The Story of Rowlands Gill’s Postal and Telephone Services.
To tell the story of the post and telephone services in Rowlands Gill we have to go back many years. The General Post Office (G.P.O.) was set up in 1649 to look after the delivery of letters, and our area had postmen not long afterwards. In 1729, when the area we now call Rowlands Gill was just a remote part of Winlaton Manor, a man from Winlaton called Philip Logan died and was buried in Ryton churchyard. The burial register gives his occupation as “Penny Postman”. Perhaps Mr Logan delivered letters to the few farms in our area. He was a Penny Postman because it cost one penny (1d – an old penny which is less than ½p) to send a letter. Postage stamps were first used on letters in 1840.
It is not easy to say when Rowlands Gill became a village, but it was around 1896 when widespread building began. Over the next few years houses were built at the “Villas” (the Dene Avenue and Orchard Road areas), Strathmore Road, Dipwood Road and the “Bottoms” – the area near the Derwent now called Derwent Park. By 1896 letters and parcels were carried on the railway rather than on horse-drawn coaches and both the electric telegraph and the telephone had been invented.
The electric telegraph was a means of sending messages along wires and at first they were sent as groups of short or long pulses called dots and dashes. This was called the Morse code and was invented by Samuel F.B. Morse around 1837. The telephone was invented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell and first arrived in this country in 1878. During the 1880s telephone exchanges were set up in all large towns and cities including Newcastle and by 1892 even Consett had an exchange – although it hardly seemed worthwhile having one because there were only two telephones in the whole town.
In 1896 there were many post offices around the area – Blaydon, Winlaton, Burnopfield, Victoria Garesfield, High Spen, Chopwell, Blackhall Mill, Hamsterley Colliery and Ebchester. The letters for Blaydon and Winlaton were brought by train to Blaydon Railway Station, letters for Burnopfield, Victoria Garesfield, High Spen and Chopwell were brought to Lintz Green Station (where there was an unsolved murder in 1911) and letters for Ebchester, Hamsterley Colliery and Blackhall Mill went through Ebchester Station.
The post offices at Blaydon, Winlaton, Burnopfield and Ebchester were also telegraph offices. You could hand in a written message, called a telegram, at these places and the message would be sent over wires to any other telegraph office anywhere in the country. Then it would be written out on a special form and delivered to the correct person. These telegraph offices could also receive telegrams of course. It really was a very fast way to send a message; on 4th May 1896 a teacher at Burnopfield National School called Miss Harrison missed the 8 o’clock train, which she usually took from Newcastle to Lintz Green, so she sent a telegram to the school to say she would be a little late as she would have to wait for the next train!
In 1896 Rowlands Gill did not have a post office at all – the letters for Rowlands Gill were probably still delivered by Winlaton postmen. But in 1897 the first shop in the village was built on Station Road (now called Burnopfield Road) and it became a post office and grocery shop. Miss Annie Lundy was the sub-postmistress in charge; she had been running Victoria Garesfield Post Office before she moved to Rowlands Gill.
Miss Lundy did not stay very long and in 1904 she was replaced by Mr Joseph Lumley who came from Stanley – Mr Lumley’s nearby drapery shop then became the village’s second post office. His shop and the shop next door had been built in 1902 by Mr Thomas Usher. Mr Usher ran a grocery business in one and Mr Lumley ran his drapery business (and now his post office) in the other. At first Mr Lumley rented the shop from Mr Usher, but he later bought it.
The first two post offices in Rowlands Gill were very close to the railway station. This was very useful because letters were brought to the village by train. There can be little doubt that the postal service then was much better than it is today. Letters arrived at the station at 6.30 am, 3 pm and 6 pm and were then taken across the road to the post office where they were sorted and then delivered – yes, there were three deliveries a day. Letters were sent out from the village on the 1.15 pm, 6.30 pm and 9.30 pm trains. There was even a Sunday delivery. At that time the correct postal address of the village was “Rowlands Gill, Newcastle-on-Tyne”, but many people used “Rowlands Gill, near Newcastle-on-Tyne”.
There were changes at High Spen too. Their letters now came through Rowlands Gill Station instead of Lintz Green, and in 1904 High Spen Post Office became a telegraph office. This involved putting a telephone in the post office. This was not an ordinary telephone that could be used to speak to any other person with a telephone, it was connected directly to Newcastle Telegraph Office and could only be used for telegrams.
The main telegraph network which connected the big towns and cities used machines to send and receive messages but only specially trained people could use these machines. So, to save training thousands of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to use the machines, they used telephones instead. When telegrams arrived at Newcastle Telegraph Office for High Spen or Burnopfield or any other small telegraph office in the area, they were passed to these places over the telephone. The messages were then written on telegram forms and delivered. When telegrams were handed in at these small telegraph offices they would be passed to Newcastle Telegraph Office by telephone and then sent on from there by machine to wherever they were meant to go.
The cost of sending a telegram depended on the number of words in the message and this included the address to which it was being sent. So, to cut down the cost, firms that got a lot of telegrams could ask the post office for a special short address. This was called a “Telegraphic Address” and could only be used on telegrams, not on letters. For example; the full address of Consett Steelworks would have been “Consett Iron Company Ltd, Consett S.O., County Durham” which is eight words long (S.O. meant Sub Office), but their telegraphic address was just “Steel, Consett” – only two words. For a long time there was only one firm at High Spen with a telegraphic address and that was the colliery; their telegraphic address was simply “High Spen”. [Do not confuse Garesfield Colliery at High Spen with Victoria Garesfield Colliery, they were quite separate coal mines].
Back to Rowlands Gill and to 1906. In those days telephones were rather expensive and only large firms or rich people could afford them. Rowlands Gill had no large firms but it did have some rich people. The trouble was that Rowlands Gill had no telephone exchange so nobody could have a telephone, and a few people from the village complained to the Council about this. There were two telephone systems, one run by the G.P.O. and one run by the National Telephone Company, and on April 6th 1906 the Council Clerk wrote to both asking for a telephone exchange in Rowlands Gill.
Both companies said they could not put an exchange in the village but the National Telephone Company offered to connect anyone in Rowlands Gill who wanted a telephone to their Whickham Telephone Exchange. The cost of wires from Whickham was far too high so nobody agreed. Eventually the G.P.O. said they would put an exchange in Rowlands Gill but the Council had to promise that if the G.P.O. did not get at least £60 per year for telephone calls then the Council would make up the difference. The Council agreed and the exchange was installed in the back of Mr Lumley’s post office at the end of 1907.
The telephones and telephone exchanges of 1907 were very different from those of today. The telephones had no dials or buttons just a microphone, a receiver on the end of a wire and a hook that the receiver was hung on when it was not being used. The exchange was just a board which had a hole (called a jack) and a flap (called a drop) for each telephone in the village. There would also be jacks and drops for the wires which joined Rowlands Gill Exchange and Newcastle Exchange.
When anyone took their receiver off the hook it made their drop at the exchange move and sounded a buzzer. The operator, probably the sub-postmaster, plugged his telephone into the jack beside the drop that had moved and he could speak to whoever was calling. He asked what number they wanted and he put another plug into the jack for that telephone and he turned a handle to make it ring. When it was answered, the two telephones were connected together. If the call was to a telephone on a different exchange, the operator had to speak to the Newcastle Exchange and ask them to connect the call. Then he connected the caller to the wires to Newcastle. Calls to Rowlands Gill from other places would come on the wires from Newcastle. The Newcastle operator would ask the Rowlands Gill operator to ring the correct telephone and connect that telephone to the wires from Newcastle. If anyone wanted to make a call in the middle of the night the poor sub-postmaster had to get out of bed to connect the call.
In 1907 the cost of a three minute telephone call to London from Rowlands Gill was 3 shillings (15p). This might seem very cheap but it was a lot of money in those days – even a headmaster was only paid about £4 a week at this time.
The first telephone directory to include Rowlands Gill numbers was printed in 1908. Here is the complete entry for Rowlands Gill:
- Rowlands Gill… 1 Post Office and Public Call Office
- Rowlands Gill… 2 CHARLTON T.B Lynholme
- Rowlands Gill… 3 JACKSON J Woodlands
- Rowlands Gill… 4 SMITH Dr A Rowlands Gill
- Rowlands Gill… 6 DIXON W. Shipowner Dipwood
I do not know why No 5 was missed out from the sequence but it was later the number of the Water Company Inspector who lived at Dene Crescent.
The Public Call Office was the early version of the public telephone box. If anyone without a telephone wanted to make a call they went to the post office, used the telephone there and then paid the sub-postmaster. The Public Call Office in Rowlands Gill Post Office could be used between 7 am and 8 pm Monday to Saturday and between 8 am and 10 am on Sunday.
All the telephones in Rowlands Gill were connected to the exchange by overhead wires stretched between wooden poles and there were also overhead wires from Rowlands Gill Exchange to Newcastle. All the wires went to the back of the post office, so it looked rather like a spider’s web.
Once the telephone was installed in the post office it became a telegraph office because the Newcastle Telegraph Office could call Rowlands Gill Post Office and pass on messages to be delivered as telegrams. They did not need a special telephone like those at Burnopfield and High Spen, an ordinary telephone would do just as well. Rowlands Gill Post Office also became a “Telephonic Express Delivery Office” which meant that anyone could telephone the post office and ask for a message to be delivered to someone in the village.
In 1908 a pillar box was put up on Strathmore Road to save people in that area having to walk all the way to the post office to post letters; it is still there. It was emptied at 8.30 am, 5 pm and 8.30 pm every day except Sunday.
We now Jump forward to 1921 when the next major development took place. The sub-postmaster, Mr Lumley, built a new shop – it is now Blayney’s Wine Shop1 – and he moved the post office, the telephone exchange and his drapery business there. There were now 22 telephones in the village including Lilley Drift Colliery (Rowlands Gill 8) and Whinfield Power Station (Rowlands Gill 15). By this time there was also a post office at Highfield and by 1923 there was a Public Call Office (Rowlands Gill 25) there too. This meant that telegrams could be sent from Highfield Post Office but, for some reason they did not deliver telegrams from there at first, although they did some years later.
A rather strange event occurred on Monday 29th November 1923. By then High Spen’s post was delivered from Rowlands Gill Post Office. The postman who normally delivered letters to High Spen was 26 year old James William Hopewell who lived at Low Friarside with his wife and two children. On that morning he left Mr Lumley’s post office at 7 am with another postman, John Pace. They walked together as far as St Patrick’s church and then they went different ways. Mr Hopewell vanished, none of his letters were delivered and he did not return home. A big search was carried out but nothing was found. There were headlines in the newspapers:- “Mystery of Rowlands Gill Postman” and “Rowlands Gill Mystery”. Two days later his bag and overcoat were found near Barlow, all his letters were there but a packet for High Spen Post Office was missing; it had contained £50. A month later Mr Hopewell gave himself up to the police at Leicester and he was sent to prison for four months for stealing the money.
The postal address of Rowlands Gill changed around 1924. By then it was usually written as “Rowlands Gill, Newcastle-upon-Tyne” rather than “on-Tyne” but now it was changed to “Rowlands Gill, Co. Durham”. Some places changed and then changed back years later. Chopwell became “Chopwell, Co Durham” around 1924 and later became “Chopwell, Newcastle-upon-Tyne” again.
In 1931 the Northern No 11 bus from Consett to Newcastle which came through Rowlands Gill at 9.30 pm had an unusual addition – a post box. The idea was that if anyone on the bus route missed the last collection they could use the post box on the bus. The idea did not last long but the bus service is still running – it is now the No 7452.
With around 50 telephones in Rowlands Gill the exchange in the post office was very busy. The G.P.O. thought it was time to put an automatic exchange in the village. This type of exchange did not need an operator, instead all the telephones would have dials on them and these dials sent pulses along the wires to operate switches in the exchange to connect telephones together. The G.P.O. wanted the exchange on Strathmore Road because it was near the centre of the village and they asked if they could put it in the grounds of the Methodist Church but they were not allowed to. Instead they bought a small piece of ground near the entrance to Strathmore Avenue and built the exchange there. You can still see it but it is now a garage belonging to Stanhope House, the end house of Strathmore Avenue. This exchange opened on 5th October 1932 and the old exchange in the post office was closed.
Everyone got a new telephone with a dial and a few people, those with numbers 1 to 19, had their numbers changed. 1 to 9 had to go because the automatic exchange only worked with two-figure numbers. 10-19 went because the G.P.O. had found that single pulses -were often caused by telephone wires touching, especially on windy days. The automatic equipment thought that someone had dialled a 1 and got stuck waiting for the second number. So they found it better to arrange for the machines to ignore a 1 if it was the first number.
What numbers did they change to? There were several spare numbers – for example, numbers 24 and 34 were not in use, so the Doctor’s number was changed from 4 to 24 and Mr Davies of Rocklyn Lodge changed from 14 to 34. When they ran out of spare numbers they gave the rest new numbers starting at 61; so the post office changed from 1 to 61, Mr Richardson of Lintzford changed from 16 to 66 and Whinfield Power Station changed from 15 to 68. You could only dial numbers in the village, for anywhere else you dialled 0 and spoke to an operator in Newcastle who connected your call.
The new automatic exchange was also to serve High Spen which had very few telephones at that time. Rowlands Gill’s manual exchange had only served as far as Hookergate (Hookergate Co-op Store was Rowlands Gill 26). At High Spen the wires had to come either from Chopwell (High Spen Co-op Store was Chopwell 7) or from Blaydon (Garesfield Colliery was Blaydon 31). Now all High Spen telephones would be on Rowlands Gill automatic exchange. The first Rowlands Gill number at High Spen seems to have been Robson Brothers Ltd who ran a bus company, their number was Rowlands Gill 55.
The very first public telephone box in the village was put up around this time, it is still there near the old post office (Blayney’s Wine Shop1). This took the place of the Public Call Office inside the post office and meant that the post office did not have to stay open such long hours for people to use the telephone. These telephones had slots for coins and two large buttons with labels A and B. You put money in the slot and dialled the number you wanted. When you got an answer you pressed button A. If you got no reply you pressed button B and got your money back. If the call was made through the operator, she (it was usually a woman) could tell how much money was put into the coin-box by listening to the sound of the coins dropping.
In those days telephone dials had letters above the numbers. These letters were there because some of the very big cities (London, Birmingham and Manchester and later Glasgow and Liverpool) had special telephone systems. These places had lots of exchanges and you could call from any part of the city to any other part by dialling the first three letters of the exchange name followed by a four-figure number. So people in London could call Scotland Yard – telephone number Whitehall 1212- by dialling WHI 1212. This was the same as dialling 944 1212. These exchanges were called “Director Exchanges”. The letters on the dials were not used in Rowlands Gill, but they would be many years later.
The cost of having a telephone might be of interest. In 1934 you paid £5-10s-Od (£5.50) per year to rent the telephone (this was a lot of money). Local calls cost 1d to places up to 5 miles away and 2d to places between 5 and 7½ miles away. With local calls you could talk for as long as you wanted for no extra charge. Calls to places further than 7½ miles away were called “trunk” calls and the cost of these depended on the distance and the length of the call.
Of course, you could only have 80 telephones with two-figure numbers (20-99), and by 1939 there were almost that many in Rowlands Gill. So the exchange was enlarged and new equipment. was put in. This was brought into use on 27th November 1939. This time everybody’s number was changed because the numbers all had to have three figures. The change was a simple one, most had a “2” put in front of their number (Towneley Garage changed from 30 to 230, Lilley Drift Colliery changed from 48 to 248 and Mr Self, the dentist, changed from 83 to 283) but some had a “3” instead (Robson Brothers Ltd changed from 55 to 355 and Highfield Co-op Store changed from 85 to 385). Rowlands Gill Post Office which started as Rowlands Gill 1 and then changed to 61 was now 361.
In 1946 there were 150 telephones in Rowlands Gill. Luckily, by this time, most telephone wires had been put underground. Imagine how awful it would have looked if all the wires from 150 telephones had gone overhead to the exchange at Strathmore Road. The wires between the exchange and shops or houses usually went underground most of the way, perhaps to the end of the street, and then overhead for the rest of the way. The wires between Rowlands Gill and Newcastle had also been put underground. On some country roads you can still find traces of the days when a lot of wires went overhead. Next time you go up the bank to Burnopfield look out for some poles with crossbars at the top. The poles carry only one wire now but you can easily see that there used to be a lot more.
Mr Joseph Lumley gave up the post office in February 1949 after running it for nearly 45 years. Sadly he died a few days later. The drapery and newsagents business was carried on by a relative. Rowlands Gill needed a new post office and a new sub-postmaster.
“The Grove Temperance Bar” was owned by Mr Thomas Carrick Middleton, an accountant, and his wife, Josephine. This shop had been built in 1924 for Miss Ethel and Miss Amelia Gibson and they sold sweets and ice cream from the shop until October 1945 when they sold it to the Middletons. The G.P.O. decided that Mr Middleton should be the new sub-postmaster and “The Grove Temperance Bar” should become the new post office. An extra room was built on the side of the shop; this was to be the sorting office, the place where the postmen sorted letters and parcels. At first they continued selling sweets but later changed to cards and stationery. The new post office was given the same telephone number as the old one -Rowlands Gill 361.
1950 saw the start of the 999 emergency service in Rowlands Gill. Before it started you had to telephone Dunston 84458 for the fire brigade, Consett 411 for an ambulance and Blaydon 60 for the police. Now you could just dial 999 and tell the operator which service you wanted. The first 999 service in the country was in London in 1937 and it reached Newcastle in 1946.
It was also now possible to dial to some places outside Rowlands Gill. You used a dialling code in front of the number you wanted. All dialling codes from Rowlands Gill started with a 9. 9 by itself got you Newcastle, Gateshead, Dunston, Gosforth, Lemington and a few other exchanges near Newcastle. So if you wanted to call Newcastle 20911 you dialled 9-20911. Other places had longer dialling codes, Wylam was 9984, Consett was 9932, and Chopwell was 99351. Within a few years it was possible to dial any exchange within 15 miles of Rowlands Gill. For exchanges which were further away, you still had to dial 0 and ask the operator in Newcastle to connect your call. To call Rowlands Gill numbers from the Newcastle and Gateshead areas the dialling code was 934, from most other exchanges in the area it was 9934. So to ring Rowlands Gill 240 – the railway station – from Chopwell you would have dialled 9934-240.
From 1958 it was possible to call the telephone speaking clock from Rowlands Gill – you dialled 98081. Until then you could always dial 0 and ask the operator to tell you the time by the exchange clock, but the new service gave the exact time automatically. What you heard was a machine controlled by an atomic clock.
The late 1950s brought a major change in Rowlands Gill’s postal services. For sixty years the railway had carried the post into and out of the village. Now there were no passenger services and very few goods trains on the line, so the postal authorities decided to use vans instead. This was welcomed by the postmen because they would no longer have to bring the post in a handcart to and from the station several times a day, the vans would come right to the door of the post office.
The telephone was becoming popular, it was no longer just big firms and rich people who wanted it. Every firm now had a telephone and more and more ordinary people wanted one too. The numbers were quickly being used up; the 200’s, 300’s, 400’s and 500’s were in use and when Highfield School got a telephone in February 1958, the number they got was 646. Rowlands Gill would soon need four-figure numbers and a bigger telephone exchange so, in 1962, the post office began building a new exchange on the south side of Strathmore Road. This exchange is still in use today.
When this new exchange was brought into service on 16th December 1964 all telephone numbers in Rowlands Gill changed to 4-figure numbers. Most simply had a 2 put in front- so the post office changed from 361 to 2361- but some had more complicated changes -300 to 319 for instance became 2800 to 2819. There were other changes too; for the operator you had to dial 100 instead of 0, but most important of all was the start of S.T.D. which means “Subscriber Trunk Dialling”. A subscriber is just someone with a telephone and “trunk calls” were long distance calls. It was now possible to dial calls to many parts of the country instead of having to ask the operator to connect the call for you.
S.T.D. used dialling codes starting with a 0. They used both figures and letters – remember the letters above the figures on the telephone dial. The S.T.D. code for MIddlesborough was OMI-2, TOrquay was OTO-3, BRistol was OBR-2, SUnderland was OSU-3 and DArlington was ODA-5. NEwcastle had an S.T.D. code too, it was ONE-2 but, of course, you could still get Newcastle from Rowlands Gill by dialling 9 so you did not need to use ONE-2 from here. Some codes came from an area name rather than an exchange name – Blaydon was OTY-425, Whitley Bay was OTY-44. The TY came from TYneside. Again you did not need these codes from Rowlands Gill because there were local codes (9425 and 944) which worked from here. The Director Exchanges in the big cities were different; the S.T.D. code for London was 01, Birmingham was 021 and the others were 031, 041, 051 and 061.
What about Rowlands Gill? Yes, it had an S.T.D. code so that people a long way away could dial calls to the village. It was OCO-74; the “CO” came from COnsett; Rowlands Gill was not important enough for the post office to use “RO”. Eight other exchanges in the area had S.T.D. codes starting with OCO-7 including Consett itself (OCO-72), Chopwell (OCO-751) and Burnopfield (OCO-77). These exchanges were called the “Consett Charge Group”. There was another OCO a long way from Consett – Colchester was OCO-2.
Over the next few years more and more exchanges all over the country were given S.T.D. codes and by 1969 it was possible to dial telephone calls to almost anywhere in the country. The G.P.O. soon decided that using letters was not very sensible so they stopped using them altogether. Telephone numbers in the big cities and S.T.D. codes were then given as figures only. The codes did not change they were just written differently. Rowlands Gill’s code was then written as 0207-4, Newcastle as 0632 and Middlesborough as 0642.
With the new exchange in Rowlands Gill came new telephones in the telephone boxes. The new telephones did not have button A and button B. Instead you just dialled the number you wanted and paid when the call was answered.
The G.P.O. (General Post Office) was a Government Department, but from 1st October 1969 it became a public authority called the Post Office. In the same year the last manual telephone exchange in the area – at Corbridge, between Newcastle and Hexham – was closed and replaced by an automatic exchange. The very first automatic exchange in the country (Epsom) had opened in 1912, Rowlands Gill became automatic 20 years later, but it had taken Corbridge a further 37 years to catch up. Changing so late had its advantages; Corbridge got one of the very latest electronic exchanges.
In 1971 the Post Office gave everybody in the country a post code to be put at the end of their addresses. The Post Office were planning to use machines to sort letters and the post codes were easier than addresses for machines to work with. Every street or road was given a different post code; if it was a long street it might have needed two or three different post codes. The post codes given to Rowlands Gill and High Spen streets started with NE39 then there was a 1 or 2 followed by two letters. Dipwood Way, for example, was given NE39 1DH and Watson Street, High Spen got NE39 2EW.
Two or three years later the Post Office started using sorting machines in Newcastle and this affected Rowlands Gill’s postal service. Until then the postmen in Rowlands Gill emptied all the letter boxes in the area and took the letters to the post office in the village. Then they franked the letters – that means they put a postmark over the stamp – and separated the letters into “locals” and “gannies”. “Locals” were letters to Rowlands Gill or High Spen, and they stayed in the post office until the postmen took them out on their next delivery. Some people wrote “LOCAL” in the corner of letters that were staying in the village to help the postmen when they sorted them.
“Gannies” were letters to anywhere else and they were sent to Newcastle to be sorted and sent around the country. Now the Post Office decided that all letters posted in our area would be sent to Newcastle to be franked and sorted by their new machines. So if you posted a letter in Rowlands Gill to another address in Rowlands Gill it had to go to Newcastle and then back again. Another result of this change was that the “Rowlands Gill” postmark, which had been used to frank all letters posted here, was no longer used. Instead the letters would have a “Newcastle-upon-Tyne” postmark. You might still see older people writing “LOCAL” in the corner of local letters but it is a waste of time because the letters all go to Newcastle for sorting.
There was yet another change to Rowlands Gill addresses in 1974. From April 1st the village was not in County Durham, it was in Tyne and Wear, and from July 1st the official postal address became “Rowlands Gill, Tyne & Wear”. Not all places in the new county changed their addresses; Chopwell was still “Chopwell, Newcastle-upon-Tyne”. People with businesses in Rowlands Gill must have been rather annoyed with all the changes because all their bills and papers with a printed address had to be replaced when post codes arrived and again when the county changed.
By 1974 there were more than 1300 telephones in the village; all the four-figure numbers starting with 2 were used up and 3 was in use as well. The S.T.D. system was complete; and now I.S.D. – International Subscriber Dialling – came to the village. Before this any overseas calls had to go through the operator, now you could dial calls to some countries yourself. At first you could only dial to 12 countries in Europe and to the U.S.A. but more and more countries were added and today you can dial to any country in the world; you can even dial calls to some ships at sea.
I.S.D. codes from this country all start with 0103. This is followed by a country code and the number you want in that country. To telephone Stockholm 784 7400, for example, you would dial 010 46 8 784 7400. The 46 is the country code for Sweden and the 8 comes from their S.T.D. code for Stockholm (which is 08). The country code for our country is 44 so to ring UK numbers from overseas you would dial their I.S.D. code (it is different in every country) then 44, then the S.T.D. code (without the 0 at the start) and the number. For example to ring Rowlands Gill 2230 from Sweden you would have dialled 009 44 2074 2230 and from France it would have been 19 44 2074 2230 (the 2074 comes from 0207-4 the S.T.D. code for Rowlands Gill).
On 1st October 1981 the part of the Post Office which handled the telephone service was renamed British Telecom. The telegram service ended on 1st October 1982. Until then it had continued more or less unchanged since it started. The machines which connected the big cities were more modern but telegrams for the village were still telephoned from Newcastle Telegraph Office to Rowlands Gill Post Office and telegrams from the village were still telephoned to Newcastle. The telegram service was ended because hardly anyone was using it – most people had telephones and it was far easier to make a call than to send a telegram. For many years the man who had delivered telegrams in Rowlands Gill was Mr George Edward Stappard (Eddie). He is now quite an old man4 but you might still see him riding around the village on the bicycle he’d used to deliver telegrams.
On 26th October 1983 Rowlands Gill telephone numbers all gained two extra figures. They now all started with 54; the post office telephone number had grown quite a bit since 1907. It started as 1, then it was 61, then 361, then 2361; now it became 542361. Why did the numbers change? British Telecom decided that S.T.D. codes should be no more than four figures long – some, like Chopwell, had six figures. It might seem impossible to do this because there are only one thousand possible 4-figure codes starting with 0 and there were more than 6000 telephone exchanges in the country. However, by having the same S.T.D. code for several exchanges, it was possible.
In our area the Consett Charge Group – Burnopfield, Consett, Dipton, Ebchester, Edmundbyers, Lanchester, Rowlands Gill and Stanley- were all to have the S.T.D. code 0207. The trouble was that if someone dialled 0207 2361, the machines would not know whether they wanted Rowlands Gill 2361 or Consett 2361 or any other 2361 on these exchanges. The answer was to make all the numbers different. Rowlands Gill numbers would all start with 54, Dipton’s would start with 57, Consett’s with 58, 59 or 50 and so on. Chopwell Exchange was closed and telephones in Chopwell were put on the Ebchester Exchange. The old Chopwell 3-figure numbers had 561 put in front while Ebchester numbers gained 560.
Some of the old local dialling codes still worked – you could still get Newcastle from Rowlands Gill by dialling 9 – but some were now different. To call Rowlands Gill from the Newcastle area you dialled 93 instead of 934 and to get any of the other 0207 exchanges (the Consett Charge Group) from Rowlands Gill you just dialled 8.
British Telecom was privatised on 6th August 1984 and there were also new regulations which allowed people to buy their own telephones instead of having to rent them. A lot of people bought push-button telephones which were much easier to use than dial telephones. With dial telephones it took so long to make the call that you often forgot the end of the number. With push buttons you could put the number in as quickly as you liked, but you still had to wait while the telephone sent out the pulses along the line.
Once again the telephone boxes in the village got new telephones. These were push-button phones and they went back to the idea of putting money in before you could dial your call. If there was no answer you got your money back when you hung up.
In April 1987, after almost 90 years, Rowlands Gill Post Office stopped sorting letters for the village. Letters were to be sorted at Blaydon instead and the village’s postmen and postwomen had to collect their letters from there. There must be a sensible reason for doing this but, to many, it seemed very silly – the postmen and postwomen used to collect their letters from the village post office now they would have to travel to Blaydon and then back to Rowlands Gill.
There was yet another change to the telephone system in the village on 24th August 1990. Rowlands Gill Telephone Exchange became a “digital” exchange. The exchange was now controlled entirely by a computer and could do lots of things that were impossible before. To use the new services you needed a push-button phone which sent out tones (musical notes) instead of pulses. They had * and # buttons as well as numbers. Some push-button phones have a switch to change from pulses to tones. When your phone uses tones you do not have to wait while the telephone sends out lots of pulses, it sends a tone as you press the button. Very often you will hear the called phone ringing as soon as you put in the last number.
What can you do with the new exchange? You can have your calls sent to another telephone. So if you go away for the weekend you can arrange for all the calls to your telephone to go to the place you are staying. You can have telephone calls to two people at once. You can arrange for a little bleep to come on your telephone if someone calls you while you are already using the phone. Then you can answer the new call and then finish off the first call. You can make it impossible for your phone to be used for certain types of call – 0898 calls or international calls for example. You can even stop your phone being used for any calls (except 999 calls) and you can also stop calls coming to your phone. You can use your phone as an alarm clock by telling the exchange to ring you at a certain time on certain days. (If you ring *55*0800# your phone will ring at 8 o’clock next morning -and it only costs 12p). Finally you can arrange for the exchange to call you after a phone call and tell you how much the call has cost. (You ring *40* then the number you want followed by a #).
The arrival of the digital exchange meant the end of local dialling codes; people in Newcastle could no longer get Rowlands Gill by dialling 93 and we could no longer get Newcastle by dialling 9. In fact there was no longer any exchange called Newcastle – it was now part of a large group of exchanges which were all called Tyneside and the code for all of them was 091. One thing did become simpler; you no longer needed the 8 to get the other exchanges in the Consett Charge Group (Consett, Ebchester, Burnopfield etc), you just dialled the number as if it was a Rowlands Gill number.
The digital exchange has another advantage over the old exchange. When anyone dials 100 or 999, the operator knows straight away which telephone is calling – the telephone number appears on a computer screen. It will be possible in the future to have a little display on your own telephone which will show the telephone number of the person who is calling you.
There will be yet another change to our telephone numbers at Easter 1994. This time it will be the dialling code that will change; in fact every dialling code in the country will be longer. This is being done to make more codes available. The code for Rowlands Gill, and the rest of the Consett Charge Group, will most likely become 01207 instead of 0207.
There are now nearly 3500 telephones in Rowlands Gill; most people now have a telephone. The telephone service has come a very long way since 1907 and it costs a lot less than it did. I wish that the same was true of the postal services. For these we are paying more for what seems to be a much poorer service.
Mr Thomas Carrick Middleton is now 82 years old5 and be is still the sub-postmaster of Rowlands Gill despite a serious illness in 1973 which left him partially paralysed. Much of the work in the post office is now handled by his son John Terence Middleton (Terry) but Mr Middleton Senior can still be seen behind the counter from time to time. Surely he must be the oldest working man in the area.
Brian Pears, January 1992
(Originally written for schoolchildren aged ~11 yrs, hence the language used in places. Printed copies were given to local schools in 1992. BP)
1 Now a branch of Co-op Funeralcare.
2 Now Service 45.
3 The ISD prefix is now 00 in line with other EU countries.
4 George Edward Stappard died in June 1998 at the age of 90.
5 Thomas Carrick Middleton died in July 1992 aged 82.
I would like to thank the following for information and assistance: British Telecom Archives, London; British Telecom Press Office, Newcastle; Mr G. Lowdon; Miss M.A. Lumley; Mr J.T. Middleton; Mr T.C. Middleton and Mr T. Peacock.
Postscript. As stated above, Mr Middleton senior died on 26th July 1992 and Terry, his son, took over as sub-postmaster. Unfortunately over the next ten years or so the post office was subject to series of armed raids which left Mr Middleton injured and very lucky to be alive. There was even an attempt to kidnap him. Mr Middleton was rightly praised for his bravery in tackling the would-be robbers and assailants, but understandably he became increasingly concerned for the safety of his family, his staff, and himself. As a result, in 2004, Mr Middleton decided to close his post office and retire. A new post office was opened a few months later in the newsagents shop around the corner, a shop which, ironically, had once belonged to the Lumley family who had run the village’s 2nd and 3rd post offices.