British Insulated and Helsby
Few collectors will have heard of this
British company, but they were involved in telephones and cable manufacture from
the earliest days, and they played a big part in the development of the Australian
In 1884 J and G Crosland Taylor founded the Telegraph
Manufacturing Company in Helsby in England. They made batteries, insulated wire
and telegraph equipment. Within four years their lack of business experience was
showing, and an inept manager was driving them into trouble. A new manager and
a diversification into golf balls (made from gutta-percha, as used in their insulated
wire) got the company out of trouble, but they found it hard to attract skilled
staff to the quiet town of Helsby. In 1892 they moved much of the plant to a factory
in Liverpool. Further diversification followed. They produced a range of products
including bike tyres, and gained a large contract with the National Telephone
Company for telephone wire and 26-pair cable. This established them in the cable
In 1902 they amalgamated with the British Insulated Wire Company of Prescot, in
Lancashire. British Insulated started in 1890 and had built up a good market for
insulated telephone, telegraph and electrical wiring. In 1899 they provided a
submarine cable to run under Sydney Harbour. The amalgamation was a good move
for both companies. British Insulated had the British and colonial patents for
the new paper-insulated dry core cables and a large factory in Prescot to make
it. TMC had a good range of telephone technology, which was a fast growing area,
and many contracts for telephone cable. The new company became British Insulated
and Helsby Cables Ltd .
In 1903 BI&H built a new factory in Edge Lane, an outer suburb of Liverpool.
The factory was badly needed, as the existing factories could not keep up
with the demand. Business was growing rapidly and telephone exchange equipment
was being exported to, among other cities, Fremantle in Western Australia.
The two phones listed in the Australian Post Office 1914 manual were possibly
from this installation. They also exported large amounts of wire and insulators
to the developing Australian railways. They seem to be well-known in Western
BI&H was now building CB telephone
exchanges as well as phones. Their CB switchboards were quite successful, and
they equipped some large British cities with trunk exchanges for the British Post
Office. The design followed Western Electric practice but was based on a version
invented by J S Stone in the United States that had proved popular with the independent
telephone companies (and avoided the Western Electric patents).
information on BI&H phones is scarce and ambiguous, some trends are emerging
as collectors forward information. Rather than build their own phones completely,
they seem to have bought in Western Electric phones and parts initially. A typical
early phone will be standard Western Electric, but will carry at least one branded
BI&H part as well as BIH circuit diagrams inside the case and bellbox. They
started producing their own designs before the First World War, following the
move to Edge Lane. The production dates of the WE phones are well known, so this
gives us approximate dates for the BIH models.
Poole (1912) lists three examples of their CB phones. Some of these appear
to use unbranded Ericsson transmitters fitted to an unusual radial arm
whose purpose was to accommodate to the different heights of the
persons using it. This could have been a useful feature in the days
when the transmitters were less sensitive, but other companies managed to
do without it The desk set has an extendable handset shaft so as
to accommodate the face length of any individual. These phones are
pictured on the next page.
Jim Batemans book History
of the Telephone in New South Wales shows another and probably earlier design.
It is a three box wall phone similar to a Western Electric pattern but fitted
with an Ericsson receiver and a Manchester Shot transmitter in place of the usual
Post Office listed two BI&H phones in a 1914 technicians
manual. One was a magneto wall phone with dual receivers. This is probably
the twin box model shown on the next page. These phones date from about 1886
to the early 1890s when the Solid Back transmitter was introduced. The other,
from the circuit diagram shown in the manual, was a CB candlestick style (see
next page). The circuit diagram shows provision for a second receiver. The
phone appears to be a rebadged Ericsson model. The picture is from Bob Freshwaters
website (see Bibliography at the end of this chapter). Previous BIH candlestick
phones were WE-based, but I am not aware of any WE candlesticks being fitted
with a second receiver. In spite of this, the only candlestick known in Australia
(so far) is a WE model, so maybe the APO manual has the incorrect circuit
diagram from the later Ericsson model. By 1914 the APO had replaced many phones
inherited from the old state telephone administrations, so the BI&H phones
must have been reliable for the APO to retain them. In spite of this, they
appear to be almost unknown to collectors. The APO also listed BI&H switchboards.
By 1914 BI&H was building CB wallphones to the now standard BPO pattern
and these were listed in the APOs 1914 handbook as Telephone No. 17. Although
BIH's catalogue picture shows an Ericsson transmitter, it would more likely have
been fitted with a Solid Back transmitter by this time, as per British Post Office
practice. A similar magneto model was also made. Other companies made the same
phone and only the numbers stamped into the back woodwork would identify it as
The next page shows BI&Hs Pantophone.
This was a phonopore-type telephone for use on railway telegraph lines. Note that
they used an Ericsson transmitter for the "ring" signal. Like most other
companies they also produced a small range of intercom phones.
White City Exposition in 1908 one of the new American automatic telephone exchanges
was demonstrated, probably by Strowgers company Automatic Electric. It was
a refined operation, rather than the clumsy early versions. The phones used the
familiar ten-digit dial instead of the early Knuckleduster eleven-hole
dial. The exchanges ran reliably on a two-wire subscriber circuit, which provided
automatic ringing and busy tone. The new manager of BI&H, Mr Dane Sinclair,
could see that this was the way of the future. He had actually patented an automatic
switchboard in Britain in 1883 and he was well-placed to judge the efficiency of
the Strowger design. He had been Engineer-in-Chief of the National Telephone Company,
giving him experience of the competing Gilliland, Betulander and Lorimer systems
and he knew their deficiencies. He urged the company to get the British rights
to the Strowger system.
The Board agreed, and set up a new company to build the equipment the
Automatic Telephone Manufacturing Company. They acquired the rights in 1911.
Although they were supposed to be a separate company to BI&H, the Post
Office allocated them the manufacturer code of H (for Helsby).
The old company, BI&H, now concentrated on cables. The first British-built
Automatic Telephone Manufacturing exchange was assembled from imported parts
and installed at Epsom, and the company took over the Edge Lane factory from
its parent. They began making their own equipment in 1912. This gave ATM a
head start on other potential manufacturers like Ericsson and Western Electric.
ATM began producing modified and reengineered versions of the Strowger equipment
and was soon building a strongly British product. This was exported to Britains
colonial markets as well. It also marked the end of BI&H as CB telephone
manufacturers. The British Post Office had decided on a small range of standardized
phones to their own designs and the BI&H phones were dropped. BI&H
briefly produced a CB wall phone for the BPO, but it soon became evident that
there was no point in them producing anything but automatic phones. The original
company became British Insulated Cables in 1925 to reflect their new emphasis.
During World War 1 the Australian Government found that they had no
local manufacturer of electrical wire, a vital military supply. They arranged
a joint manufacturing deal between BI&H and local investors. The new Australian
company was called Metal Manufactures Limited. Their factory was at Port Kembla,
south of Sydney, where they produced copper rod for drawing into wire. By 1923
they were producing 3000 tonnes of copper rod per year, and they were diversifying
into copper tube as well. They absorbed another local company, Austral Bronze
Co. Ltd., who produced rolled brass and copper sheet.
During World War
2 the strategic value of these companies was realised by the Government, but it
turned out that Australia still did not have a local manufacturer of insulated
cables. A new consortium of Metal Manufactures, Olympic Tyres, and, once again,
British Insulated was formed. It was called Cablemakers Australia Pty Ltd. Following
another amalgamation in 1945 British Insulated became British Insulated &
Callenders Cables, and was for a time the worlds biggest cable manufacturer.
BI&C eventually became part of the Marconi group of British companies,
and it is interesting to note that Marconi appropriated the companys previous
history as its own. On its website under the heading Marconi Celebrates
a Century of Switching Innovation in Liverpool, (December 4 2003), they
modestly claimed Known as British Insulated and Helsby Cables, Marconi began
manufacturing manual telephone exchanges in Liverpool in December 1903.
To the victor goes the right to rewrite history, but Marconi fell in its turn
too. See the chapter on the General Electric Company for details.
original TMC factory in Helsby was finally closed in 2002.
This article is based on a detailed history of the company published in 1989
by Andrew Emmerson and available at http://strowger-net.telefoonmuseum.com/.
Further information is from
Poole J The Practical Telephone Handbook London 1904
Commonwealth of Australia Technicians Handbook Connections of Telephonic
Apparatus and Circuits 1914
Bateman J The History of the Telephone in New South Wales
Liverpool National Museums Archives Dept.. Information Sheet 63,
Celebrates a Century of Switching Innovation in Liverpool
University of Melbourne Technology in Australia 1788-1988
Girl-less, Cuss-less Telephone Website article
and photos kindly supplied by Ric Havyatt and Brian O"Donnell.
Typical B.I. & H. Telephones
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