Thursday, December 29, 2011

Call back in 5 mins !

In the 1960s, there were only 2 public telephones in the whole of Princess Elizabeth Estate.
One was near the market at Philip Walk and the other was at the bus terminus.
Public telephones were not the later era ubiquitous Coinafons but were specially built booths constructed by the Singapore Telephone Board (STB). And STB didn't build many of them in the rural areas!
It was housed in a cabinet with swing doors and had a telephone directory chained inside.

The telephone booth at the bus terminus was initially located on a slope between the bus terminus and Block 21. It was built along a pedestrian desire path that was carved out simply by human foot traffic. Whenever it rained, the path would be muddy and slippery. Because of that, the phone booth was moved a number of times.
First to an open spot by the entrance to the bus terminus. But being in the open, it was once struck by lightning. It was finally positioned next to the bus timekeeper's hut.

My house was actually the nearest one to the public phone booth. Whenever we heard the phone ringing, we would rush to the booth to answer the phone. Back then, the phone was the most exciting electronic gadget around, akin to the iPad today!  It was exciting to know that the phone was ringing.  Not many households had telephones in the 1960s.

It was no secret that in those days, the public phones were duplex instruments, i.e. it could both make and receive calls like any other phone.  The caller would say "Please go and call house no. 122A or house xxx" and we would reply " Ok wait I go call them!" and then run off to get the tenant being ask for. The tenant would then rush back to answer the call at the phone booth.
Occasionally, when the house was a bit farther away, we would say "Call back in 5 mins" and go the longer distance to inform the tenants that a call would be coming in 5 mins for them.

No, I was not the errant boy who answered every call, but in those days kids were always playing about, and to all of us answering and getting the caller was like a big game.

My family had a STB rotary phone installed around 1963. The number was 65232.  And the very first call that came in to this phone was made from the public telephone at the bus terminus! It was such a big event back then. I remembered neighbours would constantly come over to  'borrow your phone?"

Our first telephone was similar to this.
Photo by Jeffrey Abdullah. Used by permission.

(This article is an expansion of a comment I made on Lam Chun See's blog Good Morning Yesterday)


  1. Hi! Thanks for your blog! It really brought me right back to my childhood days! I still remember the single-storey houses (which were near the bus terminus) and Princess Elizabeth Pr school which was just right behind the terminus too! Thanks for your amazing sharing. :)

  2. AnonymousJune 26, 2015

    Hi James, Its nice to see the STB rotary telephone photo on your blog. I am so happy giving you
    permission using the picture. I hope you are good and well. I have a question to ask? Since I googled about old Singapore, I do came across some photos that show Singapore had yellow-top Mercedes Benz diesel taxis back then. Were they being assemble in Cycle & Carriage factory back then? What were the models of the taxis? I am really keen to know this information. Thank you. Jeffery Abdullah. :)

  3. Hi Jeffrey, I am afraid I can't answer that question for you. When I worked at C&C, the models were the W123 type MB which were petrol engined and not used for taxis. The black and yellow taxis were basically the Type W111 which had the round lamps and usually of the 190D or 200D models. I hope that helps you.

  4. How interesting! In 196 I moved to the Chancery Lane area. We too had a phone in 1963. The number was 65385 :)