO for an extra-long lead. In contrast, my London ’phones were (then) up-to-the-minute type 706 ones, which also had the option of a wall-mounted version, one of which we had. For these today expect to pay as low as £10 and up to £60, much depending on the colour. The letters on the dial were to enable one to dial London numbers: three letters (part of a name identifiable with a distinct area) plus four numbers a system converted to all number in 1970.
Yet my earliest memories of telephones included various elderly relatives with ‘candle’ upright instruments, from which the earpiece hung from a metal bracket which opened and cut the line when the weight of the earpiece was removed or applied. The earliest of these were Bakelite and brass-mounted, called a type 150L dating from the early 1920s. Today, expect to pay £80-120 or double that if sold by a dealer. The ones I seem to recall were a later modification eliding the brass mounts, although they had the refinement of a silver-coloured metal dialling ring for London subscribers with one’s ’phone number printed on a disc in the middle and covered by a bit of clear plastic. These can fetch £120 to £150 at auction, and the bell set alone can cost £25-30.
These evolved after a while into the more compact type 162 which had its own bell incorporated, now selling for similar prices. For the purist, the 1890s Ericson-made GPO phones – very antediluvian in appearance and predominantly brass – were around until after the Great War and can fetch several hundred pounds.
Yet by the 1950s most of my friends and relatives had the first type of pre-war ’phone with a horizontally placed handset, set on a slim neck, again, so that it could be carted around, and called by collectors a ‘pyramid’ ’phone. This was a heavy-ish Bakelite instrument called a type 232L; again, it came with a dial-less version called a 232CB; both had a little drawer in the base in which to put one’s friend’s numbers. One was sold with a £80-120 estimate by Bamfords a year or two ago, although the pre-war ones (check base for approximate dating evidence) can make up to £225, and cream examples from £275, even more with bell set and drawer to base. They were introduced in the early 1930s and kept going into the 1950s, although the type 332 was a later improvement, which continued to be supplied for years after the war – likely to cost £50-80 now, but a cream one might go to £300. In darkest Herefordshire, the cousins with whom I lived after my mother died had a wall-mounted exchange with a handle on the side of its timber body which one had to crank to put callers through to the appropriate extension on the estate; this was in service until at least 1970. I saw a similar one on sale at a fair for £130 recently.
By the time the writing was on the wall for the GPO monopoly, one could buy a variant of the type 706 (called a type 746: £35-60) which came in a dizzying variety of seven colours, or a type 756 which had a push-button dialling facility (£30-50). Indeed, the current craze in the 1970s was for the type 722 ‘Trimphone’, the first instrument to ring with a different sound to the then-familiar double ring: they produced a horrible chirruping noise, much imitated on TV gameshows. Rt. Hon. Anthony Wedgwood Benn (formerly 2nd Viscount Stansgate, briefly MP for Chesterfield and the then Postmaster-General) presented the first one to a subscriber in 1965, but it was not actually available until 1968. Incidentally, ‘Trimphone’ is an acronym: Tone Ringing Illuminated Model. These go for £30-40 nowadays, colour being important.
There was also a lightweight version of the type 746 which looked more like the familiar US domestic ’phones of the era, but which never seems to have caught on – at least amongst those of my acquaintance but despite rarity, cheap to buy.
Going back to the early days in the 1890s the telephones were subject to infinite slight variations, all of which came with a separate bell unit, usually attached to the wall nearby (a phenomenon which endured to some extent to around 1970), no dial and a crank attached to a magneto wherewith to raise the exchange. It was only when the type 150 came in that standardisation largely prevailed.
There were also various later types with buttons on the top by the rest for business use, or for domestic premises with extensions, and larger, more complex office installations, too. All the types had wall-mounted variants, although the candlestick variant was just a wooden box with a black Bakelite speaking horn and with the earpiece hanging from the side of the box. Watching old black and white films offers a wonderful variety of these earlier types in use, should you be addicted to such entertainment!
Once the 1983 Conservative Government had freed phone-users from the straitjacket of GPO (thence BT) control, one could buy a ’phone of one’s choice, plug it into the wall and off we go. The proliferation of types thenceforth rather clouds the waters from the collecting point of view, although almost all post-GPO types are to be had second hand for very little money.