When talk was not so cheap

The first phone company in the UK was set up in 1878  to market Alexander Graham Bell's patent in Great Britain.

The company, known as The Telephone Company Ltd (Bell's Patents), was registered on 14th June with a capital of £100,000. In 1879 the Company opened its first telephone exchange in the City of London with seven or eight subscribers.

The Edison Telephone Company of London Ltd was registered on 2nd August 1879 with a capital of £200,000 to use an alternative telephone design utilising patents obtained by Thomas Edison. This company's first exchange officially opened on 6 September at 11 Queen Victoria Street, London, with ten subscribers. The Bell Company subscribers had to pay £20 a year (about £2,500 today) but the Edison ones only £12 a year.

 

Both companies expanded rapidly adding telephone exchanges and subscribers in provincial cities as well as more in London. Following litigation over patents the two companies merged in May 1880  to form the United Telephone Company of London Ltd. All subscribers now had to pay the Bell rate of £20 a year.

 

The new Company now looked all set to establish a country wide monopoly just as Bell had done in the USA. However in December 1880 the Post Office won a court judgement that telephones were the same as telegraphs, for which the Post Office already had a monopoly under the 1869 Telegraph Act.

 

The Post Office decided to licence telephone service for a fee of 10% of gross income. In order to safeguard its monopoly the Post Office would only issue licences for specific areas. Many telephone companies sprang up to serve the different areas of the country.

 

Over the following years the Post Office relaxed the rules over granting licences and companies started to amalgamate and cover wider areas. One of these was the National Telephone Company  formed in March 1881 to exploit the market in Scotland, the Midlands and Ireland. Over the next decade the National Telephone Company would become the largest, mainly through mergers. In 1889 it merged with its largest competitor the original United Telephone Company of London.

In order to generate revenues from non subscribers the National Telephone Company installed telephones in various locations that were accessible to the public. There were no coin operated telephone boxes at this time but each telephone had an attendant who would give access for people wishing to make calls. To make a

telephone call it was necessary to purchase stamps equal to the value of the call and these would then be fixed to a form by the attendant.

 

The stamps (above) were first issued in December 1884 and initially comprised of 4 values, - 1d, 3d, 6d and 1/- but a 4d value was added later probably in 1886. The stamps were printed by Maclure, MacDonald & Co of Glasgow on thin to medium wove paper and line perforated 12 .

 

Complete mint sheets of 12 exist (below, left) but the layout of the sheet suggests that they were probably cut down from larger sheets but none of these larger sheets are known to have survived. The perforations are often off centre, well centred stamps are difficult to find. The stamps show the head of Colonel Robert Raynsford-Jackson (1833 -98), the chairman of the

company. This caused great controversy as it was an unwritten rule that only the monarch's head could be displayed on stamps.

 

An official protest was made but no action was taken against the company. The stamps were eventually withdrawn at the request of the Postmaster General in 1891 after large quantities had been used on telephone forms.

 

Mint stamps were sold to collectors at the International exhibitions in Edinburgh in 1886 and 1890. Used examples usually on clippings taken from the  forms also found there way on to the market.

A shortage of 6d stamps led to the 1/- stamp being used bisected in Dundee during late 1890 and shown here (right) is an example used with another 1/- stamp to pay a fee of 1/6d. In 1911 the assets of the

National Telephone Company and all other private Telephone Companies was transferred to the Post Office which then provided telephone service everywhere in the UK with the exception of Hull where the service continued to be provided by the local council.

The need for dedicated stamps was not required by this date as the coin operated telephone had come into service.

However, for a time it was possible to pay for telephone service at post offices and this could involve the use of postage stamps. Below is a receipt for the payment of telephone service to Lawsons Stores in Girvan, South Ayrshire, Scotland:

The total paid of 3/8d was indicated by stamps attached to the reverse (above)  - three 1/- King Edward VII stamps (Somerset House printing) and 2d and 6d postage stamps of King George V all cancelled with the Girvan postmark of the 17th November 1913.

 

The form was then sent to the District Telephone Manager's Office in Glasgow for processing. These forms were for internal accounting only and were normally destroyed making this a rare survivor especially with the stamps still being attached.

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The telephone service was separated out from the Post Office in 1981 and became a stand alone nationalised business known as British Telecom.

 

In 1984 the Government privatised the business – this was the first national flotation of a public utility. During the 1980s and 1990s British Telecom operated a savings scheme for paying telephone bills where stamps could be purchased at Post Offices.

 

The stamps were stuck by the saver on a special card (right) which could then used to pay the telephone bill at the Post Office.

Most examples of these stamps on the market seem to be ones defaced for counter training purposes by the Post office.

 

It seems very unlikely that any further stamps directly related to the use of the telephone will ever be issued.

ROBERT MOTT