My first recollection of the telephone was when our family acquired one in 1935. I was ten years old at the time but telephones were of little or no practical use to us children in those days because, in the first instance, it was clearly stated by parental authority that its use was for adults only. And then, who would we telephone anyway?
Later reflections on the introduction of telephones into houses convinced me that their sale to householders was not, as one might have thought, a marketing dream. The range of a typical family’s activities was greatly limited by transport restrictions when we were growing up and so we tended to have social contacts within the area we lived. We had quick contact either by walking or cycling. Relatives too mostly lived within reach by bus or local train; the tempo of social life was really too slow for the use of such an instant communicator as the telephone. Some people saw it as intrusive, others, cumbersome to operate.
There were no automatic exchanges to begin with. One had to contact a telephone switchboard operator who was sometimes not immediately available. Then one asked for the number required and waited to be connected. Although a novelty, it was often a slow process and, once connected, there was always the feeling that someone was listening in to the conversation.
It is probable that the growing number of middle-class house owners saw this new idea as a convenience to check with ageing parents or, for the office worker father to telephone about any delays in getting home in the evenings or, the housebound mother to ring to ask the father to pick up some item on his way home. I had the impression that the first main use of the domestic telephone was within the family rather than with friends or acquaintances.
When a critical mass of sales volume had been built up in a neighbourhood local automatic exchanges were built and this changed many aspects of the relationship between the supplier and the customer. No longer were humans employed to process local calls. It was therefore considered reasonable not to charge for these. There was a standing charge payable for having this sort of service and, although local calls were free there were charges for other than local calls. These were known as long-distance calls and the greater the distance within the country the higher the charges. Overseas calls were initially unobtainable and one went along to the main local post office to make these at what seemed to be indeterminable delays linked with very high costs.
The phone numbers were pre-fixed by letters denoting the area location and our new, finger dialling, phone number was BEC 3166. BEC was for Beckenham and we were the 3,166th registered user.
For as long as the local calls were chargeable we children were forbidden to use the phone and it was some time after automation occurred for the ‘penny to drop,’ that this embargo could well be lifted. This was eventually done but it seemed to me, only reluctantly. But we had very few opportunities to call anyone and this annoyed us so a scheme was devised whereby we searched through the new phone book for peculiar or unusual names. These were noted and ridiculed. Our first attempt to go beyond this point was when we found the name SMELLEY. The temptation was too great and we dialled the number. The plan was that when the phone was answered one of us would ask, ‘are you Smelley?’ And with an affirmative reply, the follow up would be, ‘what are you going to do about it?’ But, whichever one of us it was holding the phone with the others crowded around, the dammed-up head of mirth exploded prematurely and we were doubled up with wild laughter before the critical words were spoken. The phone was quickly and somewhat fearfully put back on its cradle as though any delay would leave traceable evidence.
We were unable to keep this mighty joke to ourselves and it was not long before one of us told Ma; she re-acted with a mixture of scandalized amusement but, as always, she checked with Pa who too could see the funny side. In spite of this further such calls were firmly forbidden.
Although using a telephone proved to be a skill that all young people eventually acquired I was never very adept at the social side. It was only later when I used the telephone at work did I feel more comfortable with it. I found it to be a medium where one can paint images or pitch nuances that one might hesitate to use in face to face encounters and certainly never at a social level. Thus, I was often able to get people to commit to a course of action or influence their thinking with verbal dexterity. In a way it was the beginning of developing a new way of expressing myself through my work at a time when I was often socially inhibited.

APRIL 1935