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THE EARLY DAYS OF THE TELEPHONE IN BIRMINGHAM

In the summer of 1879 Henry Piercy of Broad Street Engine Works had the very first telephone in Birmingham sitting on his desk. By the time the first telephone exchange in Birmingham opened, Mr Piercy had persuaded 12 customers to subscribe at a special introductory rate of 10 a year. The location chosen for the headquarters of the Midland Telephone company was a room in Exchange Chambers at the corner of New Street and Stephenson Place. 

Within a year of this another exchange opened in Wolverhampton, followed quickly by others in Aston, Smethwick, and the Jewellery Quarter. By 1882 the company had attracted it's first 100 customers and had moved into a new home in the attic of a music shop at the corner of Bennetts Hill and Colmore Row. A top floor location was useful, since all the calls came from overhead lines, dropping down like spaghetti through the roof of the exchange. This arrangement was not especially appealing to the eye, and Birmingham was the first city in the world to install an underground cable in 1883, which led from Bennetts Hill up to Great Charles Street.

To call the system was not straightforward, first it was necessary for the subscriber to press a white button on the wooden box hanging on the wall. This connected him or her to the operator at the exchange. Having confirmed that one wished to make a call it was then necessary to give the name or number of the person you wished to contact. The operator then made the connection, waited for the person at the other end to pick up the earpiece, and then told the caller to proceed. After the conversation was over the subscriber once again had to speak to the operator. 

Birmingham's first telephone directory was published in 1886 and contained a list of 614 subscribers. The majority were business customers, but they did include Joseph Chamberlain, an aspiring politician. By 1887 the telephone company moved again, this time to the magnificent Central Exchange, at 19 Newhall Street which still stands today. It accommodated around 60 operators, at a starting salary of eight shillings (40p) a week.

Taken from an article by Chris Upton, published in the Birmingham Voice

For further information on life as a Telephonist at a Birmingham Telephone Exchange in the 1940's and 50's, read the book entitled 'Hold the Line Please'.


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