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BRITISH INSULATED AND HELSBY LTD


by Bob Estreich



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 cable industry.

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 and an inept manager were 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.

In 1902 they amalgamated with the British Insulated Wire Company of Prescott, 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 Prescott 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.

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).

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Although information on BI&H phones is scarce and ambiguous, 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". See Figs. 2 and 3. This was a useful feature in the days when the transmitters were less sensitive. The desk set has an extendable handset shaft "so as to accommodate the face length of any individual". See Fig 1.

Jim Bateman's book 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 Blake transmitter (Fig 5). This was a common conversion at the time, especially with the National Telephone Company, so the BI&H workshops may have been doing maintenance work for National as well as producing their own phones. Fig 11 shows another of their WE-style phones with the larger battery box for long lines.

The Australian PMG Department listed two BI&H phones in a 1914 manual. One was a CB wall phone with dual receivers. This is probably the Western Electric-based model shown in Fig 6. The other, from the circuit diagram shown in the manual, was a CB candlestick style. (Figs 4a and 4b). The phone appears to be a rebadged Ericsson model. The picture is from Bob Freshwater's website. By 1914 the PMG had replaced many phones inherited from the old state telephone administrations, so the BI&H phones must have been fairly reliable for the PMG to retain them. In spite of this, the phones appear to be almost unknown to collectors.

By 1914 BI&H was also building CB wallphones to the standard BPO pattern (Fig 7) and this was listed in the APO's 1914 Handbook as Telephone No. 17. Although their 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. Only the numbers stamped into the back woodwork would identify it as a BI&H.

Fig 8 shows an unusual phone BI&H's "Pantophone" This was a phonopore-type telephone for use on railway telegraph lines. Like most other companies they also produced a small range of intercom phones (Figs 9 and 10). These pictures courtesy of Bob Freshwater's excellent website.

In 1903 BI&H built a new factory in Edge Lane, an outer suburb of Liverpool. The factory was badly needed, as the three 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. The two phones listed in the Australian Post Office manual were possibly from this installation- can any WA collectors shed light on this?

At the White City Exposition in 1908 one of the new American automatic telephone exchanges was demonstrated, probably by Strowger's 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 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, concentrated on cables. The first Automatic Telephone Manufacturing exchange was assembled from imported parts and installed at Epsom, and the company took over 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 vital military supplies like wire. 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 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 Australia still did not have a 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 were for a time the world's biggest cable manufacturers.

BI&C is now part of the Marconi group, and it is interesting to note that Marconi has taken the company's 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 claim "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.

The original TMC factory in Helsby was finally closed in 2002.



References.......

* This article is based on a detailed history of the company published in 1989 by Andrew Emmerson.
* Further information is from Poole J "The Practical Telephone Handbook" 1904.
* Commonwealth of Australia "Connections of Telephonic Apparatus and Circuits" 1914.
* Bateman J "The History of the Telephone in New South Wales" 1980.
* Information Sheet 63, Liverpool National Museum's Archives Dept.
* "Marconi Celebrates a Century of Switching Innovation in Liverpool", www.marconi.com/Home/press_office/News%20&%20Events/News%20Archives
* University of Melbourne "Technology in Australia 1788-1988"
* Prescot Local History http://history.knowsley.gov.uk/
* "The BICC Story once the largest company in the world” www.aboutprescottandrainhill.com/historyarticles.php?id=27
* Bob Freshwater's Telephone File website (from the UK) at: web.ukonline.co.uk/freshwater/homepage.htm

Further information would be appreciated on this company's telephones and any photographs if at all possible. Can any telephone collectors help with further information? Contact the ATCS Editor.

Bob Estreich.



BRITISH INSULATED AND HELSBY LTD - UPDATE


from July 2006 Newsletter

Following the publication of the original article in the March 2006 issue, some more information has turned up. Ric Havyatt has sent me details of two early BIH phones in his collection, Brian O'Donnell has another, and Leonard Jannesse has provided information on their insulators and cabling. With some of the gaps filled in it is now possible to put together a rough timetable of their phones.

The earliest phones were sourced from Western Electric, but BIH always seems to have branded at least one part on each phone. In the case of Ric's candlestick and CB wall phone the transmitters are branded. On Brian's magneto wall phone the generator has BIHCo impressed into the side plates and a BIH transfer on the front of the case.

We still don't know exactly when they started making telephones, but we can narrow it down. Their earliest known phone is a 3-box wall set. Based on Bell/Western Electric production dates, this was in production from 1892 to the late 1890s. It was superseded by the twin box phones such as the Model T202 used by the PMG. These would be from around 1889. Ric's CB wall phone Model T489 was introduced by Western Electric in 1895, and his Model TS460 candlestick from about 1904 to 1912. This is almost certainly the BI&H candlestick listed in the 1914 PMG technician's manual, but the circuit diagram shows a two-receiver phone.

In 1903 BIH opened their new factory and the odd phones shown in Poole would date from here to about 1912.

Brian's magneto wall phone is a version of Western Electric's Model 317, badged by BIH as their Model T210. It was introduced in Britain about 1907.

The Ericsson candlestick Model T481 appeared around 1912, and it could be fitted with an extra receiver, so it may be this circuit that appears in the technician's manual.

BI&H's presence in Australia was in much more than telephones. Their insulators and wire were widely used on Australia's railways and tram networks, and Leonard has provided photos of some of their insulators. A particularly interesting one is the Adelaide Tram Workshops insulator.

In 1887 Bendigo decided it should have an electric tramway. This was partly influenced by the decision of nearby Ballarat to install a horse-drawn tram. Bendigo's battery powered Trams were notorious for breakdowns and fires, and were eventually powered by steam tram motors to pull the rebuilt cars. In 1899 British Insulated Wire bought the company. They had just bought the local electricity generating plant as well. They overhauled the system and converted it back to electric, by overhead wires. It was successful, and was finally taken over in 1929 by the State Electricity Commission.





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