Development of the telephone systems in the Cockermouth area

At the beginning of electrical communication in Britain, the railways became one of the first universal systems. Most railway stations were equipped with morse code telegraph systems for safety and traffic reasons, but the general public could send telegrams for a fee.

Telephones spread quite rapidly throughout the country in the late 19th century, and particularly in the 20th century.

At the dawn of the system in 1891 there were just seven connections to the Cockermouth telephone exchange, though it was by then possible to be connected to telephones in other local towns such as Maryport, Aspatria, Workington and Whitehaven, which must have seemed marvellous to these early users.

The area considered here is our locality.

The National Telephone Company's 1910 telephone directory for the area shows Cockermouth as having a telephone call office on Main Street which was supervised by Mrs M A Ede, with the telephone number Cockermouth 5.

Other numbers were:-

Lord Leconfield at Cockermouth Castle Cockermouth 1
Thos Armstrong Steam Sawmills Cockermouth 3
Police Station Cockermouth 4
A Wadham The Mount Papcastle Cockermouth 6
Dickson Motor Depot on Market Place Cockermouth 7
Mitchell's Auction House Cockermouth 8
Cockermouth Rural District Council Cockermouth 9
Harris Flax Mill Cockermouth 10
Palmer Decorator Cockermouth 11
Hayton, Simpson & Fisher Solicitors Cockermouth 245
Jennings Brewery Cockermouth 244
Jennings Brewery Managing Director Cockermouth 244a
Spedding Stockbrokers Cockermouth 250

This appears to be the sum total of all the telephones in the Cockermouth area, so Mrs Ede, the telephone operator would probably not have had a busy time connecting calls.

Originally there was a small telephone exchange run by the National Telephone Company at 82 Main Street where Harrison's butchers is now, and later at 94 Main Street, which was a takeaway on the corner of Bridge Street and is now residential letting, but as the system grew, and was bought out in 1912 by the Government in the form of the General Post Office, a larger exchange was opened upstairs above the then Post Office on Station Street. This was just up Station Street from the Cumberland Building Society in the building which is now a charity shop.

There was a call office a couple of doors up from the charity shop.

Until the Post Office moved in the 1980s, and the building was refurbished, there was a small mirror angled outside an upstairs window which allowed the telephonists to see who was entering or leaving the call office.

By 1922 there were many more Cockermouth Telephone numbers. Most of the banks and solicitors are mentioned, as are several businesses which we can remember into recent times.

Interesting developments are the extension to rural areas:-

The quarry at Embleton was on Cockermouth 60.
Colonel Green-Thompson in Bridekirk was on Cockermouth 12
Canon Sutton at Bridekirk Vicarage was on Cockermouth 64.

Some of the even more interesting connections in the 1922 directory were:-

Robert Hinde of Brigham on Cockermouth 13x1
Alfred Lees of Brigham was on Cockermouth 13x3
John Williamson of Brigham was on Cockermouth 13y3
Brigham Branch of the Maryport Coop was on Cockermouth 13x4

These strange numbers were rural party lines with several customers connected to one line. Ringing them from the exchange was by ringing the bell a certain number of times. The rural party line was divided into two halves, the x half and the y half, and only one half would ring at a time, though any phone lifted up would be able to listen to any call in progress on any of the phones. All the phones on the half of the line would ring, but one was only supposed to pick up the phone if one's own coded ring was heard. I'm sure much eavesdropping happened.

Users would opt to have a rural party line if they lived away from the town, because this was cheaper than a private line.

Systems such as this disappeared many years ago in Britain, but some were still in use until the 1970s or even later in remote parts of the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Villages in the local area which now have their own telephone exchanges did not justify one then for just a tiny number of customers, and were served by a long line from Cockermouth, with a Mr. Stanley-Dodgson at Armaside, Lorton being on Cockermouth 62.

By 1930 Tallentire had its own call office in the Post Office on Cockermouth 023, though there seems to be no mention of such facilities in Dovenby or Bridekirk.

By 1930 some more distant local rural areas had a telephone exchange, with Bassenthwaite having a call office on Bassenthwaite Lake 21. The exchange would have been in the Post Office, which at that time was in the railway station. The switchboard in these rural localities was probably only open during daytime working hours, presumably making some emergency calls difficult.

Tallentire call office is listed as Tallantire 1 in 1940. This could have been was what was known as an 'attended call office' - i.e. you went to the place where the phone was - the operator at Cockermouth exchange switchboard connected you to the number you required. At the end of the call, the attendant was called back by the operator and advised of how much money to collect for the call. The change in the telephone number to Tallentire 1 from the Cockermouth 023 in 1930 would probably have been due to a common practice in Britain at that time to make it appear as though Tallentire had its own telephone exchange, even though it didn't.

Bassenthwaite village only seems to have a call office on Bassenthwaite 1. This was probably just a simple telephone in the Post Office in Bassenthwaite village, and used in a similar way to the Tallantire call office mentioned above. This arrangement was common in outlying areas, with the last such arrangement lasting on a remote Scottish village, Rhenigidale and on the 5th March 1990, the UK's last single digit phone number disappeared. It seems amazing that this was so recent.

Bothel had a similar arrangement, even though Bothel quarry had a direct telephone number on Aspatria telephone exchange. Even little places like Bullgill and Blindcrake had their own call office listed as being in the post office. Again, these were probably 'attended' call offices.

In 1939 Brigham had its own manual telephone exchange.

By 1939 several rural villages had their own small automatic telephone exchange with three digit numbers, which did away with the problem of limited hours of telephone service when there were switchboards in the local Post Office. Whilst calls to the same exchange could be dialled by the customer on these early exchanges, all other calls had to be connected by dialling 0 to call the operator, who would be in a local town, to connect the call.

By 1940 Bassenthwaite Lake exchange was automatic.
By 1942 Lorton and Aspatria had automatic exchanges.

The small size and proximity of our villages to Cockermouth made it more sensible just to run telephone wires into a town such as Cockermouth as is still the case now, though at that time they were probably mainly open uninsulated wires between porcelain insulators on telephone poles from the villages all the way back into Cockermouth.

By 1949 it appears that Cockermouth Telephone exchange had become automatic, with four digit numbers. Some of these four digit numbers had appeared in directories five years before, suggesting that plans were being made for the transfer. No doubt the war delayed this progress drastically, as great efforts had to be made in installing new telephone exchanges in many parts of the country to replace those wrecked by bombing. This would have left plans on hold whilst equipment intended for Cockermouth had to be diverted for this work.

The telephone exchange was at that time in an attractive brick built building which stood unused after the new exchange between the sorting office and Norham House was opened. The building was demolished a few years ago, having been on the left hand side looking in on to what is now the Royal Mail sorting office car park.

It is interesting to note that some vestiges of very old telephone numbers still remain.

Cockermouth 5 as shown above as the 1910 number was still the Post Office number in 1939
From the 1939 directories we see that:-
Allisons Chemists was Cockermouth 92 and is now 822292
Lindsay's Butchers was Cockermouth 43 and is now 823143
The County Fruit Stores was Cockermouth 108 and is now 822108
The Catholic priest was on Cockermouth 121 and is now 822121
W Hodgson ironmongers at 4 Station Street was Cockermouth 23 and Firns Ironmongers was 823123 until the business closed.
Waugh & Musgrave Solicitors was Cockermouth 27 and is now 823127

What comes next?

Well we now have telephone and internet systems which are interlinked. The switching of telephone calls is now entirely computer controlled, and as with mobile phones, a number which looks as though it belongs to our local area, could in fact be located anywhere, even abroad. Similarly a telephone call from a telephone in Cockermouth area could appear to be in another place entirely.

So telephone numbers aren't as interesting now!

*** And now, of course as local residents will know, all telephones in the area are now internet phones, which plug into the home's internet router.