Sterling Telephone & Electric
Taken from Bobs Old Phones web site
The Sterling Telephone & Electric Company of Britain was
an early starter in the days when electrical devices were a new growth
industry. Originally they were a manufacturer of electrical parts, but
they added telephones to their range in the 1890s. They seemed to have
had most success with their range of small intercoms, and many
collectors will have at least one Sterling phone. Little is known about
their origins, but there is no doubt that they were well-financed and
well-run. One of their major customers in the earliest days was
Britain’s National Telephone Company. They supplied the National with a
wide range of their CB desk phones and intercoms, and some of their
specialist lines such as mining and tramway phones. The telephones were
built at a factory at Dagenham that they bought from Morris Arming Tube
and Ammunition Company in 1910. They set about enlarging the factory to
handle woodworking, ebonite moulding, metal turning and electrical
wiring. The factory covered more than four acres by the end of 1910, and
was increased gradually to ten acres.
Their catalogues show that many of their early phones were partly built
with components sourced from the Swedish manufacturer L M Ericsson. This
was a common practice for many telephone manufacturers at the time.
During the First World War, these were replaced by Sterling’s own parts.
They also bought in complete phones from Ericsson and Western Electric
and simply rebadged them. Finally, they dropped much of their product
range and produced phones to the British Post Office’s standard
Sterling was a general electrical manufacturer rather than a specialist
telephone producer. Their range covered phones, switchboards, and
electrical and telephone equipment and fittings. From early days they
also developed wireless sets to service Marconi’s new invention. During
the First World War Sterling wireless sets were installed in Royal Air
Force spotter planes. They continued this development after the war and
were eventually part of the founding group of the British Broadcasting
Company , the BBC.
They seem to have been able to market their telephone products quite
successfully overseas but this was usually done by a local distributor
rather than by Sterling themselves. Relying on others to sell your
product is a dangerous marketing move. It was in this that they lost out
to the better organised companies like GEC and Ericssons who established
direct marketing offices in many of the British Empire countries to
secure their markets.
In 1926 they sold out to Marconiphone and the factory
was turned entirely to production of Marconi’s valve wireless sets. The
GEC company picked up what was left of Sterling’s telephone business.
GEC had been selling Sterling phones for some time, rebadging them with
GEC model numbers. For some years the Sterling factory was quite
successful in its new field. The complex was enlarged to eighteen acres
by 1925, with its own power station, gasworks, printers, fire station,
first aid service, canteens, recreation hall, and undercover storage for
seven hundred staff bicycles.
Over the years, production needs changed and the huge estate and factory
complex was broken up and sold off. In the 1970's Ford bought about a
quarter of the complex as an assembly line for production of the Ford
Capri. The Sterling name remained, however, and kept turning up in
unexpected ways. As an example, one of the engineering plants on the
estate produced the Sterling submachine gun during World War 2 for
paratroops and commandos.
There are nearly a hundred different phones shown in
their catalogues which shows that Sterling was not just a small maker of
intercoms, but a major manufacturer in the early days of the industry.
Sterling telephones fall into four main groups:
The first group is phones for the public network. The wall phones show a
certain individual style, resulting from the use of common components
assembled in different configurations. Sterling’s
long-distance phone is a good example of this. The small box that
contains the electronics is used in many other models. The desk phones
show more variation. The
Model U385 is an Ericsson A300 tin box
style base fitted with Sterling’s straight-armed cradle and their own
Model U716 also used their handset on a modified
candlestick-type base. They seem to have preferred handsets for their
exchange telephones, but later they had to go back to the separate
transmitter/receiver style when they produced phones to British Post
Office specifications. These specs were based on Western Electric phones
that had proved reliable and compatible with the WE switchboards in wide
use in Britain.
The second and largest group was the Interphones, particularly the
Primax models. Today these would be called switchboards. Early models
were fairly basic and had no secrecy on calls. For this reason they were
generally controlled by a single person such as the manager. One-way
signalling, main to extension only, was standard. The
is an impressive example. Note that it is based around an Ericsson-style
miniature phone to handle the electronics. The
is a familiar intercom that is present in many collections. The
extension phones for these systems had incoming signalling only and no
automatic cutoff - this was handled from the switchboard. The
is another familiar example of this style of phone. As the internal use
of telephones grew, the “Reply and Call” system was introduced. This
allowed extension phones to call back to the main switchboard as well as
receive calls. The extension phones of this system are identifiable by
the small signalling pushbutton built into the phone, as seen on the
is another distinctive little phone of this type, with its sloping front
and rear-mounted bell. Switchhook hangup also came into use around this
time. Later, secrecy between calls was introduced as well so multiple
calls could be handled at the same time. These systems were not
connected to the public network. In spite of the amount of cabling
required they were a very popular type of phone system.
The third group was the internal point-to-point intercom, also called
“House Phones” or "Parlour Phones". The Parleyphone range is typical.
is an early example. They were basic, mostly consisting of a wall
terminal block with a pushbutton for signalling to the other phone, and
a suspended handset. On the more elaborate models two-way signalling
could be provided, and for the really adventurous a two-extension model
was available. The Parleyphones and other intercoms were widely sold in
Australia by firms like Anthony Horderns. It is interesting to note that
when the British Post Office took over the National Telephone Company
they kept these “house phones” in use for some time. Handyman books of
the time show enthusiastic homeowners how to convert their internal bell
signalling systems to telephone. Many of the phones could be used on the
bigger intercom systems as well, and were fitted with a pushbutton for
signalling as “Reply and Call” came into use.
is a good example – this simple little wooden box desk phone was
introduced in the 1890s with Ericsson cradle and handset, was upgraded
to the Sterling cradle and handset around 1910, was fitted for Reply and
Call and became
Model U510, then was built into a steel
case in the late 1910s and became Model U306.
A fourth and lesser-known group was the Phonopore models. These were
specially designed phones that could handle voice work across Morse
telegraph lines without interference to the Morse signals. As such they
appealed to railways worldwide. They could reportedly carry a signal for
more than a hundred miles and appeared to be free of induction and
lightning strike problems. Sterling bought out the Radio, Phonopore and
Electricals Company from Mr C Langdon-Davies, the inventor of the phone,
in the very early 1900s and kept the range going until the 1920s.
Because railways workshops tended to keep repairing and modifying phones
long after their usual working life was over, an original Phonopore is
hard to find. In Australia, the last one was taken out of service in the
1950s. Similar phones were made by Ericssons and others.
Sterling also had a range of specialist phones such as linesmens’ test
phones, miners’ phones, and ships phones. The Model
is a ship’s phone for use in noisy locations like engine rooms.
Sterling made a small but useful range of magneto and CB
exchange switchboards as well, but they do not appear to have sold these
in great numbers. They completely missed the potential of automatic
telephony, or more likely did not have the research and development
staff to exploit it. It is also possible that their attention was
diverted by continued development of wireless. After the war they found
their sales of telephones were confined to a small portion of the
British Post Office’s needs, and there was no market for their telephone
exchanges. They diversified into newer types of electrical gear like
headphones (“radio head telephones”), but they could not compete with
larger companies like Britain’s General Electric Company.
Wedlake G E C “SOS The Story of Radio Communication” Melbourne,
Plessey Company History,
Bateman J “History of the Telephone in New South Wales” 1980
General Electric Company Catalogue 1935
Website “Telephone File”
Howson J. “Dagenham and Broadcasting”, undated. Courtesy Dagenham
Dargan James “Morse to Micro - A History of NSW Railways” 1988 Sydney