GET MORE FROM PHONE BOOKS
If your ancestor was a phone-owner, you can find out more about them than just their number thanks to telephone directories, writes Paul Blake
From 1880, telephone books have recorded the names and addresses, as well as phone numbers, of an increasing number of individuals and businesses. Early subscribers to the telephone service were naturally large businesses or the well-to-do, but telephone ownership by ordinary domestic subscribers gradually increased from the second quarter of the 20th century.
Telephone directories can therefore be an excellent supplement to, or replacement for, the trade and street directories produced by Kelly and others.
The Telephone Company Ltd (Bell’s Patents) issued the first known UK telephone directory on 15 January 1880. It contained details of 248 London personal and business names – but no numbers as the caller just rang the exchange and asked to be connected to a subscriber. Details of the 16 provincial exchanges were also given. By the time of the publication of their next directory in April, now including telephone numbers, the company had more than 350 subscribers. The Edison Telephone Company of London published its first list of subscribers on 23 March 1880.
The first phone book for the whole country was issued in 1896: a single volume containing 1,350 pages and 81,000 entries. Double columns were introduced in 1900, a necessary initiative as the number of subscribers swelled.
By 1914, the phone book had become the largest single printing contract in the UK, with a total of 1.5 million phone books being printed each year. In 1938, the total number of phone books published exceeded 10.5 million.
From 1970, phone books were compiled by computer – the world’s first fully-integrated computer printing process. In 2012, 22 million phone books were produced in 168 editions.
Production of phone books has been more or less continuous since 1880, with the exception of 1913-1920. It is doubted that, apart from London, any books were published during this period, although it is possible that they were all destroyed as part of the war salvage effort.
Early series of telephone directories cover both business and private addresses in the same volume. Separate classified telephone directories for London were published in 1938/9 and from 1947, but for other areas of the UK separate classified sections in phone books did not appear until 1968.
Later phone books also
contain at the front useful local and operational details, with contact information for important government agencies, instructions on how to make long distance calls, explanations of the exchanges and their coverage, or other necessary information in order to use the phone book and telephone equipment.
BT Archives (BT Archives, Third Floor, Holborn Telephone Exchange, 268-270 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EE; Helpdesk: 020 7440 4220) holds a near-complete set of phone books for the whole of the UK, produced not only by BT but also by its predecessors including Post Office Telecommunications, the National Telephone Company and other private companies. The collection dates back to 1880, the year after the public telephone service was introduced into Great Britain, to the present day. This includes phone books for Southern Ireland until 1921.
The catalogue for BT Archives is available to search online www. dswebhosting.info/bt/dserve/. This references thousands of documents, books, objects, images and films on subjects spanning the development of telecommunications, from the birth of the electric telegraph in the 1830s to the explosion of the internet and the rise of broadband. This online catalogue will soon be incorporated into the BT Digital Archives found at www.digitalarchives.bt.com/ web/arena.
It is the alphabetical listings of names in the phone book that are likely to be of most interest to family historians.
If your ancestor owned a business the advert section might also be of interest.
Following a 26-month digitisation project in conjunction with ancestry.co.uk, the British Phone Books (1880-1984) collection online was launched in 2007. Giving access to 1,780 phone books, it provides near full county coverage for England as well as substantial records for Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
The collection on Ancestry is searchable by several criteria: first and middle name(s) – but beware that most entries only give initials – and surname; year and location – usually the exchange; keyword; exchange; street address, city/ town; and country and county – it is necessary to select these last two before a search can be made. Advertisements cannot be searched independently, but are usually placed close to the name in the alphabetical listing.
Guildhall Library in London holds a collection of London telephone directories and a range of national telephone directories from 1880. The Library also holds files of telephone directories from the 1950s for Republic of Ireland and the Channel Islands.
Most of the collection is in hard copy, but some older material from the BT archives, including London and provincial phone books from January 1880 to July 1912, is only available on microfilm.
A switch room in a London telephone exchange in 1883