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A Time When Phones Were Just Phones

The telephone has come a very long way, just in our lifetime!

In the 50s and 60s when very few residences had the phone connected, any necessary calls were made from a red public phone box, found dotted around the suburbs of Adelaide.

Photo courtesy of Adam Lockhead. "“I can certainly remember those phones, quite often with the damn cord, cut, & only to drive/walk to another, hoping the same fate would not happen!"

Photo courtesy of Adam Lockhead. ““I can certainly remember those phones, quite often with the damn cord, cut, & only to drive/walk to another, hoping the same fate would not happen!”

Most had the phone book missing, had that faint smell of urine and many didn’t work because they’d been vandalised. You needed a pocket full of 10c and 20c coins, press button A when the party you were calling answered, or press button B if you hadn’t been able to get through.

How on earth did we survive without a mobile phone? And if I remember rightly you had to ring an operator to call interstate on an STD call, and rare overseas calls were very expensive.

I was recalling those primitive telephone days earlier this morning when reading an article in the Advertiser; “Texting Kills Phone Calls” which goes on to reveal that making a call is now only the sixth most common use for a mobile phone, according to recent statistics.

Sending and receiving text messages, reading emails, browsing the internet and using the phone’s alarm clock have all overtaken actual conversation. In fact, almost four in 10 smartphone users believe they could manage without a call function on their handset at all.

The study found the average person uses their mobile phone for an hour and 52 minutes a day. Most of this time is taken up with texting, emails and surfing the web, but around 20 minutes will be spent making an average of three calls.

“…..At the third stroke it will be six eleven p m precisely”. Remember ringing up to get the weather forecast? And there was dial-a-prayer too.

Photo courtesy of Mort Hanson As kids we'd button B in the hope somebody had left behind a shilling, which would buy a big paper bag of mixed lollies at the corner deli.

Photo courtesy of Mort Hanson As kids we’d button B in the hope somebody had left behind a shilling, which would buy a big paper bag of mixed lollies at the corner deli.

As kids, when we’d ride our bikes past a public telephone box, we would rush inside to press button B in the hope somebody had left behind a shilling, which would buy a big paper bag of mixed lollies at the corner deli.

Stories of how to get free calls from the public phone were always a great topic as a teenager. Llewellyn Jones recalled recently in an ARW Facebook post, “As kids, we found there were a number of ways to get free calls on the old PMG ‘A’ and ‘B’ button public telephones. One way was to put your money in, press the ‘B’ button when they answered to get the coin back, then shout in the earpiece rather than the mouthpiece and the party on the other end could hear you faintly. 
You could also ring 1100 and speak to the operator, tell her you had no money and if she was sympathetic, she would connect you without charge.
The other method was to ‘flash dial’, where you would quickly flick the cradle of the telephone the number of times of each digit, for example, if you were dialling 2-0-3, you would quickly flick the cradle twice, then a brief pause, then ten fast flicks, pause, then three times. That way you could bypass the need for coins altogether.”

Red public phone boxes, found dotted around the suburbs of Adelaide.

Red public phone boxes, found dotted around the suburbs of Adelaide. Photo courtesy

Pamela Jane SchrierI wrote “I can certainly remember those phones, quite often with the damn cord, cut, & only to drive/walk to another, hoping the same fate would not happen! Sometimes, they would be ‘chokkers’ with coins, you couldn’t fit another in, to make your call.”

And as she concluded, “Oh, thank technology, for the MOBILE PHONE. You don’t need a pocket full of coins any more.”

18 Responses to A Time When Phones Were Just Phones

  1. Peter H September 15, 2015 at 11:27 pm #

    I worked for Telstra for 26 years on customer maintenance. The Jolly Green Giant as we called it was manufactured by Anritsu in Japan. It was originally made of aluminium sheet but the Australian contract called for it to be made in 3/16 in mild steel to prevent vandalism….Why asked the Japanese?…What’s vandalism?…evidently it didnt occur there at that time.
    Various modifications were made including a hardened steel shroud over the coin safe lock….the introduction of cordless drills allowed for the lock to be drilled out and the coin box stolen.
    Many a Saturday shift would be spent cleaning up broken glass and visiting phones with cut handset cords and missing coin boxes. A later modification was a handset cord with a steel shroud to prevent cutting it…but they managed to find a way.
    Then came the iteration of the first coin/card phone….another wonderful choice…not

  2. Greg Forbes September 14, 2017 at 3:35 pm #

    Does anyone know where i can get an old A B button phone set to go in my old phone box

    • Justin O'Connor March 11, 2018 at 8:50 am #

      Hi Greg
      Yes we sell them. 0421904378

      • Peter Jezukaitis January 26, 2020 at 6:24 pm #

        Hi Justin, I am after some identification on an old A B pay phone, it’s the type where the A and B labels are riveted on. I am after Keys and done restoration advice. There appears to a a hole drilled in the lower panel.

      • Gary May 19, 2022 at 12:50 pm #

        Hi Justin,
        I am looking for an old A/B Box for my Red Phone Box.

        Would you have any for sale or know of any?

        • David November 6, 2022 at 9:22 am #

          And some other ways was the padded pop sticks

  3. Justin O'Connor March 11, 2018 at 8:52 am #

    And by the way you have used an image of a NSW TEMPERATE MODEL as an example of a SOUTH AUSTRALIAN HERITAGE MODEL which are not the same thing. I don’t mind helping you with your information but please don’t use our images without reference to their origin

  4. Kevin Holley October 19, 2018 at 9:07 pm #

    I’m also after the old Ab coin box and GPO 232 telephone and bellbox for my old telephone kiosk k6.

    • Richard Manouge February 21, 2021 at 11:59 am #

      I have the telephone box and A-B phone I have restored How much are you interested in paying for this I can send photos

      • Peter Brambilla May 25, 2021 at 12:08 pm #

        Hi Richard,
        My name is Peter Brambilla, I am after the black A & B phone how much do you want .
        It is going to a good home

      • Gary May 19, 2022 at 12:51 pm #

        Hi Richard,
        Is the AB Box still for sale?

  5. Rob Wright September 9, 2019 at 12:34 pm #

    And don’t forget some naughty kids would carefully place a blockage up the return coin chute so one would believe they lost their money and walk away. The kid would return later and dislodge the blockage.

  6. Peter Pullar September 15, 2019 at 3:07 am #

    Trunk line calls seemed very expensive for me. I was at boarding school in Melbourne and telephone calls to my parents in Ardmona quickly used up all my coins. To make a trunk line call from a public telephone, instead of ringing 011, the normal trunk line number, we had to dial 0176 where the operator would ask us to insert coins and press button A before connecting the call. Dialling 011 from a public phone only gave a wrong number tone. So I wondered what would happen if I dialled 78 to get Frankston exchange and then dialled 011. I tried it and got the trunk line operator. I gave her the phone number of the telephone box. She told me that I was ringing from the wrong area and that I had to ring from the Melbourne exchange. I had found out the phone number of the telephone box by making a key to open the mechanism and looking at the record card in there. I later thought of ringing 78 3 011 to get Melbourne exchange via Frankston exchange. It worked! I gave the operator the phone number that I wanted to call and the phone number of the phone box I was calling from. Some months later I was asked to go to the headmaster’s office. I didn’t know what for until I went in and the headmaster introduced me to two detectives and an engineer from the Postmaster General’s department. They kept asking me who I had found out from how to make the free telephone calls. They just didn’t believe me even though the headmaster did. Eventually after what seemed a very long time I was allowed to go. Apparently one of the other schoolboys was caught making a 15 minute phone call to Sydney. He hung up the phone when the operator came on the line but the operator got his details from the other person on the call. I also heard that one of those people from the PMG asked the headmaster what they should do about me and he told them that they should give me a scholarship. The other boys had to pay for their calls as they all used the one public phone for all their calls. However as I always made my calls from different public telephones, there were no records of my calls. Within a day, dialling 783011 resulted in a wrong number tone instead of a call to the trunk line operator.

  7. Greg May 17, 2020 at 6:37 am #

    I remember the old A,B, public telephone inside a small room, the size of a toilet, at mallala post office, in the late 70s. In about 1982, the town was provided with a new phone box, fitted with the latest ct2, fat green model with the coin warning lamp, this phone was subject to vandalism from the local hayford kids, who poured softdrink down the coinslot, melted the warning lamp & handset with a lighter, & smashed the glass…buggers they were. I’ve been told that the old A,B telephone is still in that small room at mallala post office, & the door was simply shut & locked, & painted over. Apparently the key went to the grave with postmaster grantham,& no one has ever attempted to open the door in all these years. I want to see if that phone is still in there.

  8. Gary May 19, 2022 at 1:00 pm #

    Would anyone know of an old A/B box for sale.

    I am happy to pay a premium for a good one or one that needs restoring as I am restoring a Red Phone Booth and need the phone to complete the restoration.

    Any help would be appreciated.

  9. Merv June 15, 2022 at 8:59 pm #

    I remember as teenagers jamming paper up the coin return shoot and hope no one would find it and go back later and see if there were any coins. Naughty naughty

  10. Steve Wray November 28, 2022 at 10:54 am #

    Those are not pictures of Adelaide public phones. The A-B phones were in the U.K., not Adelaide.

    I lived in Adelaide from March 1954 to January 1972. As the article mentions, most people did not have a phone at home. We didn’t until 1969.

    I regularly used a local phone box (in Warradale). The booth certainly did smell of weewee, but it was not overpowering. Calls within Adelaide cost 4d. There was a rack on the top of the phone with room for four pennies in a row. (The pennies were very large.) You placed the pennies in the rack, dialed the number, and when there was an answer, you pressed a button and the pennies rolled into the phone. There was no timer (unlike the greedy U.K. phones) and you could talk for as long as you liked.

  11. George September 26, 2023 at 9:55 pm #

    Like a lot of people looking to purchase a A and B coin operated phone to complete a reproduction phone booth I have just completed if any one can help it would be much appreciated

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