As in other areas of communications, Brighton was at the cutting edge of the early development of the telephone service in England. It was the first town to have a long-distance trunk connection with London, one of the first six to establish a municipal telephone service and one of the first batch of exchanges to have automatic equipment installed. The town had the first yellow pages telephone directory in Britain in the modern era and even provided the voice of the speaking clock (the late Brian Cobby) in the 1980s.
In fact, telecommunications in the broadest sense date back to at least the 14th century. On 10 August 1326, in fear of an invasion by Queen Isabella to dethrone her husband, Edward II, a chain of 'beacons of fire' was set up along the south coast.1 A chain of bonfires, some in fire-baskets mounted on poles, was maintained right through the Tudor period and beyond. Visible one from another, they could send a simple message along the coast at speed.They also 'had then, and would still retain, the merit of more diffusive conspicuousness, when all around were in anxiety and watchfulness'.2 Good to know that a warning of invasion could have a calming effect on the populace.
Some of these sites are commemorated in local place names: Beacon Hill in Ovingdean and Ditching Beacon, for example. The most important occurence for lighting the beacons was in 1588, to warn of the advacning Spanish Armada. In the words of Lord Macauley: 'For swift to east and swift to west the ghastly war-flame spread,/ High on St Michael's Mount it shone: it shone on Beachy Head.'3 A modern replica fire-basket was set up on Hove esplanade and ignited on 19 July 1988 as one of a chain to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the defeat of the Armada.
Another local place name, Telegraph Street in Kemp Town, marks the location of a later development of this principle. A then isolated telegraph station was erected here in the late 1790s, one of 26 at intervals along the coast from North Foreland in eastern Kent to the Needles as part of the Napoleonic era defence system. The stations were equipped with a form of semaphore invented by Lord George Murray in 1795 that employed an array of six octagonal shutters, each five feet high and pivoted across the centre laterally, that could be set in the horizontal or vertical position (right). Messages formed by combinations of these panels could be repeated from one station to the next at a speed of around one mile per second. The Brighton station communicated visually with Seaford in the east and Shoreham in the west, weather permitting.4
The railways were heavy early users of telegraphy because of its value in controlling the movements of trains. When Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke formed a company to exploit the first British patents in telegraphy, they specificially had railways in mind as a primary application. The system worked by applying different voltages along the wires to move the positions of needles on display devices. The first use in the country of telegraphs to control movements along short sections of track was in 1841 on the new London Brighton & South Coast Railway at the Clayton Tunnel.5
A private underground telegraph cable was laid along Queen's Road, West Street and King's Road in 1861 and again in 18646, with an extension in Old Steine and Marine Parade in 1867.7 A police telegraph was installed in 1873.8
The credit for bringing the telephone to Brighton must go to Magnus Volk, the inventor and entrepreneur, best remembered today for his railway. He had been born in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition and, appropriately, the year when the first telegraph line opened between London and Brighton. In May 18799, Volk bought a pair of telephone instruments from the United Telephone Company of London. He installed one at his home at 40 Preston Road and the other at the home in nearby Springfield Road of his friend William Jago, the new science master at Brighton School of Science and Art. Unfortunately, the overhead cable crossing Stanford Avenue was deemed an eyesore and Volk was asked to remove it. However, he installed two more instruments at the homes of two borough councillors and there were no further objections.
When overhead wires slung between telegraph poles became common, they became prone to vandalism.
In 1881, Volk moved to a new workshop at 25 Ditchling Rise (where Alfred Darling would begin making his pioneer cinematograph equipment only five years later). From here Volk organised a fire alarm system for the prestigious Brighton Health Congress that was held in December that year. The system linked all the locations used for the Congress to the headquarters of the police fire brigade at Brighton Town Hall. Volk was awarded a gold medal for this system, versions of which remained in use in many parts of the country until the 1940s.
Significantly, he also installed a telephone mouthpiece on the conference speaker's podium in the Dome to which were connected eight listening devices on Volk's exhibition stand in the Royal Pavilion. At the same time it was reported that the United Telephone Company had been granted a licence by the Postmaster General to open an exchange in Brighton and that Magnus Volk was appointed the agent for a new subsidiary, the South of England Telephone Company.
The south coast's first telephone exchange opened at 48 West Street, Brighton in 1882. Anticipating by more than a century the kind of deals that telecom companies make today, Volk offered three months' free calls to new subscribers.
Initially the government limited the distance between the exchange and a subscriber's premises to five miles. On 7 August 1884 the government withdrew this regulation, allowing the creation of a national system. The country's first trunk line was opened between London and Brighton on 17 December 1884, 'thus enabling any Subscriber in London to talk to any Subscriber in Brighton,' as the United's literature proudly proclaimed, adding for clarity, 'or any Subscriber in Brighton to talk to any Subscriber in London. For the present the wire is open free to Subscribers at both ends'.
By 1885, when the Brighton telephone directory was included with the London subscriber list, there were 138 subscriber lines connected to three exchanges serving Brighton, Hove and Preston. Low numbers were used in central Brighton, numbers in Kemp Town were in the 400 range, in Hove the 500 range and two were in the 700 range allocated to the new Preston exchange. Both the latter and 14 other places were designated as 'Call rooms' from which 'the public are invited to test the system, free of charge'.
The largest number of subscribers by trade or profession were coal merchants, butchers and estate agents. The area of coverage stretched from Marine Parade in the east to West Brighton wharf and Aldrington in the west.
The United Telephone Company merged with others to form the National Telephone Company (NTC) on 1st May 1889, creating a near monopoly in the commercial sector.
For his efforts in telephony, Magnus Volk was elected a fellow of the Imperial Institute in 1893, nominated by no less a personage than W H Preece, engineer-in-chief of the Post Office Telegraph Department, who was soon to become the principal champion of Marconi's efforts with wireless telegraphy.
By 1899 the value of the telephone was more widely recognised—even though as recently as 1895 Albert Morley, the Postmaster General (PMG), had said that 'the telephone cannot, and never will be, an advantage which can be enjoyed by large masses of the working classes'. The Unionist government of Lord Salisbury was now coming under pressure to improve the service. Local councils already provided other utilities, such as water, sewage, refuse collection, gas, electricity and public transport. Adding telephony seemed a natural step. Again, there is a contemporary parallel in these days of high-speed broadband.
Initially, £2m was voted by parliament for the PMG to set up 80 telephone systems and to allow licensing of public authorities 'to provide systems of telephonic communication and to defray the expenses thus incurred out of the Corporation funds'. The existing commercial companies were prevented from establishing services in places not previously served and regulations were introduced to ensure intercommunication between rival systems.
Only 55 authorities out of 1,334 in the country showed any interest. Brighton was among 13 towns granted one of the public authority licences, dated 3 May 1901 and expiring 30 April 1926. Only six of the towns actually went ahead, including Brighton, construction of the system beginning in March 1903. The Brighton Corporation Telephone exchange was in Palace Place, adjoining the Pavilion, with offices at 82 Grand Parade. The system was opened for operations on 5 October 1903 by the mayor, John Buckwell. Other offices were established at 47 Dyke Road; 94-96 Goldstone Villas, Hove; Church Street, Shoreham; and New Road, Hurstpierpoint.
No charges were made until the first 750 subscribers were enrolled, which occurred by the following March. The annual cost of unlimited service, taken by 90 per cent of subscribers, was £5 10s. The standard service cost £3 10s plus 1d per originating call, suggesting that most subscribers expected to make at least 10 calls a week (the £2 marginal cost of the unlimited service being the equivalent of 480 calls). A two-party line was 4 guineas (£4 4s) and a four-party line £3. It was estimated that the cost of installing and connecting a subscriber line was £23 10s, implying that it would take over four years for the borough to recover the cost of installation even on an unlimited service line.
In a manner yet again remarkably similar to 21st century telecoms, consumers had to make calculations and forecasts of usage before deciding between competing offers. The NTC charged a flat rate of £10 a year for unlimited service, £5 10s a year for 2,500 calls or £5 for 1,800 calls, plus ½d each for additional calls. A two-party line cost £3 10s. On a 10-party line the charge was 1d per originating call (minimum of one call per day), making the annual cost a minimum of just over £1 10s. There was even a 20-line option costing £1 5s plus ½d a call.
The area covered by the NTC stretched from Rottingdean to New Shoreham and inland to Burgess Hill, a total of 120 square kilometers. The exchange was housed in the Royal Pavilion and had a capacity of 1,000 lines, with room to expand to 4,500 lines. Exchange equipment and subscriber instruments were made by Ericsson Bell.
NTC's Sussex district office was at 36 Ship Street and the contracts department at 39 Duke Street. By 1905 there were nearly 100 public call offices around Brighton and Hove.
On 10th September 1906, the Corporation sold its telephone system to the General Post Office for £49,000. At the time it had 1,404 subscribers. Just over five years later, on 1st January 1912, NTC and the remaining municipal telephone services, except the one in Hull, were nationalised under the control of the GPO.
To be continued