The telephone service in Bristol began when the Telephone Company Ltd opened the first exchange in December 1879 in Queen Victoria Buildings, 16 High Street on the corner with St Mary le Port Street.  It was only a year earlier that the Company had opened its first exchange in the country, at 36 Coleman Street, London.  The number of subscribers during the  first few months of telephone service was very small, perhaps 20 or 30, all business subscribers at whom the original local advertising had been directed.  By 1881 the Company, known by then as the United Telephone Company after its merger with the Edison Telephone Company, had 100 subscribers.  The popularity of the telephone was increasing rapidly.

Soon afterwards telephone service between Bristol and Cardiff and Swansea was introduced, and in 1887 communications were opened with Gloucester.  The charge for telephone service to Swansea was 60, to Gloucester 30, large sums of money at the time.  Unlimited local service was given between 9am and 6pm on weekdays but the exchange closed on Sundays.

The Company amalgamated with other private telephone companies in 1889 and was known as the National Telephone Company.  It took over more of the High Street site and expanded the exchange to take 1,200 subscribers.The equipment used remained unsophisticated—only one wire was required for each subscriber, with the electrical circuit being completed by earth return.  Subscribers called the exchange by magneto generator, and local batteries at their premises provided current for speech.

In 1900, however, a major development took place in Bristol when the first Central Battery exchange in Europe was opened there.  This was in the newly-opened Telephone Avenue between Baldwin Street and Marsh Street and service started on 25 May.  In the Central Battery system all current for signalling and speaking was provided by a single battery at the exchange, and no subscribers' batteries were needed.  Initially 1800 subscribers were connected to the exchange, provision being made for extension to 6300.  The total cost of building the new exchange and laying 14 miles of underground ducts and cables was 4500.  The opening of the exchange was celebrated in customary style on 2 July 1901 when the Mayor and Corporation officials toured the exchange.

This work formed the basis of future development of the Bristol telephone system. The Post Office had taken over the trunk lines from the old High Street exchange in 1896, and in 1900 opened a trunk exchange in Small Street.  In 1900 three operators were employed on trunks and also dealt with phonograms and other telegraph work.

In 1912, as part of its purchase of the National Telephone Company, the Post Office took over the exchange in Telephone Avenue and the two exchanges developed in size until 1931 when the Central Automatic Exchange was opened in the same building, which was extended to cater for the new equipment.

Conversion to automatic working took place on 28 November. The automatic system in Bristol was designed on a five-digit step-by-step basis, and had an ultimate capacity of 60,000 lines distributed on the central exchange and eleven satellite exchanges.  In 1947-48 28,000 lines were connected. The building in Telephone Avenue accommodated equipment for 5,500 subscribers' lines, 1,000 long-distance trunk lines and 900 junction lines.  The toll and trunk traffic handled required 350 day operators and 230 night operators, while an engineering staff of 80 was employed on the maintenance of equipment in the building.

The system continued to develop and in 1958 the Queen inaugurated the STD service.In view of the interest which the first installation was bound to arouse it was essential that the project should go ahead quickly and smoothly, so the choice of exchange was important.  STD equipment for non-director exchanges was ready earlier than for director exchanges.  Also trunk mechanisation equipment needed to be available at the exchange by the time the STD system was due for installation.

Bristol satisfied these requirements: by 1958 the city was served by a non-director system consisting of the main exchange and nine satellite exchanges, and trunk mechanisation was introduced that year.

At first STD was available only to subscribers on Bristol Central Exchange.  This was the exchange serving the main business and commercial interests, and accounted for more than half the trunk traffic from the city.

Before STD Bristol subscribers could dial direct to 2,600 subscribers connected to 41 local exchanges outside the city.  Afterwards they could dial calls to 427 exchanges, including most of those in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.

Before STD could be introduced, however, telephone charges, designed for manual operation, had to be simplified, only then could full automation follow.The introduction of group charging areas reduced as well as simplified the cost of most trunk calls.

On 5 December 1958 the Queen dialled the first call, to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, over 300 miles away—the greatest distance over which the subscriber trunk call could be made at the time.  The call was made on a blue 700-type telephone, the most modern telephone at the time; this style of telephone was made generally available to the public early in the following year.  The call lasted 2 minutes 5 seconds and cost 1s.10d.; under the old charging system it would have cost 3s.9d.  Afterwards, the Queen operated a switch which put 18,000 telephones connected to Bristol Central onto the new system.

STD was immensely popular with the Bristol Central subscribers who within a short time were dialling a large proportion of the possible STD calls themselves.  The Post Office pressed on with the expansion of service to other towns and cities and steadily the foundations of today's sophisticated communications networks were laid - the Bristol experiment had been a success.


[This article was kindly contributed by the BT Archives and Historical Information Centre]

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