The Newmarket Telephone Service
Jack Hoxley's Story
POST OFFICE TELEPHONES TO B.T. - 1941 to 1989
When I first came here to work in November 1942, large overhead lines existed from London and Cambridge directions both sides of the main road into town then underground from what is now Hamilton Road junction . The routes then went on overhead on both the Norwich and Bury roads. I particularly remember a single thick copper conductor which I was told used to be a Continental telegraph line.
A picture of the overhead lines appears on the first page of this telephone history article
The Newmarket head Post Office and Telephone Exchange on the first floor had been destroyed by a German bomb on February 18th. 1941 and the old CBS No.1 equipment had been replaced by CB type switch boards in the building which is at present the National Horseracing Museum, part of the Jockey Club complex. The advantage from my point of view taking over maintenance of the subscribers equipment was that there was no longer a 'Speaking battery' to attend to at every customer’s premises as the CB system provided the necessary power over the line.
I had about a fortnight to find my way around, learn to ride the BSA Motor Cycle Combination and pass the driving test, then I was thrown in at the deep end! The box sidecar of the bike had all my tools and spares in the top compartment and a heavy wooden 3section extension ladder underneath. There was no effective way of locking the sidecar lid but people didn’t go round pinching thing in those days! Riding round the perimeter track at the old Snailwell Airfield one day a plane revved up and blew the lid open nearly causing a catastrophe, We did have fun, I could write pages about the things that happened to that ‘bike. Still my predecessors used to tell me how they had to use pedal cycles with only climbing irons to get up the poles.
As dual maintenance linemen we used to look after the small rural exchanges along with the overhead lines as well as the customer’s apparatus. Most of the lines to subscriber’s homes as well as the junction lines between exchanges were for the greater part open wire lines, so in bad weather there was always plenty of work and little time for routine maintenance work.
To give an idea of the growth of service in my 48 years. When I first looked after Burwell exchange, it was a UAX No.5 (UAX Standing fo Unit Automatic Exchange)
This had a maximum capacity of 100 lines inclusive of junctions two digit numbers and to call operator one dialled 01. When Newmarket exchange was converted to automatic working, Burwell became a UAX No.13 with capacity for 150 lines plus junction circuits. Someone then had the clever idea of connecting two or more UAX 13s together to cater for 600 or more, this sufficed until a TXE2 reed electronic exchange opened in 1971 for 1000 lines, by the time I retired in 1989 it had expanded to 3000 and was about to become the present System X.
Once the main exchange at Newmarket was automatic all the surrounding small exchanges could interdial. The charging then was not on a time basis as now but on distance. Equipment on each outgoing junction registered the digits dialled and stepped callers meter from one to four times according to the radial distance of the destination exchange. One metered unit back then was two old pence, and you could chat away all day for that! This all changed with the introduction of Subscriber Trunk Dialling in the early 1960’s, even more complicated relay sets on junctions to check not only the routing of the call but to time it and apply metering pulses at regular intervals as appropriate. More about source of timing pulses later via WB400.
Back to the 1940’s a large part of our time was spent on the military installations in and around the town. The Rowley Mile racecourse had been taken over as an airfield by the RAF utilising all the grandstand and other buildings. Two hangars still exist on the far side of the Newmarket bypass. There was Snailwell airfield at the top of Bury Road on part of the Chippenham Park Estate. The remainder of Chippenham Park was occupied by an armoured division along with the Moulton Paddocks Estate and an Army Corps Headquarters at Lower Hare Park on the London Road. Of course all these were linked with numerous private circuits to all over East Anglia. The bane of my life was a teleprinter line (I even remember the number PW/HC 84862) running on overhead lines for most of the way from LHP to Eastern command at Luton Hoo.
There was also based at Harraton House Exning the headquarters of No.3 Group of Bomber Command overseeing all the many operational airfields which sprang up all over the Eastern Counties. There was a twenty-four hour staff of P.O. Engineers there to look after the telegraph and telephone equipment. I believe 20 or more WAAF teleprinter operators were at their machines when the bomb went through the Main Distribution Frame at Newmarket Exchange leaving just one of them still working. As a consequence main trunk cables from Cambridge to Newmarket and Newmarket to Ely were diverted in and out of Exning to provide alternative routings. Incidentally the building specially erected in Church Lane to house communication equipment stood empty after the war until in 1952 it was pressed into service to accommodate a U.A.X. No 13,when the couple who ran the village Post Office and the last Manual Exchange to work into Newmarket, decided to retire. This building, reckoned to be bomb-proof in those days, had walls about two feet thick, glass block window lights and a six foot layer of sand above ceiling level. The U.A.X. survived starting with 150 lines and with old recovered racks until converted to digital in the late 80's
Our first connection with the Cold War came with the conversion of many of the now disused airfields as sites for the launch pads of the then Nuclear deterrent missiles. We provided circuits from all sites back to central points to indicate the state of readiness at each. Every place had an eight foot rack full of uniselectors and relays to provide information that would now be done I suppose, with something the size of a palm-top computer!
At the height of the Cold War in the 60’s the need arose to transmit a warning rapidly throughout the country.
Fortunately a circuit already existed that connected all the major telephone exchanges. This was TIM or the speaking Clock. Thus it was possible, by intercepting this circuit at a central control point, to broadcast a message nationwide. This facility was codenamed 'HANDEL', not as I first imagined a spelling mistake for the handle part of the system, but because George Frederick Handel composed a piece called '' !Alarms and Excursions'
This duplicated circuit was fed to all the main Police Stations in the U.K, along with a line from the local Royal Observer Corps headquarters. This formed the basis for the WB400 Signalling System. (WB standing for Wire Broadcast)
A 'Carrier' system was then developed to enable speech and other signals to be superimposed over normal telephone lines, via every small telephone exchange to Police, Fire and Civil Defence authorities anywhere. Speech receivers powered by a large dry battery, were provided in every small village Police House or wherever needed. These circuits utilised the normal ‘phone line without affecting its regular use. System WB600 using audio tones was fed from the Main Police Stations over the same network to control Air raid warning sirens.
In the early 1980’s WB400 was replaced by the much improved and modernised WB1400, which, with the easing of International tension, has now been recovered. The WB1400 rack along with a speech receiver was donated to Newmarket Local History Society. I believe the WB600 or something similar is still in use in some areas to operate flood warning sirens.
The introduction of WB400 also enabled sub-audio pulses to be transmitted to all the small exchanges to provide ordinary and coin-box metering signals with the introduction of STD and call timing as mentioned earlier, so the system really was a Jack of all Trades.
A farmer at Reach with about two miles of open wire line complained of his bell tinkling almost every morning at about sunrise. Repeated inspections of his line failed to find any slack wires or broken “binders” (The annealed copper wires tying the line conductors into the insulators.) The only solution seemed to be to turn out at about 5am to try and see what was happening. While my boss watched the meter on the test set at Burwell UAX, I drove along the route but saw nothing. By the time I got to the house the trouble had started, so I turned back. When I met up with my boss at the far end we saw several rooks coming from their roosts on one side of the road to feed in a chicken run on the other! If more than one rested on the line it was enough to cause the wire to contact the one below.
On another occasion a subscriber with a 300 number on Isleham UAX was reported to be permanently engaged. The line tested OK and the receiver rest on ‘phone wasn’t sticking. Going back to the exchange I rang from all the Final selectors. The 5 selectors in the first 300 unit were all OK but when I came to the last 3 they all gave engaged tone whatever number dialled. It was a minute or two before I realised that the wiper cords on all three were completely missing. I thought that someone had craftily changed the selectors for some ropey old ones. It was a few years later when we found the culprits. There was a Pigmy Shrew’s nest in the cable trunking made from the wiper cords and scraps from the fibre board walls.
With the shortage of line plant in the post war years, two party line working became very common. Most of the customers on Kentford exchange began complaining of noisy lines. The selective ringing for the two parties was achieved by connecting one number’s bell circuit to the A wire to earth and the other to the B wire. The relay, bridge rectifier and capacitor effectively became a tuned circuit to the harmonics of the 50Hz electricity mains. I remember spending several lovely summer days with our boffins from Dollis Hill and Electricty Board engineers. The reason the trouble was worst at Kentford was the unusual 6.6 Kv distribution line which had one phase earthed and which ran parallel to our lines for some miles. I had to go round all the affected places to fit the newly developed thermistors in the bell circuits. Later all party line ‘phones came with these already fitted.
Sitting at my PC in 1999 I have exchanged e-mails with friends in Dallas and Ballarat and can even send faxes to anywhere in the world. This set me to thinking how things were back in the forties.
Few people then had ‘phones in their own homes and the Telegram service was in great demand.. Messages were normally handed in at the Post Office counter and passed to the telegraphists who sent them by teleprinter normally to the Central Telegraph Office in London whence they were relayed to their destination office . There were indeed still in those days operators who had used Morse code, before the advent of the teleprinter.
Although the armed services were using the Teleprinter No. 7 which printed on a page, the Post Office Telegraph service used the Teleprinter No. 3 where the message was printed on tape which had to be stuck on to the telegram form at the receiving end.
On race days at Newmarket, The Post Office staffed a counter at the racecourse for the receipt of telegrams from the Press and public. We had to set up two teleprinters and associated equipment upstairs in the grandstand and set up lines to London.
As there was then no mains electricity at the July Racecourse, we had to run a large portable generator to supply our own power. I also managed to rig up a kettle for tea making and we used to get a generous supply of fruit cake from the press room next door, champagne for the operators too if the reporters had a good day.
The highlight of each day was the 'Dublin message' for the evening news on Radio Eireann One of the circuits was switched directly through to Dublin and the operator had to decipher several handwritten pages while the rest of us stood behind helping to read it!
The press photographers used to bring their undeveloped films to the Telephone Exchange, where they would set up a portable darkroom in one of our offices to produce their 6x8 inch prints. These they would attach to the drum of a suitcase sized facsimile transmitter and via a ‘phone connection to their office send the pictures for next day’s papers. Today in 1999 it is possible to send copy and photographs by ‘phone line or satellite link direct from a laptop computer!
Ten years on it's now March 2009 and just having spent a day with an old workmate from our apprentice days it stirred up a lot of memories and names from way back.
We now have Broadband connections in our own homes, television programmes delivered over ordinary 'phone lines and things I would not have dreamed of when I retired in 1989.
Browsing through these ramblings now I realise that I barely mentioned the last 20 years or so. The greater part of the 70s was involved with the teething problems of the newly introduced TXE2 exchanges and by the 80s these were already being phased out to be replaced by System X, Then it was a matter of nursing along the remaining smaller UAX 13 exchanges which were being enlarged with recovered equipment to cope with increasing demand. One of the last units fitted even dated from 1936 when they they were first introduced!
With most of our line plant being underground by the 1980's gales didn't give us as much trouble as in the past, but with the big storm of September 1987 many overhead power lines were down and for several days I was keeping Ousden exchange going with a portable generator which needed refuelling every few hours. Nowadays even the small rural exchanges have an automatically starting diesel generator.
Jack Hoxley 2009
History of the Newmarket Telephone Exchange - opening page
History of the Newmarket Telephone Exchange page 2
History of the Newmarket Telephone Exchange page 3
History of the Newmarket Telephone Exchange page 4
The Admiralty Shutter Telegraph of the early 19th c
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