Glasgow Corporation Telephone Department - Times Past

Posted on 2 November 2022

In partnership with the Glasgow Times, our archivists are exploring Glasgow's fascinating history. This week, Barbara Neilson writes about the Glasgow Corporation Telephone Department.

Among our Glasgow Corporation archive collections can be found the historic records of the short-lived Telephone Department covering 1892 – 1905. It’s a relatively little-known department especially when compared to the more prominent and larger Corporation departments like Parks, Libraries and Transport. Yet the against-the-odds tale of how Glasgow Corporation’s Telephone Department came to be and the phenomenal progress it made in making Glasgow better connected during its brief existence deserves to be better known.

The invention of the telephone represented a revolution in communication technology. The value of being able to transmit and receive speech electrically and in real time (making large geographical distances of no consequence) made this technology particularly tempting for commercial purposes.

In Glasgow, several private telephone systems were established during the 1880s including the National Telephone Company (NTC). However, by the mid-1890s, the NTC was receiving a huge number of complaints from its subscribers for its inefficient and expensive service. Glasgow Corporation saw its chance to offer a municipal rival to this private enterprise. 

However, the road to operating its own telephone system was a long one for the Corporation. It had to prove that telephones were of such general importance to the public at large that it, as a local authority, would be justified in supplying them. Reams of evidence were presented to two Select Committees of the House of Commons. Eventually, its campaign was successful and the Corporation obtained a licence from the Postmaster-General to build and run its own telephone exchange and service on 1 March 1900.

The telephone area covered not only the city but parts of the counties of Lanark, Renfrew, Dumbarton and Stirling. The overall coverage was approximately 163 square miles. Within our collections, a pamphlet advertising the Glasgow Corporation Telephone Department to potential subscribers boasts that its service allowed people to speak to others “from Strathblane in the North to Busby in the South; or Glenboig in the East to Bowling in the West”.

The service officially began in June 1901 with the freshly-formed Telephone Department managing it. The central exchange and offices were based in Renfield Street with a network of sub-exchanges and switch-rooms spread throughout the city including at Hillhead, Bridgeton, Strathbungo, Govan and Kinning Park. The telephone wires themselves were laid underground in the centre of the city to prevent storm damage. By 1904, almost 12,000 telephones had been installed in private and commercial properties. Individuals and businesses paid an annual charge for the line but the Glasgow Corporation telephones were installed free of charge.

The Telephone Department was in a unique position in the Corporation at this time. It was the only municipal undertaking which was in direct competition with a private enterprise. Every other Corporation department claimed a monopoly.

Partly because of this and despite the department’s achievements (including its claim to have made Glasgow the most extensively telephoned city in the UK in 1904), it was ultimately not able to continue. Glasgow’s municipal telephone service disappeared when the Corporation transferred it to the General Post Office in 1906.