Chronicles: Telephone comes to Ventnor

On 14 January 1878, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone to Queen Victoria at Osborne House, with calls made to London, Cowes and Southampton. These were the first long-distance calls in the UK.

Ventnor, never far behind in the advance of technology, held its own demonstration in July that year, setting up a link between the Ventnor & Bonchurch Literary and Scientific Institution (now the Library) and Eglinton, a house on the corner of Spring Hill and St Boniface Road.  It was described by the IOW Mercury as a most interesting and clever exposition of the scientific construction of the invention with which Professor Bell has recently astonished the world.  The experiment went from the Institute to Eglinton, the residence of Henry Westropp, about half a mile away. Singing, recitations, piano were all heard distinctly, even the assistant’s breathing.

Not everyone was so enthusiastic.  In 1879 Mr William Preece (later Sir William Preece) of the Post Office Engineering staff, when asked whether the telephone would be an instrument of the future which would be largely taken up by the public, replied I think not. Questioned further he said I fancy the descriptions we get of its use in America are a little exaggerated; but there are conditions in America which necessitate the use of instruments of this kind more than here. Here we have a superabundance of messengers, errand boys, and things of that kind. However, by 1882, Mr Preece was experimenting with wireless telegraphy between Southampton and Newport, Isle of Wight.

Back in Ventnor, High Street Chemist Charles Smith was an early enthusiast. In June 1882 a telephone was installed connecting his two shops in the High Street.  In 1889 he was offering for sale a system including Two instruments (one for each end of line), Two Batteries and 100 yards insulated wire, complete, £5. Full instructions supplied with each Instrument.  In 1892 he included his telephone service in his advertisements as a Dispensing Chemist, where information about ‘Calenduline’, the new and certain cure for corns was followed by the information Electric Telephones Fitted.

By the early 1900s a national telephone service started to emerge. In 1903 a ‘cheap rate’ was introduced, with six minutes allowed for the normal price of a three-minute call between 8 pm and 6 am, and in 1906 the first coin-operated call box appeared near St Pauls Cathedral at Ludgate Circus in London. In 1912 the two main providers of systems – the Post Office, which in Ventnor had a telephone exchange over Timothy Whites in the High Street, and the National Telephone Company Ltd, which operated from Clarence Buildings in the High Street – merged, and there was one system for the whole of Britain.

All calls had to go through a manual telephone exchange, connected by an operator working a switchboard (it would be many years before users could dial direct to the number they wanted).  Attracting the attention of an operator could be primitive, especially in the early days; one system involved the caller whistling into the transmitter.   Things improved in 1929 when Ventnor was given one of the most up to date exchanges in the country.  The Mercury reported:   The new system of telephoning came into operation at Ventnor on Monday, when the attention of the Exchange was obtained by simply lifting the receiver from its rest and the clearing signal given by replacing it.  Users found the first day or two of the new arrangement a little confusing, but its advantages over the old and tedious methods are obvious.  The exchange has been moved from the first floor of Timothy Whites, chemists, to over the Post Office.

Ventnor’s telephone exchange was to remain above the Post Office, which was then in Church Street, for forty-two years. The building is now known as ‘Ventnor Exchange’, and is home to the Ventnor Fringe team. Next week we learn what it was like to be a ‘Hello Girl’ operating the Ventnor switchboard.

Lesley Telford, Ventnor & District Local History Society. Sources: information and records from our Collection including Fay Brown’s Local History Indexes.  Thanks to Bobs Telephone File (http://www.britishtelephones.com/) for additional information.

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