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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 September 2006, 12:14 GMT 13:14 UK
Dial H for history
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

A page from the 1880 directory

"Victoria 6913, please." "Is that Buckingham Palace?" Historic phone directories are being put online by a family history website.

Reading a phone book? That must be about as boring as... well... reading a phone book.

But you'd be wrong, because the humble phone book, dating back to the Victorians, is providing a rich seam of social history.

And as part of the boom in genealogy, back issues of phone directories have been scanned and published online in a venture between BT and a family history website.

But how can they be interesting? Well, how many numbers were there in the very first phone book in 1880?

Answer: None. There were 248 subscribers to the Telephone Company, but only the addresses were listed. If you wanted to be connected, you had to ring the operator and ask for the person by name.

And the honour for appearing first in the very first phone book goes to John Adam & Co, 11 Pudding Lane in the City of London. No sign of an AAA Hansom Cabs anywhere.

Other entries making their debut in the early phone books were Alexander Bell - yes, he who invented the phone - and Keith Prowse. Yep, selling tickets.

Phone etiquette

It also shows how quickly the telephone spread. By 1914, the phone book was the largest single printing contract in the country, running off 1.5 million copies.

1888 Yorkshire phone book
The phone book, 1888-style
The importance for family historians, says a spokesman for the genealogy website Ancestry.co.uk, is that these phone books fill the gap between the present and the turn of the century.

The most recent publicly available census is 1901 - and phone books give a snapshot through the following decades of the 20th Century of where people were living.

But rather like today's directory inquiries, you have to pay to search the historic directories through the subscription and pay-per-view website.

The phone books themselves are quirkily evocative. In the 1920s and 30s, the headings of pages carried bossy instructions to customers about the correct phone etiquette.

"Answer telephone promptly," barks one instruction. And "Train staff in the use of telephones," says another. If you were tempted to chat when you were being put through, forget it.

"Subscribers should not engage the telephonist in conversation."

There was also advice on how to answer this tricky piece of technology. The 1934 phone book warned against confusion. "Don't say Hullo! Announce your identity."

And there were even hints on how to express these strange strings of number. If your number is 0012, the 1926 phone book advises: "Double-oh-one-two."

Advertisers also got a stern warning from an advertising agency in the 1905 phone book: "N'oubliez pas. Advertising is a Science and if you want Advertising to pay you, it must be carefully watched."

Ex-directory

These old phone books also give you the chance to look up the names of famous people.

Phone book adverts
Sticking on phone book adverts by hand in the 1930s
In 1916, Buckingham Palace appeared as Victoria 6913 - with a whole four phone lines to the royal family. And in 1925 Winston Churchill could be dialled on Paddington 1003.

And it's a reminder of the old telephone exchanges that preceded the long strings of numbers. In 1934, Alfred Hitchcock, living in west London, could be rung up on Frobisher 1339. The economist JM Keynes, in Bloomsbury, was on Museum 1767.

But wanting to stay out of reach - or your servants uncontactable - is nothing new. In the 1880s, subscribers could be ex-directory to give them "perfect immunity from annoyance".

The re-published phone books stop at 1984, before the arrival of mobile phones and the proliferation of numbers and communications. And anyway, the Queen and Tony Blair are on e-mail by now.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

As recently as the 1960's, we residents of wildest Surrey and Sussex still had 'lift and ask' phones - my mate's girlfriend was an operator at Bognor Regis exchange - for 'Bognor Regis, number please' she swore they used to say 'Oranges, rubber knees'...
David, London

I remember the pre '020...' days with great fondness. I used to have the telephone number VIGilant 1093 and my wife used to have the rather pretty sounding FAIrlawns 6026! There used to be a lot of great sounding numbers - gone forever.
Derek Walker, Sutton

Is Whitehall 1212 in there? It's still the last four digits of New Scotland Yard's 'phone number, as it was at the time.
John Airey, Peterborough

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