Today (March 10) in London History – the first phone call in Britain

The first phone call in Britain was made on this day – March 10 – 1876. This Today in London History podcast tells the story.


The oldest hotel in London is a pretty good claim to fame.

The cradle of modern communications in Britain – indeed, in Europe – is an even better claim.

They’re one and the same place. 

Brown’s Hotel at 33 Albemarle Street in Mayfair. In London of course.

The dates aren’t the same though. The hotel will soon be 200 years old. It got started in 1837.

More on that in a minute.

The cradle of modern communications in Europe was set rocking on this day, March 10, 1876.

Set rocking with a phone call. The first phone call in Europe. 

In 1974 a 3.2 million-year-old fossil skeleton of a human ancestor was discovered in Ethiopia. She was nicknamed Lucy. She’s our ancestor. Our earliest known ancestor. She won’t be our primal ancestor though. That fossil won’t be found because it doesn’t exist intact – the atoms that made it up exist – but they’ll be blowing in the wind or riding out eternity tectonically. Or both. 

Phone calls – think of the millions of phone calls that will be made in Europe today – phone calls are different. They have an identifiable primal ancestor. The first-ever European phone call. The millions of phone calls that will be made today all trace their lineage back to a single, identifiable, progenitor. One phone call – the first phone call ever this side of the Atlantic. Made this day in 1876. From Brown’s Hotel in Albemarle Street in Mayfair. 

Before, there were none. Then there was one. Then there were millions. 

What’s more, we know a great deal about that very first phone call.

It was made by – I’ll bet you’ve already guessed – Alexander Graham Bell. The inventor of the telephone.

The call was made to James John Ford. Who was James John Ford? And where did he take the call? How far away was he?

James John Ford was the owner of Brown’s Hotel. He took the call at home. Home was Ravenscourt Park.

How far is Ravenscourt Park from Brown’s Hotel? Well, what do you know – I reached for my phone – my cellphone – followed the From and To promptings – typed in Albemarle Street and Ravenscourt Pari and hey presto, not only did I get the distance – which is five miles – I got a couple of routes and advisories about how long it would take me to get over from Albemarle Street to Ravenscourt Park depending on the form of transportation I plumped for. 

And no question about it, my reaching for my cellphone belongs in this podcast, because the fact of the matter is the patent for the telephone was the most valuable single patent ever issued. Reason’s pretty obvious: Out of it have grown so many others. 

Finally, what was the conveyance for that first telephone call? The telegraph line from the hotel to the hotel owner’s home. From Brown’s Hotel to that house in Ravenscourt Park. 

“Only connect” said the great novelist, E.M. Forster. “It’s all about making connections” says the great London Walks guide, Adam Scott. The great London Walks guide whom we think has a good chance to be crowned Tourism Superstar 2022 in just over a week’s time. That happens, I promise the telephone lines – well, the telephone ether – will be crackling and buzzing.

So let’s haul about and make a few connections. 

The first London telephone exchange – the Bell exchange –opened in Coleman Street in the City in 1879. It connected 13 subscribers. A few months later along came the so-called Edison exchange. It opened close by, in Lombard Street. It connected 10 offices. After that, licenses were listed on a royalty basis to private telephone companies.

In 1891 London and Paris were linked by telephone. That first international call was made from the Prince of Wales to the French President. 

Now as for our inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, he was born in Scotland, in Edinburgh, in 1847. He worked for a time in London as a teacher of music and elocution. Music and elocution. I don’t know why that pleases me so much, but it does. What also pleases me is that Alexander Graham Bell studied at my university – University College London. Health problems took him across the Atlantic, where he resided for the rest of his life.

And finally, another handful of fun connections. It’s fun to know where things happened. To stand outside a building and be able to see, with the mind’s eye, history’s ghosts. “Gosh, so and so lived here. This was where that happened. You can do that in spades with Brown’s Hotel. We do it on our Old Mayfair walk. 

Historically and biographically, Brown’s, if it were a bridge hand, would be a royal flush.

It’s been much frequented by literary men and women, by politicians, including future presidents, by royalty, by scientists.

The literary connections go right back to the beginning.

Brown’s was founded by none other than Lord Byron’s butler, James Brown and his wife – she was Lady Byron’s maid. 

They acquired 23 Dover Street, which backed on to today’s Brown’s. Opened it as a hotel for the service of the nobility and the gentry. Twenty-two years later James John Ford – the phone call man – bought it and expanded it to include the buildings on Albemarle Street that are now the front of the hotel.

And from the Byron connection, the Brown’s firmament has been ever afterwards a literary light show. Literary comet after literary comet writ across its skies.

Mark Twain stayed at Brown’s. He scandalised London by doing something that wasn’t done – he came down to the lobby in his pyjamas and blue bathrobe. The Times was beside itself. It said, “Mr Twain exhibited himself as an eccentric today and every staid Londoner who witnessed the exhibition fairly gasped.” 

And much more recent literary history. Flying across the Atlantic Steven King dozed off. Had a dream. Woke up. Wrote the gist of it down on a cocktail napkin. Plane landed. King and his wife went to Brown’s. He couldn’t sleep. Asked the concierge if there was a place where he could write. The concierge took him to Rudyard Kipling’s desk – the desk Kipling was writing at when he suffered the stroke he died from. Referring to the jottings on the airline’s cocktail napkin, King wrote, in a steno notebook, 16 pages of would become his famous novel, Misery.

So, yes, Rudyard Kipling, is a huge presence at Brown’s. He wrote The Jungle Book while he was staying there. Oscar Wile, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, JM Barrie and Bram Stoker were all regular guests. Agatha Christie visited Brown’s many times. And speaking of literary connections, it was just over the way, at the Albemarle Club at 36 Albemarle Street, that the fatal moment occurred in Oscar Wilde’s life. Oscar was a member of the Albemarle Club. He was carrying on with the young aristocrat Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas’s enraged father, the Marquess of Queensberry, left his card, addressed with that word – the spelling and pronunciation of which was beyond him – to Oscar Wilde. The card read: To Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite. Oscar should have let enraged dogs run about and foam at the mouth. Let them in due course lie. He didn’t. Disastrously, he sued Queensberry for libel. Well, that’s a tale for our Oscar Wilde walk – but there will have been Brown’s Hotel guests that day who could later say, “we were there the day he left the card.”

As for politicians – politicians who were bound for the White House – Teddy Roosevelt stayed at Brown’s before his wedding. In the hotel’s registry he listed his occupation as “ranchman.”

Something about Brown’s and the Rosseveldt’s…because FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt honeymooned there. 

The roll call of the famous goes on. Cecil Rhodes stayed at Brown’s.

As did Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie. The exiled Queen Elizabeth of Belgium stayed at Brown’s throughout World War I. The exiled King George II of the Hellenes was there throughout his 11-year exile, until Greece restored its monarchy in 1935. Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, sought refuge at Brown’s when Mussolini invaded his country. Ditto King Zog of Albania. In 1941, the Dutch government in exile declared war on Japan at Brown’s Hotel.

But let’s end with another first. In the late 1880s Brown’s created the first-ever hotel restaurant. There’s a thought for you. It wasn’t so very long ago you could be dining at a hotel restaurant and a phone could be brought to your table so you could take – or make – a phone call. You pick up that phone in that hotel restaurant you were at the convergence of two of the axial lines of history.

And on that note, I’m going to ring off. Good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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