Ringing the Change: Post Office promotion of the telephone and telegraph service, 1925-1939

On Thursday 8 November the BPMA are delighted to host our guest speaker, David Hay, Head of Heritage at BT Group PLC. David Hay will be exploring the radical change in Post Office telephone marketing strategy in the 1930s in a talk entitled Ringing the Change.

"Telephone rates" publicity leaflet, c. 1930 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 9)

“Telephone rates” publicity leaflet, c. 1930 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 9)

Between 1925 and 1928 the Post Office invested almost £1 million a month in the telephone network as it began the roll-out of automatic telephone exchanges, enabling subscribers to make local calls directly without involving a telephone operator. The result of this new technology, together with the introduction of new mass-produced telephone instruments using early plastics, was that the cost of having a telephone gradually began to fall. The Post Office also introduced new services during this period, such as the first transatlantic radio telephone service in 1926, direct telephone communications with countries in Europe and the expansion of the public telephone kiosk network.

Cover of Automatic Exchange leaflet (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 637).

Cover of Automatic Exchange leaflet (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 637).

However, much of this innovation went unnoticed by the public. Indeed, despite the enormous investment in new technology, there was widespread concern by 1931 that Britain was lagging behind other countries in Europe in the take-up of the telephone. Up to 25 per cent of the capacity of the telephone network was lying idle.

"Always at your service", telephone service publicity poster designed by Austin Cooper, 1934 (BT Archives, TCB 319/PRD 76).

“Always at your service”, telephone service publicity poster designed by Austin Cooper, 1934 (BT Archives, TCB 319/PRD 76).

This richly illustrated talk will explore the early attempts of the Post Office to address this and to market the telephone to a wider part of society then before, efforts which were revolutionised in 1933 by the recruitment of Sir Stephen Tallents as the Post Office’s first Public Relations Officer. The decade before the Second World War was in many ways a golden period for GPO marketing, not least in the publicity machine unleashed by Tallents who had a passionate belief in the role of the arts promoting what were then Government services. Tallents and his team commissioned artists, designers, film makers and photographers to project a modern view of the Post Office to its customers and to its own employees.

"Come on the telephone", telephones publicity leaflet, c1933 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 3)

“Come on the telephone”, telephones publicity leaflet, c1933 (BT Archives, TCB 318/PH 3)

The result was that by the end of the inter-war era many of the GPO’s products and services – such as the Jubilee red telephone kiosk designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, the Speaking Clock and the 999 Emergency Service – had become iconic parts of the nation’s cultural fabric, and remain so to this day. And the Post Office itself, which entered the decade criticised on all sides for failing to promote its telecommunications services and communicate its role generally, was ultimately respected as a national asset vital to the country’s success.

We hope you will join us for what promises to be a fascinating talk!

Tickets are £3 per head or £2.50 for concessions, and can be bought on the door on the night or you can book tickets online.

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