A fascinating aside into London business life in the 1880s is the assimilation of the telephone. Take this example: In a letter dated April 27 1885 from one large London solicitors, the firm printed its telephone number as part of its letterhead. The firm’s number was 1095 and genuinely there were another 1094 phones that the lawyers could have called.
What is notable is that it was only nine years before that a Scottish-Canadian living in Boston, Alexander Graham Bell sent the fabled first telephone message ever. Not quite “One small step for man…” Bell requested to his assistant “Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you” down 100 feet of copper wire.
The growth of the technology outstripped even the mobile phone explosion of the late nineties. From first experimental demonstration on 10 March 1876, it took just 16 months for the first pair of commercial phones to be used in the UK. Just six months after that, Bell himself was at Osborne House (Queen Victoria’s retreat after the death of her dear Bertie), demonstrating to her the first long distance phone call in the UK, from her palace on the Isle of Wight to London.
On June 14 1878 Britain’s first private telephone company Telephone Company Ltd (Bell’s Patents) sets up at 36 Coleman Street. By the end of the year its rival, the UK Post Office had rented its first handsets to a Manchester company.
The following year the Telephone Company opened its first switchboard, connecting eight subscribers and by the end of the year the number had grown to 200 customers and three exchanges were needed in London alone.
By January 1880 the Telephone Company issued the world’s first telephone directory, listing its 250 London subscribers and 350 provincial numbers at 16 provincial exchanges. The invention was still less than four years old.
By 1884 more than 13,000 businesses were connected to the telephone and the first public telephone booths, or “call offices”, with their “silence cabinets” began to be installed in public places such as railway stations and department stores.
By1885, phones were being installed into London offices as a matter of course. They were still a somewhat distasteful modernism for many. A businessman was as likely to dictate a message to an office junior, who would then go to the apparatus cabin and bellow it to a similar flunkey at the recipient’s cabin, who would in turn write it down and carry it to the person to whom it was meant.
To have a phone installed was not cheap. Estimates vary, but at today’s prices it could cost between £2,000 and £3,500 a year. However, for that you got unlimited use of the system. This meant that the more unscrupulous or generous subscribers were inviting in their friends, colleagues and clients to use the phone. This caused the telephone company to issue stern warnings about being thrown out of the telephone club if the subscriber in question did not play the game.
So there we have it…yet another plot device for historic novelists to add to the list.