In the United Kingdom, until 1982, there was only one place you could go to if you wanted a telephone in your house: The General Post Office. (There was a slight exception to this rule: the magical realm of Kingston upon Hull, which until recently still had the country’s only remaining municipally owned telephony.)
The rest of us, though, had to go to the Post Office to rent our telephones. (Of course you couldn’t buy them. And they were still the sort that had dials.) You’d talk to the Post Office about the heady luxury of having a telephone line installed, and they would kindly put you on a waiting list, on which you could languish for months.
(Kenneth Baker, an architect of the Thatcher government, claims “hundreds of thousands” of people were left waiting for an ordinary telephone connection.)
I can certainly remember waiting weeks. And then some more weeks. Yes, the nationalised industries were never a byword for slick efficiency. However, at least they did not try to sell you PPI.
In 1980, the telecommunications business of the Post Office received its own name: British Telecommunications, after the Government had decided to separate our phones and our letters.
If that wasn’t exciting enough, the next year, 1981, was truly momentous. British Telecommunications completely severed its links with the Post Office and became a separate public corporation. Giddy with the pace of change, this was the same year in which British Telecom allowed you to buy your telephone rather than rent it.
The Post Office monopoly came to an end in 1984, the same year that British Telecom became a public limited company (plc) and the Government started to sell its shares to the public.
Now, you can pick up your telephone from a shop and choose from a host of providers.
But it makes me smile when I see our street furniture still engraved with Post Office Telephones. The Post Office responsible for telephones? Seems a strange idea. But the people who made this monument probably thought this state of affairs would last forever.
Why wouldn’t it? After all, in its own street-cred way, it has.