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Factory Night @ Old Telephone Exchange, Stoke-on-Trent

Background Information: Until 1861 the only means of sending a “wire” was from Stoke Railway Station. In 1862 the United Kingdom Electrical Telegraph Company succeeded in obtaining permission from Parliament to lay lines to all parts of the U.K., and in that same year Manchester was connected to Harecastle. By November 1862 a line was brought from Stoke to Hanley Railway Station; this office then moved to premises in Fountain Square. By 1863 telegraph offices had been opened throughout the Potteries, with the exclusion of Fenton.

During the latter part of the 19th century the popularity of the telephone grew. In 1890, there were 211 subscribers in the area, and all the main police stations had been connected. The telephone was still a great novelty, and on a Sunday in April, 1891, the National Telephone Company invited people to their premises in Cheapside to listen to a church service from Birmingham; 40 receivers were used for the occasion. As the system developed, so did the need for such a means of communication. By 1899, the Company, recognising its essential role in the everyday life of the Potteries, decided to build a new and much larger Exchange. For this purpose it acquired approximately 600 square yards at the corner of Marsh Street and Mill Street (Trinity Street). The Company’s directory of 1904-5 covered all the country, and the number of subscribers in the Potteries and district was about 2,200.

Continued improvements saw the introduction of the 999 emergency service, inaugurated in the City by the Lord Mayor, Mr. Peter Williams, from his parlour in Stoke Town Hall, during his term of office in 1945-6.”

‘Factory Nights’ at the Telephone Exchange

‘Telephone Exchange’ is engraved into the wall – a historical imprint cementing the buildings memory of 19th century Potteries; the terracotta preservation of industrial growth – and connection of communication. Now an up-market bar of two for one cocktails and social lubrication – the old telephone exchange is one of Hanley’s most recognizable architectural accomplishments, and today the location for an artistic gathering of painters, writers, film-makers, musicians and photographers; sheltering muse at ‘Fat Cats’ – once again home to the connection of the people.

The large dinning room table is prepared for a feast with cutlery, napkins and glasses. We gather ourselves in smiles and anticipation – conversation a snowball and time the comforter. The only light an overcast pouring through the window – shrouding the figures at the front in silhouettes, the room a shadow shading all finer detail.

“Welcome to Factory Nights’

Michael Branthwaite and Janine Goldsworthy step from their silhouettes and embrace the room – the excitement and determination radiating from the hosts; the faces of ‘Rednile’ networking art and recycling spaces to inspiration – community and collaboration the central pillar of success.

As I climb the spiral staircase the building begins aging with every level, as if passing through its trunk — each floor a ring of experience. As I reach the top I stare over the banister to the square Russian doll system of steps; perspective turning to a closing tunnel.

We walk like children — head scanning and sponging in wondrous awe all that is new; we enter the factory-floor situated at the top of the telephone exchange. The enormous ceiling suspended high above us — substitute messenger pigeons once residing in the towers — grand windows sweep light into the room, revealing a graveyard of artefacts and history; the abandoned space filled with so many past props we stand for a moment unsure were to begin.

Chairs, desks and all sorts of furniture are throughout the room in un-functional piles, their fragile conditions unused — the corner glass border of a bar stood foreign as the youngest and largest of the artefacts; framed paintings sprinkled with pieces of fragmented glass that shimmer to the sunlight — a bookcase stands completely bare whilst books cover the majority of the room — metal, golden letters of various sizes in piles — a door on the floor that doesn’t lead anywhere — a mountain of egg white sinks and toilets with silver handles — I find Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ in the dirt; somebody wrote ‘Ear Here’ with the golden letters on the floor. All kinds of old paintings of orange-tea aged colour: horse racing, a gentlemen with his wife and four sheep, a boisterous woman in a red dress, a beach of Victorians with their trousers rolled to the knees, a white bearded man in a green coat looking at a whiskey bar, a stallion with a black body and a white mane — it’s frame burnt but the painting only singed.

“I’m sorry to disturb you all, but I’m going to play you a song.” A lovely older gentlemen calls attention to the room. He pulls from its case a banjo, pulling up a plastic ‘school chair’ and resting the instrument in his lap. “This is a two hundred year old song from Hanley — very old.”

As we continue our exploration his finger picking evokes a ghostly beauty in the building — the sound sweeping over us while we silently sneak amongst cracks, artists touching the magnetism of nostalgia. I find a large book with the images of the zodiacs in unity, connected in a golden circle with the earth at the centre — a frosted wine glass — a door propped against the wall with ‘out’ spray-painted in red — a pile of perhaps ten biblical sized blue books, each a volume of law texts. Painted in white markings is a badminton pitch beneath us — I imagine the spirits playing at the turn of the twentieth century, the room once rows of workers connecting calls at machines as voices shoot through wires, the stern but fair matron managers standing over them in dresses and hats — transformed to a recreation ground of sport and play. As the banjo ends the room turns to applause — captivated by the sound so elegantly shared.

Near the centre of the room I find a broken violin, running my hand over it’s smooth wood — I admire the craftsmanship, someone once sculpted one of the grandest tools of musicality from the body of a tree — on the inside the words ‘Antonius Stradivarius. Faclebat Cremona’ are engraved on the violin from ‘seventeen-thirteen’. A page, torn out carefully, portrays the black and white image of Socrates at his trial (‘To the good man no evil could happen’) his hand outstretched to the circular crowd condemning him. More golden letters laid out in the words ‘React’ and ‘Fact’.

Local historian Fred Hughes strolls to the middle of the room: crisp white hair, thick black glasses, a brown cord suit and gentle posture — he is a man of passion, knowledge and community; historical guru and sarcastic Brit. The sign of a great lecturer is their ability to tangent to different branches knowledge as well as the core subject — each sentence granting information. He spoke of the politics of the towns, the economical history of Hanley, the architectural achievements of the area, the arising of the telephone and its industry — I learnt more in those short minutes about Stoke-on-Trent than my three years of living here.

Time isn’t fleeting it just can’t stand still — and neither can we as I regrettably exit the room; Fat Cat’s kindly allowing us a piece of history, a souvenir to take home (and though I secretly want the broken violin) I rescue the century-old Shakespeare from it’s bed of dust. It was — in a time when art is once again politically restrained — truly inspiring to see a gathering of artists coming together under one muse.

Imperfection defined in the gaps. Exploration in the shrine of the past.

By Jack Molloy

‘Call the Operator’ – New Collaboration for Old Telephone Exchange Stoke-on-Trent
(Anna Francis, Kate Lynch, Katie Shipley)

Call the Operator is an event that discusses the history of our communication industries – looking at the importance of celebrating heritage buildings within the regeneration of cities. The Commission combined factual information with the personal histories and memories of the people that worked in the old telephone exchange in Hanley.

Katie Shipley has interviewed ex-Trinity workers to gather stories.

Anna Francis developed a new character ‘The Operator’.

Kate Lynch created a telephone directory  as a means of re-introducing historical information into the modern world.

During the event there was a telephone directory on each table in Fat Cat’s bar including a menu of numbers for participants to call.

An example of the call:
The Operator: Telephone Exchange, what number do you require?
Participant: number 17 please operator.
The Operator: Thank you. Number 17 –  Brick and terracotta with plain tiled roof. Eclectic style, with main block of 3 storeys, and 3 narrow bays with flanking towers, all vertical spaces elongated.

Each directory number related to a historical fact, snippet of architectural information, or a personal story gathered by Katie, about the building. Participants dialed a mobile number to speak to ‘The Operator’ – using modern technologies (mobile phones) to connect visitors to the buildings history, as well as commenting on changing technologies.

Visitors to Fat Cats café bar were also able to listen to the personal stories through an old telephone receiver, placed in the Café Bar.

This Factory Night was part of Conjunction 2010 (view PDF document). For more information please see website: Conjunction

To hear an interview with local historian Fred Hughes on BBC radio Stoke and Staffs on the Old Telephone exchange visit: BBC Radio Stoke

Funded and supported by: Arts Council England and Northern Rock Foundation with special thanks to Fat Cats Cafe Bars, Fred Hughes and Air space gallery.