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Telephone history: Telephone Service in Birmingham


master brummie
I am most interested in all aspects of the history of telecommunications in the Birmingham area. Everything from semaphore, telegraph, telex, telephone, the people, vehicles, tools and buildings and hope others share my interest and wish to contribute.

To kick off here is a short video showing that the instant service approach we all take for granted today was not always so for this young and in-demand Quinton lady of 1967 https://www.macearchive.org.uk/Media.html?Title=10283

From almost the other end of the timescales, I attach a picture of a Birmingham telegraph linesman c1860. Apparently his tools were stored in his Top hat!! BT have recently released a number of media items from their archive, which I have yet to fully explore, from which this is taken at https://imagelibrary.btplc.com/assetbank-btplc/action/browseItems?categoryId=151&categoryTypeId=1

I have summarized a useful timetable of some key events below:

1876 Alexander Graham Bell patent and the creation of the Bell Telephone Company, USA

1878 The Telephone Company Ltd (Bell's Patents) registered 14 June 1878 in London.

1879 Europe's first telephone exchange opened in London 21 Aug in London. Edison opened for business on 6th Sep
Henry J T Piercy of Broad Street Engine Works, Birmingham, 1879, independently created a service at Exchange Chambers (the old Iron and Steel Exchange), on the corner of New Street and Stephenson Place, (built 1865, demolished 1965, new building is HSBC bank), creating the Midland Telephone Exchange Company. This became the Birmingham Central Exchange June 1880

1880 United Telephone Company formed from The Telephone Company Ltd (Bell's Patents) and The Edison Telephone Company of London, 1880. Provincial Telephone Company formed, 17 February

1881. Provincial takes over Midland. National Telephone Company (NTC) set up 10 March

1882 Exchange Chambers exchange moved to 40 Bennetts Hill/Colmore Row 1882-1897

1883 Provincial transferred to National Telephone Company

1889 New National Telephone Company formed from the old NTC plus The United, the Lancashire, and the Cheshire Telephone Companies. The first Trunk link to Coventry

1890 Trunk link Birmingham to London 1890

1895 Birmingham Trunk Exchange, General Post Office (GPO), Pinfold Street, Victoria Square, 4 May

1896 National Telephone Company builds 19 Newhall Street, an ornate red brick and terra cotta building, replacing Bennetts Hill as Central exchange, 1896/7 (see attachments inc the wonderful tile-work in the porch - not sure why Bell-Edison was shown in the logo though??)

1897 National sells trunk lines to GPO 6 February

1908 National opens Midland Exchange 14 November 1908 at 60 Hill Street

1912 General Post Office (GPO) takes over National Telephone Company, 1 January 1912 (transferring 1,565 exchanges 9,000 employees, cost £12,515,264.)

1936 Telephone House, Newhall Street opened on Lionel Street/Newhall Street

1967 BT Tower, Birmingham, built close to Telephone House.

1884 British Telecom takes over from GPO

OK– over to the wonderful members of this forum – what can you add in terms of memories, information and pictures??


We had our first telephone in 1952. Our No was 484 if you were dialling in the local area you had to dial 0 and ask the local operator for he No . If you were out of the exchange area you ad to dial 0 for the operator and ask for the Four Oaks exchange, when you were put through you asked for 484. There was a No 1 which was the local butcher.
In about 1957 the exchange was automated, our No was then FOU 0484. later with STD the No changed to 3080484

Mike Fisher

Billesley Boy
Joined GPO Telephones 3 Sep 1962 signed official secret act over a stamp. Made reduntant from BT 30 Sep 1995. Spent 27 (1965 to 1992) years on Strowger exchange maintenance at Springfield Telephone Exchange ,Stratford Rd, Hall Green


We had a telephone in our house in 1955 which was in Four Oaks our number was Streetly 2989. My mother told me I would spend hours talking to the operator when I was little. She always knew it was me......ah well some things don't change...still a chatter box !!

Mike Fisher

Billesley Boy
You could make calls for free from the old pre STD phone you just had to "tap out" the last digit of the persons number. That is quickly operate and release the switch hooks (which the handset rested in) for the number times to make the digit.


master brummie
Mike Fisher - promise I won't ask you how a Strowger first selector works! I am sure the spys have visited the Science Museum...

Mike_g & Wendy - it does seem another world when you only had a couple of digits for your telephone number - still, made it easier to remember, I have to look my mobile number up every time someone asks for it. Seems amazing late for automation too, although I have a feeling STD was only in the mid? sixties!

Just done a basic sweep of the BT Archive site and not too much Birmingham material on there at the moment, but these three are wonderful period pieces - an 1885 advert for a £2 a year extra phone line, c1900 in the NTC switchroom at Birmingham Exchange and the "sitting room" at Midland Exchange in Nov 1909 (the three o'clock tea break was sacred back then)


master brummie
Aidan, fascinating information and pictures. Thanks for starting the topic: I'll keep my eyes open for relevant items.

Our first telephone number (as a boy in Yardley in the mid to late 1950s) was STE4834 (Stechford exchange). Later we moved to Sutton where we had SUT3494. Funny how I remember those numbers after all these years! When answering the phone, we were told to announce the phone number: "Sutton three four nine four!"

When I first reached Australia in 1964 the phone numbers were six digits. Now they're all eight digits (not including area and country code). Tasmania used to be an "area" in itself (area code 004), but now it's part of Victoria (area code 03).

My one and only
mobile phone went into the washing machine before it was a month old. Strange thing is, it let out the most plaintive GROAN I have ever heard ("Help I'm drowning!" it was trying to say ;)). I quickly retrieved it, but it was too late. I decided that mobile phones weren't for me, and I manage quite well without one. My children think I'm a real old fogey (they're right!). People used to walk around with their mobiles held to their ears: now they walk along with their heads down looking at them (and typing on them). I'm surprised their aren't more (pedestrian) collisions!


master brummie
Aidan, I'm sure you've already discovered Mike Fletcher's Telephones UK website, which contains quite a lot of Birmingham-related information.

Another website: Bob Freshwater's Telephone File, which doesn't contain so much about Brum.

The history of the red telephone box is very interesting, and the Birmingham Civic Society gets an honourable mention!
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master brummie
Here's a simple question that may not be so easy to answer: did Alexander Graham Bell ever visit Birmingham? :rolleyes:


master brummie
Thylacine - thanks for your encouraging support.

I dunno if AGB ever visited Brum, I doubt it but have no evidence either way. I think Henry J T Piercy is the Hero of Birmingham though and I'd like to find out more about him. Must of been an insightful chap.

Thanks also for the links and there is undoubtedly some useful info on them. I certainly didn't know about the Birmingham Civic Society's involvement in call box design (surely taking their remit a little too far?) but pleased to see that many of the wonderful Kiosk's are now listed as important elements in our environment.

Not far from Birmingham at Bromsgrove is the biggest collection of telephone kiosks in the world, 25 in all, at the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings in Worcestershire. https://www.culture24.org.uk/wm000001 The museum also houses three working telephone exchanges, while many of the kiosks are in working order and on most days visitors are welcome to ring each other – with a helping hand from volunteers on how to use the dial! Used to push-buttons, children in particular find this fascinating, while many visitors are intrigued by the Dr Who Police Box.

A few more pics from the BT Archive site - all I believe early 1950s at the massive telecoms factory, workshop and stores site at Fordrough Lane which sadly appears to have gone under the bulldozer. I seem to remember it taking up the whole block from Bordesley Green to the Railtracks. I have no idea why they would have needed Coopers or what they would have done with the barrels!

See https://forum.birminghamhistory.co.uk/showthread.php?t=28815&p=278854#post278854 for more inc Veterans association


master brummie
Henry James Taylor Piercy, born Jan-Mar 1842 in Birmingham to Ebenezer Piercy & Rebecca Robins, married Bessie Risdon Jan-Mar 1866 in Exeter, died Apr-Jun 1906 in Birmingham

And here is the insightful man age 39 in the 1881C with Bessie, large family and 3 servants in Edgbaston Road (somewhere near the Cricket Ground) perhaps re-focussing on being an "Engineer Master employing 22 men & 6 Boys"


master brummie
Not quite on topic (typical Thylacine behaviour! ;)), but an interesting telephone (double) "first":

On 5 December 1958 Queen Elizabeth II made the first British STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialling) call from Bristol to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh. The call lasted 2 minutes 5 seconds and cost 1 shilling and 10 pence (it would have cost 3 shillings and 9 pence under the old operator-connected system). She admitted afterwards that it was the first time she had actually dialled a telephone!


master brummie
That is interesting Thylacine.

According to BT, In the years following the call, the General Post Office spent £35m on modernising the entire phone system. STD was rolled out across the country in a massive operation, reaching Dundee in June, 1960, Glasgow in May, 1961, Edinburgh in July, 1961, and Aberdeen in December, 1961. The last operator-run exchange in the UK, in a wooden shed at Portree on the Isle of Skye, was switched off on October 14, 1976. The number of operators peaked at 57,000 in 1967 as demand for the telephone outpaced the roll-out of STD for the first few years.

The number of operators then declined steadily, and today, BT’s leading edge technology in its fully automatic network means that only 550 operators are needed to service traditional ‘100’ calls. Amazingly, by the time the Portree operators walked off their last shift, the number of calls being dialled each day in the UK would have required 500,000 operators to connect them. With the expansion in phone ownership, by the 80s it was reckoned that every man, woman and child in the country would be employed connecting calls and today, with 34 million lines across the UK, it would take considerably more. Wouldn't that be a fun future though!

Here's a potted history of STD (I think I was mixing it up with AFN - that's my excuse anyway):

1958 The Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD) service, which allowed telephone callers to make trunk calls automatically without the aid of the operator, was introduced into the United Kingdom by the Queen on 5 December 1958.

1959 The first versions of pay-on-answer coinboxes on public payphones were introduced and began to supersede the Button A and B models. They were necessary following the introduction of STD in major towns because the A and B boxes could not be modified to cope with automatically connected trunk calls. New dialling codes, preliminary to the start of subscriber trunk dialling in London, were introduced in the London Director Area on 6 April. '0 for Operator', TRU for Trunks and TOL for Toll were replaced by 100.

1960 The first London STD exchange at Watford was opened.

1961 The first STD exchanges in the City of London at Metropolitan, London Wall and Moorgate were opened. The first STD exchanges in Central London at Victoria, Tate Gallery and Abbey were also opened.

1963 International Subscriber Trunk Dialling (ISD) was introduced on 8 March, allowing London subscribers to dial Paris numbers.

1966 All Figure Numbering (AFN) was introduced - starting in the Director Areas (London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester). AFN had become essential with the development of direct international dialling as the mixed letter and number combinations were insufficient to meet the needs of expanding service.

1971 The last Director exchange converted to STD at Ilford Central.

1979 The STD system was completed on 5 December to allow direct dialling between all UK subscribers.

I attach the last tranche of pictures from the BT online archive. The first is dated 1964 from an internal magazine looking forward to the Birmingham PO Tower (certainly the top is "artistic License"). The 2nd is dated 1978 and shows Video Conferencing that was then made possible - didn't really catch on though, although there is a resurgence now with PCs and webcams:


master brummie
Getting a little technical there - can't help it. How about a quiz? There have been literally hundreds of telephone types over the last 130 years but I have grossly simplified them into 4 pictures.

Which of these phones do you most identify with, have memories of (keep it clean!) or just like, and why?


master brummie
I always liked the big black bakelite phone (no 2), but my favourite is no 3 (in beige! ;)).

The hard-wearing and fire-proof plastic bakelite was invented in 1907 by the Belgian chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland (14 November 1863 - 23 February 1944).

Re Henry James Taylor Piercy. He must have used Bell telephones, and would possibly have corresponded with AGB (or his company). It would be very interesting to know more about how Piercy got into the telephone business, and how he went about it. Can BHF historians out there find any contemporary press clippings?


master brummie
H J T Piercy.

2010-06-15 14:26:22

H J T Piercy is listed in the following reference works at archive.org:

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers List of Members (1901, 1902, 1904, 1905): 1876 (date of joining) Piercy, Henry James Taylor, Messrs Piercy and Co, Broad Street Engine Works, Birmingham.
William H Maxwell. British Progress in Municipal Engineering. London: Constable, 1904. "Classified List of British Manufacturers Interested in Water Supply Engineering"
("Engine and Boiler Fittings" and "Tools"): Piercy and Co, Broad Street Engine Works, Birmingham.
Philip R Björling. British Progress in Pumps and Pumping Engines. London: Constable, 1905. "Manufacturers of Geared Pumps": Piercy and Co, Broad Street Engine Works, Birmingham.

Mentions of H J T Piercy in the London Gazette:

12 October 1869. Partnership between H J T Piercy and William Hall Pearson (trading as Piercy and Pearson) dissolved by mutual consent (gazetted 5 November 1869).
15 April and 9 August 1870. Patent application no 978 by H J T Piercy of Birmingham for the invention of "improvements in tube cutters and screw cocks".
15 March 1888. H J T Piercy (trading as Piercy and Co) petitions for the winding up of debtor Gilbert and Spurrier Ltd (gazetted 16 March 1888). This petition is successful.
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master brummie
Thanks Thylacine - I hadn't thought of using either resource so well-found. It tells us much of his career and also his Broad St base (I wonder which end of Broad St it was?). Frustratingly little on his pioneering of the Telephone service in Birmingham though!

Regarding your taste in Telephone colours - my first car, a Morris Marina, must have had every single shade of beige in existence on it. Did love it though as indeed I do Bakelite (though I only have one or two items in my collection)


master brummie
Quite OK, Aidan. This thread is very interesting. I would love to know how Piercy the mechanical engineer became a telephone pioneer. There must be more information about him somewhere! (The advantage of our different time zones is that each of us can work while the other is asleep. It's called shift work! ;))


master brummie
In the summer of 1879 Henry Piercy of Broad Street Engine Works had the very first telephone in Birmingham sitting on his desk. By the time the first telephone exchange in Birmingham opened, Mr Piercy had persuaded 12 customers to subscribe at a special introductory rate of £10 a year. The location chosen for the headquarters of the Midland Telephone company was a room in Exchange Chambers at the corner of New Street and Stephenson Place... By 1882 the company had attracted it's first 100 customers and had moved into a new home in the attic of a music shop at the corner of Bennetts Hill and Colmore Row. A top floor location was useful, since all the calls came from overhead lines, dropping down like spaghetti through the roof of the exchange [see example pics attached from London]. This arrangement was not especially appealing to the eye, and Birmingham was the first city in the world to install an underground cable in 1883, which led from Bennetts Hill up to Great Charles Street.
Birmingham's first telephone directory was published in 1886 and contained a list of 614 subscribers. The majority were business customers, but they did include Joseph Chamberlain, an aspiring politician. By 1887 the telephone company moved again, this time to the magnificent Central Exchange, at 19 Newhall Street which still stands today. It accommodated around 60 operators, at a starting salary of eight shillings (40p) a week.

Taken from https://www.telephonesuk.co.uk/early_days_bham.htm which was itself from an article by Chris Upton, published in the Birmingham Voice
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