Longfield Telephone Exchange's Hundreth Birthday
It's hard to imagine life without telecommunications now. In the 16th century it took hours for the news of a battle at Wrotham to reach even Gravesend, while the chain of beacons to warn of the Spanish Armada still took 12 hours to alert people in York. Now we take for granted that it is as easy to call someone on the other side of the world, as it is to call our neighbour. The internet brings us information at the click of a mouse, mobile phones allow us to be in touch wherever we are. The centenary of the telephone in Longfield and Hartley falls between 26 November and 3 December this year, and this is the story...
Before the telephone, Longfield station had a telegraph office installed about 1882. This allowed text messages to be sent to other offices, in 1904 the Dartford Fire Brigade was summoned to a fire at Ash by telegram.
Why do phones need an exchange? Well in theory they don't, but then you would need a separate wire to every person you might call. With an exchange you only need a wire to the exchange. And without an exchange at Longfield, anyone wanting a phone would have to pay for the wire to go to Dartford - very expensive!
When the GPO began installing telephone poles at Longfield in 1905, there was lots of local interest. The Post Office insisted on there being guarantors to underwrite a third of the cost, just in case the exchange failed in its first seven years. Mr T F Cowlrick, an engineer who was new to Longfield found five others willing to do this. Longfield Parish Council then wrote to say that bringing the phone to Longfield was of such public interest that they would be a guarantor if necessary.
It could be expensive setting up an exchange so when the Post Office were considering installing an exchange at Lindfield near Haywards Heath, they first did a canvass and 10 people were immediately prepared to take up the service. They then estimated it would cost £385 to set up an exchange and circuits to them.
By May 1907 Mr Cowlrick had the bond signed, and the GPO's weekly internal bulletin of December 3rd, 1907 announced that new exchanges had just been opened at Longfield and Meopham. There were just four subscribers - Longfield Post Office (Longfield 1), Mr Martin of Pinden Farm (2), Mrs Cresswell of Old Downs (3) and Mr Conford a Green Street Green farmer (4). Opening hours when people could make calls were limited to 8am to 8pm on weekdays and 8am to 10am on Sundays. The exchange was based at the sub-post office in Station Road. Non-subscribers could make calls via the call office there.
The earliest exchange was a manual switchboard at the Post Office. You picked up the phone and your number lighted up on the operator's switchboard. She'd plug an answering cord into the socket for your phone and say "number please". Local calls would be connected by plugging the "ringing cord" into the jack for the number called, longer distance calls were plugged into a trunk circuit and routed to a distant exchange (this took around 15 minutes). A central battery at the exchange provided power for the circuit. At that time, there were no dials on a phone because connections were all made through the operator.
Only 4% of households had the luxury of a phone in 1912. Longfield subscribers paid a £4 annual subscription and 1d per local call - the cost of trunk calls varied on distance. A three minute call would cost 3d to London and 2 shillings to Manchester (half price off peak). The worth of a penny at that time is the equivalent of about 25p today.
By 1922 there were 20 subscribers, mostly with a business need for a phone. The exchange was now in 24 hour operation, excepting Sundays when it was available from 10am to 10pm. In the same year the Post Office allowed Fairby Stores to open a call office - this was Hartley's first public phone. In 1929 the exchange installed its hundreth line and became a 24/7 operation. The Post Office replaced the switchboard and built a new battery hut.
Mr Strowger's switches
The phone was catching on in popularity but it was still an expensive item. In 1934 a three minute call from London to Manchester cost a shilling cheap rate and three shillings in the peak. In actual terms that was more expensive than today, while in real terms this equates to something like £2 and £6!
The next big leap for Longfield was automation. The Post Office started drawing up plans early in 1937 for automating the Longfield exchange following a new surge of interest. As the number of Longfield telephone subscribers rose to 250 during that year the Post Office changed them to 4 digit numbers - a prerequisite for the UAX 14 exchange that Longfield would eventually receive (these exchanges used numbers 2000-2399 and 3000-3399). Existing double digit numbers had 21- added in front, thus the doctor's surgery which had been Longfield 27 became Longfield 2127 - a number still familiar today! By 1939, phones had been installed in a third of all Hartley households, and by 1956 this number had increased to 60% - more than twice the national average.
The site of the current exchange at 59 Main Road had been purchased by the Post Office in 1939, but it wasn't till 10 March 1952 that the new automatic exchange opened there (and was burgled within 2 months of opening). However Longfield subscribers still could only dial direct to a limited number of exchanges in the Dartford area.
Automation was made possible by a mechanical switch invented by an American undertaker Almon Strowger (1839 - 1902). The story goes that his business rival's wife was the operator at the exchange; convinced she was diverting calls meant for him to her husband, he invented a way of mechanising the dialling of phone calls to bypass the operator! This involved a "line finder" activated when you picked up the phone, it found a free line and connected you to the dialling tone. The dial sent electrical pulses (if you dialled 2 it would send two pulses and so on) causing a selector switch to step upward accordingly, it then rotated horizontally to find a free next selector for the next number, the final selector stepped upward for the third digit dialled and horizontally for the 4th digit to connect the call. Older people will remember the clicks and whirrs on the line as the equipment connected the call.
Dialling 9 took you straight through to the parent exchange at Dartford whereby calls were routed to other local automatic exchanges. So while Dartford subscribers would dial 93 for Longfield, people in Meopham would have to dial 993. Longfield subscribers had a direct link to the Gravesend operator by dialling 4.
Subscriber Trunk Dialling
The pace of progress quickened. The year of the Queen's coronation saw Longfield reach 500 lines which had doubled by 1961. In 1956 the speaking clock service was introduced locally. Subscriber Trunk Dialling - the system that allowed callers to dial anywhere in the country, was introduced in 1966. The cost of calls, especially short ones, fell dramatically because the system also allowed automatic metering. Previously operators had to fill out a slip for trunk calls that required an army of clerks to collate for billing. However people did miss the itemisation that was no longer possible and many local calls were more expensive because previously they had been a flat rate 3d (1p) however long the call was.
STD also introduced the area codes to simplify billing. Before then each exchange had its own scale of charges based on crow's flight distances. Henceforth a call to any exchange in a group would be at the same price, a great assistance to automatic billing. Longfield became part of the Gravesend group. At first they used a combination of letters and numbers, so 0474 equates to dialling 0-GR-4.
The growth of the area has led to a vast increase in business for the exchange. Lines numbers reached 3,000 in 1971 when there was a further extension to add the second storey to the exchange and other outbuildings. At the time the exchange employed 4 full time and 5 part time staff. Nationally the number of households with telephones rose from 55% in 1975 to 94% in 1995.
The digital age
In August 1991 all Longfield numbers were made 6 digit to coincide with the introduction of a new digital exchange, bringing to an end the mechanical system. The exchange code was at the same time shortened to 0474. BT chose to buy 2 systems, so as not to create a monopoly, which were called System X and System Y. From the small print on a leaflet sent to us, it appears Longfield is a System Y exchange. It also ushered in the new era of 1471 and dialling 5 for call back. The exchange code became 01474 on 16 April 1995.
Instead of pulses, a digital phone sends a "dual tone" for the number to the exchange, the call is also converted by equipment into digital format. At the exchange computer equipment searches for the best way to route the call. It can send several calls together along the same route by a system called multiplexing. Exchanges are now linked by fibre optic wire that has a much greater capacity than copper wire, allowing more services, and it also improves the quality of transmission of the call. Technology improvements led to a 75% fall in the cost of long distance and 40% in local calls in the period 1984-1997.
While BT continue to own the freehold of the Longfield exchange, it and 6,000 other properties were subject to a very complex financial transaction in 2001 which raised £2.4 billion for BT. Now the exchange is subject to a 131 year headlease, which in turn has been subleased back to BT.
Longfield exchange covers an area ranging from Lanes End, Bean, New Barn to Hartley, but a small part of Hartley lies in the Ash Green exchange area, no doubt because it was once more expensive to have the phone if you were more than 2 miles from an exchange. Ash exchange opened on 1 April 1908. Here local subscribers needed their own battery and had to wind a magneto handle to call the operator. It became West Ash in 1933 to avoid confusion with Ash, Sandwich.
As a small exchange it was one of the early ones automated in 1937. Small rural exchanges were automated first because they didn't generate enough business to justify full time operators. At that time West Ash had 62 subscribers. The exchange building to house the UAX 13 exchange equipment can still be seen next to the Ash Green exchange in Billet Hill. A UAX 13 exchange originally had a capacity of 200 subscribers, but West Ash was later adapted to carry more. Once New Ash Green started to be built, the Post Office decided to open a brand new exchange (Ash Green) on 6 October 1967. Originally a mobile exchange, it found a settled home at Billet Hill in about 1972. The two exchanges ran concurrently until 6 September 1972 when West Ash was finally closed. The West Ash numbers were transferred to Ash Green, and appear to have had 872- added in front of them. At the time of the latest published figures in 1988 Ash Green had 2,864 subscribers, compared with 5,480 for Longfield.
The Longfield Phone Pioneers (1922)