How snow scuppered the first ever phone call in Norfolk

The telephone engineering staff in Norwich back in 1908

Meet the men. The telephone engineering staff in Norwich back in 1908. Back row, from the left: R G Masson, Matt Rogers, George Kedge, William Green. Middle row: Jack Cook, ?, C Hones. Front row, W Thompson ? - Credit: The First 100 Years of Telephones Viewed from Norwich.

In the first story of a two-part series, Derek James retells the history of the telephone arriving in Norfolk.

It was the sound of music that heralded the arrival in Norfolk of something we take for granted today… a telephone.

If at first, you don't succeed... 

Readers of our newspapers in December of 1877 would have spotted an advertisement for a strange event at the old Victoria Hall in Norwich.

Tickets cost a couple of shillings to hear a gentleman by the name of Professor Barrett give a lecture called “The TELEPHONE in Norwich.”

The Edison Transmitter and Phelps Receiver. The type used by J & J Colman in Norwich to speak to London in 1878.

The Edison Transmitter and Phelps Receiver. The type used by J & J Colman in Norwich to speak to London in 1878. - Credit: The First 100 Years of Telephones: Viewed from Norwich

He brought with him a pair of Bell telephones, which were on loan from Graham Bell, then touring the country. The plan was to take one of them to Cromer… and make a call.

The line from Norwich to Cromer was a single wire with four spurs off it at Coltishall, North Walsham, Aylsham and Hanworth.

The Norwich NTS Wayleave Map in 1895

The Norwich NTS Wayleave Map in 1895 - Credit: The First 100 Years of Telephones: Viewed from Norwich

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Prof. Barrett spoke about the history of communication from the earliest telegraph systems and showed how to make a pair of telephones at the cost of a few pence which were being sold for £25.

Each phone required a tooth-powder box, a small bar magnet, a disc of tinned iron and some wire.

At the end of his lecture he tried to speak to Cromer on the telephone but all he – and  Mr J.J. Colman, who presided over the meeting – could hear was a distant mumbling.

PEOPLE; MEN OF NORWICH: JEREMIAH JAMES COLMAN;

JEREMIAH JAMES COLMAN - Credit: Archant

The Head Postmaster in Norwich, Mr Isley, explained that the line was not very well insulated (it had snowed that morning, followed by a thaw) and this was blamed for the failure to speak to Cromer where more than 40 disappointed people left the small office where they had been waiting to speak to Norwich.

Those telephones would never catch on. Would they?

Connecting to the capital

Well, almost a year later, a trial was made over the telephone line belonging to J & J Colman, between Norwich and their offices in London.

The line was along the Great Eastern Railway track and was 115 miles long.

Post Office lineman John Beaumont wiring up the exchange at Loddon in 1906.

Post Office lineman John Beaumont wiring up the exchange at Loddon in 1906. - Credit: The First 100 Years of Telephones: Viewed from Norwich

Professor Bell’s representative, Mr Adams from America, was in Norwich for the experiment. It all began badly with crackling and bubbling sounds and the stormy weather didn’t help but then…

Mr C Noble, a member of the Carrow Works Band, played a cornet solo in the Norwich office and, yes,  the wonderful music could be plainly heard in London.

IT WORKED!

After the experiments staff at the Great Eastern Railways were treated to a celebration dinner at Colman’s but… there was more trouble ahead.

An aerial view of Norwich showing the Carrow Works site. Dated: June 1950.

An aerial view of Norwich showing the Carrow Works site. Dated: June 1950. - Credit: Archant Library

The Bell representatives claimed the receivers used were an infringement of their patent.

Edison had to design an entirely new receiver. This was done within a couple of months. It was known as the “loud-speaking telephone.”

Norwich telephone operators in 1912

Norwich telephone operators in 1912. Left to right: at the back Beatrice Ayres and Lily Birch. Middle row: Jessie Wright, May Morant, Ethel Birch. Front row: Elsie Mildred and Hilda Johnson. - Credit: The First 100 Years of Telephones Viewed from Norwich.

When George B Shaw wrote about this telephone a year or two later he said that it took words whispered into the mouthpiece and shouted them across the room.

By early 1880 the Bell and Edison interests joined forces and formed the United Telephone Company… times really were changing.

Colman's Carrow Works in Norwich. Dated January 29 1960

Colman's Carrow Works in Norwich. Dated January 29 1960 - Credit: Archant Library

And on December 28 1880 there were two separate advertisements on the front page of the Eastern Daily Press.

One from the Postmaster General stated the rates for telephone service were £14.10s for subscribers living within half a mile from the telegraph office and £18 for those between half and one mile away from the office. Hefty sums.

Newspaper clipping from the EDP archive of the December 28, 1880 back copy

Eastern Daily Press December 28, 1880. Search the EDP archive at localrecall.co.uk. - Credit: Archant Library

This was accompanied by one from the United Telephone Co., saying they were the patent holders and proceedings would be taken against anyone using Bell or Edison apparatus not rented from the United Telephone Company.

Newspaper clipping from the EDP archive of the December 28, 1880 back copy

Eastern Daily Press December 28, 1880. Search the EDP archive at localrecall.co.uk. - Credit: Archant Library

What next? Watch this space.

Look out for a lovely book called The First 100 Years of Telephones: Viewed from Norwich produced by Eric Clayton, with great support from our Archant libraries, published in the summer of 1980. It is fascinating.

The brilliant book by Eric Clayton which was published in 1980 and is still available.

The brilliant book by Eric Clayton which was published in 1980 and is still available. - Credit: The First 100 Years of Telephones: Viewed from Norwich


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