So it was with the system devised in order to carry telephone wires around the country: the “bits” could be put together in whatever combinations and quantities required to serve the technical purpose of that particular pole - as long as certain rules were observed.

 

…above…telegraph poles could transfer subscribers’ circuits down to under the street or they could carry circuits for many miles overhead. But they used the same basic set of components. Note the “A”-pole top right. For heavy routes of single poles, every eighth pole had to be an “A”-pole. As another point of interest, the left pole still exists - somewhere in Bath, Somerset.

So. Why works of art, then?

 

…because human beings ended up putting all these components together. The result: every single telegraph pole ever constructed was different. So the physical product was both a purely technical tool [to carry wires around the country] and also a human creation. And as soon as you had that human element introduced, there you had the art.

 

 

Another analogy…

 

Take a recipe for a cake. Basic ingredients and a method, a set of instructions – rules -  for producing the final product. Give that recipe to a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen recognisably similar cakes. but will they all be exactly the same in taste, consistency and size? No.

 

We will show you how wonderful a variety of telegraph pole cakes could be made from the limited store of ingredients from which telegraph pole chefs had to draw.

 

…right…telegraph poles could be very complicated structures, carrying massive weight of metal in the wires that the arms supported . Building them to withstand stress required serious methematical calculations, taking into account the pole’s height, girth, the number of arms and wires. In this pitcure you can see that poles carrying an overhead route had to be double-armed when rounding a bend over a certain angle.

…left…a modern telegraph pole. Pretty uninteresting

right… its classical predecessor. Very different

Classical telegraph poles (termed “classic” so as to distinguish them from modern telegraph poles) in the 1950s had already started their decline into obsolescence; and, put probably too simply, became obsolete through two reasons – plastic and popularity. Classic telegraph poles differed from their modern counterparts simply because they had to carry uninsulated wire, wire that carried an electrical charge. Most people will know from basic domestic electricity that individual wires have to be kept separate; and there has to be two of them to create an electrical circuit. Telephone wire/cable was bare – uninsulated – and so classic telegraph poles were the result of the technological requirements of having to carry a number of bare wires from A to B and keep them apart at the same time and also making sure that they don’t discharge to earth, either. In order to fulfil that requirement, the system designed was one of bare wires anchored to porcelain insulators screwed onto steel spindles, bolted onto wooden arms at defined intervals, bolted horizontally to the top end of round wooden poles, sunk into the ground. That basically was it. So how could such a basic system of brutish components of lumps of iron, pottery and timber be construed as “art”?

 

Imagine a Meccano set. It’s a box full of different bits. You get a certain number of certain bits – metal bars of different lengths; metal plates of different sizes; pulleys; screws, nuts and bolts. Etc.  With all these bits comes a set of instructions on how you should attach various different bits together and make something. And if you use different bits and attach them together in a different way, you can make something else. As long as you follow these basic instructions, the rest is up to you: you can build anything you like with the components you have.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So it was with the system devised in order to carry telephone wires around the country: the “bits” could be put together in whatever combinations and quantities required to serve the technical purpose of that particular pole - as long as certain rules were observed.

 

Few people will think (if they think about this at all) that a telegraph pole is anything more than a tall wooden pole stuck into the ground that takes telephone lines from people’s houses and then sends them under ground. Such a view is hardly surprising given that, nowadays, that’s all there is to a telegraph pole. Indeed, if that’s all there ever was, one of Quadhurst’s principal elements wouldn’t exist.

 

But it was not always like that. Once upon a time, telegraph poles were far, far more than tall lumps of wood stuck into the ground. This piece looks farther than the mere utilitarian aspect of telegraph poles – as means of physically linking up the nation’s telephone network – and looks at them as extremely important examples of a bygone age and explains how a system designed for pure technological exigencies, existent when remote electrical voice communication was invented, became, unwittingly, examples of architectural street art.

 

Telegraph poles carried out phone network above ground all over the country but comprised a relatively small number of individual components but which could be put together in virtually limitless combinations to serve the local conditions where it was sited. Because they were technological entities put together by human beings, the result was that no telegraph pole was the same. Telegraph poles are pure street art - or rather ‘were’…for there are so few left. Read on…

How it all began (probably) and ended (definitely)

 

Before looking at the development of the physical phone communication system, we need to go one step farther back and look at the invention of the electric telegraph. For it was that that determined the subsequent development of how the phone network was physically going to be carried around the country.

 

The principal elements – insulator, spindle, arm and pole - had their origins in the electric telegraph in their basic elements and infrastructure. The overriding need when designing the system was to:

 

connect people together via an overwhelmingly overhead (aerial) distribution

and transmission method using bare wires.

 

It actually was that fundamental.

 

Apart from the four basic elements, other components, all serving a purely technical function again but in a peripheral way, also made up a fully functioning telegraph pole and which also, therefore, added to the individuality that all poles had. More about those later.

 

Back to the history lesson. So the electric telegraph established a system of carrying around bare metal wires in the air, bound to porcelain insulators screwed on to steel spindles bolted on to wooden arms bolted on to wooden poles. This basic system proved itself ideal for adoption, adaptation and development when the telephone came along.

 

What the system had to be able to do (somewhat simplified)

 

In essence, Mr Taylor, living in the village of Bugford near Dartmouth, Devonshire, England, had to be able to have a phone conversation with his brother-in-law, Mr McTavish, living in the village of Durness, Sutherland, Scotland.

 

Now if Mr Taylor’s phone was connected directly, physically, to Mr McTavish’s, that would do the job. Unfortunately, two main obstacles stood in the way of that happening:

 

 

 

So was it done, then? The pictures below help say it all;

 

 

…left…trunk routes, as they were termed, linked major cities in the country and carried massive loads so that many had to be constructed with “H”-poles to give the required strength. This photo shows the now-extinct main trunk route into Scotland from England on the A68 approaching Jedburgh. Major trunk routes were the first aerial routes to be put underground; but many survived into the early ‘60s

…left…trunk routes ran into major exchanges and then branched off into what were called junction routes to other towns. This pole route here, still in existence at the end of the ‘80s (but, of course, gone now) ran up the west coast of Scotland beyond Ullapool

…left…the arms that bore the spindles that bore the insulators that carried the wires came in three basic classes - 78”, carrying eight insulators; 72”, carrying six insulators; and 48”/42”/36”, carrying four insulators. 48” arms were used for heavier routes; 36”, for the lightest, rural routes.

As the telephone system started to be developed, and in order to maintain technological standards, it was necessary to regulate how it was all put together and maintained. We British may not be brilliant at many things but one thing we did do was to invent bureaucracy and rigorous regulation; and we become exceedingly good at it. The system was a textbook example of such bureaucratic and rigorous regulation. The GPO (remember, the Post Office owned the telephone network) produced a truly encyclopaedic set of regulations on How It All Had To Be Done; and a large portion of this was How To Put A Telegraph Pole Together and what bits to use where and in what circumstances and conditions.

 

You may wonder how one can say in one breath that the system was so wonderfully modular and flexible yet in another breath say that it was bureaucratic and regulated. Well so it was – on both counts. Think back to the Meccano set. Say, for example, your set was a specialist set for constructing cranes. With it comes a basic set of instructions for crane construction but, as long as you observe those instructions, the rest is up to you and, depending upon the numbers of components you have, the sky’s the limit as far as crane construction is concerned. You can have big ones, small ones, long ones, short ones – each one created to fulfil a particular local function; but they all have to be put together fundamentally in the same way, albeit creating vastly different types of crane. So it was with telegraph poles.

 

 

…left…a very busy distribution pole with its posh-looking finial. We know of no similar pole that survives to this day (if anyone knows of one, please tell us).

…right…the new ring-type polehead introduced in the early ‘30s, together with its finial. Many survive to this day but have replaced the twin wires radiating out from the insulators with the single, heavier, and insulated cable that contains both wires in the circuit.Note the additional ring below, put there for expansion.

The use of standard poles with arms was not, however, discontinued; but new poles with more than three or four arms became the exception rather than the rule. Incidentally, the "ring-type pole" poles, with or without finials are still relatively common - for the moment.

 

The beginning of the end…

 

As the telephone network expanded, it was clear that the existing system had its limitations. For every one subscriber there had to be two wires, two (at least) insulators and spindles and corresponding space on the arms of a pole. Already much urban and major trunk route miles had been placed underground; and it was clear that the system had to be adapted to meet the ever-increasing numbers of telephone subscribers.

 

It was the mass production of plastic that sealed the fate of the classic telegraph pole.

 

Experiments in using insulated subscribers’ cables rather than open, bare, wires, started well before the second world war; but it was not until the 1950s, with increasing prosperity, that developments in plastic insulated wire led the way to its introduction and eventual adoption throughout the network. This development completely rendered obsolete and unnecessary the system described above and irrelevant these brilliant items of art and architecture. No longer would you need insulators on spindles on arms: cheap, plastic-coated, pre-insulated wire saw to that. Progress and popularity had both rendered the system irrelevant and no longer fit for purpose.

 

To replace the arms, spindles and insulators, a small metal ring was developed which would bolt through the top of the pole and the insulated subscribers’ cables, containing the erstwhile two circuit wires, would be caught onto this ring before being collected in to a terminal block before sending underground. It was that simple.  Depending on geographical area, trials on new poles fitted with these rings began as early as the mid to late 1950s. But it was not until the ‘60s and ‘70s that the mass conversion programme took place. Probably 75% of all poles in England and Wales were lost during this period.

 

At the beginning of the 1930s the desire to increase the aesthetic appeal of what was on our streets encroached on telegraph poles, especially in the numerous new private, middle class suburbs that were proliferating throughout the country. One measure that was introduced, and which became this telephone Meccano set’s sole-ever purely aesthetic component was the creation of a wooden finial that became commonplace in the posher neighbourhoods.

…left…the effect of putting trunk routes underground. Scarce resources meant the need to adapt the plant if its use changed. The brilliant design of the system meant that adaptation was easy. Look at the poles in both the photos. They are the same ones. This one to the left has had its trunk circuits put underground, most of its arms removed and the spindles and insulators in the top four arms swapped for different designs so as to collect the rising number of subscribers’ circuits and feed them underground. Trunk line poles had become distribution poles overnight.

…left…a minor trunk or major junction route carrying very many wires. Such routes could also pick up the comparatively low numbers of subscribers’ circuits en route. Those would eventually go off to a local exchange while the main route carried on .

…left…an overhead route taking a subscriber’s circuit onto it from the right

The conversion programme was carried out in tandem with the continual pole replacement programme through age and condition. When it was eventually replaced, the new pole needed neither the height nor the girth of its predecessor and, visually, was a shadow of what it replaced, including an absence of "anything on top". Throughout this period, classic telegraph poles disappeared rapidly. The placing of rural aerial routes underground also continued until by the late ‘70s, apart from some routes in Scotland that persisted until the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.

 

And now? What we are left with is an increasingly rare reminder of what it used to be like. And it's getting less and less as old poles rot and are replaced or the last remaining arms on old poles are removed. Bristol and the surrounding area enjoy, for some reason, a relatively large number of armed distribution poles s; but even they are getting rarer and rarer as each year passes.

 

What Quadhurst will do…

 

One of the Quadhurst Project’s principal functions will be to restore classic telegraph poles to the landscape. Once more people will be able to walk around streets, roads and lanes and see telegraph poles as they used to be. This is a massively important element of our communications heritage: when we use our mobile phones or surf the internet through our broadband connection, we should stop, think and reflect that it all started with large round wooden poles carrying dozens of wires clamped on to porcelain insulators bolted on to wooden arms. Quadhurst alone will preserve that physical connection between what we have today – and take so much for granted – and its origins. The conversion programme was carried out in tandem with the continual pole replacement programme through age and condition. When it was eventually replaced, the new pole needed neither the height nor the girth of its predecessor and, visually, was a shadow of what it replaced, including an absence of "anything on top". Throughout this period, classic telegraph poles disappeared rapidly. The placing of rural aerial routes underground also continued until by the late ‘70s, apart from some routes in Scotland that persisted until the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.

 

And now? What we are left with is an increasingly rare reminder of what it used to be like. And it's getting less and less as old poles rot and are replaced or the last remaining arms on old poles are removed. Bristol and the surrounding area enjoy, for some reason, a relatively large number of armed distribution poles s; but even they are getting rarer and rarer as each year passes.

One of the Quadhurst Project’s principal functions will be to restore classic telegraph poles to the landscape. Once more people will be able to walk around streets, roads and lanes and see telegraph poles as they used to be. This is a massively important element of our communications heritage: when we use our mobile phones or surf the internet through our broadband connection, we should stop, think and reflect that it all started with large round wooden poles carrying dozens of wires clamped on to porcelain insulators bolted on to wooden arms. Quadhurst alone will preserve that physica

 

This is what Quadhurst will do: it will recreate this…

…that has become this - without anyone noticing.

 

WORTH DOING, WE THINK…

 

 

WITHOUT QUADHURST, IT WILL ALL BE FORGOTTEN.

 

 

JOIN AND SUPPORT US IN OUR PROJECT

 

…right…not only have the overhead circuits been put underground, the new metal ring has replaced the need for arms and insulators. And, hey presto, the modern telegraph pole is born.