The Way We Were: Hello, Operator?

High Street, Fenny Stratford.''MPMC WK26 M11

High Street, Fenny Stratford.''MPMC WK26 M11

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Historian John Taylor takes us off down memory lane

Or so it seems, when frequently summoned for taxi or mobile money ‘lending’ services. And of course on entering the vehicle ‘texting’ takes immediate precedence, with the only nod to one’s existence being an incredulous glance, in response to such pleasantries as “How’s school?”

Yes, I really don’t know how my generation ever managed without mobile phones. And the phones that we had were certainly not mobile, with the public versions being enshrined in elaborate temples of cast iron and glass, and the domestic versions, after a deferential approach to the Post Office, and the tingling anticipation of a six month wait, being a thing of eternal reverence. Around which like Pavlov’s dogs the whole family would expectantly salivate, when summoned by its ring.

Bletchley had first made the acquaintance of this new fangled speaking device in the late 19th century, when in July 1888 permission was granted for the United Telephone Co Ltd to erect ‘posts and wires’ in the parish. As for the use of the device, it proved a handy means for a local chess club to compete in games with a Dunstable club, by telephoning the moves.

Then around 1902 the Post Office installed a public telephone service to Bletchley and Fenny Stratford, but with only those of sufficient means and status having the need for such an instrument, the famous jockey Mornington Cannon became the fourth of the 20 subscribers in 1906, when a telephone was installed at his home of Brooklands.

The first telephone exchange in the town was in the Aylesbury Street post office, in the home of Mrs. Fortescue, and one of the first two telephone operators would be Ethel Grant from London, who in 1909 married Alfred Staniford. Along Bletchley Road the telephone wires were carried aloft on wooden poles, but in early 1919 heavy snowfalls brought down all but about two of these. Therefore, it was decided to lay an underground cable on the south side of Bletchley Road, and work began in 1920. Not that there seemed much demand, for by the opinion of one local councillor most residents ‘could not now, or ever’ need a phone, and it was deemed sufficient for a public call box to be installed at the post office.

Following the second world war, with the beginnings of the migration from London the need arose for a new exchange. The original idea in 1952 had been to site the exchange on top of the Post Office in Bletchley Road, but since the council had gone to a lot of trouble securing a site at the corner of Church Street and Victoria Road, their will prevailed.

With the continuing arrival of the London ‘overspill’ the town was rapidly expanding, and in 1958 the area telephone manager would be asked to consider placing telephone boxes on the Rivers and Castles estates. In fact by 1961 there was an annual demand in the town for 180 telephones, expanding the present customer base of 986, and in 1964 the question arose of a suitable site in Bletchley for a telephone engineering centre, as required by the Postmaster General. However, the council had agreed to lease a site in Tavistock Street, which was no longer required by Henry Sykes Ltd, and thus the telephone manager of the Bedford area asked the council to make houses available for the staff being brought in from outside. From September 29, 1967 about 2,500 telephone subscribers in Bletchley would be able to use STD, and in the 1970s the telephone exchange was massively expanded into its present form.