Modest beginnings

The early history of Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd from its beginnings in 1883.

Standard Telephones and Cables began in 1883 as a small branch office of Western Electric, a subsidiary of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T). Western Electric’s head office was in Chicago and it had established Europe’s first factory for telephone apparatus, Bell Telephones, in Antwerp in 1882. The company’s first London office opened in Moorgate with the aim of pursuing the international sale of telephones and associated apparatus. The National Telephone Company, which was licensed by the Post Office to provide a telephone service, was Western Electric’s largest customer.

In 1898 Western Electric took over the ailing Fowler Waring Cable Company based in North Woolwich in East London and used the site to produce cables and loading coils. The latter allowed an increase in the distance over which clear and audible telephone calls could be transmitted. Unfortunately a large fire partially destroyed the North Woolwich site just the following year. Although estimates for rebuilding the factory were very high the business prospects for telephony were so promising that the parent company provided the necessary funds and a new cable plant opened in North Woolwich in 1904.

 “The Woolwich factory was a hugger mugger of buildings of varying levels of floors and basements. There were numerous dark and labyrinthine corridors and corners, in which it was easy to loose one’s way. Rumour has it that an occasional innocent visitor would be lost for days in these entrails, and only rescued when despairing cries for help were heard above the clatter of the stranding machines.”

John Eve, former editor of STC News, in the centenary souvenir edition of STC News 1983 (NAEST 211/1/6/11)

A telephone instruments factory was added to the Woolwich site in 1906 and by 1908 the factory had stopped importing parts from Antwerp and made its own complete telephone switchboards. Installation and engineering departments were established and the number of employees grew to almost 1000 by the end of the decade. At this time America was still the source of most technical telephony developments and acceptance of the telephone in England spread relatively slowly by comparison.

In 1912 the Post Office took over the operation of telephones from private companies, and became STC’s best customer.

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Top image: fire damage at part of the North Woolwich factory, July 1899 (NAEST 211/2/5/5 B.6075)

Bottom image: a Western Electric cable crew, c1914 (NAEST 211/2/27/3)

Black and white photograph of fire damage at the STC North Woolwich factory, July 1899 (NAEST 211/2/5/5 B.6075)  

Black and white photograph of a Western Electric cable crew, c1914 (NAEST 211/2/27/3)