Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Highriser on old phones

My blog is turning into a history book instead of a personal diary. Well, if I don't do anything much, I can't write about it.

I am not old enough to remember Melbourne's alpha numeric telephone numbers, such as this one in an old ad in my very old street directory, BJ4211. I certainly remember the letters being on the dials of telephones though. What was the purpose of these letters? They don't seem to correspond to an area or telephone exchange. Why not just use the numbers?

To use one of the old dial telephones was a joy. They had a beautiful smooth mechanism to dial with which made a lovely sound and then came along the el cheapo plastic telephones, with nasty cheap dials. They were still quite heavy though compared to modern phones. I pulled one apart one day to see how it worked. It looked complicated.

As a country lad, dial phones were a luxury. We had to turn a handle to call the local general store, come post office, come telephone exchange and be manually connected to the world. If we wanted to call our grandmother, turn the handle and ask for the number. We would be then connected to the Moe telephone exchange and then Melbourne and then my grandmother's. This was an improvement on the original when we first moved to the country and had to go through another exchange, almost next door to us. So, next door, then the general store, then Moe, then Melbourne, then the number. Earlier it went through Warragul instead of Moe. Making a telephone call was a big deal back then and not something to be taken lightly. I think it cost quite a lot to make a trunk call, later an STD (snigger) call.

My mother used to call my grandmother, her mother, every three or four days. At some point when the bank manager was in a bad mood and making a fuss, my father said economies must prevail and killed a fattened calf for meat and complained about the telephone bill. I have never been fond of veal since. He was ignored, as the telephone bill no doubt came under the heading of 'give my daughter whatever she wants', in return for my grandfather financing the farm.

Our phone back then was on a party line, with five others. Two big batteries, roughly the size of soft drink cans, sat in a box on the floor. I don't think they were ever changed. Perhaps they were for emergency or something. Our ring was a short ring, followed by two long rings. If you wanted to call someone on the party line, you had to know their ring. I remember short short short was one neighbour's. You could pick the phone up when others were engaged in a call and listen, but they would know someone was listening as there was a click as they picked up the receiver. The local operator with her smooth switches and quiet breathing listened in to all. The polite thing to do before making a call was to pick up the phone and say 'using', to check if anyone else was on the party line, without actually listening to a conversation.

Our telephone number was 41W, no doubt prefaced by a telephone exchange name.

My grandmother's phone number was 57 5612. South Oakleigh phone numbers are still similar 9579 xxxx.

When I first met R and he lived in St Kilda, his prefix was 34. ie 34xxxx, later a 5 was added, 534, then the ubiquitous 9, 9534. Somehow I think the need to keep adding more land line phone number prefixes has passed.

(I just checked with R to confirm some of this and he produced an address book from when he first left the UK. Who was that, I kept asking when I saw an unfamiliar name. Mostly he knew but sometimes the reply was, no idea)

So what inspired this post? I looked up Myer's website today and I saw the phone number,
9661 1111. When the rest of Melbourne had six digit phone numbers, some Melbourne city businesses had five digits, and I am sure Myer's was 6 1111 or 61 111, same I know but I can't recall how it was written.

One last thought. Some country telephones did not even have a handle to turn. You just picked up the handset and were connected to an operator. Old American movies where a caller would press the rest or buttons over and over again to try to get the operator made no difference here.


  1. We had one of those delicious black Bakelite phones you could hammer nails with and build your biceps just by picking up the receiver.
    I could never figure out the letters above the numbers either lol.

    I know Oakleigh and Sth Oakliegh quite well, where did your grandmother live?

  2. I love the old movies with the operators...especially the English ones..they spoke so very proper and dressed just so too.

  3. Yes, the handsets discouraged long conversations Jayne. My grandmother lived in North Road, near the corner of Golf Road with the golf course behind. My grandfather also owned a couple of houses in Oxford Street I think, but sold them upon retirement in about 1958. Fool! His market garden was in Centre Road, which became the Phillips factory. Forget what is there now. Bunnings?

  4. They did Cazzie, but on a telephone operators wage, they must have dabble in prostitution too to afford such nice clothes.

  5. I never used a phone any older than the desktop circular dial ones. The ones that if you had to dial 000 would take 5 minutes to wind back around after each zero.
    We did have an impressive old fashioned phone on the wall that wasn't in use.
    For fun, my dad would get me to touch two points on the phone, then he'd crank the handle over and I'd get an electric shock. Good times.
    I challenge anyone to find me a Nokia that fecilitates that kind of family bonding!

  6. Yeah Jiminy, they would clearly not be suitable for modern days.

    The family that electro tortures together, stays together.

  7. Thank R for me. I thought I was the only one who kept old address books.

  8. Ah Jahteh, but do your remember everyone in them?

  9. The Vice Regal grandchild has a 500 kg phone on her desk to play with here at Yarralumla.

    And yes, my early phone experiences involved 2 longs and 1 short - and the hope that Mrs. McLean at the switchboard at the local store/phone exchange wasn't listening in. (Not that there was much to overhear!)

  10. Being a young 'un, it's too hard to recall anything but the circular diallers. And of course the Marina Prior ads telling us to just add a 9 to the number. Funny thing is that I can remember my first home's phone number as though it was just spoken, but I can barely remember any other numbers. And yes, STD still gets a chuckle!

  11. Mum was still paying rental on the old yellow dial telephone that we hadn't used for nearly 15 years. Only about 2 or 3 years ago she finally got sick of it and lugged the thing down to the local Telstra shop. Telstra was kind enough stop charging her rental too.

    Somewhere along the line my dad picked up a big old black American phone, it's still at home in the cupboard. He worked for quarantine, so he was always bringing home things that he got off ships.

  12. Wait till I tell Steve Irwin about that - taking stuff home from ships! Hang on...

  13. Two longs and a short nowadays sounds like a coffee order M'lord.

    I cannot recall Marina and adding a 9 at all Rob. It wasn't one of your very special dreams was it?

    I bet there are still plenty of people paying rental for a phone they don't use Ben. While we had a new Telecom push button phone at home, we returned an old dial one we found to Telstra and stopped our rental.

  14. My recollection is also that Marina Prior did those new telephone number ads.

    I'm not quite as old to remember the old alphanumeric phone numbers, but I do remember the old public phones i think more common in the country where manual exchanges were still used, the phones had an A and B button and an operator had to put you through to the number. The phone box number we used to call from was 94701M2, which I guess now is something more modern like 03 5794 7... ?

    And yes handset rental was the biggest rort that Telecom/Telstra would inflict onto the public. How many people paid rent every month, year in, year out, for an old rotary dial phone that had been paid for many times over. Telecom/Telstra also used to do another one called "socket maintenance" or some such thing. To cover the cost of replacing a faulty socket. This was as well as any handset or line rental. Another money maker that I would hope is no longer inflicted on customers!!!

  15. Thanks for the comment TVAU. Even city phone boxes had button A and B. You pressed A once the call was answered. But I can also remember models where you sat your five cent piece ready and when the call was answered, you rolled the coin into the slot. Busy at the moment, but your blog looks interesting. Will check it later when I have more time.