Telephones in Blenheim


When I see young folk walking along the footpath and communicating with their friends using text messages on their cell phones, I realise how far telephone communication has come in my lifetime. Between 1938 and 1942 we lived in a small settlement of about five houses and, if my parents wanted to contact anyone by phone, they walked about 750m to a farmer's house and asked if they could use his phone.

L.M. Ericsson & Co. 1916 telephone from house in  Marlborough Sounds. Image courtesy of Marlborough Museum - Marlborough Historical Society Inc[E.Mallet remembers similar phones in her grandparents’ houses. The handle on  right was given one long ring to get the exchange to ring out, or activated in the `call sign` of a neighbour on the same line] Click image to enlarge
Manual telephone switchboard from the Blenheim telephone Exchange (35 line telephone exchange equipment ex New Zealand Post Office) c.1930. This switchboard can be seen at the Marlborough Museum [image Image courtesy of Marlborough Museum - Marlborough Historical Society Inc]
Click image to enlarge

On moving into Blenheim in 1943 we bought a house with a phone installed. As new telephone numbers were unavailable for new installations we were very fortunate in that the phone wasn't removed and given to someone with a priority. Our number was a simple 2008 and we could dial automatically to any other local number on the automatic exchange. Being the fortunate possessors of one of the few phones in our area, we would have requests from neighbours to make calls using our phone. These were hardly private as the phone was fixed to the wall in the hallway and the user had to stand all the time to speak into it. No moving about to a comfortable, quiet spot as nowadays.  In winter the hallway was pretty cold so that probably limited time spent talking!

Both sets of grandparents were on the older type of manual phones and calls to them had to be made through the local exchange. Their numbers were 326M and 338W and the exchange would put their calls through using their morse code signal - M was two long rings and W was one short and two long rings. There were several people on the 326 and 338 party lines  and all had a different call sign. Anyone on the same line could call another by ringing their call sign through, without going through the exchange. Some of these lines, particularly in the country areas had five or more people on the same line, and as only one person could use the line at a time, this called for consideration in use of the phone. If the exchange was busy a caller may have to wait for a short time for someone to answer and then put through their call to the desired number.

Any calls outside the area covered by the Blenheim Exchange would have to go through the Toll Office. Sometimes if the operators there were busy, the caller would be requested to give the number and a toll operator would phone back later when he or she had got the required number in Wellington or wherever. Toll calls were cheaper between 6pm and 8am so most private calls were made during those hours. Telephone calls to anyone outside New Zealand were practically non-existent for private people.

After World War II telephones were more readily available, but for many years they were fixed in one place in the house. Occasionally people had two phones installed each in separate parts of the house. The cordless phones of today have only become available in recent years.

2013. Updated May 2020

Note:  The first telephone system was opened in Blenheim in 1887 with 33 subscribers; the first automatic exchange in 1920 and by 1967 there were 4600 subscribers.1 The first call was made through the new Blenheim telephone exchange in 1967.

Sources used in this story

  1. 1960's shakes up life in Blenheim (2011, February 16) Marlborough Express

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Further sources - Telephones in Blenheim


  • Watters, F. (1973) New Zealand telephone offices : a brief history of telecommunications in New Zealand and a comprehensive list of Telegraph or Telephone Offices (not associated with Post Offices) ever open. Auckland : Postal History Society of New Zealand
  • Wilson, A.C. (1994) Wire and wireless : a history of telecommunications in New Zealand, 1860-1987. Palmerston North, N.Z. : Dunmore Press



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