5 Chapel Street | Rectory Lane Cemetery, Berkhamsted

Rectory Lane Cemetery, Berkhamsted

5 Chapel Street

5 Chapel Street
5 Chapel Street, Berkhamsted

The late 19th century was an age of great innovation, and one of the most significant the inventions of the period was the development of telecommunications. The Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell patented his “acoustic telegraph” in 1875, and gradually the device known as the “telephone” began to be adopted as a popular means of communication.

In 1898 the National Telephone Company (NTC) connected Berkhamsted to its national telephone system, and new technology arrived in town. The first telephone exchange in the town was set up in the front room of a house at No.5 Chapel Street. A young couple from London who had family roots in the area, Catherine and William Partridge, moved to Berkhamsted, and William took the job as caretaker at the new Chapel Street telephone exchange.

This cosy domestic setting created quite a spectacle for a small town unaccustomed to technological marvels, and passers-by could look through the front room window to see this amazing new technology in operation. Local historian Percy Birtchnell (1910–1986) recalled seeing Mrs Partridge in operation through her front window on his way to and from Chapel Street Infants School.

In the early days, few people could afford a telephone at home; by 1906, there were still only 46 telephone numbers listed in the Berkhamsted and Tring district.

Unfortunately, William Partridge died in 1908 at the relatively young age of 53. Catherine took over his job as caretaker of the telephone exchange and remained in this post as telephone operator for 28 years.

By modern standards, early telephone exchanges seem like low-tech, rather “Heath-Robinson” affairs. They consisted of a manually operated plug board containing banks of small round sockets. The operator (almost invariably a woman) would connect calls by plugging jacks into these sockets (not unlike modern headphone jacks, although these are now being supplanted by Bluetooth technology). A person calling from home would lift the telephone receiver, and this would cause a signal lamp near the jack to light up. The operator would plug into this line and ask the caller, “Number, please?”, and then plug the other end of the cable into the correct socket for a local call. For long-distance calls, she would have to plug into a trunk circuit to connect to another operator, and request the number. This process could take up to 15 minutes.

Despite the inefficiencies of early telephone systems, they enabled a level of rapid communication that had never been experienced before. People who once relied on daily newspapers to learn of world events could now receive important news in minutes. In 1918, Catherine Partridge was the first person to bring news to the town about the 11 November Armistice that formally ended World War I. She received the news via the telephone, and the first person she told was a soldier who was home on leave from France, and who just happened to be in the telephone office at the time. Catherine had lost a son the previous year, John Stanners Partridge, who had been killed in action in France, and so this news must have been especially poignant for her.

The National Telephone Company was absorbed into the General Post Office (GPO) in 1912. Catherine Partridge continued as the town telephone operator until her death in 1926. She had become quite a well respected local figure, and from her position presumably knew quite a lot about town happenings. Eventually, technology evolved and as telephone networks converted to direct-dialling systems from the 1950s onwards, operator telephone exchanges of this type became redundant. Today, 5 Chapel Street is once again an ordinary private house, but it hides a fascinating history of technological advancement.


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