Vintage Telephones

London Portrait Magazine (unpublished) – c.1984

Many young Londoners are rebelling against electronic technology, says Christopher Long. Along with fountain pens and wind-up watches they prefer old-fashioned telephones...

By Christopher Long

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As most of us know, today's obsession with electronic wizardry has bred a new and discreetly rebellious creature called a young fogey. It wasn't long ago that a sharp-eyed journalist identified a breed of young men who resolutely refuse to have any truck with digital watches, video recorders, home computers or any of the miracle micro-chippery that the masses have crammed into their homes, offices and cars.

Along with old-fashioned fountain pens, wind-up watches, galoshes, tweedy textiles and bicycle clips, these lovers of a low-tech lifestyle have adopted the old-fashioned black telephone as a cult recognition symbol.

Most favoured of all are the art deco pyramid phones made of black bakelite with chromium-plated dials which were made redundant by the GPO in the mid Fifties. All over the shires bemused squirearchy has watched its offspring eagerly disconnecting these relics of a by-gone telephonic age and carrying them back to fogey flats in Fulham.

So, as the high-tech majority swarm around the ever-growing number of shops selling cordless phones, car phones, Mickey Mouse phones and antique-looking reproduction phones, there is a small scurry among the rebels to snap up the few remaining originals from the Twenties, Thirties and Forties which missed being scrapped by the GPO about thirty years ago.

And there's good sense behind this particular Fifties telephone fetish. I've collected a number of vintage phones ever since the day in 1960 when I managed to persuade kind telephone engineers to give me two phones, batteries, bell-boxes, hand-crank generators and cabling so that a friend and I could set up a private line between our neighbouring houses. To this day I swear their sound quality is better than any modern equipment and the dials are certainly more reliable. What's more, there certainly more stylish that today's grim, light-weight Trimphone which needs to be brutally pinned down with one hand while you dial with the other and whose ridiculous little hand-piece cannot be hooked around one's neck for one those long, leisurely conversations of yesteryear.

Furthermore, now that British Telecom no longer has a monopoly on what we can put on the end of their cables, it's a lot cheaper to wire up granny's old black phone and save yourself the rental charge.

One man who's cashing in on the trend is Malcolm Percival, managing director of Conversations (40 Cavendish Street, London W1) who has been an ardent collector of vintage phones for many years. Although he makes the bulk of his living selling new high-tech equipment and modern gimmick phones, he has accumulated quite a collection of pre-war equipment at his Cheltenham factory which also specialises in manufacturing reproductions. He admits he is only beginning to tap the potential market for the brass and bakelite originals and now ruefully remembers exporting whole container-loads to the States in recent years for next-to-nothing. Hundreds of others were cannibalised, he says, to provide dials for his repros.

Nevertheless, he still manages to find a few of these sought-after 'instruments', as they were often called in Edwardian times, and is busy snapping up whatever is still available.

"Basically there are four types of old bakelite telephones," he says. "The first style in common use was the Candlestick which had a mouthpiece on a stem attached to the base. The ear-piece was on a cord and it hooked onto prongs at the side of the stem when not in use. Although they're usually painted black, they're actually made almost entirely of brass and bakelite. We sell them for about £89 and the original wooden bell-boxes with brass bells are another £12 or so."

"In the late Twenties the GPO introduced a range of the famous Pyramid style (the 200 Series) which were nearly always black although there were also much rarer ones in red, green and white. During the Forties and early fifties they had a small pull-out tray in the base which contained a list of local and national exchange dialling codes. We sell the black ones for around £39, the white ones for about £69 and the red and green ones are almost unobtainable nowadays."

In fact it seems that the red phones were probably only available to senior government officials and certainly Churchill's underground Cabinet War Rooms in Whitehall had an elaborate array of colour-coded phones which lent an air of glamour and derring-do to the dramatic affairs of state that characterised those perilous years.

The colour-coded priority phones continued after the war when the GPO introduced the famous Fifties-style phone (the 300 Series) which, with the bells built into it, was much larger and had a characteristic sharp-edged look. Malcolm Percival has several colours in his collection but can usually only supply them in black at around £22 or white at £49.

The final category of vintage phones is the curious style that was found in Hull, Yorkshire. Then as now, Hull had its own privately operated phone company which was unique in Britain. Hull's inter-war phones were small and sat on squat round bases. Like the GPO, the Hull company exported its equipment very successfully and most of Malcolm Percival's examples (priced at around £29) have come home from Portugal.

Of course there's a potential snag with all this fogey nostalgia. What's going to happen when our exchanges are exclusively push-button and electronic? Then, it seems, the age of the dial will have gone for ever. But, even so, the old phones could still make good extensions. You may have to rely on a gleaming chip-based phone to dial out on and to ring or buzz when someone calls you cordlessly from a car, boat, plane or the flat next door. But there's no reason why you shouldn't use a Candlestick or Pyramid as a non-dialling extension.

Furthermore, if they were good enough for the GPO in days of yore, British Telecom is going to have a tough job demonstrating that they aren't 'BT Approved' – however much they want us to buy their all-singing, all-dancing models.

One BT man who understands the fogey-vogue better than most is Niel Johanneson who is curator at BT's own small Telecom Technology Showcase at Baynard House, Queen Victoria Street London EC4.

"Obviously we're rather interested in showing people our modern achievements," says Mr Johanneson, "but I must admit I find some of the early equipment just as fascinating as most of our visitors do."

Aware of the vogue for phones from the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, he refers enquirers to Malcolm Percival and another phone-freak, Phil Solomons of 'Partyline'.

Solomons spends most of his life scouring the country for interesting examples but says that supplies of red, green and other exotic colours is rapidly drying up.

"I'm having to ask between £100 and £150 for rare colours and models but I can see that these prices will look silly before too long because they're already becoming saleroom collectors' items."

Meanwhile, the new trendies – who are marked out by the fact that they eschew anything they think of as new and trendy – are left with a small dilemma. Will they answer your call on the Red Thirty's, the Black Forty's or the White Fifty's...?

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The author has his own collection of 200 and 300 Series telephones!

© (1984) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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