Crossed wires in the early days of telecommunications.

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Earlier this week, as I drove out of north London on my way to the motorway, I passed a mother and child waiting at a bus stop. The child was about 6 or 7 and she was looking intently at a mobile phone, playing a game I imagine. I looked to her mother who was also completely absorbed in her device, with no obvious connection to her daughter at all. This is modern Britain I thought.

We all rely on our phones today, but rarely actually as devices to speak to anyone on. Instead we communicate by text, direct message, emojii, or post and respond to updates on social media. Our ‘smart phones’ are powerful computers that allow us access to more information than even our recent ancestors could imagine as well as a host of entertainment in the form of films, music, games and reading material. Indeed, you may well be reading this blog post on your mobile device.

The telephone was invented (as every school pupil used to be taught*) by Alexander Graham Bell in 1875. He applied for a patent in the US and brought his invention to England in 1878 and tried it out on Queen Victoria, making calls from her house at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. Thomas Edison developed the technology at much the same time so we have two men vying for the accolade of inventing the telephone.

In 1879 the Telephone Company Ltd opened two exchanges in London (one in the City on Leadenhall Street, the other at 3 Palace Chambers in Westminster). A telephone service then, was up and running in the Metropolis and rivals soon started to get in on the game.

Most of the technological advances we associate with ‘modern’ Britain were born out of intense competition (the train, tram, and omnibus for example) and London was at the heart of capitalist innovation. So it is no surprise to find that as early as 1883 (just 6 or 7 years after Bell’s breakthrough) that this competition resulted in prosecutions at London’s Police courts.

In May 1883 Theodore Torrey , the manager of the Globe Telephone Company, and two of his employees – William Goodfellow and James Molyneaux – appeared to answer a summons at the Guildhall. The summons had been taken out by the United Telephone Company (UTC) and accused Torrey and his team of ‘wilfully and maliciously tying up their wires’.

This then, was an early case of industrial sabotage with the aim of putting a rival out of business (or at least stealing a march on their custom).

Both firms were represented by legal teams and it was made clear that this situation was already the subject of a civil case in the court of Chancery. There an injunction had been granted against the Globe Company which ordered the wires to be untied. Globe had appealed this decision and the case rattled on (as they tended to in Chancery).

However, at Guildhall the lawyers for the UTC argued that this was actually a criminal case (one of damage) and so should be heard separately. The two sets of legal minds argued this out for a while before Sir Robert Carden (sitting as magistrate in Guildhall) before he decided that he couldn’t see enough daylight between the two points of view to make a judgement at this time.

The lawyer for the prosecution – a Mr Grain – said that the company wanted to get the situation resolved because at present the United Company’s customers were being inconvenienced. They had literally got their wires crossed he stated. For the defence Mr Lewis countered that the reason the wires were tied by his clients was because they were in the way, pointing out that the UTC had sent them over the Wool Exchange ‘purposely to interfere with their wires’. In fact, he said, they weren’t even genuine wires but dummy ones, simply placed there to cause inconvenience. If they were removed then the case in Chancery might proceed more quickly.

The magistrate could not untangle this tricky legal argument and so he adjourned the case for a few days, perhaps so heads might cool and private lines of communication between the warring firms might succeed where the public ones had failed. This was one of those ‘first world’ problems for most Londoners of course; very few people had access to a telephone in 1883 or even knew how to use one. How things have changed.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 25, 1883]

* Now they can just ‘google it’.

A fanatic causes a disturbance at St Paul’s.

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It was midday on 24 April 1883 and the verger to the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral (a Mr Green) was close by the choir with his assistant. He noticed a well-dressed respectable looking man marching towards the altar with some determination. As he got close he clambered over the rope that divided the area from the public space and would have reached the communion table had Mr Green not stopped him.

There was no service at that time and no good reason for the man to be where he was. The man now demanded that the verger remove the cross and the candlesticks from the table at once, a request that Green, not surprisingly refused to comply with.

This angered the man who insisted again, trying to push past to implement his will himself. With some effort Green and his assistant prevented him and when the man refused to stand aside they called for a policeman to take him into custody.

So exactly what was all this fuss about? This became clear later that day when the verger and the intruder appeared before the alderman magistrate at the Mansion House Police court.

The defendant gave his name as William Handsley Podmore, 61 years of age and a solicitor. He was charged with making a disturbance in the cathedral, not a very serious offence in the eyes of the law but an unusual one for a man of such standing in society. Indeed, when the policeman was summoned Podmore warned the verger that he himself was a magistrate and he would ‘make him remember this one day’.

In court Podmore at first conducted his own defence, insisting that he had every right to ask for the candles and the cross to be removed:

‘On principal’, he declared, ‘I maintain that they have no right to be in a Protestant Church. I said I insisted on their being removed, and I will have them removed’.

The verger’s assistant was called to testify and supported his colleague’s account adding that the solicitor had acted very oddly that lunchtime. He had told them both that he’d been to the cathedral ‘1800 years ago, and made other strange statements’. He had even suggested he was Jesus Christ himself the verger’s assistant told a presumably stunned courtroom. William Podmore dismissed this as ‘nonsense’. He insisted he was within his rights and was a upstanding citizen. He ‘held five appointments in the City’ he added, and was a ‘Master Extraordinary of the Court of Chancery’.

The alderman, Sir Robert Carden, seemingly chose to humour the aged lawyer. If he didn’t like ‘ornaments in the church’ why did he go there? There were plenty of other churches he could worship in in the city after all.

‘I will go there’, insisted Podmore, ‘and I will pull them down. It is simply Romanism in our Protestant Evangelical Church’ adding that ‘these accused things should [not] be allowed to remain’.

A character witness appeared next to vouch for Podmore. Mr Crawford was a fellow solicitor who had known the defendant for years as well-respected member of the community, he soon took over his friend’s defence. He thought he must be ill if he was acting in this way because it was entirely out of character. Podmore was a Commissioner for Oaths and he hoped the alderman would be satisfied by a promise from the defendant not to enter St Paul’s ever again.

However, he added that he thought a shame that it had come to court at all. He alluded to recent changes at the cathedral that were not to everyone’s liking and Sir Robert agreed. However, whilst he might think it fitting to express his ‘disapproval at the extraordinary change which had taken place in the service at the cathedral, he should not think of disturbing the service because he disliked it’.

Reynold’s Newspaper ‘headlined’ its reports as ‘another disturbance at St. Paul’s’ suggesting Podmore wasn’t the only person unhappy that whatever changes had been taking place. The justice decided that he wanted to hear from the Dean and Chapter about the changes that were happening at St Paul’s so adjourned the case for a week, bailing Podmore on his own recognizances.

A week later Mr Podmore was back and the Dean and Chapter chose not to press charges. They insisted that they did so because it was their belief that the solicitor was ‘not responsible for his actions at the time of the occurrences’ (suggesting he was suffering from a mental illness). However there was a little more detail to this that emerged in Reynolds’ account of the second hearing. The Dean and Chapter wanted to make it clear to the public – through the auspices of the magistracy – that disturbances at the cathedral should not be allowed to continue.

‘St. Paul’s was the cathedral church of London’, they insisted, and its services were attended by large congregations. There was no knowing what might be the result to life and limb if any scare or panic arose through the act of a fanatic, and in these days especially when the public mind was excited by recent threats against public buildings, the dean and chapter had a great weight of anxiety resting on their shoulders’.

Sir Robert Carden agreed that Podmore was ‘in the wrong’ and the solicitor himself (while insisting he was not out of his mind) accepted his responsibility and his ‘little want of judgement’. He said he hoped the law would change so such ‘ornaments would soon be removed in a legal manner’.   He was released on his own sureties of £50 to not disturb the peace in future but the magistrate added a warning that the leniency he’d shown to Mr Podmore was on account of his infirmity and character, he would come down hard if there were any further attempts to disturb the peace of Wren’s masterpiece.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 25, 1883; Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, April 29, 1883; The Standard, Wednesday, May 02, 1883; Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, May 6, 1883]