Having been involved with Durban’s telecommunications all my working life, it was interesting to come across an article in a book which describes the history before my time. The book is Felix Stark’s ‘Durban from its beginning to its Silver Jubilee of City Status‘. I am not sure whether Felix Stark wrote the article as it appears he only edited and compiled the book. Unfortunately no name of the author is given but it was someone who had some knowledge of the Durban Corporation Telephone Undertaking history or researched it. The article dates to 1960.
For several years now, on and off, I have been putting together my own knowledge and remembrances of the Durban Telephone Network circa 1962 to 1996. It was an interesting period as it transitioned from electromechanical to digital and now has progressed to mobile. This article covers the early days and so is an interesting insight into what went before. It covers only the Durban Corporation telephone undertaking but alongside it the Government system was also in place. Script in italics are my own comments – the article reads:
Durban’s Municipally-controlled Telephone Undertaking
The Durban City Council under an agreement with the Union Government operates its own telephone undertaking within the confines of the old Borough boundary (Umbilo River, Ridge Road, Umgeni River and the foreshore). This undertaking operates as a part of the national telephone network of the Union of South Africa, the policy, tariffs and regulations of the two administrations are similar.
When tracing the history of telephone communications in Durban, it is fitting to remember the inventor, Alexander Graham Bell who on 14th February 1876 filed an application for the patent rights of the telephone.
In 1878 Mr. (afterwards Sir James) Sivewright, General Manager of Telegraphs to the Cape Colony referred to the telephone as ‘a recent invention the adaptability of which is under consideration’ and by the end of 1880 the telephone had become an established fact in Cape Town where eleven sets of ‘microphone apparatus’ were in use and a line existed between Cape Town and Simonstown.
It is interesting to record that the first (manually operated) telephone exchange in South Africa was established in Port Elizabeth in 1882 (this corrects my assumption that Kimberley had the first telephone exchange) â€“only four years after the first completely fitted exchange had been opened at New Haven Connecticut U.S.A. In the succeeding years, exchanges were completed at Cape Town (1884), East London (1887), Pretoria (1890), Johannesburg (1894), Grahamstown (1895), and Kimberley, Queenstown and Kingwilliamstown (1897). All these undertakings were government sponsored. Telephone communications in Natal followed a different pattern; they were introduced and controlled by private enterprise.
Mr George Ireland was responsible for introducing the first telephones into Durban about 1884-1885, and in 1886, Mr T. N. Price started the first exchange with about twelve subscribers, which increased to 50 two years later. In 1889, the concern was floated into a company under the title of the ‘Natal Telephone Company Limited’ with Messrs. Champion and Co. as secretaries and two years later entered into an agreement with the Durban Corporation ‘regarding the use of the streets and the roads of the Borough for the erection of posts and the running of telephone wires’. (The overhead wires are quite evident in some old postcards of Durban.)
Mr P.W Henderson in his book ‘Durban. Fifty Years Municipal History’ continues , ‘in 1896, however it was found necessary to more closely define the rights granted to the Company, and accordingly in that year an agreement was entered into for a period of ten years without any right of renewal, under which the Company was granted the use of the streets and roads of the Borough under certain conditions, the Council reserving the right to grant a similar privilege to another Company, and obtaining an option of taking over the assets of the Company on the expiry of the Agreement.’ As far back as 1896, the Durban Corporation was becoming telephone minded.
‘In order to legalise this Agreement and to safeguard the interests of the Government of Natal and the Durban Corporation in regard to the telephone matters, Act 31 of 1897 was passed. Section 14 of this Act entitled the Government or the Corporation to expropriate the Company at any time on giving three monthsâ€™ notice, the value of the Companyâ€™s assets to be determined by arbitration.’
It is possible that that these early negotiations between the Durban Corporation and the Natal Telephone Company made the Natal Government telephone conscious as in 1897 the State acquired the Pietermaritzburg Exchange which had been erected a few years earlier by private enterprise.
In December 1901, by which time the number of telephone subscribers in Durban had risen to 598, the Town Council was advised by the Town Engineer, Mr John Roberts, ‘that upon the inauguration of electric traction (the electric tram system) considerable interference with the telephone system would arise by reason of induction’ and believing and that the interests of the burgesses would best be served by the Corporation acquiring the telephone undertaking, served notice on The Natal Telephone Company Limited.
The Company upon the receipt of the notice waived the rights to the three monthsâ€™ notice and on the 1st January 1901, the Durban Corporation at a cost of Â£22,274 became the owner of a telephone system. It is interesting to record that at about the same time, the Natal Government became interested in the purchase of the Durban telephone system, explaining it was desirable to link Durban and Pietermaritzburg and in time provide a trunk system connecting the principal towns of Natal with the other centres in South Africa.
The Durban Telephone System as operated in the early days is referred to in the text books as the ‘call wire’ system; calling of the operator was done by means of a call key which connected the caller to a common circuit at the exchange. If the telephone system as operated in Durban in the early days was not efficient it was certainly sociable as every subscriber could call the operator simultaneously by depressing the call key and he who could shout the loudest received the best attention.
Durban could boast in those early days of three of three (manual operator) exchanges :
(1) Central ……situated at the corner of Smith and Field Streets where Yorkshire House stands today. (since demolished and replaced by the General Accident Building)
(2) Point …….situated in Point Road near Browns Road.
(3) Berea ….. situated in St Thomas Avenue.
The Town Council, having acquired a telephone undertaking proceeded to find ways and means of improving and developing the system, obtained borrowing powers to the extent of Â£100,000 and in 1903 work commenced on the Central Telephone Exchange Building which is situated in Field Street between Commercial Road and Pine Street.
(This building faced Field Street and initially housed the telephone operators on the upper floors. In later years the building was extended in the same architectural style. The picture on the right shows the extended building, behind the later extension to house the Trunk Exchange and Carrier Room and the trunk exchange operators and then the final extension in the background. In its final form the Pine Street complex stretched from Field Street through to Albert Street. From an article that appeared in the ‘Live Wire’, the magazine of the South African Telecommunication Association, just prior to the building being demolished in the late 60s.)
Upon the joint recommendation of the Electrical Engineer Mr John Roberts and the Telephone Manager, Mr. William Manson, the Town Council decided upon the installation of a Central Battery Exchange System which operated very satisfactorily until 1936 when automatization was introduced throughout Durban.
The new Central Battery System was commissioned in 1904/1905 and opened with approximately 700 subscribers; in 1906 the number had increased top 936; in 1911 there were 1768; 1914 – 2720; 1919- 3,139; and in 1922 3,818 subscribers were connected to the system.
Durban continued operating one centralised manual exchange system from 1904 to 1922 when the first satellite exchange, Toll Gate was installed in Berea Road between Hunt and Manning Roads. The opening of this exchange together with the Overport Exchange situated in Ridge Road near South Road which was commissioned by the Union Government marked the introduction of automatic telephone working into South Africa. This statement may be incorrect as Eric Rosenthal in his Encyclopaedia of South Africa states ‘Automatic telephones date from 1922 when the first exchange was opened in Camps Bay, Cape Town.’
The Toll Gate automatic telephone exchange, which opened with 250 subscribers, was a four digit exchange with the numbering scheme commencing at 7-000. (This could be a typo as Toll Gate has always been associated with the code digit ‘4’.)
Three years after the opening of the Toll Gate exchange a second satellite exchange was installed to serve the Stamford Hill area. The exchange was sited in Windermere Road opposite Sutton Park. The exchange was also a 4 digit, rotary type switching system, the numbering scheme commencing at 3-000.
The number of telephone subscribers in 1925 was Central 3737, Toll Gate 763 and Stamford Hill 389 making a total of 4889.
On the 1st February 1936, the automatization of the whole Durban Corporation telephone system was undertaken and Durban said goodbye to the ‘Hello Girls’ who by their loyal and efficient manner
had contributed so much to the telephone public during almost 36 years of manual operation.
(To understand the above statement it is surmised that by this time the whole of the CBD, Toll Gate and Stamford Hill areas were enjoying full automatic exchange working using the Central 2, Stamford Hill and Toll Gate exchanges. Automatic exchange working was limited by the resistance of the subscriberâ€™s loop (connection) to the telephone exchange and exceeding this limitation, dialling was affected as well as speech transmission quality. Congella and surrounds being slightly distant from the Central exchanges and to an extent, the then ‘expanding industrial part’ of Durban probably necessitated the installation of an additional exchange. Congella exchange would complement the other satellites and provided automatic exchange working to all areas within the Borough boundaries. The call operators were therefore made redundant.
Not mentioned in this article but from reference to the 1938 Brabyâ€™s Durban Directory, the first area opened beyond the Umgeni River city boundary was Durban North including Greenwood Park. This area was served by the Central Level 6 exchange and all subscribers in these areas had telephone numbers, 6-xxxx. It is assumed that on commissioning of Central Level 2, Central Level 6 followed or the two could have been constructed simultaneously. Both were exchanges with 10000 line capability. From a further article in this book, the exchange equipment was supplied by Automatic Telephone and Electric Company of London and Liverpool (A.T.E.) and would have been imported and installed by their own installers.)
The number of subscribers connected on 1st February 1936 was Central 3932, Toll Gate 1803, and Stamford Hill 1269 making a total of 7014.
The demand for telephone services continued and on the 1st December 1938, Durbanâ€™s third satellite exchange was opened. This was sited at the corner of Bartle and FranÃ§ois Roads to serve the Congella area.
At the opening of this exchange the number of subscribers was 10659, Central having 5234, Toll Gate 2432, and Congella 1007.
(Not mentioned but assumed the Congella numbering scheme commenced with the digits 5-xxxx.)
The next major development in the telephone history of Durban was the extension of the Central Exchange Building, providing accommodation for a second (third?) 10,000 line automatic exchange unit and the accommodation required by the Union Government to house the Durban Trunk Exchange.
(A unique picture from the book showing the extension to the old building. This picture is taken from the Commercial Road side. The Trunk Exchange and Carrier Transmission Room were installed on the second floor with the Trunk Operators Room immediately above. Not dated but in the background the Johannesburg Building Society JBS Building corner of Field and West is completed. Obviously some old buildings were removed and preparations are underway to further extend the complex with the last extension which was built in a modern style with large windows and blue glazed tiles on the exterior.
On the Pine Street side this part of the building was in line with the back of Payne Brothers. On the ground floor was the Power Room where the Eskom power was brought in, the power rectifiers, the large battery room and the emergency power plant.)
(Another picture from the book. The caption read that it showed a part of the automatic exchange. In fact, these were the consoles used by the Trunk call operators who connected Durban subscribers to outlying centres and areas via trunk lines. In addition certain special services were served by some of the Trunk operators such as Time and Directory Information. These consoles lined the room in horseshoe fashion.)
This work was completed in March 1950 and the position at the exchanges was:
Central Level 2 …… 8586 (Numbering Code 2-xxxx)
Central Level 6 …… 159 (Numbering Code 6-xxxx)
Toll Gate ……………. 5317 (Numbering Code 4-xxxx)
Stamford Hill ……… 3649 (Numbering Code 3-xxxx)
Congella …………….. 2966 (Numbering Code 5-xxxx)
Total ….. 20677
The corresponding figures as at 31st March 1960
Central Level 2 …… 9038
Central Level 6 …… 8960
Toll Gate ……………. 5850
Stamford Hill ……… 6098
Congella …………….. 4484
(Regarding the figures stated above, the Durban North area initially served by the Durban Corporation Central Level 6 was taken over by the Government Dept. of Posts and Telegraphs and a new exchange was built in Northumberland Place. It was called Durban North and the numbering code was 83-xxxx in line with most Govt. exchanges in Durban at the time whose codes commenced with the digit 8 e.g. Overport 88-xxxx. The Central Level 6 exchange was therefore ‘reused’ to serve the growing demands of the Central CBD area along with Central Level 2 exchange. I do not have a date for the change but considering WW2 intervened, the change was most likely in the late 1940s.)
Planning is well advanced for another large building extension at Central which will provide then required accommodation for a further 10,000 line automatic exchange and extensions to the Trunk Exchange.
(This refers to the installation of a new telephone exchange in the Pine Street complex and the last built by the Durban Corporation. It was a dual exchange being a tandem and local exchange. The exchange was called Central 31 and designated numbering code 31-xxxx and was of 10 000 line capacity. Up until the commissioning of this exchange, the Durban Corporation central and satellite exchanges had retained their number codes of ‘2’, ‘3’ ,’4′, ‘5’ and ‘6’ respectively and all were 5 digit numbering schemes. This changed when Central 31 Tandem was commissioned as the satellite exchanges ‘3, 4 and 5’ had their numbering code changed to a six digit number with the addition of an additional ‘3’ as a prefix now becoming ’33’, 34′, 35′ respectively. The central exchanges ‘2’ and ‘6’ were not affected by this code number change and remained 5 digit codes. This happened circa 1963.)
Additional comments by Gerald
The informative article in “Durban from its beginning to its Silver Jubilee of City Status” ends there, roughly in 1960. I joined the Department of Posts and Telegraphs as a Pupil Telecommunication Technician in December 1961 so it fills in the period prior to my joining.
There are however gaps in the article as it does not indicate the dates of installation of the Central Level 2 and Central Level 6 exchanges that are mentioned. From what I gather the existing Pine Street building had to be extended to accommodate the new automatic exchange and it was prudent to build large enough to accommodate another exchange. It would appear that Central Level 2 would have been the first automatic exchange installed in the extended Pine Street complex followed by Central Level 6. The building was extended in the same original style of the original building.
I was posted to the Durban Trunk Exchange in the Pine Street complex in 1966 and worked with Mr Jack Cupido who told me he was involved with the installation of the trunk exchange and this had started circa 1947. This exchange used the Motor Uniselector (MU) system and at the time was the only exchange of that type in Durban and was Durbanâ€™s only trunk exchange for many years. It was housed on the second floor of the now extended Pine Street complex and alongside it was what was known as the Carrier Transmission Room. On the third floor was the new Trunk Operators Room which was the interface between the subscribers and the trunk network.
All trunk calls at the time were handled by ‘operators’, that is, no one could directly dial a subscriber connected to a country exchange or to another province and trunk calls had to be ‘booked’. The links to the outlying areas was via the ‘open wire’ routes which ran alongside the main roads for miles and miles with diverts leading to the small rural towns. It is interesting to note that when I joined, one could not dial Pietermaritzburg from Durban direct even then. Soon after joining a co-axial cable was laid linking Durban and Pietermaritzburg providing 960 circuits between the two centres. However initially one dialled ’01’ which connected you to an operator in Pietermaritzburg who answered and dialled the number you required and then ‘put you through’. Direct dialling of trunk calls only came later with the introduction of NSTD, National Subscriber Trunk Dialling.
Returning to the Durban Corporation telephone network, the advent of NSTD brought the matter of privately owned telephone networks to a head. What was in place at the time was that the income from calls originating from the Durban Corporation system and terminating in the Government system and vice versa had to be shared according to the amount of income generated. I never found out how this was shared only remembering that in the Durban Trunk exchange banks of meters were read and submitted to the Admin Dept. every month end so that the revenue generated could be split between the Durban Corporation and the Government authorities. The imminent introduction of NSTD now complicated the matter as directly dialled trunk calls were to be introduced without operator intervention and metering was to be automatic. In the past trunk operators timed calls and you were billed the cost all this being a manual function.
It was inevitable that the days of the Durban Corporation Telephone System were numbered and being the last privately owned telephone system in South Africa, the end was nigh. During 1968 negotiations were started and the upshot was that on the 1st April 1969, the Durban Corporation Telephone System became part of the Department of Post and Telecommunications, lock, stock and barrel. All properties, buildings, equipment, infrastructure, workshops, and staff were taken over. I seem to recall a figure of R15 million being paid over. Durban Corporation staff were entitled to leave as they so wished, some took retirement whilst the majority did cross over. One concession was allowed though. No ex Durban Corporation employee taken over by the Dept. of P&T could be transferred away from Durban unless he / she agreed to do so. It was a Dept. of P&T condition of employment that any staff member could be transferred to any post in South Africa should the Dept. have a need to do so.
At the time of my writing, the mobile phone revolution has virtually removed all traces of not only the Durban Corporation network but also that of the Government network. As far as all the exchanges are concerned, all the old electromechanical equipment to my knowledge has been removed from the buildings and scrapped. There must be a tremendous amount of floor space standing unutilised. Some of the buildings have been converted to office space and I know of only one property that has been disposed of and that is the Congella Exchange which was sold. With all the equipment removed, the exchange building was converted in to a Day Care Centre for children.
One must remember that this article only covers the Durban Corporation Telephone System and that at the same time in ‘outer’ Durban, there existed the Government system serving the areas beyond the City of Durban boundaries. Eventually I hope I can add to this article by adding to the history my own recollections.