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Trail talk: “have you change for the phone?”

How far is your mobile phone from your hand? Could you walk out the house without it? As a youngster, if I was going out for a day down the woods, fishing, messing about with my pals or out for a cycle ride, prior to my leaving the house, invariably my Mum would ask “have you change for the phone?”

The concept of EDC, or Every Day Carry, is nothing new. Most kids out for the day would have a couple of coins rattling around in their pocket. Aged nine or ten I would stick my nose into any phone kiosk I passed, to see if there were any coins sitting in the ‘returned coins’ slot. When I went out for the day at weekends and during school holidays it was almost always for the day. After a snatched breakfast I would shoot out the door, I had mates to meet, fish to catch, trees to climb. I rarely returned for lunch, instead going home for my tea around five. If I was late, perhaps having roamed too far, my mum expected a call. That was what the four ‘New Pence’ sitting in my pocket were for. Or for ’emergencies’, though it was never stated what emergency was expected to befall me. It was always possible to reverse charges- shouting down the phone- “IT’S ME, TELL ‘EM THAT YOU WILL TAKE THE CALL”, I was unheard of course, as all they could hear was the operator asking them if they would accept the call. Reverse charging calls was frowned on, the practice didn’t go down well at all and was regarded as the height of bad manners.

K6 kiosk on the road approaching John O'Groats. In the roll-out years of mobile phones in the UK, coverage could sometimes be patchy in lonely areas. Landlines were crucial for many years, less so  today
K6 kiosk on the road approaching John O’Groats. In the roll-out years of mobile phones in the UK, coverage could sometimes be patchy in lonely areas. Landlines from telephone kiosks were crucial for many years, less so today

The cost of a call from a phone box gradually increased. Ten pence coins became the norm, then pound coins. A pocket of change ‘just in case’ became ever more onerous. It was still important to be so armed though.

On one of my first solo overnight cycle excursions, the wheelhub of my front wheel exploded, crushed under the weight of my hopelessly overloaded camping gear. Chastened, I fished out coins from my pocket and made the call home from a phonebox, My sister was despatched in her car to unburden me and I limped home, momentarily a broken teenager, both mechanically and mentally.

With an O.S. map firmly fixed onto my rear carrier, I cycled the lanes and byways of my Hertfordshire home throughout my teens. c1976
Three Points of the Compass was frequently out on my prized cycle as a teenager. Sadly, the thin rims were not up to my later overloaded attempt at cycle touring
Phonecard advertisement, 1987
Phonecard advertisement, 1987

Years later, I was quite pleased when BT introduced the Phonecard at Christmas 1986, though I was no longer a child then. Unfortunatly for a few years it meant ensuring I was armed both with change and a Phonecard.

With a move toward cashless payment for calls, BT launched their first Phonecard (Cardphone) with a trial in South-East London in May 1981, the trial was widened 28 July 1981 and lasted until April 1982 when the service was rolled out generally. The newly installed phones would not accept coins, just Phonecards. The first advertising card followed in 1986. There were also closed user group cards, such as those working on oil and gas rigs and in H.M. Prisons.

1st issue BT Phonecard. 40 units=£4
1st issue BT Phonecard. 40 units. 1981. Note use of ‘cardphone’ rather than Phonecard

A ‘notch’ was added to the side edge of later card issues to aid the partially sighted in orienting Phonecards during use.

The first generation complimentray Phonecards were distributed free of charge to tease new customers into the new card payment system. Nov. 1985
The first generation complimentray Phonecards were distributed free of charge to tease new customers into the new card payment system. Nov. 1985
Closed user group Phonecard- for use on Oil rigs
Closed user group Phonocard- for use on Oil rigs. Each company had their own version
BT Phonecard for use in Prisons
BT Phonecard for use in Prisons. Cards attained an ‘above face value’ in these institutions and could be used as a unit of currency
For just a couple of years in the mid to late 1980's, the independent traveller in the UK was advised to carry both change for the phone, and a Phonecard. This was prior to any mobile phone service being generally available
For just a couple of years in the mid to late 1980’s, the independent traveller in the UK was advised to carry both a pocket full of change for the phone, and a Phonecard just in case the only phone available was one of the card payphones being rolled out by BT. This was prior to any mobile phone service being generally available
Phonecardplus- opened prepayment to use with just about any phone, not just dedicated BT Phonecard kiosks
Phonecardplus- this opened prepayment for use with just about any phone, not solely dedicated BT Phonecard kiosks

All too often, in dire need, the familiar sight of a phonebox would be seen but on arrival you would be met with the words- ‘Coins not accepted here‘. Of a little more use as an emergency tool were the BT Phonecardplus cards. These could be used at just about any phone. Call the operator or 0800 169 3089 automated service, read out the unique number revealed under the scratch panel on the card’s reverse and place a call up to the stated card value. Obtaining these cards was a doddle. Ring up and complain about just about anything regarding their service and you would get fobbed off by them sending you a complimentary Phonecard or Phonecardplus. A handy addition to the back pocket.

Mercury Communications was a Cable & Wireless company and launched their rival payphone services in the City of London in 1983. Their attractive scroll top pedestal payphones were dotted down Cheapside and passed by me each day while commuting. Payment with these phones was only by Mercurycard or debit/credit card. No cash was accepted.

I never, ever, used one of their phones and they were certainly not something I came across in more rural parts of the country. They were in operation until 1996, when they were phased out, replaced by new chip card technology the same year.

Mercurycard- a rival to BT, operated payphones using GPT magnetic cards in London in 1988 and extended operations to other cities and towns in the UK. 1988
Mercurycard- a rival to BT, operated payphones using GPT magnetic cards in London from 27 July 1988 and extended operations to other cities and towns in the UK. Card issued October 1988
'New' chip cards were introduced by BT in 1996. First issues of these came in an explanatory leaflet
‘New’ chip cards were introduced by BT in 1996. First issues of these came in an explanatory leaflet

It was time for the first big rip-off by BT. In June 1996 BT superceded optical phonecards with the general introduction of their BT Chip Cards.

While BT optical Phonecards had no set expiry date (shown on the reverse), the replacement Chip cards would expire after a period of time.

How many people got caught out attempting to use a card that had been sitting in their wallet or car for ages, to find that it was worthless and unusable? I know I got stung that way.

BT 'chip cards'
£2 and £5 BT ‘chip cards’. Sold 1996-2002, following trials in 1995. These were available in denominations of 50p, £1, £2, £5, £10 and £20

Fortunately I was able to regain a little cash by easing open the little green waste bins that BT had installed into their KX100 kiosks for used cards. There was a new hobby exciting the public, short-lived that it was. Fusilately referred to collecting the different Phonecard types. There were hundreds of often quite attractive pictorial cards along with the less interesting green ‘definitive’ cards. I placed a short advert in a collector’s magazine, bundled up mixed groups of twenty used cards retrieved from kiosk waste bins, and made a few hundred quid by selling them to collectors.

Time for the next big rip off from BT- In 2002 they decided to scrap Phonecards. From £74 million annual sales at their height, it had reduced to £7.2 million in 2001. Phonecards came off sale in October 2002 but existing cards could still be accepted by phones for a few months after that. But it was not possible to redeem unused credit by any means other than making a call.

BT Chargecard
BT Chargecard. 1993

In the 1990’s BT had attempted another form of payment for phone calls. The product was called a Chargecard. This was a credit card which billed calls to a nominated home or business account. Simply call 414 from any BT phone and follow the instructions of the recorded message. It wasn’t all rosy though. A dispute with the regulator Oftel developed when BT were accused of keeping Chargecard calls artificially low by subsidising the service. Following this, BT altered their charging structure. As a result, some call charges tripled. The product was withdrawn in 2018.

This is unsurprising as the widespread introduction and adoption of mobile phones had already changed everything. Early phones were expensive and often a bit suspect. Though battery life was fantastic as they did little more than make a phone call. The various phone companies worked on their UK coverage and public use of phone kiosks dropped like a stone. This resulted in BT being left with a massive millstone of a kiosk portfolio. Few of them see much use- both general wear and tear as well as vandalism occur and the network of kiosk landlines is pretty expensive to maintain. Many of the kiosks that dot our landscape are part of our cultural history however and I look at a number of these in another post.

Samsung S20+ 5G mobile phone. 2020
Motorola International 7500 GSM 900 'flip phone' from 1995. With extending ariel and a flip open cover over the keys. The MicroTAC was a digital phone that evolved out of an analogue phone. This 'brick' had been left behind when Nokia shot ahead with adopting the emerging GSM standard
Motorola International 7500 GSM 900 ‘flip phone’ from 1995. With extending ariel and a flip open cover over the keys. The MicroTAC was a digital phone that evolved out of an analogue phone. This ‘brick’ had been left behind when Nokia shot ahead with adopting the emerging GSM standard

Thankfully we have left all this carrying of coins and cards nonsense behind us. Mobile phone coverage is pretty good now. It covers just about all of the UK with just a few lonelier spots where we still struggle to obtain a signal. Certainly we are almost never reduced to looking for a landline telephone kiosk and struggling to find a fistful of change or a prepaid phonecard to say- “mum, I’ll be late home for tea“.

Further resources:

The collector of BT Phonecards was left out in the cold when BT abandoned this service. No more cards were produced and the bottom fell out of the collector market and what used to sell for a lot of money now sells for very little.

Optical phonecards remain interesting however, if only as an anomaly within telecommunications and social history. A small number of books were published when fusilately was at its peak. Most were written by the established authority and pioneer of the hobby- S.E.R.Hiscocks. An extremely generous man with his time when corresponding with impudent and inquisitive annoyances such as Three Points of the Compass.

S.E.R.Hiscocks

However the most complete and recent volume, albeit published in 2001, is the MV Cards volume shown here. Any values indicated in this catalogue are now a nonsense.

World Phonecard Catalogue. United Kingdom 1, by Stanley Cranworth & Victoria Ripley
World Phonecard Catalogue, National Series, United Kingdom 1. British Telecom Optical Cards. MV Cards. 2001, Stanley Cranworth & Victoria Ripley

There is also an excellent website that provides a considerable amount of interesting history.

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