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Hull Telephone Department

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In the late 19th century the initial formation of a telephone company in Britain was usually based on the ownership of rights in some patent for a new design of transmitter of receiver which was not thought to infringe the Bell patents. Many companies failed and were subsequently absorbed by the Bell companies as a result of litigation over these patents.

In 1880 the British Government took legal action against the United Telephone Company which had just been formed by the amalgamation of the Bell and Edison companies. The Government's contention was that the telephone was a telegraph within the meaning of the Telegraph Act 1869. This view was upheld by the court and the Post Office, therefore, acquired control over all telephone activity in Britain. Under its new status the Post Office granted licences to telephone companies in return for a 10% royalty on their business in the UK.

New companies were formed and old companies amalgamated or reorganised, but by 1889 the National Telephone Company (NTC) had almost a monopoly of private company local telephone business. It was in this light that Hull City Council's undertaking was formed.

In 1898 a Select Committee of the House of Commons was formed as a result of agitation by the Corporation of Glasgow for municipal authorities to be licensed to set up telephone undertakings. The Committee reported in favour of local telephone systems being operated by municipalities in competition with the NTC. The Committee's recommendation was accepted, and the Telegraph Act 1899 was passed which empowered municipalities to use rates and to borrow for the establishment of local telephone systems under licence from the Postmaster General.

Out of thirteen bodies who took out a licence only six - Brighton, Glasgow, Hull, Portsmouth, Tunbridge Wells and Swansea - actually set up telephone services. Tunbridge Wells sold out to the NTC and was followed by Swansea in 1907. Glasgow and Brighton were both bought by the Post Office and Portsmouth eventually sold out in 1913. This left Hull as the only survivor.

Hull City Council, in 1899, was pressed into applying for a licence by the Hull Chamber of Trade. A special committee was formed to deal with the matter and eventually a licence to operate a service for 10 years was granted in 1902.

Hull Telephones Stowger setIn 1906 an offer was received by the City Council from the NTC to buy the Council system. The Telephones Committee, conscious of the fluctuating fortunes of other municipal telephone undertakings reluctantly recommended that the Council accept the offer. However, at a special meeting of the same year the Council referred back to the Committee's resolution and it was the chairman's casting vote which eventually decided the future of the Hull Telephone Department.

At the time of the Government's take over of private companies Hull's licence was under review. The Post Office offered a renewal which was conditional upon the Council buying all the ex-NTC plant in the area for a sum of £192,423. The Council voted in favour of the offer and so the Corporation became the sole controlling telephone authority in the district.

The years between 1902 and 1978 saw the Department successfully negotiate five licences to operate a telephone service under the Telegraph Act 1899. The last licence issued under this Act was in 1978 and covers a term of 18 years. However, as a result of the introduction of the Telecommunications Act 1984, and almost a year of negotiations, the Secretary of State granted the Hull City Council a licence to cover a period of 25 years, expiring in 2010.

This article was kindly contributed by the BT Archives and Historical Information Centre.

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