Thursday, 29 September 2005

Ringing up profit - antique telephones make a fascinating collection

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Tele 16

It's been a while since I mentioned the young apprentices, largely because they've virtually flown the nest. However, thanks to the wonders of computer technology, they remain in touch.

Given the right gizmos, it's possible to phone them wherever they are in the world and it never ceases to amaze me that I can speak to them for hours entirely for free.

The fact was not lost on the suits behind that great car boot sale in the ether that is eBay. They recently snapped up the company I use to make those calls which goes by the unlikely name of Skype.

The price? A gigantic $2.6 billion (yes, billion) in a mixture of cash and shares. Bonus payments of a further $1.5 billion will be made if Skype hits certain targets.

Auction industry commentators are now in overdrive trying to work out eBay's strategy. Whatever it may be, it's probably safe to assume part of the gameplan is to allow buyers and sellers to talk to each other directly and so increase sales.

All this would have been science fiction when the telephones illustrated here were in use and I mention the fact purely to illustrate that "antiques" get younger every day. It's presumably only a matter of time before collecting old computers becomes mainstream.

Collecting vintage and veteran telephones is already a well established hobby, as an auction sale next week will prove.

On offer will be one man's lifetime collection and nationwide, if not worldwide, interest is expected from collectors eager to add that elusive model number, maker or innovative design to their own collections.

Jim Walsh caught the collecting bug as a seven-year-old. His father was a switchboard operator at Liverpool's old Lancaster House telephone exchange in Tithebarn Street and Jim would go to meet him from work just to see the collection of the old phones displayed in glass cabinets there.

When staff got to hear of Jim's fascination, they ended up giving him one of the phones to take home.

Over the next 50 years Jim built up a collection that traces the history of telecommunications from the late 1800s to the present day. It was so comprehensive, it filled an entire room at Jim's home in Wallasey.

Tragically in January this year Jim, who ran a sub-Post Office in the Meadows, Maghull, died from a brain tumour at the age of 57, and now the collection is to be sold.
The Jim Walsh Collection of vintage and veteran telephones will be sold as part of the antique and collectors' sale at Liverpool fine art auctioneers Outhwaite & Litherland next Wednesday (October 5). Viewing is on Monday from 9:15 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and on Tuesday until 6:30 p.m. The saleroom is situated at the Kingsway Galleries, Fontenoy Street, Liverpool. For further information, telephone 0151 236 6561.
Liverpool-born Eddie Birch is a walking encyclopaedia on all telephones. For 10 years he was the curator of British Telecom's phones museum in Oxford and was one of Jim's close friends.

Now retired and living in Cheshire, he helped to catalogue the collection following Jim's death and said the sale presented a unique opportunity for anyone interested in collecting old telephones.

On offer is the least one example of every GPO phone in use from 1900, together with a number of instruments from phone networks from around the world.

It was unlikely such a large and thoughtfully assembled collection would ever come onto the market again and there were instruments to suit all pockets, from £10-20 for a basic 1950s black office phone to the high hundreds for rare, early and exotic phones from this country and abroad.

Among the most valuable in the sale is a pre-1912 Ericsson wall phone which is likely to fetch £500 or more, as are a Post Office telephone No. 1 phone, a Tele 16 wall phone from 1895 and a circa 1882 desk phone.

The Tele 16 is among the most interesting in the collection and certainly one of most decorative. Eddie Birch described it as looking something like a sewing machine.

It was made in the mid-1890s by the Swedish company Ericsson and supplied in the UK through the National Telephone Co.

When that firm was nationalised in 1912, becoming part of the GPO, newly-manufactured telephones became much more utilitarian and all the superfluous decoration was dropped.

Existing Tele 16 phones were called back from subscribers and refurbished, again with all decoration removed.

The phone is the first to have been designed and built for use on a desktop, being the first to have both earpiece and transmitter in the handset. Prior to that they were intended as a wall phone.

It was also the first phone that didn't require a battery, the internal generator taking his power from two horseshoe-shaped magnets in the legs of the phone.

Built in Sweden with typical Victorian quality, they are also interesting for the fact that they have a hologram visible in the layers of varnish on the case.

Fortuitously, Jim managed to get his hands on an example that had not been refurbished and it is this phone that is likely to excite bidders most.

Such treasures represent the holy grail for collectors demanding only the best in perfect unmodified condition, which was the hallmark of Jim's collection.

You're wanted on the blower

A pre-First World War so-called butler phone is another rarity. In the early days, a large household with servants' quarters would be fitted with speaking tubes so that maid or butler could be summoned when required.

As Eddie Birch explained, the expression "You're wanted on the blower" dates from this era when the user would blow down the tube in order to sound a whistle of the other end and call attention.

As technology developed, these old-fashioned phones were replaced by electricity companies who supplied intercoms by feeding a wire up the lead tubes and installing a microphone in each end, this in the days when plumbers were also electricians.

A similar fate fell to the old bell push, which was replaced with a wooden box containing a microphone and speaker.

This avoided servants making a double journey, first to answer the bell and second to deliver the service. Today such phones change hands for between £20-80.

Jim's collection will also satisfy those collectors who collect by category. Jim's favourite phone was the candlestick model and there are at least six, all made from Bakelite but all of them slightly different to each other.

Some collect only Bakelite, others only plastic. Jim collected anything connected with phones so long as he liked it. He collected with knowledge, buying at the right time when prices were the most affordable.

Not everyone wants a full-size switchboard or an old renter's box with A and B buttons that were fitted in shops or gentlemen's clubs, but Jim had both, the latter likely to sell for around £400.

I confess to having a soft spot for old telephones myself and I own three. After speaking to Eddie Birch, though, I discovered I had committed the cardinal sin of having two of them converted for use in today's high-tech phones network.

The exception is my 1970s Trimphone, which is untouched, basically because I haven't had chance to tinker with it.

Eddie Birch asked me if I knew how I got its name. I didn't, but the answer is as follows. The phone, piloted by the GPO in 1964, was the first without a bell. Instead, it had a tone ringer.

The first examples also had illuminated dials. The trim of Trimphone stands for tone ringer illuminated model -- simple.

The early example in Jim's collection is worth around £30.

Pictures show, top: A tele 16 desk phone - they look more like a sewing machine. It's worth £300-500

Below, left to right: Top lots - back, a Tele 16 desk phone, circa 1895, estimate £300-500; a circa 1882 desk phone estimate £300-500 and a pre-First World War Swedish partners’ phone estimate £200. Front, two desirable ivory-coloured phones, each estimate £200-250

Back: The sale also includes a number of telephone-related enamel signs such as this one worth £80-120. Front, left to right: An NTC Sterling phone estimate around £200; a pre-First World War 25 line Ericsson internal phone (£150-200) and a wooden internal phone (£50-100)

More modern phones are also collectable. Left to right, a red Ericsson IM phone with the dial in the base (£40-60); a two-tone green Trimphone (£20-30); a clear 746 model phone (£150-200); a cream Trimphone and a Mybelle Spotlight clear phone (£30-50). The miniature red phone box in the background is estimated at £40-60

Press Button B for your money back … this old phone box is worth £300-400

A Post Office No 1 wall phone estimate £300-500

026coll 05 028034029038



Anonymous Eddie Birch said...

I Must kick things off. There are only a couple of minor errors but nothing to worry about. The "Candlestick" telephones were made of metal, some had Bakelite parts.

26 May 2009 at 14:20  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Thanks Eddie. Let meknow of any other errors.

26 May 2009 at 15:09  
Anonymous Bakelite Gal said...

Hi, any chance you could add my blog on Bakelite Telephones to your blogroll ? Many thanks

5 August 2012 at 02:29  
Anonymous Christopher Proudlove said...

Sure. Care to write a guest post?

6 August 2012 at 10:34  

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