The contents of the 1,780 different British phone books published between 1880 and 1984* are now available online at Ancestry.co.uk, the result of a 26-month digitisation project - included are the phone books for England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
The British phone books, 1880-1984 contain more than 280 million names, numbers and addresses, including those of famous historical figures such as former Prime Minister Harold McMillan at his cottage in Chelwood Gate, composer Edward Elgar at his estate in Warwickshire and writer Evelyn Waugh at his home in the West Country where he wrote Brideshead Revisited.
Spanning 104 years, the collection also includes the very first phone book - for London - released in 1880 and containing just 248 entries, to those published in the 1980s when more than 47 million phone books were distributed in 145 separate editions.
The first phone book contained no numbers and callers were put through by the operator, while the first person to appear in the original phone book was one J.W. Alt living at 14 Queen Victoria Street, East Central. Interestingly, this building no longer exists after the remains of a Roman Temple found nearby were moved to this site, which is now named Temple Court.
Early versions of the phone book also included advice on how to make a telephone call, and tips on phone book etiquette. Some useful tips were:
- Speak clearly and directly into the transmitter – the lips should be almost touching the mouthpiece and there is rarely need to shout
- Answer promptly and announce your identity at once upon receiving a call
- Extend the exchange officers the same courtesy and consideration that you would expect from the
The collection will allow family history researchers to trace where their ancestors lived at a given time and place and will also fuel the trend for ‘house history’, where residents trace the previous occupants of their homes.
Simon Harper, Managing Director of Ancestry.co.uk, comments: “The British phone books,1880-1984 is an exciting resource for anyone wishing to explore either late Victorian, 20th Century family or social history as they provide solid evidence of where people lived during any given time in this period.
“It was an enormous undertaking to scan and index the 1780 phone books however we believe that this resource will be of great interest and use to people around the world.”
Sian Wynn-Jones, BT Collections Heritage Manager, comments: "Digitising the phone book collection supports BT's commitment to preserving and providing public access to these important historical sources. We are delighted that this project is now complete and the collection available online for everyone to use and enjoy."
Fast facts – British phone books
- The telephone exchange began in the City of London with just seven subscribers - within a year this number had grown to 6,000
- The first phone book for the entire country was produced in 1896. It was published in one volume containing 1350 pages and 81,000 entries
- The survival of the phone book collection is remarkable as they were not built to last and were often collected up, pulped and re-used
- Over 25 million BT phone books are now distributed every year spanning 168 different regions