Allow me to remind you of a previous blog (July 27 2012) about a book by James Spilling the editor of the Eastern Daily Press. Giles’s Trip to London, where this story appears, was written in 1872. In this Spilling recounts how amazed the simple farm worker was that a letter – or telegram – could be sent from Ipswich to London and a reply received within minutes. Telegrams were pioneered by the railways, and the tracks formed the ideal pathway for the telegraph wires. Telegraphic communication soon became an essential part of the signalling system, warning the signalman of an approaching train. Once the train had passed he could inform the next signal box by ringing a bell by a pulse of electricity which was relayed along the wire.

The first commercial use of the long distance telephone (which enabled communication by voice rather than code) in Britain took place on the first of November 1878. This was the 115 mile line from Cannon Street in London to Norwich– where else? This used the telegraph line of the Great Eastern Railway.

Early telephone exchange at Costessey Post Office

Early telephone exchange at Costessey Post Office

By 1894 telephones were common enough to be on the list of goods to be carried by the Regent’s Park Canal. Telephone apparatus, packed was there under “t”, alongside Telegraph instruments, packed in a long and detailed listing of articles in the Railway and Canal Traffic Act. These ranged from Ale coolers to Zinc bars.

The number of businesses which possessed a telephone was very small. In the 1912 Kelly’s Directory Norwich Union had a telephone, number 50, but virtually no private individuals had one. The very grandest establishments may have had a telephone, but it was kept in the servants’ quarters for use in the running of the household, for it was only businesses that used them. Private communication was by personal callers, who would leave their calling cards if the person they wished to see was out; or, if they wished to communicate with someone outside the area they wrote a letter. The ways in which these new forms of address were written in directories for example differed according to whether it was a telegraphic or telephonic address. The latter were always given numbers, but telegraphic addresses were a brief phrase, like that used by the Traffic Manager of the M&GN; VIGOROUS, KING’S LYNN.

The Post Office in Costessey had a telephone exchange by 1912. It required the presence of an operator to connect all calls, and he sat at the jack plugs as shown in the photograph reproduced above. When he went off duty you could not make a call. Gunton Brothers who owned the brick-kiln at the far end of West End (as well as others at Guist, Little Plumstead and West Runton) had the telephone number 3, so there were at least two other telephones in Costessey. One would have belonged to Lord Stafford, but who owned the other I don’t know. Diss even had a telephone call office in 1912, which was open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on week days, and 8.30 to 10.30 a.m. on Sundays. Diss is of course on the mainline to London, so it was ideally place for communication, having direct access to the long distance wires along the railway line. Fakenham, no doubt because the railway there did not yet include a telephone wire along its poles, had a telegraph office but no telephones. This is despite it being a much larger and more important place than Costessey; but Costessey was only a mile or two  from Norwich.

From the early years of the nineteenth century various Spanish and German scientists were experimenting with electrochemical and electromagnetic ways of sending messages over a few kilometres of wire. The semaphore (line of sight) way of communicating over long distances had already introduced the term telegraph. The first practical method of electronic telegraph was devised by the American inventor Samuel Morse (whose name is remembered in the Morse code) in 1837. The first commercial telegraph ran for 13 miles on the Great Western Railway from Paddington station to West Drayton. It began on 8th July 1839. The fax machine, for sending images along wires, was developed as long ago as 1843.

Telegram from Elizabeth and Philip to the Lord Mayor of Norwich, thanking her for congratulations on the birth of Princess Anne.

Telegram from Elizabeth and Philip to the Lord Mayor of Norwich, thanking her for congratulations on the birth of Princess Anne.

Telegrams were still used when I was a young man. Although in business their use had been rather different, as far as we ordinary people were concerned telegrams were kept for important occasions; births, weddings and deaths. When I was Best Man at a friend’s wedding in 1973 I had a telegram or two to read out. A telegram would be delivered by a telegraph boy on a small red motorcycle. As more and more people got telephones the need for such an expensive and brief message waned. In the UK the telegram service ended in 1982.

Click here to view a timeline of the development of the telephone.


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