Retro: Origins of our telephone system

The Portsmouth Corporation telephone exchange in 1904. Most phone calls had to be connected through a series of such exchanges
The Portsmouth Corporation telephone exchange in 1904. Most phone calls had to be connected through a series of such exchanges
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Today’s mobile phone technology is a far cry from the early days of telephone communication.

Neil Busby from Thrapston District Historical Society looks at the development of telephones in the Thrapston area.

Before 1907 the only means of communication would have been by letter or telegram and using either the GPO system or railway telegraph facilities.

The coming of the telephone to Thrapston in this year must have been a great event.

A tall pole was set up in the garden of what is today the Post Office, and all lines from local phones as well as one ‘outside’ line to Peterborough terminated here.

By modern standards the exchange was very small indeed.

The cost of operating the system was met by subscriptions, and ever since people having telephones installed have been known as ‘subscribers’.

Another name which has stuck is ‘telegraph’ poles.

The present poles, carrying overhead wires, have probably never carried telegraph messages (ie sent by Morse Code) since speech messages became possible.

Telephone directory

In the first Thrapston Telephone Directory there were only 70 numbers in use and of these only eight were private addresses, the remainder being businesses.

The manual exchange probably had a maximum capacity of 100 lines.

Phone numbers were simply 1, 2, 3, up to 70, there being no need for the four or six-figure numbers we have today.

National calls

In these early days there was a very limited national network of lines.

These were limited to one or two between principal towns or cities.

As a result, supposing a subscriber living in Woodford wished to talk to someone in Irthlingborough (a distance of less than four miles), then the call would be carried via overhead lines to the Thrapston exchange, who would then send it via their only ‘outside line’ to Peterborough.

There, because they had no direct link to Northampton, it would be routed to Nottingham and then to London whence it would go to Northampton who actually had a line to Irthlingborough (well over 200 miles!).

There were long delays in putting such a call through five exchanges as any one of the lines connecting exchanges could have been engaged.

Later an improvement was made when the call was routed via Peterborough, Birmingham and Northampton.

Telephone exchange

In 1931 the Thrapston exchange (still manually operated), was moved to the shop on the corner of Market Road and Midland Road.

The switchboards and operators used the ‘shop’ part of the building, and the rear rooms for batteries and welfare.

The night operator who worked from 8pm to 8am could usually go to bed around midnight with a warning bell beside the bed if a call was required.

As demand increased, more links were installed, including one line to Lowick and 10 lines to Brigstock.

In the 1960s the exchange moved to purpose-built premises in Grove Road.

Read more about Thrapston’s history here.