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Telephone Exchange

The History of the Telephone Exchange in Newmarket

The Telephone comes to Newmarket – a brief history – Former NLHS committee member Dave Occomore has provided these notes about the arrival of the telephone service in Newmarket: The telegraph arrived in Newmarket surprisingly from Norwich, not as I would have expected from London. It was provided by the The Electric Telegraph Company that was merged with the International Telegraph Company in 1853 to become The Electric & International Telegraph Co.

They had already provided signalling systems for the railways in East Anglia before entering into road line construction. The all-powerful Jockey Club were not going to have poles and wires in the town, not from an aesthetic point of view, but because all these overhead wires carrying electricity might frighten the racehorses.

15th January 1859 From the Newmarket Journal:
The posts for the telegraph from Norwich to London have been erected as far as Newmarket for several weeks past, but some difficulty appears to have arisen in passing the town, as strong objections were made by the Jockey Club to the placing of the posts. This was doubtless a source of considerable inconvenience to the company.

It seems that eventually the Jockey Club, finding that they were not going to prevent the telegraph coming into the town agreed to underground cable. This must have been an incredible extra expense to the Company.

5th March 1859:
Newmarket Electric Telegraph. It was decided that the wires of the telegraph from Norwich to London are to be carried through the town in pipes under the main street, for some considerable distance upon the London and Bury turnpikes, and about sixty labourers were employed in making the tunnel for that purpose. Several of the posts have been removed from the east entrance of the town as far as the exercising heath extends, in consequence of the noise from the wires etc. being objected to by owners and trainers of racehorses.

Newmarket Journal, 29th March 1886 – A TELEPHONE EXHANGE FOR NEWMARKET
Our business readers will be interested to hear that Mr. H. Deer, proprietor of the Temperance Hotel Market Street, who has a practical acquaintance with the erection and management of telephonic and other electrical apparatus, has opened correspondence with the manager of the Cambridge Branch of the South of England Telephone Company ( which has acquired the sole rights of erecting overhead telephone wires in the Eastern Counties) with a view of inducing the company to open a branch in this town, and we understand that the Company would be willing to establish a Telephone Exchange here provided that at least 50 subscribers could be obtained to start with…the Company in question only require an annual subscription of £8 …

Newmarket Journal, 16th October 1886:

Negotiations have been going on with the South of England Telephone Company for the establishment of a branch at Newmarket. We now understand that the Company have decided to open an office here and have hired one of Mr Golding’s houses adjoining Mr Glenister’s new shop, in the High Street, for the purpose. The construction and apparatus will accommodate 60 clients; it is to be hoped their enterprise will meet deserved success.

Mr Golding bought up most of the property between the Rutland Arms and the Star Inn in the High Street that once belonged to the Crown and was part of the old royal palace; this included Palace House that is now the tourist information office. In Kellys Directory, John Glenister was listed as a tailor, hosier & outfitter (formerly of Poole’s Savile Row, London) High Street and Market Street.

It is now 1888 and it seems that the telephone exchange proposed in 1886 has still not arrived in the town. Although two of the residents, Mr William Benjamin Shepherd, grocer etc, and agent for W and A Gilbey, wine and spirit merchants, High Street. (1896 Kellys) and James Ryan, trainer, Green Lodge, The Severals (1896 Kellys) have had what was termed a ‘Private Wire’ or intercom installed between their respective houses and business premises.

Obstacles were being put in the way by the racing fraternity who did not want the wires to be overhead as the noise of the wind through the wires would affect the horses. That meant placing the wires underground, a far more costly and disruptive method as every street would have to be dug up.

As a result of the argument with the Jockey Club the first telephone exchange was not set up in the town until around 1898, the line coming from Norwich.

While the National Telephone Company were installing their exchange, the General Post Office opened an exchange in 1898, probably in the Post Office in High Street.

Even then there was disruption as the Newmarket Journal recorded on May 15th, 1889, that Mr Diver had severed the wires stretching across his premises from the Star Inn to Mr Bullman’s shop. Mr Diver had made enquiries and discovered the wire had been placed by Mr Deer and Mr Bullman, who, faced with his objection, promised to remove it. This was not done so Mr Diver severed it himself. Mr Bullman was a draper outfitter of York Buildings.

By erecting this wire themselves, Mr Deer and Mr Bullman had infringer the rights of the South of England Telephone Company and had to obtain the permission of the owners of the rooftops that were crossed. Also, any wire from the direction of the Star Inn to York Buildings would have to cross Kingston Passage which was a public highway.

By 1889 the South of England and a number of other companies had merged to become the National Telephone Company which opened its first exchange in January 1897 in Kingston Passage.

Post Office Telephone Exchanges Newmarket
7th July 1898 opened
31st December 1899 2 Subscribers
31st December 1900 3 subscribers
31st December 1904 4 Subscribers

In 1908 the National Telephone Company exchange was situated in Kingston Passage (adjacent to York Buildings once occupied by Mr Bullman’s drapery emporium) where they rented a holding for £35 a year. It is likely that it was the same premises which the NTC had started in 1897/8, as it would have been impracticable to move all the overhead wires to new premises except in the most extreme circumstances. The expiry date of the lease was in line with the eventual Post Office buy-out of the National Company which took place in the same year, 1912.

From the Newmarket Journal 30th December 1911:
Newmarket is now in telephonic communication with Paris. Calls may be made from the Post Office the charge being eight shillings (40p) for three minutes. (The Paris service had opened on 1st April 1891)
In 1923 the exchange moved to new GPO premises in the High Street. .


From 1923 the Post Office and telephone exchange was sited in the High Street on the corner of New Cut


A 1920s picture of High Street showing the new Post Office. It would have been unbelievable at the time that it would be reduced to rubble by 1941, as a following picture shows

It would have been unbelievable at the time that it would be reduced to rubble by 1941, as a following picture shows.


Telegraph poles and numerous overhead wires carried communications in and out of Newmarket, here seen bordering Cambridge Road

All the three photos above from the Roger Newman collection.

The electric telegraph history researched by former NLHS committee member David Occomore for his book ‘News from Newmarket’

Note: A system of communication existed before the electric telegraph arrived and this passed through Newmarket but was of no benefit to the people of the town. This was the method devised by the Admiralty to communicate between London and the naval ports. For more about it select here.

Disaster strikes the Post Office and Telephone Exchange – February 18th, 1941

On that fateful Tuesday, February 18th, 1941, Newmarket High Street witnessed terrible damage, 27 fatalities and numerous injuries when a German Dornier bomber dropped a stick of 10 bombs along the length of the street on the afternoon of a busy market day.

Among the buildings hit was one of vital importance to the war effort, The Post Office was destroyed including the telephone exchange housed in the same building. Newmarket’s communications with the outside world had been effectively cut.

Miss G B Cole (later awarded the B.E.M), the switchboard supervisor, remembers: From 1923 the Post Office was situated on the corner of New Cut and had a glass roof. When war broke out the glass was painted black, and the windows were bricked up but this made the place very dark, so the glass was replaced with a wooden cover. The staff were issued with tin hats and gas masks and in the event of a bombing, staff were instructed to put their head set cords round their waists and walk out in an orderly fashion.

The 250-pound bomb fell mostly on the engineering section and the order to evacuate came out as SCRAM!!
The bomb fell at 3.15 pm – by 5 pm the telephone communication was worked by handset in the Doric Cinema where they stayed a couple of days. The Post Office counter and sorting office moved to the Memorial Hall where Miss Cole’s sister was in charge of Telegrams.


Myrtle Hazlewood

Myrtle Hazlewood née Fisher (picture right November 2009) was an operator working on the switchboard when the bomb fell on the building. She explains that the switchboard was situated on the upper floor. The engineering section was housed in a part of the same building and the bomb came right through it before exploding on the ground floor, in the counter and sorting office area. She says it was ‘like an earthquake’. Two persons were killed here, Miss Queenie Kerry, a counter clerk and Mr Allan Barnes a sorting clerk; other staff and customers sustained injuries.

Miss Cole, Myrtle and the other operators were severely shaken up and suffered cuts and bruises, but they were were lucky to be alive and were led to safety via a rear emergency stairway.


Looking at the ruins of the bombed Post Office building it seems amazing that anyone survived.

You can read much more about the bombing of Newmarket in the NLHS publications ‘One Afternoon in February’ and ‘When Newmarket Went to War’. The former is now out of print but you should be able to borrow a copy from a member. The latter is still available from the Society.

See for detail of all those killed in the bombing,

The Recovery from the Bombing and Modernization

Immediately following the bombing of the Post Office and Telephone Exchange engineers and officials were faced with difficult and urgent problems. Newmarket was a town of considerable military importance, and it was vital that communications were restored.

Ron Maltby, a GPO engineer working at the Cambridge Exchange says that on that Tuesday afternoon they could not understand why they could not get through to Newmarket, until an army dispatch rider arrived with the news. The old switchboard was unusable but spare switchboards were stored in various parts of the country ready for this sort of problem.

Things needed to happen quickly, there was no time for planning committees or appeals, decisions had to be made and action taken. A temporary telephone connection was established in The Doric Cinema within hours of the bombing. The Doric itself had narrowly escaped being hit and the building suffered some superficial damage, but a basic service was worked there with a handset for a couple of days.

It was decided to set up a temporary exchange in the Jockey Club Subscription Rooms on the opposite side of the High Street. Ron says that engineers were called in from anywhere and worked round the clock, taking four weeks to install the new switchboards to give a service to all customers. Telephone work then continued with a total of 10 positions. Improvisation was necessary and at first the girls had to sit on sacks and were allowed no breaks when calls were coming in.

Ron believes that the space in the Jockey Club had been pre-allocated in case the exchange was hit. There were also small exchanges built into a large van or trailer which could be set up anywhere. He assumes that one of these was used to give a service to important people in the town within a few days.

The temporary exchange operated in the Subscription Rooms until 1949 when it moved to the new exchange in The Avenue (see below)

April 2010. One of our members, Charlie Dunning, whose late wife Joan Starling was a telephone operator at Newmarket in the 1950s, has found some of the original GPO training manuals from that period. He could show them to anyone interested.


The temporary exchange in the Jockey Club Subscription Rooms.
Foreground Miss G B Cole Chief Supervisor*, standing Miss Joan Brown Supervisor,
Operators R to L: Molly Mitson, Jean Woollard, Jean Smith, Iris Blades, Rae Spear, Thelma Bishop, Gillian Barnett
*Miss Cole was later awarded the British Empire Medal.


The new exchange building at the time of its opening in 1949


The group selector racks, engineer Ron Maltby.


Switchboard operators at work in the new exchange. The names of the girls have been provided by Mrs Gillian Cornwell (Barnett)
Left to right: Queenie Nash – Frances Brown – Jean Woollard – ??? – Thelma Bishop – Molly Mitson. – Trudie Owen – ??? –
Mary Millington – Gillian Barnett. Standing – Miss Mary Wylie (Supervisor)

Postwar to the Present Day

When World War II ended our financially impoverished country commenced the long and costly task of repairing the hundreds of thousands of war damaged buildings, priority being given to housing the homeless. In Newmarket work slowly proceeded on tidying up war damaged premises in the High Street.

Telegraph technology was moving ahead and with more automation available there was an urgent need to move the telephone exchange from its temporary home in the Jockey Club. This happened in 1949 with the completion of the large building in The Avenue, for which the steelwork had been erected before the war.

The GPO semi-automatic telephone exchange enabled local telephone subscribers to dial local calls, but they had to speak to one of the girl operators to make trunk calls. By 1960 the exchange became fully automated when STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialling) arrived; Newmarket was one of the first exchanges in the country to have this service. The Postmaster General came to open it and it was shown on television.

In 1951 the Post Office including the sorting office had moved from its temporary accommodation in the King Edward VII Memorial Hall into the new building on the south side of High Street, thereby making the Hall once more available for social events. The land for both the two adjacent buildings had been allocated by the then owners, the Jockey Club.


The exchange building in The Avenue as it is today (2009), containing automated communications
equipment belonging to British Telecom and other network’s communication equipment.


The stone plaque over the door of the Exchange building.


The main entrance to the Post Office with stone plaque dated 1951.

The Newmarket Telephone Service – Jack Hoxley’s Story


Newmarket has always been important from a communications point of view, going right back to the Icknield Way it was on the natural gap between the forest on one side and the fen on the other. It became the stagecoach route from London to Norwich and later the route for telegraph, then main telephone lines.

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 early part 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 was the Subscription Rooms, 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 Motorcycle 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 3 section 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 ‘ike. Still my predecessors used to tell me how they had to use pedal cycles with only climbing irons to get up the poles.


A GPO box sidecar outfit similar to the one Jack rode

After several months I got a van to replace the bike but when the winter set in someone wrote the van off and I had to go back to the cold old bike again, not that the vans were much warmer in those days with no heaters, and one had to wind the windscreen open to see out in snow, ice and fog.

As dual maintenance linesmen 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 for 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 6×8 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 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.