When planning to write about the ‘Palmers Green Telephone Exchange’, I had assumed that it would be a relatively quick and easy affair, given that the unassuming building goes almost unnoticed, standing on Bourne Hill, N.13, at the corner of Woodland Way.
Instead, it quickly became apparent that the north London exchange serves as a microcosm of the British telephone industry and its expansion during the interwar years, which is as fascinating as it was rapid.
The building played a vital role in handling the ever increasing number of telephone calls being placed and received by both businesses and residential households alike, not just in the expanding suburb of Palmers Green but the surrounding areas also.
The new exchange was developed almost a century ago, in the years after the First World War, by the General Post Office (G.P.O.), which at the time was a government department, with responsibility for the design, build and operation of Britain’s telecommunications infrastructure.
A suitable piece of land to the north of Palmers Green was acquired for the new site in 1920 at a cost of £892. 10s., met by H. M. Treasury. Plans for a new building were subsequently drawn up in December, 1922 by H. M. Office of Works, under the direction of the lead architect, Edward Cropper, O.B.E.
The marvellous period photograph below, taken in 1924 clearly shows the site at the top left hand corner, with the land having been cleared in preparation for construction to commence.
The two-storey exchange is typical of the style of architecture employed by the Office of Works during the era, whereby a classical design was matched with traditional building materials.
The principal elevation on Bourne Hill is perfectly symmetrical, with nine architectural bays and a hipped tiled roof. A band of red bricks separates the first and second floors, whilst lintels above each window feature decorative keystones.
The new, purpose-built ‘Palmers Green Telephone Exchange’ commenced operations at 1.30 p.m. on 18th April, 1925, and was given the exchange number ‘725’, or ‘PAL’ as entered on a standard telephone dial. The exchange number would then be followed by four digits that were unique to a single business or residential line (I.e. “Telephone: Palmers Green 1234.”)
As Palmers Green continued to grow through the interwar years, so too did the demand for new telephone subscriber lines. With the further arrival of the Piccadilly line extension to Cockfosters, which opened between 1932-33, the once-rural villages that bordered the area, such as Southgate, also developed rapidly, with thousands of new homes completed.
Before additional telephone exchanges could be built to serve these new areas, however the Bourne Hill exchange would typically be used in the interim, adding to the existing load.
Further increasing demand for telephone services, on 1st October, 1934, reduced telephone rates came into effect, with the G.P.O. aiming to make the service more convenient and attractive to both new and existing subscribers.
There were three telephone tariffs: one for the London exchanges (defined as an exchange within a 10mile radius of Oxford Circus); one for those of Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester; and one for the rest of the country.
Whilst London tariffs remained the highest, exclusive line service rates for residential subscribers fell from £1 12s. 6d. to £1 6s., whilst those for business customers fell from £2. to £1. 18s.
The effect was immediate, and by December, 1935, ‘Palmers Green Telephone Exchange’ had recorded the greatest net increase in new subscriber lines to any individual exchange in London, having added more than 800 lines in 14 months.
Despite the completion of additional telephone exchanges at New Southgate (1936), Ponders End (1937), and Winchmore Hill (1938), in 1938 it was decided to extend the Palmers Green site, provision for which had been made in the original plans of 1922. A building contract for the work was duly awarded to Moore and Wood, Ltd., of 262 Langham Road, N.15.
The later telephone exchanges were entirely automatic, removing the need for large banks of telephone operators, however Palmers Green had been planned and built as a manual exchange, inline with the technology that existed in 1925.
Underlining the importance of the telephone to the British economy, during a House of Commons debate on 19th July, 1937, the Postmaster General, Conservative MP, Major George Clement Tryon responded to a question from Colonel Albert Goodman, Conservative MP for Islington North, noting that 45 London telephone exchanges were still yet to switch to automatic operation, which included Palmers Green.
Perhaps owing to the Second World War but for reasons unknown, ‘Palmers Green Telephone Exchange’ was not switched over until 25th September, 1941, more than four years later. Despite the wartime backdrop, an opening ceremony took place, attended by the local Mayor and executives from the G.P.O.
Like the nearby ‘Palmers Green Post Office’ and ‘Palmers Green Public Library’, the ‘Palmers Green Telephone Exchange’ was fortunate in that it survived the German bombing of London unscathed, despite widespread damage across the Borough.
In the postwar years, as Britain continued to rebuild, demand for new subscriber lines quickly returned and it was back to business as usual for the north London telephone exchanges.
Whilst plans to break up the G.P.O. had been developed in the early 1930’s, with the intention of making the industry more competitive, it was not until the introduction of The Post Office Act, 1969, that the government department was eventually abolished, instead becoming a statutory corporation with two principal divisions: Post and Telecommunications.
As part of The British Telecommunications Act 1981, the ‘Post Office Telecommunications’ division was separated completely from the Post Office and once again renamed, this time to ‘British Telecom’. The new corporation was eventually privatised in 1984 before rebranding in 1991 to ‘BT’ , which still exists today and owns the Palmers Green site.
Whilst the exchange was originally built solely to facilitate telephone calls, almost 100 years later and that technology is no longer as relevant as it once was, as households switch to using mobile phones and other forms of electronic communication. As such, the interwar building’s focus today is on the provision of high speed broadband.
The exchange is largely unaltered externally, although has sadly lost its original wooden sash windows, which have been replaced by the usual uPVC alternatives that undermines the principal facade. Like the nearby ‘Palmer Green Public Library’, the roof features various pole mounted mobile phone masts, which similarly spoil the exterior.
Shortly after the Palmers Green exchange was opened in April, 1925, part of the site to the right of the main building was sold to a local builder, recouping £390 for the Treasury. Amazingly, this land has never been built on and still stands vacant today.
‘Palmers Green Telephone Exchange’ is neither a listed building nor on the Enfield Local Heritage List, however there are seemingly no plans for BT to vacate the site in the near-term and so, thankfully it’s future remains secure.