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Telegrams in Britain
in the 1930s

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Why people sent telegrams

For ordinary people, very few of whom were on the phone, telegrams were the only way to get urgent messages through fast.

But there was another reason for sending a telegram. In the 1930s it was often difficult to attend events that one was invited to. This was because cars were rare luxuries. So travelling long distances normally involved taking a bus to the local railway station, then a train journey - frequently changing trains in London - and a bus at the other end. When someone had to decline a wedding invitation, it was customary to show enthusiasm and support for the event by sending a greetings telegram. This was timed to arrive so that the the best man could it out to all the guests as part of this speech at the reception.

This practice like so many others, was interrupted during World War Two. I remember it well in the early 1950s when it was common practice for the best man to read out quite a number of telegrams. Then it gradually died out as faster technologies were developed.

This page shows the greetings telegrams sent for my parents' wedding in 1938.

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How to send a telegram in mid-20th century Britain

To send a telegram, the sender had to go to a Post Office; the Post Office staff had to tap a message into a telegraph machine; the message was received over telegraph wires at the destination Post Office where it was either printed out on tape or rewritten by hand; then a delivery boy, known as a telegraph boy had to cycle to the destination address to deliver it. So sending a telegram was expensive.

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Postal charges, 1930s Britain

Postal charges for sending a normal telegram are listed in old money in an old Pocket Companion as: 9 words 6d (to and within J.F.S., 12 words, 1/6). Every additional word, 1d. Names and addresses charged for. Free delivery within 3 miles. 6d a mile beyond. 

I am grateful to Jennifer Hart for information on the meaning of J.F.S. According to an old book entitled International Code of Signals it means 'communication by telegraph', although what the initials actually stand for is still a mystery.

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Regular telegrams and greetings telegrams - examples

1938 greetings telegram issued by the British GPO (General Post Office, thumbnail

Greetings telegram, 1938.

1938 greetings telegram commonly used for sending wedding greetings, issued by the British GPO (General Post Office), thumbnail

Greetings telegram, 1938.

1938 standard style telegram issued by the British GPO (General Post Office), thumbnail

Standard style telegram on cheap paper sent as a greetings telegram, 1938.

Three designs of telegram were sent as greetings at my parents' wedding in July 1938. Two were decorative and presumably cost more than the standard sort which was normally sent only in emergencies. Presumably senders chose the style of the greetings telegram at the time of sending, although whether their choice would be available at the destination Post Office was probably uncertain.

The centre design in the above pictures was by far the most popular; there were only two of the first style and only one of the standard style. Whether the sender of the standard style selected it on the basis of cost or whether the destination Post Office ran out of greeting forms can only be guessed at.

Stamp of Post Office receiving the telegram, showing date received and location of the Post Office, in this case 9 July 1939 at West Wratting, Cambridgeshire, England

Stamp of post office receiving the telegram, showing the date received and the location of the Post Office.

It is interesting to note that all the telegrams were handwritten by the staff at the destination Post Office. The West Wratting receiving Post Office was small in an extremely rural village which would not have had the latest equipment to print out the message onto paper tape.

The enlarged images show that the Post Office wrote the standard telegram in pencil, whereas they wrote the greetings telegrams in ink, seemingly - but somewhat unsuccessfully - trying to make them look neater and more professional.

You may be surprised that the address of the recipients is given as a Post Office rather than a personal address. It was actually 'The Old Post Office', the house where my mother's parents lived, which had formerly been a regular Post Office.

Gold coloured envelope used for sending out greetings telegrams prior to WW2

Greetings telegrams were sent out in gold-coloured envelopes. Photographed in Milton Keynes Museum..

Note the brevity of the messages - which can be read clearly in the enlarged images. Telegrams were charged per word, so every attempt was made to keep the number of words down. Eventually a form of shorthand developed, not unlike that used in text messages today.

1937 UK greetings telegram showing the message received on teletype strip and stuck onto the greetings paper- thumbnail

1937 greetings telegram, courtesy of Jill Gaisford. Click for a larger image.

On the right is a telegram sent a year earlier in 1937 to send greetings on the first anniversary of a marriage. It is of particular interest because it shows the message in teletype rather than as handwriting. This would have been because the receiving Post Office, Edgware, was relatively new with what was then the modern technology which the rural Post Office in West Wratting lacked. The message was received on a teletype paper strip and stuck onto the greetings paper.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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