On the 10th March 1876 Alexander Graham Bell spoke the immortal words, "Mr Watson. Come here, I want to see you" into the transmitter of a telephonic device, thereby proving that clear speech could be conveyed along a telegraph wire. Within the next four years, the appeal of the telephone as a natural device for communication reached most corners of the developed world. It would not take much longer before it replaced the telegraph as the principal means by which information would be transmitted.
As early as July 1876 the first pair of practical telephones was brought to Britain by William Preece, later Sir William Preece, Post Office Engineer-in-chief. 18 months later on 14th January 1878 Bell himself was demonstrating the telephone to Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Bell went on to found the Telephone Company Ltd on 14th June that year with 7 or 8 subscribers. On 1st November the first trial of a long-distance call, using a device patented by Thomas Edison, was carried out with a call from London to Norwich, a distance of 115 miles.
In Portsmouth, the first installation of a telephone service was reported by the Hampshire Telegraph on 21st January 1880. This consisted of a single line connecting the Central Police Station at Landport with the Waterworks office. The reason this connection was chosen was simply to ensure that in the event of a fire breaking out the police could warn the Water Company where there would be an immediate demand for water. This telephone was provided and installed by Mr. T.W. Haydon of Palmerston Road, by order of the Watch Committee of the Town Council, several members of which witnessed the first call. The cost of the instruments and fittings was between 30 and 40.
It was at this point that the Postmaster-General began to take notice. Both the Telephone Company Ltd. and the Edison Telephone Company were applying to use the national network of telegraph wires which was owned by the Post office, it having secured a monopoly for several million pounds some years earlier. A landmark court case on 20th December 1880 concluded that a telephone was a form of telegraph, that a telephone conversation was in effect a telegram and that independent telephone companies were obliged to obtain licences to operate from the Postmaster-General.
Although new companies took out licences across the country, often competing with the Post Office itself, there was inevitably a time lag before they could set up any service. In Portsmouth this void was filled by a number of imaginative entrepreneurs. In April 1881 Mr G. Dimmer, goldsmith and jeweller successfully established a telephonic link between his two premises at 101 High Street and 42 Palmerston Road, the work being carried out by the Post Office to whom Mr. Dimmer paid 15 per annum. By the following month the first telephone appeared in the Dockyard with a link between the Gas Offices and their manufactory at Flathouse following in July.
The rush to sign up subscribers sometimes got ahead of itself as the General Post Office in London noted when in March 1882 it felt obliged to point out in an advert in the Hampshire Telegraph that persons purporting to have obtained licences had not in fact done so. It went on to say that the licence application on behalf of the United Telephone Company had been refused on the grounds that the Post Office intended to set up exchanges in Portsmouth and Southampton itself. In this the Post Office were following instructions from the government that did not want to find itself later having to nationalise exchanges and networks as it had with the telegraph service.
The Town Council were less than enthusiastic with the Post Office's proposed monopoly within Portsmouth, saying at a meeting in October 1883 that the commercial companies were already supplying a service at a considerably lower price than that suggested by the Post Office. Alderman King and Councillor Blake were then appointed to the Chamber of Commerce to help the fight for a local telephone exchange. This seems to have had the desired effect as within two months the United Telephone Company were advertising their services from their offices at 66 Lower Church Path and 43 Hanover Street, Portsea. This was despite the fact that they had yet to secure a licence. Council and Company were combining their influence to force a favourable solution from the Post Office.
The matter came to a head in February 1884 when a deputation from Portsmouth travelled to London for a meeting with the Postmaster General, the Right Hon. Henry Fawcett MP. They pointed out that London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow all had their own exchanges and that the circumstance in Portsmouth were not so different from theirs. They followed this up by comparing the prices on offer. The Post Office charged 14 10s per annum for a service over half a mile and 18 for a larger radius whereas the United Telephone Company would charge 12 for any distance under a mile.
Fawcett concluded that any town, whether for whom the Post Office had established an exchange or not, should be entitled to a licence if that was in the public interests. That was as far the meeting got but it was not the end of the matter. There remained several practical issues. Firstly that a private company should not be able to obtain a monopoly licence without the means whereby subscribers could make complaint about the service to a third party. Secondly, that a fair price be set for the delivery of the service given that in Cardiff the service had foundered when too few subscribers were attracted. Thirdly, that decisions needed to be made regarding the number of exchanges provided for the four towns of Portsmouth, Portsea, Southsea and Landport - essentially one each or one overall. Fourthly, the provision of a night service. Negotiations would continue for a further year.
On 28th February 1885 the Hampshire Telegraph published an advertisement by the Western Counties and South Wales Telephone Company, which had by then absorbed the United Telephone Company, stating that if sufficient subscribers could be found they would set up an exchange in Portsmouth. They set out their charges such that all subscribers living within one mile of the exchange would pay a flat rate 12 per annum (reduced to 11 for a 4 year contract and 10 for a 7 year contract). In April 1885 the telephone company announced that it had reached an agreement with the Town Council and Chamber of Commerce to set up an exchange.
By November 1885 the telephone company's service was so well developed that The Hampshire Telegraph could advertise events at the New Theatre Royal which included the Box Office telephone number - it was No. 28. By January 30th 1886 over 50 subscribers had been attracted to the service. By November the telephone company were operating a 24 hour a day service and by January 1887 over 100 subscribers had signed up. In November 1887 telephone number 103 appeared in a privately sponsored newspaper advertisement. In June 1889 telephone links to Southampton and Winchester were established. By the end of 1889 around 200 subscribers had signed up.
By 1890 calls could be made to Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch but not to Gosport as although it was only half a mile from Portsmouth as the crow flies the telephonic cable had to routed round the harbour making calls too expensive. In June 1892 a meeting of the Western Counties and South Wales Telephone Company first considered an amalgamation with the National Telephone Company and in December that year the Postmaster General was reported as saying that the telephone company's service was so bad that it ought to be taken over by the national service. Shortly afterwards the National Telephone Company did indeed take over all services
By 1889 however most of the seven companies which had formerly covered the entire country had been merged with the new National Telephone Company. In 1892, as a consequence of complaints over the poor quality of the National Telephone Company's service the Government purchased the trunk lines and stipulated that all services should be confined to local areas. Complaints about the service offered by the NTC continued to be aired in the press for several years. By March 1898 there were 680 subscribers in Portsmouth but there was still no direct trunk line to London. In August that year Parliament began to debate the matter of telephonic services and in March 1899 the first bill designed to allow local authorities to run their own services was aired.
1899 saw the passing of the Telegraph Act which empowered local authorities to set up their own telephone services but of 1,334 urban authorities who might have sought a licence only 13 did in fact do so and in the end only 6 actually opened services. These included Glasgow (1901), Tunbridge Wells (1901), Swansea (1902), Portsmouth (1902), Brighton (1903) and Hull (1904). Most were destined to be very short lasting affairs.
In January 1900 the National Telephone Company hit back by opening a revolutionary new service by which subscribers could, after renting a line for a nominal sum, pay a penny for every call made rather than rent a line for 10 a year. The idea caught on with many who were unable to pay the full cost of the rental but it did nothing to dent Portsmouth Town Council's belief that it should provide the service itself. By November 1900 it had passed the motion enabling it to do so and on the 14th November the Telephone Committee met for the first time.
The members of the committee were initially, the Mayor, Abraham Emanuel, Alderman Jenkins and Councillors Charles Gillett, James Aylwin, William Dittman, John Carpenter, Harold Pink, George Ash, John Mulvany, Henry Harman and Albert Porter. At the first meeting Councillors Dittman and Pink were elected Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Committee. A sub-Committee was established and empowered to seek the services of a General Manager for the new service. It took them until 15th January before they found the man they wanted - Mr. C.M. Gardner, at that time the General Manager of the Tunbridge Wells telephone service, his salary was to be 200 per annum, rising to 250 when the number of subscribers reached 1200. In February 1902 the committee chairman received a letter recommending Thomas Holme for the post of Assistant Manager. He was appointed a month later.
Purchasing an exchange was plainly an urgent matter for the committee but it took them several months to obtain a financing agreement. They were authorised to borrow 26500 for the purpose of establishing a Telephonic Exchange with 1200 lines in the first place but including an option for 300 more. In an attempt to boost the number of subscribers the committee agreed to sanction the use of 'Party' Lines whereby several subscribers could share a wire for a reduced amount. Up to 10 subscribers could share a single connection.
In September 1902 the committee turned their attention to that of the switchboard operators. They quickly hired the Misses Rook, Dirham, Milton, Buckle, McKeown and Rodgers with Miss Rook as the supervisor. She was paid 12/- a week, to rise to 15/- when the exchange was operating whilst the others received 8/- a week. Mr John Teesdale was appointed Clerk to the Telephone Department.
Once the exchange, which had been built in the Guildhall, became fully operational the committee's role became one of oversight rather than active involvement. They would have been especially interested in the financial viability of the project and though it was clearly a success it failed to fully meet their expectations and though it survived for longer than any of the others but Hull by 1911 the committee were having to fend off rumours that the Postmaster General was ready to swallow up the Portsmouth service. By the end of 1912 they could no longer pretend other than that the Post Office were destined to take over the service in Portsmouth and this became a reality in 1913 leaving the committee to tidy up a few loose ends and declare itself defunct. The last meeting took place on 13th October 1913.
This meant that Hull Corporation were now the sole surviving local authority to manage their own telephone service. Portsmouth retained a very small share in their success as Thomas Holme, Assistant Manager to Mr Gardner, left Portsmouth in November 1903 to take up the Managers role at Hull. There he set the foundation for the iconic service that survived, in various forms, into the 21st Century.
Tim Backhouse
The Hampshire Telegraph
Minutes of the Council Telephone Committee.
Various notes on the career of Thomas Holme by Angela Raby