Mercury Telephone Exchange
"Putting you through now, caller"

Colin Barnsley-oval.png

By Colin Barnsley

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First Published 26/7/2022
Last Updated 29/7/2022

 


From the establishment of a telephony service in Heald Green in the early 1900s,
through the building of our own exchange in the late 1950s, and what the future holds for telephony.

 

Women switchboard operators at the Manchester Telephone Exchange c1900 c Getty Images.jpg

Fig. 1 Women Switchboard Operators,
Manchester Telephone Exchange, c1900

© Getty Images
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Early Telephony in Heald Green

The earliest picture relating to telephony in Heald Green is taken near the Griffin Pub, and shows a telegraph pole. Helen Morgan contacted the Telegraph Pole Appreciation Society who dated the picture to around 1910 – when none of the local telephone exchanges had been built – so it’s unclear which was, at the time, our local exchange.     If you did make a call in the early 1900s, you would have picked up the receiver and spoken to a switchboard operator at an exchange, and they would connect you manually.

Graham Whiteside of the
BT MR [Manchester] Staff website explained:-
“The reason why poles used to have more wires is that telephones of the time used to be fed by ‘open wires’. Each telephone needs a pair of wires to work. This is still the case for traditional land lines to this day. Open wires used two individual uninsulated copper-coated steel wires to each phone. Because they were uninsulated they had to be separated along the route. Also on the poles they were wrapped around pot insulators because wood is conductive especially when wet so poles had what ‘ arms’ to keep the wires apart. The more wires the more arms were needed. Modern poles usually have a single cable fed from underground up to the top of the pole to a distribution box then plastic covered cables carrying both wires together, go to peoples houses. Because they are insulated there is no longer the need to keep them separate from each other.”

 

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Fig. 2a Telegraph Pole near The Griffin Pub, c 1910
© Colin Barnsley
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Other archive pictures show similar poles. Peter Stanton Davies who has helped many times to date unmarked photographs from poles and TV aerials, tells me:-

“These trunk routes were the arteries connecting towns and cities”. 

We seem to have had lines running South along both
Styal Road and Wilmslow Road.

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Fig. 2b Cunningham Drive (then Styal Road), c 1930
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Fig. 2c Finney Lane - many arms means many landlines in Heald Green, date tbd (1930-1960)
© Graham Gill
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Fig. 2e Telegraph Pole and Bell's Telephone Kiosk, 1930s
from "Heald Green In Wartime" by Joan Heinekey
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The first wave of housing expansion between the wars, and the need for phone lines in World War II e.g. Local Defence Volunteer Posts and the myriad Maintenance Units, fuelled growth in the expansion of telephony.  In her book "Heald Green in Wartime", Joan Heinekey describes the lack of telephones and other resources at the time:-

"Mr. A Wildig, then of Rose Vale said, 'The day war broke out he and Mr. Bert Hare went down to the Institute to enroll [in the LDV]'. They were sent to the UDC offices in Cheadle and there the volunteers were assigned their sections and sent back. His section was the First Aid Group,
Heald Green. They had neither uniforms nor even training but they did have an ambulance and a driver...the first night they met at Mr. Rogerson's garage, but that was not suitable so they went to Mr. Horsefield's house (pulled down for Mallard Court). Finally the main depot was situated at the disused Tea Rooms, a small building at the side of Heald Green Hotel. They did not have a telephone so Mr. Townsend, the landlord, or his son had to relay messages to them."

"Seven Observation Posts were chosen...[equipment] was begged, borrowed or bought out of their own pockets...even telephone links were added.  Cheadle Company used
Bradshaw Hall Farm, the stables at Bruntwood and Highfield House...and Abney Hall. "C" Group of Gatley and Heald Green men used The Firs, a large empty house on Styal Road. The W.V.S. provided meals and they also had a group of lady volunteers who typed and answered telephone calls and even teenage cyclists to carry their messages." 
 

Of course, not all households could afford their own phone.  Most people would use public call boxes.  This picture taken near the railway station in 1947 shows a phone box on the right ; two phone boxes can be seen in the same location behind the Rose Queen fete parade, probably taken in the 1950s.
 

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Fig. 2f Phone box on Finney Lane , 1947/8
© Ratepayers' Association
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Fig. 2g Phone boxes near Cardwell's and Burgon's. 1950s
© St. Catherine's Church Archive
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Strowger Exchanges

From the 1910s in the UK, electro-mechanical systems began to replace the need for switchboard operators for local calls. There were differing versions but the Manchester area (and Heald Green’s Mercury Exchange) ultimately adopted the American Strowger system   .

This film, shows how typical electro-mechanical solutions work.

A
1970s video (made for engineers in Australia), shows Strowger equipment, similar to that which would have been used in Heald Green's exchange.
 

Heald Green's Mercury Exchange

Details about the composition of local exchanges is sketchy. Graham Whiteside explains:- 

“A lot of the information about any telephone exchange is not usually in the public domain due to the fact that it is not in the national interest to publicise what the exchange actually does. In fact the actual location of these buildings was classified information for a long time, some didn't even appear on maps. Most didn't have any outward signs on the building so they would look as innocuous as possible. Nowadays they are easy enough to find, most are listed on the internet for anybody to see.”

Helen Morgan found two articles in the Manchester Evening News from December 1951 stating that “work on the exchange at
Finney Lane, Heald Green is expected to start next year [1952]. It will serve parts of Wythenshawe, Gatley, Ringway and Wilmslow” and a second article saying “it will not be completed before 1956”.

Pictures show the area next to the railway line as vacant (1934) and by 1961 show the exchange buildings. So the best we can say is that the building was completed some time in the latter half of the 1950s.

 

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Fig. 3a Vacant field north of Finney Lane
by railway cutting , 1934 (prior to Heald Green Hotel)

 © Oldmaps.co.uk (no longer available)
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Fig. 3b By their 1961 map. the telephone exchange is visible (house numbers changed - e.g. 156 became 268)
 © Oldmaps.co.uk (no longer available)
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Fig. 3c The original telephone exchange, 1959
 © Stockport From Above
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It’s also not clear which exchange worked our phones, prior to the building of the Mercury exchange.  Our telephony historians paint a complex picture of the connection between exchanges.  Ged Pilling’s father-in-law who worked for BT said the Heald Green exchange was an offshoot of Ballbrook exchange in Didsbury, itself linked to the airport and to Manchester exchanges, but also that:- 

“The [airport] teleprinters went through Mercury. If a repair had to be done, it went through Mercury.”

Graham Whiteside reckons:-

“Mercury was built to service the airport, prior to that Heald Green would have been fed from Ringway. Ringway is only a small exchange and it wouldn't have the capacity to service the airport expansion. It was simpler to build a new exchange. At the time there was a 20 year plan for buildings, so  Mercury was built to last at least 20 years. What has happened since is that the the equipment inside a telephone exchange has become much smaller as electronics took over, and now of course microprocessors do the call routing, so the building originally scaled for electro mechanical Strowger equipment, will last much longer.” 

Telephone exchanges clearly don’t follow a simple hierarchy, or their configuration changed over time.

How did the name come about? Graham again.

“Each exchange has a location code which used to be based on the letters around the old telephone dial, usually three letters. Due to Mercury’s relatively late construction HEA was already in use for Heaton Moor and CHE was used for Cheetham Hill (Ed: Cheadle was part of the GATley exchange before you ask). The abbreviation MER for Mercury was chosen for Heald Green as Hg is both the chemical symbol for Mercury and an abbreviation of Heald Green."

 

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Fig. 3d Rotary Dial Phone, 1960s. 
 © Flickr
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Fig. 3e Manchester Area Codes, 1965
© wikipedia
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“Hi, my dad Alf Holbrook, worked at Mercury exchange shortly after it was built in 1958. We moved into Newbury Road off Outwood the year the estate was built (end of 1957) and he transferred from Stockport exchange... Mercury was built because Gatley exchange was at capacity hence shared party lines. When it came online my dad got 6666 as our home line so we were Mercury- double 6-double 6! In 1966 it changed to all number dialling. At that time the exchange was full of analogue switching circuits with banks of relays from floor to ceiling."
- Mark Alexander, Facebook, 2022

“We moved to Outwood Rd in 1966 and the first phone number I remember was Mercury 4215."
- Michael Clarke, Facebook, 2022

In Roman mythology, Mercury was the messenger of the Gods.  The association between Heald Green and the Mercury name continues today through the Ratepayers’ use of the figure of Mercury as their logo, and in the name of our village frog!

Graham again:-

“Incidentally BT regretted using the name in the 1980's when their first rival chose the name Mercury Communications. Mercury Communications was eventually bought out by the American company Cable and Wireless, but the name lives on in the music world as the
Mercury prize, which is probably snappier then the Cable and Wireless prize.”
 

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Fig. 3f Ratepayers' logo, 2021
© Ratepayers' Association
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Fig. 3g Mercury the Frog, 2021
© Ratepayers' Association
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“They are all autonomous these days, people only visit to repair. There were very few stationed there even back in the late 50s/60s, when it opened. 

In 1966, permutations of numbers were running out so All Figure Numbering was introduced – and Manchester was allocated 061 (the 6 corresponding to the position of M on the dial)."


Original numbers for an area were usually determined from the first three letters selected for the exchange e.g. 428 for GATley. But did anyone have 637 as MER would strictly translate? I don't remember that! Heald Green was allocated 437, and other numbers beginning 4xx, presumably to try and group us with others in South Manchester. This system of allocating numbers based on area; an STD code (like 061 for Manchester) and a local area code, lasted into the 1990s but was not maintained in the mobile era.
 

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“We moved to Heald Green in 1969 and our number began 437. My father in law worked at the exchange installing, servicing and repairing teleprinters in the area covered by the Exchange."
- Ged Pilling, Facebook, 2022

1970s and Beyond

Some time in the 1970s,  a new building was added at the back of the exchange, and an extra floor added.
 

“When the first jumbo jet landed at Ringway [Aug 1970], I was on the roof of the [then two-storey, old] exchange for a better view as it was near the flight path. The surrounding roads were choked with traffic... The front bit was the only bit there in 1970 - the back bit didn't come till some time later."
- Mark Alexander, Facebook, 2022

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Fig. 4a A lorry crashed into the station approach in 1979. No-one was hurt.  We can see the exchange extension to the rear
© Ratepayers' Association
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Fig. 4b The rear of the telephone exchange as seen across fields from Brown Lane, 2021
© Colin Barnsley
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Telephone boxes were still common across Heald Green in the 1970s - do you remember where your nearest one was? I remember one near Branfield / Bradgate Ave.

“I remember the call box on the corner of Outwood Road."
- Carl Roe, Facebook, 2021

With increasing automation and affluence, the price of calls began to fall and more people were able to afford a phone of their own at home.  I remember getting one when we moved to Heald Green in 1971, a so-called party line which we shared with a neighbour.  You had to press a rectangular button on top after you picked up the receiver ; if your neighbour was already on the line you couldn’t make your call, you had to wait.  As prices fell further we got our own, dedicated line.
 

“I remember the party lines..quite funny at times."
- Joan Sharp, Facebook, 2021

“Yes, interrupted many of my neighbour’s phone calls trying to dial out. If you kept quiet you could listen in on their call, though! "
- Colin Barnsley, Facebook, 2021

Most people from my generation remember their childhood housheold telephone number.
 

“It's weird because I do not know anyone's mobile numbers, including my own children’s."
- Po Hutton, Facebook, 2021

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Fig. 4c Typical push-botton phone 1990s
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Fig. 4d From pagers through bulky "brick" mobiles to smartphones, 1980s-2000s
© dyej.weebly.com
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With ongoing developments in transistors and then silicon chips, telephones could shrink or offer new functions.  Push-button dialling became possible (though the handset still generated the pulses to send down the tethered land line), and then we had multiple wireless handsets in the house (which linked back to a base unit still tethered to the landline).

By 1990 London was running out of numbers again, and they split into 071 and 081. In 1995 Manchester’s prefix became 0161 (and in London, 0171 and 0181)

Only once we reached the late 1990s did mobile phones start to become realistically affordable to businesses and eventually individuals.  The dominance of the land line system began to fade.  Some equipment related to mobiles is still placed in exchanges, so Mercury is likely to remain for some time yet.

In describing our relationship to the Manchester exchanges, Ged's explanations harked back to our earlier comments about secrecy:-

"The main telephone exchange was Dial House that covered the whole of Manchester ; also Church St and York Street. Didsbury Exchange was linked to Dial House, and Mercury was an offshoot of that.

York Street was the secret exchange [in] tunnels underneath, ready for nuclear attack; the government could be put there.”


From the late 1990s I worked for Vertex (privatised IT arm of Norweb), from offices in Dickinson St. There was an underground fire [in 2004] which took out our phones for a few days.

Ged commented,  "There was a fire at the entrance near to Oxford Street the tunnels went to Newton Street. The men on nights had bunks down there."  

More information on the underground exchange can be found here, and on the fire, here.

As for the future; the old copper wire network is planned to be turned off by 2025.  You can still have a landline if you wish, but the connection will in future be provided via a broadband link. Telegraph poles are still used as a means of getting the fibre optics in to older homes – but on new estates they come in underground, so gradually even telegraph poles will be phased out.

Hold on to your handsets - they may belong in a museum some day!
 

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Fig. 14 Mercury Telephone Exchange, 2021
© Colin Barnsley
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