Over the years, the United Kingdom’s telephone numbering system has changed several times. The reason the numbers have had to change is because of the increase in demand for the darned things.
Before Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD) was introduced, the only way you could make a long-distance call was by getting in touch with a telephone operator. They would connect your calls over the trunks (the links between the exchanges). Oh, the giddy excitement of being to make your own calls!
The UK’s original STD codes were allocated in the late 1950s.
London got the code 01. (Of course.) There we all happily lived for a while, until May 1990. Because of the increasing demand for numbers, London was split into two areas. Inner London got the code 071 and outer London 081. This doubled the numbers available for the London area because now you could have, for example, 071 222 2222 as well as 081 222 2222.
Bit random, perhaps. Why not north and south? Or east and west?
The 071 / 081 information was conveyed to us by Beattie, the character Maureen Lipman portrayed in one of those incredibly annoying ads (Ology, anyone?) for BT. See, for example, the video at the end of this article.
That happy state didn’t last long. To free up even more numbers for future use, on 16 April 1995 (advertised as “PhONEday”), BT inserted an extra “1” after the initial zero into nearly all of the UK’s area codes. Inner London suddenly became 0171 and outer London was transformed into 0181.
That change didn’t last long, either. In June 1999, a once-more reunited London got a new code: 020. The telephone companies tried to tell people about it using the snappily titled “Big Number Change” campaign. The message didn’t always get through. Where before you had had a seven-digit number (222 2222, say), you now had an eight-digit number: 7222 2222 or 8222 2222 to go with your new area code of 020.
This confused a lot of people.
They persisted in thinking the new London code was either 0207 or 0208, and literally had no idea what their new telephone number was.
Even this BBC article gets the facts wrong.
Perhaps the numbers won’t need to change again now so many of us are ditching the landlines and using our mobile numbers instead.
Still, the dizzying rate of change kept the printers, the sign manufacturers and the poster pasters happy for at least a decade.
If not Londoners.