'Number Please': Brentwood Telephone Exchange, 1972

Manual Telephone Exchange Enfield. October 1960.
Science Museum

Brentwood telephone exchange

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  • I too worked at Brentwood exchange early 70’s.
    If somebody picked the phone up and rattled the cradle up and down it flashed the lamp on the 1A board which signified an emergency call. People who did this when there wasn’t an emergency were given short shrift an ‘plugged up’ for 5 minutes. There was also a board call SFJ (straight forward junction) which took incoming calls from STD operators, this was so busy you were only supposed to be on it for 20 minutes. I recently found some of my training paperwork in the loft!

    By S. Houlder (20/03/2021)
  • Thank you for your comment, David. These are great stories. Who knew a recording of a telephone exchange would generate this much interest?

    By Sarah-Joy Maddeaux (11/01/2019)
  • I used to live in Brentwood from the late 1940s to the early 1970s and have a few interesting stories about the exchange which beleive to be true.
    My mother would frequently chat on the phone to her sister-in-law; once in the 1950s when my uncle tried to phone his wife the line was engaged so he asked for our number instead but that too was engaged. He suggested to the operator that they were talking to each other and asked to be patched in. The operator confirmed that they were indeed talking to each other and patched him in but after a few minutes said one of them whould have to be disconnected before her supervisor found out about the “conference call”!
    When Ford Motors opened their European at Warley their number was Brentwood 7000. Many assumed this was a London number and dialed 01 2(ABC) 7(PQRS) 3(DEF) 7000 and got Crescent 7000, the phone numer of a hair dresser! Subsequently the GPO laid on a line from the nearest London exchange to Fords.
    Finally, the manual exchange was not replaced earlier because there was no space to expand at the Queen’s Road site and laying cables to the new Ongar Road site would cause too much disruption to the A12 trunk road which went through Brentwood prior to building the bypass. Once the bypass was opened the exchange could be moved.

    By David Forgan (11/01/2019)
  • Just a brief thank you again for making ths recording available. It is a valuable record, and probably a rare one, of a time when the GPO employed a high number of operating staff with complex levels of management and processes. I’m sure that many (now retired!) staff have fond memories of those days.

    By andrew holland (13/06/2018)
  • Thank you for all of this wonderful detail! Is it based on first-hand experience? It really makes one appreciate how much work was involved in working in a busy exchange. Thanks!

    By Sarah-Joy Maddeaux (12/06/2018)
  • An interesting historical artifact. Thank you for making it available. What wonderful characters the recording has captured!
    I looked out for the building a while back, but it was demolished and a new block of flats replaces it.
    I think Brentwood became the largest manual exchange in the UK, and the subscribers grew in number so quickly that by the time the new crossbar exchange was ready it didn’t have enough capacity and needed an extension before it could be opened.
    The switchboards were divided into calling and answering sections; each subscriber appeared at just one operator’s position in the lower section and was answered when they wanted to make a call by plugging in one of the answer cords, but then the caller needed to be connected to any other number via calling multiple jack strips (the upper section) which were repeated at intervals over all the switchboards. As the exchange grew this meant more wiring, and the poor operators had to stand up and stretch to reach the highest jacks.
    If a particular operator was overburdened with calls, a supervisor who was standing behind would tell another operator to take a new call by plugging the answer cord into the subscriber’s number in the calling multiple. Managing high calling rates was quite a balancing act for them.
    Impatient subscribers waiting to get through to the operator might sometimes tap the handset cradle to make the calling lamp flash – probably not a good idea as a harassed operator might then overlook the call for a while… Public kiosks had an emergency button that would ensure the call was answered promptly.
    The exchange was scrapped after transfer; a company that was more used to cutting up trawlers in Grimsby came and made short work of it.
    I have a glass fronted fuse cabinet and a rather wobbly trestle table (stamped GR so it must be at least 80 years old) in my garage as a reminder.

    By andrew holland (11/06/2018)
  • That’s fascinating! Thanks for sharing. So does this clip bring back memories?

    By Sarah-Joy Maddeaux (08/01/2018)
  • I worked at the Brentwood telephone exchange from 1967 until 1973, when a five-storey automatic exchange was opened in Ongar Road. A permanent exchange was built in Queen’s Road in 1932 and was to the left as you exited St Thomas’s church yard .

    By Jackie (05/01/2018)

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