The telephone: ‘useless for postal purposes’

A 2016 survey by the Association of British Insurers (ABI) asked people what two possessions (non-living things) they’d save from a fire if they had three minutes to do safely.

The results were 

  • Credit cards and money – 43%
  • Photographs – 35%
  • Mobile phone – 33%
  • Laptop/ tablet – 30%

Not surprised? Me neither. Since the first mobile phone call in the UK was made, in 1985, they have gone from a large, heavy lump that cost a couple of thousand pounds to the things none of us ‘could live without’ today.

It set me wondering when the telephone first became known or familiar in Cumbria. Turns out, our Victorian forebears were every bit as excited by the new technology as we are.

The telephone invented

‘Everyone knows’ that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Or more accurately, that Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the first successful patent for the telephone. 

Bell was granted his patent in March 1876 and the rest is history. Which you can read here.

Although with two reiver names Alexander Graham Bell sounds like he might be a Cumbrian character, he was in fact born in Edinburgh in 1847.

An exciting discovery

The first use I found of the word telephone in a Carlisle newspaper predates Bell’s patent by 32 years. Though what ‘Captain Taylor’s telephone – or sea trumpet’ was, I have no idea. It could ‘be distinctly heard at the distance of six miles,’ whatever it was.g

The first ‘real’ insteance is in March 1877, when the Carlisle Patriot reported on an:

Exciting and Interesting discovery

‘The telephone’.

It reported how about 500 people had attended a lecture in Salem, Massachusetts, given by Professor A Graham Bell. There were demonstrations of his great invention, with his assistant Thomas Augustus Watson on the other end of a telephone in Boston.

The invention caught the public imagination. In May 1877, Sir Wilfrid Lawson gave a speech in Liverpool at a meeting of supporters of the Liverpool Popular Control and Licensing Reform Association.

Sir Wilfrid Lawson

Sir Wilfrid Lawson, 2nd baronet, was a strong campaigner for temperance (among other causes). At the time of this speech, he was MP for Carlisle (later he became MP for Cockermouth). He was born at Brayton Hall, Aspatria, in 1829.

Sir Wilfrid Lawson spoke of the Permissive Prohibitory Liquor Bill: ‘a Bill to enable Owners and Occupiers of Property in certain districts to prevent the common sale of Intoxicating Liquors within such districts’ of which he was a champion.

“I read the other day about an instrument called a telephone and it was stated that it could be played at Liverpool and heard at St Stephen’s (applause) and you can play that telephone when the polling day comes at the next general election.”

Remote voting, in 1877?

Sir Wilfried Lawson was a Liberal politician. The Carlisle Patriot, which published a letter from X. Y. Z of Penrith in June 1877, was Conservative. 

The author wrote how an American invention, the telephone, allowed people in one town to hear instaneously what was going on in another. The letter writer thought churches could deliver sermons by telephone to congregations. And Sir Wilfrid Lawson could sit in his slippers and dressing gown at Brayton and address Parliament in London.

The marvellous telephone

The first public exhibition of the telephone in England took place in July 1877 at the Queen’s Theatre, London. The Patriot announced:

The result showed that distinct melodies can be transmitted by this instrument in a marvellous manner.

A month later, a rendition of God save the Queen, sung in Dartmouth, could be heard via the telephone on Jersey, and the Patriot outlined Professor Bell’s proposition to install a central telephonic office in all cities. If a lady wished to place an order to her butcher’s shop, all she had to do was take up her telephone in her drawing room and request someone in the central office ‘to attach the wires leading to the butcher’s shop’. 

When this piece of business is completed, the instrument can be put in contact with any other establishment.

Trial of the telephone in Carlisle

Just two months after the first public exhibition of the telephone in England, one was tried out at Carlisle Telegraph Office.

It was brought there by the Postmaster of Glasgow, Richard Hobson. 

The Patriot explained the instrument was ‘a small article like a powder flask, containing a large magnet with a piece of soft iron over it, attached to a telegraph wire. 

You place your mouth to it if you wish to speak and your ear if you wish to hear, like the whistle of an ordinary speaking tube.

The experiments on Wednesday were most satisfactory. Conversation in the usual tone and songs were distinctly audible at the end of a wire 300 or 400 yards long…. indeed the ‘click’ of the telegraph machine at Newcastle could be heard as clearly as if the listeners had been in the same room; and no doubt, if the clerk in the Tyneside office had happened to have a telephone, an easy conversation might have been carried on with him.

Shortly before Christmas 1877, there were more Experiments with the Telephone in Carlisle.

These were hosted by Carlisle’s Postmaster, George Hallowes. Also present were: Mr Sayers, surveyor for the North-Western Postal District; Mr Scott, superintendent of telegraphs, Carlisle; Mr Hargrave, resident inspector; Mr Graham, chief clerk of the Post Office, and; Mr Maguire, chief clerk of the Telegraph Office.

George Blackwood Hallowes was from Kent, but by 1871, he was a surveyor and clerk in the Post Office, living with his wife Lucy and three infant children in Penrith. And by 1877, they were in Carlisle.

‘Sorry, you’re breaking up’

The Patriot extolled the possibilities afforded by the telephone. The Carlisle experiments proved music could be heard in full 500 miles distant. However, the ‘extreme capacity’ for ‘explicit talk’ was found to be 150 miles. 

Some words could be conveyed more clearly than others, and ‘the practised ear’ caught the words more easily than others.

Further experiments were held between Carlisle and Glasgow, but atmospheric conditions were poor. God Save the Queen was sung in Glasgow, but although those in Carlisle could hear the voice, the words were indistinct. And Glasgow couldn’t make out Once I knew a Maiden Fair, sung from Carlisle. 

A fly in the ointment

Just as everyone was getting excited, the Carlisle Journal reported (still in December 1877) the cost. A set of instruments for ‘short circuit’ cost £25 to buy and £5 a year to rent. £35 and £10 for long circuits.

And as the Journal pointed out, one telephone was like one end of no use if there was no one else with one to call. 

‘Useless for postal purposes’

Just after Christmas 1877, it was reported that two (fabric) mills in Carlisle intended to be connected by telephone. 

It wasn’t just in Carlisle that the telephone was creating excitement. For in January 1878, there was an exhibition of and exposition on three telephones – at Workington’s annual eisteddfod. 

Why Workington held an annual eisteddfod is possibly a question for another day.

And a month later, an animated conversation was kept up between ‘a party in Workington and a few friends in Maryport’.

Not all were impressed. Lord John Manners, Conservative MP for North Leicstershire, and Postmaster General, told the House of Commons that month that experiments proved the telephone was ‘useless for postal purposes’. 

John Manners, 7th Duke of Rutland, was the son of the 5th Duke and his wife Lady Elizabeth Howard – daughter of Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle. 

Embracing new technology

In April 1881, ship owners Messr Hine applied for leave to make telephonic communication from their head office at Maryport and their new office at Workington, on payment of one shilling a year.  The saving of railway fares would ‘be immense’. They launched it in March 1882, with music played and speeches at both premises to test how well it worked.

Carr and Co sought to fix a telephone wire on the Police Office in Carlisle in September 1881.

It might be a while before any but wealthy households could afford (or have use for) a telephone in their hallway. But Cumbria’s manufacturers and traders were clearly quick to embrace the new technology.

Soon after, telephone companies were seeking consent to erect wires across towns. And in December 1882, the Carlisle Express and Examiner was carrying a small ad: ‘telephones in working order’.

And to round this off with a Cumbrian Characters ‘favourite’: a Victorian joke. This particular piece of 19th century humour appeared in the Carlisle Express & Examiner, in 1885. It’s not funny now (if it was then), but it shows that the telephone was no longer just an exhibition novelty:

A lady poet asks: “How can I tell him that I love him no more?” There are divers ways… She might apprise him of the depressing fact by post card; or get her brother to tell him; or wait till a telephone line is established; but if she wishes him to receive the news, as if by magic, she should divulge the state of her feelings to a couple of members of the sewing circle.