A Trip Down Memory Lane (To the Days When Tax Inspectors Answered the Phone)

Philip Fisher
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As a prelude to a series of pre-Christmas articles enthusing about the latest desirable technological must-haves, here is a reminder of how backward we were 30 or so years ago.

We all spend so much time running around that it is very easy to forget about how much technology has changed our working and playing lives in just a single generation.

Arguably, more has happened in the last 30 years to put a smile on people's faces even than in equivalent eras when, for example, cars and aeroplanes were seen for the first time.

If you were transported back in time to the early 1980s (Apple is developing that technology at the moment) you might be surprised to discover what got our ancestors excited.


Everybody watched television programmes at the time of broadcast on the four available channels. There were no repeat or satellite channels and the only way of recording a programme to watch later was on videotape. Even then, the picture quality was appalling.

If you wanted to make a telephone call while out and about, there were red boxes that occasionally contained working phones, while receiving one was impossible. Even at home, the telephone could only be used to speak to people who were actually in. Telephone answering machines existed but were rare.

To make a call abroad was possible with direct dial but the cost was prohibitive. Video recording or videoconferencing only existed on Star Trek.

If you wanted to send a communication to a friend or business associate, this would be achieved by means of a typed or handwritten letter. At a push, a telegram was an option and faxes might just about have existed.

The Profession

In the field of accountancy, auditors worked with a raft of different coloured pens and books of account really were books. Legislation exclusively came in paper form and if you wanted to find a tax case, an older partner would have a complete set of 50 or more volumes dating back a century.

Harder to believe for younger readers, Tax Inspectors were based at the local office and answered the phone. They even provided prepaid envelopes for those who needed to respond.

The business was dominated by around 8 major firms, with no thought of consolidating into half that number.

Business Technology

Most offices of the better class would have contained a computer but few would have had more than a handful. Ridiculously underpowered monsters would typically be kept in a computer room and would fill it with comfort.

Typing was carried out on typewriters, although these were at least electric, while the most exciting office technology was likely to be the pocket calculator, although to afford one required deep pockets.

Home Entertainment

Televisions were gigantic, although the screens tended not to be, while a stereo system would be comprised of a large number of separate items playing radio, records and cassettes with two big speakers. Admittedly, these could sound pretty good but they would not surround you with sound.

Portable entertainment would not have been developed much beyond a transistor radio or large ghetto blaster, and the idea of watching movies on the move would have seemed as unlikely to our younger selves as the chance of reaching the moon to our grandparents.

The dictating machine and voice recognition software that are combining to create this article would have been replicated by a secretary with shorthand and typing skills.

It would also have been filed by post or even with national newspapers a copy taker (or person who wrote down your article as read over the phone). Ignoring pod and YouTube capabilities, magazines would then publish a week or more later.


The only football match shown live from start to finish in a typical year would have been the FA Cup Final. Otherwise, highlights of around three games might be seen on both BBC and ITV, hours or a day after the event. Fans would stand on the terraces and have a great opportunity, of which they would always avail themselves, to hit and stab each other.

On the golf course, Woods might just about still have been made out of wood, while putters would not reach the waist, rather than being attached to broom handles.

Cricketers wore white and test matches were always shown on the BBC (happy days).

Social Taboos

Smoking was still permitted in offices and shops, as well as restaurants, pubs and even on aeroplanes.

The five pints at lunch brigade had a strong representation that always got back in time to put in a hard afternoon of work in the office. The odds were that they would also be the people who drove home at five o'clock, although drink/drive laws certainly existed.

Are We Better Off?

Most of us would believe that the technological advances of the last few decades have improved the quality of life immensely. The idea of Skyping the grandchildren in New Zealand or watching the latest movies on your telephone, prior to sending an e-mail to a client have got to be fantastic developments.

To counterbalance this, the demands made by e-mails where responses are required instantly and demand 24/7 (another new concept) availability are less desirable.

Somehow, despite all of this advance, the global economy is still in a terrible state and where previously, one would expect to retire at 60 or 65 depending on gender, this will hit 70 or more before too long. At least medical technology means that we have every chance of enjoying 20 or 30 years of retirement even after that.

Three Questions

Three questions emerge from this nostalgic look at our primitive recent past.

  1. What has been missed from this nostalgic overview?
  2. Would you turn back time?
  3. Where will we be in another 30 years?

Any views?

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By Jimess
03rd Oct 2012 13:07

Great Stuff

Oh what great memories.  When I first started work as an audit/accounts junior in 1976 I was issued with the previously mentioned set of coloured pens, a rubber stamp with "Audit number 47" on it for stamping invoices that had been vouched to cash book/daybooks and an old battered brown boxcase for transporting client files around complete with precise instructions and wanings stuck in the lid to remind me never to open said case in a public place, on public transport or indeed anywhere that the case should never be opened.  I am always appalled these days when I see people working up figures on laptops and ipads on crowded trains. 

The accounts were all typed on to a stencil and copies run off on a drum copier which for the life of me I cannot remember the name of but was the bane of the typing pool manageresses life.  The telephone calls were put through to an extension by the operator pushing a jackplug into a predefined hole on the switchboard.  

Our first standard issue calculator was a Sinclair that had red figures and only added up to 99,999.

We thought we were into the real age of technology in 1979 when the firm invested in an IBM computer.  Working papers had to be coded and sent up to the computer operator for input and the most it would produce was a trial balance.One of my main responsibilities prior to that was to write up the accounting adjustments in clients nominal and private ledgers (private ledgers being a separate ledger used to write up things like proprietors or partners drawings, tax liabilities and profit shares, or company share capital and directors transactions that were posted as "total" figures in the summary accounts in the nominal). I loved working on the ledgers - old Twinlock leather bound covers that went back for years.   

The thing I miss most I think is the respect I had for the work that H M Revenue and Customs did.  Everyone was polite, from the lowliest clerk to the highest grade Inspector, if you had an issue you needed to resolve you could telephone the DI or one of the local inspectors and have a round table meeting to decide the best way forward.  If help was requested it was given, and a taxpayers records were, in the main, kept within the one district or within the employers district so you knew where to go for information. Most definitely better back then was that correspondence to HMRC got answered in 30 days, even if it was a letter saying "sorry can't deal with this now for "x" reason but will reply by "Y".  You always got the reply by the promised date. Everything was much simpler and in my opinion easier to deal with that it is today. 

I also think that everything is taken far too seriously today.  I remember the partners at my old firm way back in 1976 were always up for practical jokes and pranks, I got sent out for tartan ink and long stands just like all the other newbies, but we still got the work done and we still worked hard. There were the days of having to work with lamps and oil heaters because of miners strikes, one day we worked on trestle tables in a partners garage because it was the only place that had not been scheduled for "lights off" and we needed to get the job done urgently.  You needed a sense of humour to carry it through and I certainly don't think it would stand up to health and safety standards today, but it was how it got done then.



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to lesking123
05th Oct 2012 13:57

I remember back that far too....

Jimess wrote:

The accounts were all typed on to a stencil and copies run off on a drum copier which for the life of me I cannot remember the name of but was the bane of the typing pool manageresses life.  

Possibly a Gestetner?

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By Jimess
to nogammonsinanundoubledgame
09th Oct 2012 13:37

Gestetner - That's it!!

Brend201 wrote:

Jimess wrote:

The accounts were all typed on to a stencil and copies run off on a drum copier which for the life of me I cannot remember the name of but was the bane of the typing pool manageresses life.  

Possibly a Gestetner?

That's the one!! Thanks - I have been driving everyone nuts trying to remember the name. Stunk of meths - everyone knew to avoid the typing pool on Thursday afternoons when the accounts were being copied.  

I also remember the office manager with trepidation and awe - he was "The man to be obeyed" and was "He who distributed the work" to us minions and all questions or queries to the partners had to be directed through "he who had access to Them".  Woe betide any one of us who had the audacity to address a client by their first names - total no-no.  When I moved firms and the partners were addressed casually by their first names and were seen in the kitchen making their own tea (gosh!) I was totally at sea.  I soon got used to the new ways though, except for one particular partner who I could never quite manage to call by his first name and even now if I see him in the town he is still "Mr X".



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By PaulMM
03rd Oct 2012 13:25


Highlights of one or two matches a week takes me back to when Match of the Day was just that, highlights of one match. Which match would be on wasn't advertised until after games had kicked off (all at 3.00p.m.) in case it affected attendance at the chosen game.

However, we played a game, the same camera crews were used for Match of the Day as were employed in the morning for Saturday Swap Shop Roadshow - so we'd try to guess which match would be on from the location of the roadshow. Well, we had to do something while we waited for computer games to be invented,

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By Old Greying Accountant
03rd Oct 2012 14:54

The problem is ...

... all this technology means the "bosses" get more profit for less expenses, but the workers are still exploited (assuming their jobs haven't been outsourced to either computers or third world children) and thus, yes, those at the top of the pile have never had it so good, but their s**t still runs down the heap over the masses who by their labours elevated to the top of the dungheap! 

On a more positive note I don't know how I managed to survive if I missed a television programme or wasn't able to watch football 27 hours a day - and memories of having breakfast without to watch on the televison send shivers down my spine (although to my mind the picture of the girl and the scary clown with noughts and crosses was far better viewing than most of the dross we have now, most of which would make beter viewing on grainy low quality video tape!).

Those bad old days when people could work out the cost of their shopping without he need for a special app, and could drive from Lands End to John O'Groats without once being told to make a U turn when possible and without the feelings of extreme anxiety from not having communicated with someone for over 5 minutes!

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By Old Greying Accountant
03rd Oct 2012 15:01

Ah PAulMM ...

... football was so much more exiting when you knew precisely the league table once a week at 4.45 on a Saturday evening, and the joy of listening to the scores on the long drive home trying to work out if you had gone up or down the table, especially come the end of the season and you were near the relegation zone!

To think, the thousands of miles we travelled getting unerringly to the away ground with just the help of the trusty AA Book of the Road (except the day we were so busy talking we missed the M6 and ended up in Sheffield instead of Wigan, but we won't mention that!).

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05th Oct 2012 13:42

I think I was about 12 when I first encountered a telephone answering machine - they were at the time so rare I didn't realise what it was until afterwards; I was only just old enough to be trusted with use of the telephone (!). As it happened I had dialled a wrong number (note dialled, not keyed in...), but being a well brought up young lad I apologised to the well spoken lady for disturbing them and put the handset back in the cradle before trying again. I often wonder now what Dr and Mrs [I can't recall their name any more] made of that rather odd message, and whether they recount the flip side to this story. 

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By Old Greying Accountant
05th Oct 2012 14:07

He he

reminds me of the compare the market ad, along the lines:

"Hello, this is Bob's phone, please leave a message"

Sergei, Bob's got a talking phone, where can I get a talking phoneamabob?

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06th Oct 2012 20:17

The good old days

Where I worked as an articled clerk, very close to the sea front, when we knew the Partners were going to be out of the office for at least an hour, there were only two of them, courtesy of peeking at the secretary's diary, a select few could go on to the beach for an hour, and a red flag would be flown from the office to remind us to return. We made up the time of course.

Also, we had to go to work every Saturday morning, unless you went to lectures. The local Society organised wonderful trips for the afternoon, like visiting a cement works,  the local GPO

It was the mischief some of us got up to, that made it fun.


What memories.


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