Telephones in Epsom

1893 to the present and the centenary
of the introduction of automatic switching: Epsom, May 1912

An article by John Liffen

The telephone introduced to Britain
The telephone as a public service was introduced into Britain in 1878. A test case at the High Court in 1880 held that the telephone was a telegraph within the meaning of the Telegraph Acts of 1863 and 1869, even though it had not been invented at that time. As the 1869 Act gave the Post Office a monopoly of all internal UK electric telegraphs it followed that they also had control over the development of the telephone in the UK. To begin with, the Post Office did not engage in telephone activity but confined itself to issuing operating licences to the commercial telephone companies/

The multiplicity of small local telephone companies of the early days underwent a series of mergers during the 1880s, leading to the establishment of the National Telephone Company (NTC) as the principal supplier of local telephone service in Britain. The NTC’s licence from the Post Office was set to expire on 31st December 1911 and there was no certainty of its renewal. During the 1890s the Post Office recognised the growing importance of the telephone and in 1895 took over all the NTC’s trunk lines. Henceforth, although the supply of local telephone networks remained in the hands of the NTC, the Post Office controlled the infrastructure for long-distance calls. The Post Office, too, began to open local exchanges in some areas, though not usually in direct competition with the NTC. In 1899 another Act of Parliament allowed municipal authorities to run telephone services in their local areas, though this opportunity was not widely taken up and was with one exception (Hull Corporation), short-lived.

Epsom goes on the telephone
In Epsom, telephone service was first provided by the NTC which opened an exchange at 1 Hook Road, near the town centre, in 1893. This used the then-standard magneto exchange system, whereby the telephone instruments incorporated batteries, usually Leclanché cells, for supplying the speaking current, as well as a small AC generator turned by a handle for supplying the current to signal to the operator at the exchange. On 1st January 1904 the exchange had 55 lines. The Post Office opened an exchange at 34 Station Road (now Upper High Street), almost opposite the LBSCR railway station on the other side of the road, on 19 May 1905 and at the beginning of the following year this had 63 lines. It was of a more modern type of exchange called Central Battery Signalling, or CBS, in which a battery at the exchange provided the signalling current, although the telephones themselves still needed a battery for speaking.

By 1911 the number of telephone users (then called ‘subscribers’) in Epsom was around 350, counting both exchanges. This was the last year of the NTC, as all negotiations for an extension of the licence had failed and the NTC was due to be bought out by the Post Office on 1st January 1912. Epsom’s NTC subscribers could expect early replacement of their magneto telephones by those suitable for CBS working, but a more profound change was planned: the first trial on the public network in Britain of an automatic exchange.

Automatic switching of telephone calls
Replacement of the human telephone operator for switching calls had been the objective of a number of inventors from the telephone’s earliest days, but such systems were economical only when switching a large number of calls. The first practical method was developed between 1889 and 1891 by Almon B Strowger, a Kansas City undertaker who (it is said) was annoyed by the preferential service given by the city’s telephone operators to a rival business. Strowger developed a switch which hunted for and found free lines through a system of relays, stepping ratchets and line banks. The sequence of operations by the selectors caused it to become known as the ‘step by step’ system. Strowger soon sold his interest to the Strowger Automatic Exchange Company, of Chicago, which in 1901 was renamed the Automatic Electric Company. Large Strowger systems were installed in, for example, Chicago in 1902 and Los Angeles in 1904. In 1908 Automatic Electric showed a demonstration Strowger exchange at the Anglo-French Exhibition held at White City, London.

Epsom first on the public network
As the time of the absorption of the NTC grew closer, Post Office senior management were conscious of the technical improvements that would need to be made to the merged network. After a tour of telephone systems of the USA and Canada undertaken in autumn 1909, the Engineer-in-Chief of the Post Office, Major W A J O’Meara, recommended that automatic switching should be tried in Britain. The proposal was accepted and it was decided to try the Strowger system as an internal exchange at Post Office head offices in the City of London and that it should be given a public trial too. Epsom was chosen for a number of reasons. These were articulated by G F Preston, general manager of the Post Office’s London Telephone Service, as follows:-

1. The percentage of local traffic is the highest of any Post Office Exchange, being 35 per cent.
2. The number of subscribers concerned is comparatively small. This is a distinct advantage from a traffic point of view for these reasons:

(a) The ill-effects of any possible breakdown will be minimised as far as is possible consistently with a thorough trial of the system.
(b) It will take comparatively little time to educate the subscribers.

3. The subscribers are not busy subscribers, and will, therefore be less likely to resent what may appear to them to be the additional work thrown upon them.
4. The comparative dryness of the district is favourable to the satisfactory working of the switches, which are apt to be adversely affected by damp climate.

The Strowger interests in Britain were taken up by British Insulated and Helsby Cables which in turn floated a new company, Automatic Telephone Manufacturing Company (ATM), in November 1911. The equipment to be installed at Epsom was purely American, being imported from Chicago by ATM, as the new company was not yet ready to begin manufacturing. Automatic Electric also sent over their own expert ‘switchmen’ to install the equipment and train the Post Office staff working alongside them, and their blunt no-nonsense approach to the job was no doubt something of a culture shock to the British technicians. Taking into account the value of the recovered equipment, the net cost of substituting automatic switching for manual at Epsom was about £4522. Three months were needed to complete the work but the exchange building at 34 Station Road would require strengthening first. The new installation was for 500 lines but could be enlarged to a maximum of 1500 lines. The date of ‘cut-over’ to the automatic equipment was planned for May 1912.

Two motion selector mechanism

Two motion selectors, Epsom telephone exchange, 1912

Test desk, Epsom telephone exchange, 1912
Close up of selector test stand


Test desk, Epsom telephone exchange, 1912


In the months beforehand Post Office technicians visited every subscriber to install the new dial telephones together with a special switch to reverse the earth circuits at the time of cut-over. Ex-NTC subscribers had recently been connected to the Post Office CBS exchange with new instruments and were faced with learning two new calling methods in quick succession.

Each subscriber was provided with an information card, size about 10 by 7½ inches (251 by 173 mm), with a set of instructions on how to make calls. They revealed the ‘additional work’ for which the subscribers needed to be ‘educated’:-

"To operate the Calling Dial, first lift the Receiver from its rest with the left hand, then, using the right hand, insert a finger in the hole of the moveable disc corresponding to the digit to be signalled. Rotate the dial as far as possible and then remove the finger. Repeat this for each digit to be signalled, allowing the disc to come to rest before signalling a fresh digit."

Wall telephone set as supplied to Epsom subscribers in 1912
Telephone No. 55

Desk pedestal telephone, less bell set, as supplied to Epsom subscribers in 1912
Telephone No. 72

The cut-over took place successfully on Saturday 18th May 1912 at 3.00 pm. From that time Epsom subscribers could dial all their local calls but still had to speak to an operator to ask to be connected to a London number or other districts. For the call being made, the operation of the switching equipment depended on whether the call was to another subscriber on the same exchange or to somewhere beyond. The system of numbering was as follows: Subscribers’ numbers 200-799, London Central Exchange 15, Croydon Exchange 16, Sutton Exchange 17, Information and complaints circuits to manual switchboard 8, Test desk 9, Long distance calls 0 and Coin box stations (special four-figure circuits) 1910-1929.

As each subscriber’s number was required to be three digits, numbers 0 to 99 needed to be abolished. The most convenient arrangement was felt to be to add a definite ‘hundred’ digit to the existing number, hence Epsom 46 becoming (for example) Epsom 546. The scheme adopted was:-

  • numbers 1 to 99 to become 501 to 599 respectively;
  • numbers 100 to 199 to become 600 to 699 respectively;
  • numbers 200 to 500 to remain unchanged.

Ex-National Telephone Company subscribers would have had new numbers allocated to them when switched over to the Post Office CBS manual exchange.

Reverse of information card supplied to Epsom subscribers in 1912
(original size 251 by 189 mm). BT Heritage POST 30/2380 file XI

A distinctive feature of this pioneer system was that there was no dialling tone, callers having to assume that the equipment was ready for operation as soon as they lifted the receiver. As they dialled they heard clicks caused by the make and break of the ringing relay. If the call was to another subscriber within the Epsom exchange area the caller dialled the whole of the required number which operated the appropriate first and final selectors of the switching equipment. He or she then heard a ringing tone (described as a pulsating sound) if the number was available or an engaged tone (described as an intermittent buzz) if not. Calls beyond Epsom needed to be connected manually, so dialling 15 (for London Central), 16 (Croydon) or 17 (Sutton) linked to a desk at the appropriate exchange where an operator asked for the required number. Outside Epsom, the majority of calls were likely to be made to these areas. Calls to elsewhere in Britain required 0 to be dialled, connecting the caller to the Epsom manual desk. Fire alarm calls in the Epsom District were made by dialling 600 and in the Ewell District by dialling 521. Accommodation was also made for connexion to Electrophone, the distributed audio service which was available by special subscription in certain parts of Britain between 1895 and 1925. This was obtained by dialling 0 for the operator.

Calls were charged according to the type of call. One penny was charged for each originated local call, two pence for each originated junction call for London Central, Croydon, and other exchanges in the London area, with various rates for long-distance or trunk calls. Only the local calls were automatically metered, other charges being recorded in writing by the operator handling the call.

Epsom subscribers quickly grew used to the new system and were highly pleased with it. Within three months traffic on the exchange increased by 60 per cent. Over the following few years several other switching systems were also tried across Britain but the tempo of conversion was slowed considerably by the First World War. Finally, in November 1922, Thomas Purves, the Post Office Engineer-in-Chief, recommended step by step with the addition of ‘director’ working (in essence the Strowger system with additional mechanism for inter-connecting groups of exchanges) and research work by the Post Office and the manufacturers was concentrated on its full-scale development. To begin with, conversion was to be confined to the largest towns and cities where it would give the greatest economy in working. Elsewhere the manual system would be retained, though in rural areas the Unattended Automatic Exchange (UAX) brought economies too. In the late 1930s the policy was adopted of complete conversion from manual to automatic in Britain, though it was recognised that this would take many years to achieve.

End of the Epsom trial
During this time the pioneer Epsom installation simply carried on. In London, conversion to director working began in 1927 when Holborn automatic and Holborn tandem exchanges opened, after which the changeover proceeded apace. The decision was made to confine automatic working to within a ten-mile limit from central London and this, ironically, was the cause of the ending of automatic working at Epsom for a period of over thirty years. The number of subscribers there was steadily increasing in the late 1920s (the term ‘station’ refers to the number of telephone instruments connected):

1927    1082 lines  1373 stations
1929    1348 lines  1682 stations
1930    1550 lines  1930 stations
1931    1616 lines  2020 stations

By now the automatic exchange could no longer be expanded. As demand was certain to continue to increase a new exchange building was needed, and as Epsom was about 14 miles from central London this had to be manually operated. The new exchange was in East Street, Epsom, and was equipped with the then-standard CB1 switchboard. The cut-over from the automatic exchange took place on 20 July 1932 and the Station Road exchange was closed. Local newspapers have been checked but, surprisingly, no reference has been found to subscribers’ reactions to being converted back to dial-less telephones and slower connexion times.

Epsom thenceforth remained a manual switching area until East Street was converted to non-director automatic working with STD (subscriber trunk dialling) facilities on 6th October 1965. By this time there were some 5750 subscribers on the exchange. In 2012 the East Street building was still Epsom’s telephone exchange, but now with System X digital switching equipment. Both former exchange buildings, at 1 Hook Road and 34 Station Road, have long since been demolished, but the location of the Station Road exchange can still be identified today. In 1912 there was a pillar letter box on the pavement just outside the exchange. That same pillar box was still there in 2012, on the south side of Upper High Street near the top of the hill opposite the former railway station.

Sadly, other than this, there is probably nothing on the ground now to remind Epsom’s present residents of their town’s principal claim to fame as a telecommunications pioneer.

References and acknowledgements

To keep the length of this article within reasonable bounds individual citations have not been given but full details can be obtained from the author, address below. The principal sources are: Post Office Electrical Engineers’ Journal, especially the articles in volume 5, July 1912; BT Heritage, file POST 30/2360; F G C Baldwin, The History of the Telephone in the United Kingdom (London, 1925); and J H Robertson, The Story of the Telephone (London, 1947). I must express my thanks for the constant and friendly help provided by the staff at BT Heritage, High Holborn, London, in identifying documents, scanning illustrations and for permission to reproduce material in their care. I must also thank the volunteers and staff at Epsom & Ewell Local and Family History Centre, Bourne Hall, Ewell, for their help in finding large-scale maps and local street directories.

John Liffen
ex Curator of Communications
London, Science Museum
29 April 2012

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Last revised: August 19, 2021