Shared lines and telephone kiosks: Life before smartphones in Norfolk

Trunk call operators at work in Norwich back in 1957.

Trunk call operators at work in Norwich back in 1957. - Credit: Archant Library

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

Remember this? You dialled the number (or gave it to the operator) and pressed button A.

If there was no answer you gave button B a push to get your pennies back.

Maintenance console for telephone exchange in 1952

Maintenance console for telephone exchange. The man at the back of the photo looking towards the camera was Jimmy Gosling. He was responsible for Dereham. “The gentleman standing, helping out with a query was Pip Fiddy and the operator sitting second from the front of the photo was Caesar but I cannot remember his surname." Dated: 28th March 1952 - Credit: Archant Library

Number please. Operators at work in the Norwich main switch room in 1952

Number please. Operators at work in the Norwich main switch room in 1952 - Credit: Archant Library

That was the way it was in the kiosks dotted around our streets… and then if you were in your own home you could pick your telephone up to make a call and discover someone else was talking.

It was tempting to listen in but I was told as a boy it was against the law to do such a rude thing.

This was the old party-line. When two families shared the telephone line.

A corner of the apparatus room at the Norwich exchange in 1952.

A corner of the apparatus room at the Norwich exchange in 1952. - Credit: Archant Library

Cromer telephone switchboard operators at work

Cromer telephone switchboard operators at work. Dated 30th September 1952 - Credit: Archant Library

How times have changed in our social media and smartphone-controlled world.

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Most people today have mobile phones and could not imagine life without one.

Last week we told how the telephones arrived in Norwich with a musician playing at Colman’s and the music being heard in London.

Telephone operators at work in Norwich 60 years ago.

Moving forward to the 1960s. Operators at work in Norwich 60 years ago. - Credit: Archant Library

Eaton Telephone Exchange. Dated 19th September 1960

Eaton Telephone Exchange. Dated 19th September 1960 - Credit: Archant Library

It was in early 1883 when the first telephone exchange was opened in Norwich at, of course, Exchange Street.

The hours of operation were from 8.30am to 6pm on weekdays and 8.30am to 10am at the weekend.

The 30-odd subscribers, most were businesses, were all connected to the exchange by overhead wiring, supported by pole or brackets to the roof-tops.

The magnificent Telephone House in St Giles, Norwich, designed by George Skipper, which is now a hotel.

The magnificent Telephone House in St Giles, Norwich, designed by George Skipper, which is now a hotel. - Credit: Archant Library

One of the last calls comes through the manual switchboard at Quidenham Telephone Exchange.

One of the last calls comes through the manual switchboard at Quidenham Telephone Exchange, it is replaced by an automatic exchange. Mrs Patrick and her daughter Margaret with Mr Christopher Patrick, Dated: August 27th, 1952 - Credit: Archant Library

The relationship between the telephone company and the council was often strained as the demand for more and more telegraph poles grew.

The next exchange in Norfolk was at Great Yarmouth in 1884 with just 12 subscribers and a couple of years later there was a trunk line to Norwich.

Conservative MP Ralph Howell tours Cromer Telephone Exchange.

Cromer Conservative MP Ralph Howell tours Cromer Telephone Exchange. Vera May supervisor stands beside Mr Howell. Dated 10 October 1967 - Credit: Archant Library

The telephones were ringing loud and clear across Norfolk, the rest of the country, and eventually the world.

When did the telephones start ringing near you?

Let’s have a look at where and when the first exchanges opened in these parts.

  • Aylsham – 1913. Sub-post office. 15 subscribers.
  • Beccles – 1896. Private house. 16 subscribers.
  • Cromer – 1898. Private house. Eight subscribers.
  • Eaton (later known as Norwich West) - 1905. Private house. 23 subscribers.
  • Fritton – 1899. Rented accommodation. Five subscribers.
  • Gorleston – 1897. Former shop. Eight subscribers.
  • Great Yarmouth – 1884. Ex-hotel. Twelve subscribers.
  • Hethersett – 1927. Sub post office. 27 subscribers.
  • Lowestoft – 1890. Rented accommodation. 21 subscribers.
  • Mundesley – 1909. Private house. Five subscribers.
  • Norwich – 1883. Leased accommodation. 32 subscribers.
  • Oulton Broad – 1901. Private house later absorbed into Lowestoft. 15 subscribers.
  • Quidenham – 1908. Sub post office. Five subscribers.
  • Scole – 1907. Sub post office. Four subscribers.
  • Sheringham – 1899. Private house. Eight subscribers.
  • Wymondham – 1907. Sub post office. 25 subscribers.