The original radiophone 

20 June 2022

Nearly a quarter of a century before the birth of the BBC, there was a select band of “listeners” in the London area who were able to hear, in the comfort of their homes, live performances from theatres, music halls, churches and concerts. They were subscribers to the Electrophone, a service which was operated through the telephone system. ANTONY ASKEW writes about the BBC’s curious forerunner.



Masthead of Ariel

From Ariel, the BBC staff newspaper, for 20 October 1982

IN 1899 a general licence was granted to the National Telephone Company for the carrying on of electrophone business. In practice, the service was confined to telephone subscribers in the London area and in Bournemouth, the National Telephone Company providing the necessary plant and the commercial side of the business being undertaken by the Electrophone Company. The electrophone service covered performances at theatres and the principal music halls and concert halls, and was installed at some churches.

There were two tariffs, £10 and £5 a year [about £1,350 and £675 respectively now, allowing for inflation – Ed]. The £10 subscribers had four receivers (each for one listener) attached to a small portable stand. The stand also had a transmitter so that listeners could speak to the Electrophone operator without removing their receivers from their ears. There was a choice of listening and £10 subscribers could take their pick of performances. The right connections were made by the operator.

For £5 subscribers got two receivers hung from the wall, but no stand, and they had to use their telephones to ask for connection. There was a kind of “table d’hote” service chosen by “a trained Staff of Operators”, and no choice of performances. The same relay could be connected to several subscribers on a telephone exchange — whether or not with corresponding loss of power is not clear!

The stand with headphones dangling

Headphone stand

Once connected to a “hearing” subscribers stayed connected until somebody rang them up. But phone calls out could be made without interrupting the “hearing”.

“Hearings” were given every evening, on Saturday afternoons, Sunday mornings (these were church services) and whenever there was a Sunday afternoon concert.

When the National Telephone Company’s system was transferred to the Post Office at the end of 1911 the Post Office purchased the Electrophone Company, providing and recovering the necessary apparatus at the subscriber’s home as required, under a temporary arrangement by which the Post Office was paid, in addition to certain royalties, a third of the gross electrophone receipts each year, with an agreed minimum of £2000 [£242,000 today].

The service continued to grow right up to the start of broadcasting. In 1915 there were 673 subscribers; the peak was 2086, in March 1923.

After that, the service declined rapidly. The decline is attributed to the increasing popularity of wireless broadcasting and to the fact that, as a result of the opposition of theatrical interests to broadcasting, certain managers refused to allow concerts and other performances under their control (which had been the most important items of the electrophone programme) to be transmitted. Also significant was the frequency of changes in subscribers, with the result that the allowance made for the cost of providing and recovering installations proved insufficient.

The company was hopeful of being able to overcome the opposition of theatre and concert managers to the broadcasting of their entertainments and was experimenting with “loud sounders” in order to introduce attractive dance music. But by December 1924 it became clear that the opposition could not be overcome. The directors of the Electrophone Company then decided that with the prospect of increasing competition from the British Broadcasting Company they could not offer the Post Office sufficient guarantees to justify the continuation of the service and they proposed the definite cessation of the service at the end of 1925. The Postmaster General however refused to licence the service beyond June 30 of that year.


Seven people sit against a wall, each of them with headphones on

The very first “listeners” enjoyed the invention of the Electrophone nearly a quarter of a century before the BBC went on the air.


THE electrophone lived longer in Bournemouth where, up till 1923, there was a following amounting to about two per cent of the telephone subscribers. In September 1923 there were 58 subscribers to the service out of 3214 telephone subscribers. The Theatre Royal, the Winter Gardens and four churches were the source of the service. The Theatre Royal withdrew in 1927, and in 1929, when the Winter Gardens were rebuilt, the borough decided not to continue.

This left only the relays from the four churches — Richmond Hill Free Church, St John’s Church, St Stephen’s, and St Michael’s. By this time there were only some 23 subscribers but one or two were fairly vocal — witness a letter from one to the Southampton manager following the end of transmissions from the Winter Gardens. She was evidently a lady with a companion or attendant daughter perhaps, for the text of the letter is in a different hand from the signature (which is not very clear) and at times is a masterpiece of punctuation.


I thank you for your letter of the 12th inst., and much regret to learn that the Bournemouth Corporation are not prepared to grant facilities for an Electrophone installation at the new Pavilion. At the same time, I had hoped that you could have been in a position to grant a proportionate reduction in the charges. As you are aware, the transmissions from the four places of worship available are, generally speaking, for one day only in the week, whereas one has been accustomed hitherto to transmissions twice daily, if desired.

I feel, therefore, that there should be a reduction in the charges, or, alternatively, a transmission from another place of worship.

I understood, when I had the Electrophone installed six years ago, that the Theatre program was available to subscribers, so that, since then, one is, to all practical purposes, confined to Sunday services only, without, at present, any reduction having been made, or additional facilities granted.

I shall be glad to hear from you on the matter at your earliest convenience.

Yours faithfully

(Mrs) Lydia F. Adsill


Unfortunately the file does not contain anything further other than a pencilled note on the letter “Ack considerately”! A somewhat more forthright correspondent — perhaps some retired ex-Indian Army Colonel — wrote:


I am in receipt of your letter of 12th inst., contents of which I note.

I shall be glad to know when my annual rental expires, and also whether, in consideration of the greatly reduced facilities, if it is proposed to increase the annual rental.

I may say that the service recently has been most erratic and often quite unsatisfactory. We have also had constant interruptions while “listening”,

Yours faithfully

A. B. B. Scott


An inter-departmental memo of August 20, 1930, remarks “12 subscribers are now connected with the electrophone service.” Later that year, in December, the Southampton office received this letter:


At the Boscombe Post Office I was told to apply to you.

I write to ask you to kindly remove the Electrophone fittings which I understand are your property from St John’s Church, Boscombe, and as soon as convenient.

They have been up for I know not how many years: and they are (at least as far as we are concerned) not in use now. They make ugly the places where they are and the Churchwardens and I are anxious to get rid of them as soon as possible. Will you either take them away or give us leave to do so.

An early answer will oblige.

Yours faithfully

G. Foster Carter
Vicar of St. John’s Church,


I love the “they make ugly the places”. Sounds like a recitative from the Messiah. However, the vicar was persuaded that there were a few distant listeners and the gear remained for a few years more until the death of the one and final subscriber.

The service finally came to a halt in 1937.

At the time of original publication, Anthony Askew was a senior studio manager, Music, at the BBC


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