The prestigious Brown’s Hotel on Albemarle Street, Mayfair claims to have been the site of London’s (and Britain’s) first telephone call, made during Alexander Graham Bell’s visit from Boston in 1877. The story goes that Bell, desperate to test his invention out before presenting it to potential funders, needed access to a telegraph wire in private hands. Such wires were in short supply, with The Times estimating only 1,700 existed in London by 1874.
The then-owners of Brown’s Hotel, a James John Ford and his son Henry, were in possession of just such a wire – spanning the seven kilometres from Brown’s Hotel to their family home in Ravenscourt Park.
According to the hotel’s official history, published in 1968, Bell arrived at the hotel, carrying a ‘large handbag’ full of futuristic paraphernalia, and attempted to make the call from the hotel’s front desk. As the messages carried by neighbouring wires interfered with the signal, Bell resolved to try again in the small hours of the morning. The attempt was successful, and – so the story goes – the first telephone call in the city was made, from Mayfair to Ravenscourt Park.
The story has certainly become an intrinsic part of London lore – and the hotel to this day honours Bell’s legacy with the Alexander Graham Bell Room, pictured below, with its antique telephone and a condensed history of long-distance communication.
And Bell isn’t the only famous patron of Brown’s Hotel. The place can trace its origins back to the year of Queen Victoria’s accession in 1837, and the James and Sarah Brown who founded the hotel, were manservant and lady’s maid respectively to Lord and Lady Byron (who went so far as to help the Browns’ raise the money to purchase the land). The hotel has since been used as a home for exiled monarchs, and served as the London address of President Theodore Roosevelt. It was also a favoured haunt of both Rudyard Kipling and Agatha Christie.
Now, London is a city full of great stories. And inevitably, it’s sometimes hard to telephone. Sorry, that should be, sometimes it’s hard to tell a phony. While there’s no reason to believe London’s first call wasn’t made from Brown’s Hotel, sadly no contemporary records survive, and Bell’s notebooks from the period make no mention of what would doubtless have been a memorable incident.
So until this tantalising anecdote can be verified, here’s a list of London locations we know for certain were affiliated with Bell’s trip to London.
115 Jermyn Street
Mabel and Alexander Bell’s first residence in London on what was ostensibly their honeymoon, but would turn out to be a frenetic business trip for the celebrated inventor. In what was to be a recurring theme of his wife’s letters home, it was here that Mabel first observed how Alec’s expanding girth made it difficult for him to get his wedding trousers on. By written evidence alone we know they literally burst open at least three times – not always at the most convenient of moments.
Society of Telegraph Engineers
A scientific body reliant on the generosity of others for rooms in which to hold its meetings, the STE was eventually incorporated into what is now the Institution of Engineering and Technology in Savoy Place.
On the evening of 31 October 1877, Bell was invited to address this august institution at the Institute of Civil Engineers in Westminster. The honour thrilled him to such a degree that he stayed up late that night to tell his parents all about it – by letter, of course. He wrote: “The hall was crammed and numbers were turned away. I am told that all the principal scientific men of London were present.” Bell, ever the technologist, used a limelight projector to show off 50 views of his machinery.
8 John Adam Street
What is now the Royal Society of Arts was, at the time of Bell’s stay in London, the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. It was in this imposing building that Bell gave another hotly-anticipated demonstration of the telephone on 28 November 1877. According to The Times, “If any proof were wanting of the universal interest this remarkable instrument is exciting, it was shown by an assembly of the members which not only filled the hall and staircases of the building, but overflowed into the street outside.”
On this occasion, we know that Bell spoke to telephones located in other rooms within the building, as well as ones in a hotel on the other side of the street and in the Society’s printing room in Fleet Street.
One of Bell’s most spectacular telephonic tests took place underwater, when he put on a diver’s helmet and demonstrated that a conversation could be held from beneath the surface of the Thames.
Let’s take a moment to remember that at this time the Thames was not a pleasant body of water in which to take a dip. A mere 21 years earlier, the rising tide of effluent and raw sewage coursing through London had led to the so-called ‘Great Stink’ that shut down the Houses of Parliament. The Thames Embankment had greatly improved matters, but the river would still have run murky with industrial outflows and pollution from river boats. It was a brave man who was willing to immerse himself. The story is given in more detail in Bell and the Conquest of Solitude.
57 West Cromwell Road
It was here, in what Mrs Bell referred to as “The less aristocratic end of Cromwell Road” that the Bells moved on 30 November 1877, renting a 17-room house for £225 a year.
Coming after short stints at the dingy Half-Moon Street and rooms at the Alexandra Hotel, the move provided the Bells with a certain degree of stability. No sooner had they moved in, however, than Bell was due to lecture at the Physical Science School in the nearby South Kensington Museum. With far too much else preying on his mind, this demonstration was not a success. His wife wrote home: “Alec says the lecture was a complete failure as he was tired out before he began and feeling faint and ill. The lecture began at three and he was sick all the afternoon but felt better in the evening.”
According to a letter dated 10 December 1877, Dr Bell kept a room at the Buckingham Palace Hotel to plan what would be his most prestigious demonstration yet. With the help of his friend Kate Field, an American journalist who served as the equivalent of his PR agent during his time in Europe, he managed to obtain an audience with Queen Victoria at her home on the Isle of Wight in early 1878. The Queen was so impressed by what she saw that she immediately commissioned Bell to make a pair of telephones for her own personal use – an order he was quick to carry out.
115 Cannon Street
The question as to who really invented the telephone remains one of the most vexing in the history of intellectual property law. Bell’s rival Elisha Gray had a strong claim to precedence, and numerous other inventors around the world were hot on their heels.
Bell experienced a fair amount of abuse during his time in London, especially from disgruntled engineers who felt Bell was unfairly establishing a monopoly. 115 Cannon Street was the address Bell gave to The Times when he wrote in to defend his patent on July 17 1878. Although some sources claim that Bell made the UK’s first long-distance telephone call from this address, no evidence exists to back this up — although there are press accounts of a short call made from here to nearby Cheapside (The Era, 20 January 1878).
By Gilead Amit