An aside into Victorian business life is the fact that when a London solicitors sent a letter on April 27 1885, its headed paper quoted the firm’s telephone number. The number was 1095 and there genuinely were another 1094 phones in businesses and a few private houses that the law firm could have called and been connected with.
That was only 10 years since a Scot living in Boston, Alexander Graham Bell sent the fabled message “Mr Watson, come here, I want you” down 100 feet of copper wire to his assistant.
By the early 1880s, phones were being installed in London offices almost as a matter of course. The growth of the technology outstripped even the mobile phone explosion of the late nineties. After the 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 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, London. By the end of the year 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 British 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.
They were still a novelty, and one was as likely to use it like an extension of the telegraph. The sender would dictate a message to an office junior who would then go to the apparatus and bellow it down the line to a similar flunky at the recipient’s office, who would in turn write it down and carry it to the person who it was meant for.
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.