The Faraday Building of Queen Victoria Street

One of the things that makes walking the streets of London so enjoyable is a discovery that not only informs about a building or location, but also tells a whole new story about a period in time and what was changing and important in the life of Londoners at that time.

Walk down Queen Victoria Street towards Blackfriars. After passing the church of St. Benet, Paul’s Wharf on your left you will walk past what, at first glance, appears to be a very bland and utilitarian building.

Faraday Building 1

This is the Faraday Building, named after Michael Faraday, an English scientist who experimented with electromagnetism, demonstrated how rotating a coil in a magnetic field could generate electricity and developed the “laws which governs the evolution of electricity by magneto-electric induction”.

The General Post Office (GPO) opened the first London telephone exchange on this site in 1902 with the existing building being completed and officially opened in 1933 to accommodate the very significant growth in telephone services across London. It was designed by A.R. Myers, an architect of the Office of Works who was responsible for the design of a considerable number of Telephone Exchange buildings and Post Offices across the country.

Following completion, the height of the building was very controversial as it blocked the view of St. Paul’s Cathedral from the river. It led to the planning regulations and by-laws that protected sight-lines to the cathedral and restricted the height of buildings. To this day along Queen Victoria Street, the Faraday Building is still the tallest between cathedral and river, as can be clearly seen in the following photo where the Faraday Building is on the right, well above the surrounding buildings.

panaroma with faraday

The Faraday Building was the main telephone exchange for London and also the hub for international circuits with the majority of international calls being routed via the manual switchboards in the building.

Look just above the line of the second set of windows and in the position associated with a key stone, there are a series of carvings, one above each window, that tell the story of what was state of the art telecommunications at the time the building was constructed.

Row of windows

Walking down towards Blackfriars, the first carving is the Telephone.

TelephoneThis type of telephone at the time, was cutting edge technology. It utilised a dial that sent pulses to the telephone exchange when the dial was released from the chosen number position, to tell equipment at the exchange what number was being dialled. Prior to the use of a dial, all calls were put through manually, requiring an initial conversation with an operator which would then start a series of manual patching to put you through to your destination. A technique that worked when few people had telephones, but a model that could not cope with the growth of telephones as the 20th Century progressed.

The next carving shows a series of coded pulses crossing a disk, possibly a representation of the world.

Arrows

Coded pulses were the means by which information was transmitted about the call to be made. When a dial was turned on a telephone, the release of the dial would cause it to return to its original position and as it returned it would open and close an electrical contact thereby sending pulses to the telephone exchange.

I have seen a number of interpretations for the next carving, but to me these are very clearly the cables that carry telephone signals. There is an outer loop of cable and within the centre, the ends of the cables which have their protective sheath cut back leaving the individual conductors within exposed.

CablesCables were the key part of the telephone system that carried the pulses and speech from telephones, to the exchanges and then across to their destination, whether in the same street or across the world. (I can see the architects were trying to tell a story in stone of the technology of how a telephone call was made)

The next carving shows a Horse Shoe Magnet. Magnetism was key to the telephone system from the very beginning through to the late 1990s when telephone exchanges driven by magnetic devices were replaced by computer based systems.

Magnet

Michael Faraday’s work with electricity and electromagnetic induction was critical in the understanding of electricity and magnetism, their relationship and laid the foundations for their future practical application. This work was crucial to enable the technology that would go on to provide the telephone systems that spanned the world to be developed and these carvings clearly seem to be celebrating this fact, and the position of the Faraday Building as a hub in this global network.

One of Faraday’s experiments involved rotating a coil of wire between the poles of a horseshoe magnet which resulted in the generation of a continuous electric current in the wires of the coil. This was the first electrical generator and the fundamentals are the same in the generators of modern-day power stations.

We then come to a carving for King George V, the monarch at the time of the construction and opening of the Faraday Building.

GR

Moving on we come to the carving of an electromagnetic relay which to me is one of the most unique relatively modern-day carvings you will find across London. It is of a core bit of technology, hidden away in the depths of a telephone exchange, but without which automatic telephone exchanges would not have functioned. This type of relay was cutting edge at the time the building was planned, equivalent to the technology that connects the Internet today and switches information from your computer or smart phone through to web-based services across the world.

Relay

As an apprentice in the late 1970s with Post Office Telephones (as it was prior to changing to British Telecom and being privatised) I have spent many hours cleaning and adjusting these relays to keep them working and driving the equipment that switched telephone calls. The following photo shows a typical item of equipment from a telephone exchange in the late 1970s full of the relays found carved on the Faraday Building. This is looking end on, as if we were looking at the carving in from the right.

new relay set 2Large telephone exchanges such as that within the Faraday Building would have had many thousands of these relays.

I find these carvings fascinating. They show a pride and celebration in the technology of the time and the function of the building. The majority of buildings constructed during the last few decades, apart from transient corporate logos, tend to have no indication of their function or purpose.

One final set of details can be found just above the main entrances to the building. Just above the door, between the words Faraday and Building is the caduceus (staff with wings above two coiled snakes) of Mercury, the messenger of the Gods, and just above the window there is a carving of  Mercury.
Faraday door

Technology has moved on considerably since the Faraday Building and these carvings were completed and I doubt the architect and builders of the time could have dreamt of the Smart Phone and Internet.

I hope these carvings remain for many decades to come to show future generations the pride that they had in the service that the Faraday Building would provide to London.

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28 thoughts on “The Faraday Building of Queen Victoria Street

  1. Pingback: London News Roundup | Londonist

  2. Andy

    Found your picture on Twiiter and just wanted to say thank you for bringing back lots of happy memories.
    My Father worked there in the 1950’s and each year we would go with him to the Faraday Exchange for the kids Christmas party.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Hi Andy, thanks for the comment. I gather there was quite a social life associated with working at Faraday as there was a considerable staff there for both the engineering support of the Exchange and also all the operator services that the telephone service was so dependent on.

      Reply
  3. Elizabeth Hurley (nee Betty Tate)

    I was one of the telephone operators during the war, it was a testing time one never knew if the building would still be there each day, especially after the great raid on the docks and a lot of the city left burning. However we lived to tell the tale, and soldiered on. I left the service in 1955 my last exchange as supervisor in Flaxman. I doubt if any of my contemporaries are still alive, they would be 80’to90 years.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Elizabeth, thanks very much for the comment. I can imagine it was a very testing time. I understand Faraday was “relatively” lucky as there was considerable damage throughout Queen Victoria Street. It would be very interesting to hear of your experiences at Faraday during the war.

      Reply
  4. Kathy Thomas

    I worked here in 1959/60 in the incoming call centre . I was only 15yrs old and just left school . It was the best job I ever had and only left as my parents decided to move to Cornwall where I live today. Lovely memories of a beautiful old building . Kathy Thomas (nee Jewell).

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Hi Kathy, I have heard from several people that it was a great place to work. I am just so glad that the carvings have remained on the front of the building, as a long term reminder of Faraday’s key role in the telephony system.

      Reply
    2. Jenny Bean

      Hi…my name is Jenny Bean i left school 1965…trained for 6 weeks to become GPO. Operator … Then took up Telephone Operator position at Faraday …I throughly enjoyed working in the lovel old building. the switch room seemed enormous at the time…At lunchtimes we went out onto the big balcony around the roof….the view over London was amazing…I was only just 15 at the time…so it seemed like a good adventure.

      Reply
      1. admin Post author

        Hi Jenny – it must have been quite an experience at the age of 15. I have only heard good experiences from anyone who had worked in Faraday. I bet the view from the roof was amazing as at that time it was still one of the tallest buildings in the area.

        Reply
      2. Val Carter

        Hi Jenny, just came across this site. I also worked at Faraday building in 1965 having just left school at 15 and can remember doing my 6 weeks training at another exchange.
        I loved that job but sadly everything changed when my father was posted to Devizes in Wiltshire, I did work for the little exchange there but it was never the same and soon afterwards STD took over. My maiden name was Nottage. I only have memories of my time at Faraday, we didn’t think to take photos back then.
        Val Carter

        Reply
  5. Graham Long

    Hi, I was a TO installing SPC in SE Block in the early 70’s. The building was alive and buzzed with all the engineers and operating staff and there was a family atmosphere and great social life. I visited it in 1995 and nearly wept with the emptiness of the place. All the equipement gone and just a few silent grey boxes in corner calling themselves a telephone exchange. Sad, but thats progress for you.

    Reply
  6. stephen

    Just came across this by chance but great to see the carvings and their interpretation. I worked there during most of the 80’s but I must say I didn’t really take notice of them at the time. It was a great place to work (subsidised bar, snooker and table tennis tables etc.). We sometimes spent time ‘exploring’ all the hidden areas of the complex and marvelled at the massive steel doors into ‘citadel’ (North block). One room we came across resembled a greenhouse with virtually the whole of the windows obscured with plants – we wondered if anyone actually knew what the men in there did, apart from tend the plants!

    Reply
  7. Louise Irvine

    I was a French speaking telephonist here in 1974. A 19 year old girl from the north west. Totally unaware of the great history behind the famous building I was working in. I used my lunch breaks to explore the area. We were in the middle of the “troubles” and often had to leave the building and go down the winding staircase and make our way to the steps of St Pauls whilst they investigated the bomb threat. Scary but necessary, after a while we got used to it and just carried on working. It was an incredible place to work. I feel very privileged to have spent a couple of years there.

    Reply
  8. Peter langridge

    I worked as an engineer in Faraday from 1963-1971 and again from 1990-1998.I have great memories of those years.I even married one of the telephones. I worked on the 1st floor southeast block and can remember taking my kids in to watch the Lord Mayors parade going down Queen Victoria st.

    Reply
  9. Hayley M8rris nee Denny

    I was a telephonist at Faraday in 1974. I was trained by Mr Fitzgerald and Mrs Benson. My co-trainees were Karen Wiseman, Ruth Durrant, Mrs Lilly and Mrs Crocker, Debbie, Shieila, Jill Armitage and Mary. I also remember Julie Aldridge and Rehanna Rashid, and Jo with whom I shared many a giggle!

    I loved working at Faraday. It was the best job I ever had.

    Hayley Morris, nee Denny

    Reply
  10. Mrs. Jean Singleton

    Hi, I’ve just found this page when trying to find photos of the telephone exchanges at Faraday House. What a brilliant page,with the building just as I remembered it. I was sent to Faraday after my initial training as a telephonist in 1949. I was 15 and I just made the height of 5ft,which you had to be as a telephonist. After the first week or so when we were in the “dummy” switchroom,which was underground,we were then moved into the main building. I was allocated to 3main,which also had the Royal switchboard in. I remember if we were late to work,we were docked pay for every half hour. We had special dockets for the canteen,so we didn’t have to pay full price,although I’m not sure if that was only while we were juniors. Once a week we had to attend school in Holborn,where we had lessons on maths, english,and other subjects.
    I really loved my time there and was sad when I had to leave. I ended up at Enfield Telephone Exchange, until I moved with my husband to Bishop’s Stortford. I then went on to other jobs, but the GPO was definitely my favourite,and I still have fond memories of it. If anyone was in 3main during the late 40’s,early 50”s,I would love to hear from them.
    Tnanks once again, Jean

    Reply
    1. James Harrison

      Dear Jean, Sorry to trouble you but I have been trying to track you down in relation to an interview I would like to do with in relation to a BBC documentary I am making about Switchboard Operators; is there any chance you could drop me a line at all? I am on james.harrison@bbc.co.uk happy to explain more about the documentary etc.
      Many Thanks
      James Harrison
      BBC Studios, Bristol

      Reply
  11. Iain

    I came across this post as I was curious as to the history of a building that I visit from time to time in my work for an internet service provider. We have equipment located on the ground floor in the MUA (multi user area) I like the fact that the buildings use has evolved over time with the changing shape of communication. I also love the view from the 9th floor canteen over St Paul’s, many a top London restaurant/bar would kill for that.

    Thanks for the informative post and I will be on look out for the 2nd floor stone carvings next time that I go.

    Reply
    1. Jean

      Hi Iain,
      Just seen your post about Faraday House. Do you know if the underground room is still there?
      I don’t suppose any of the old exchanges are left there now,but this fascinated me as a 15 year old.
      Jean

      Reply
      1. Iain

        Hi Jean,

        I only have card access to my the area we have equipment in Faraday, however my colleague is going next week Or I might be going before the end of December I can ask one of the guys on the Securuty desk for you.

        Reply
  12. Dawn Winchester

    Thank you so much for this information. My mother was very proud of being a GPO trained telephonist. While dealing with her effects I found her membership card of the Faraday Building Refreshment Club for 1947. It showed her exchange was Toll. She told me that she used to take her breaks on the roof and look out over London. I also recently found out that the telephonists worked shifts and slept in specialist accommodation where they were also served breakfast. All that and wages too! Her family home was able to have a telephone because of her job although it had to be registered in her name rather than her father’s. We never knew that this was the building she worked in (after all she had signed the Official Secrets Act) but I can now understand why her Mum was concerned when she saw the size of the building her daughter was working in. RIP mum

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Hi Dawn, that is really interesting. I have had a number of comments from people who worked in Faraday and everyone appears to have enjoyed their time working in the building. It must have been a fascinating experience, with the added benefit of the opportunity of the view from the roof. It would be interesting to know if anyone ever took any photos from the roof.

      Reply
  13. Linda North

    Hello I have just found this page about the Faraday building i worked there as a G>P.O telephonist in 1959 -60 I worked in 6 S which had the royal board the stock exchange and Irish service we also dealt with calls coming into London from all over the country to be diverted to other parts of London, although the main room for incoming calls was 5 main, there was also the continental exchange in the building and the international exchange, the view from the roof was fantastic and it was lovely to sit outside in the nice weather.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Hi Linda – thanks for the comment. All the feedback I have had on Faraday is that it was a really good place to work. I am envious of the view from the roof, I bet it was fantastic. I will have to search for some photos.

      Reply
    2. Jean

      Hello Linda,
      Well! Faraday obviously changed from the time I was there, because the Royal Board
      was in 3main then. Also there were separate Continental and International rooms. Not sure
      of the number rooms, but they were on the upper floors.
      I should have taken photos when I was there in 1949,especially the “Dummy room” which was
      outside the main building.
      Lovely to hear from other people who worked there.
      Jean

      Reply
  14. Christine Matthews

    OMG this was such a lovely surprise to find this.
    I did my training at the offices near Camnon Street station an dremember the walk to Faraday building which we all moined about, but we were young. I worked in the Continental Exchange and i loved every minuite and i am so grateful for the training i received because it gave me the ability to work for years and employers always wanted GPO telephonists. I now live in the north east of england but would like to know if there are any tours of the exchange as i would really like to go back and remember my very happy days there.

    Reply
    1. Jean

      Hi Christine,
      I am an ex-telephonist from Faraday House, and I can tell you that there is definitely no tours around the exchanges as they have now all been dismantled. If however you just want a tour around the building,
      you would have to ask someone else,because I don’t know.
      I was told way back in the 80’s I couldn’t go in the building,when I especially went to Faraday to look at it.
      Hope you get better luck than I did.
      Best wishes, Jean

      Reply
      1. Christine Matthews

        Hi jean

        I am going to be in London in June sometime so I’m going to start making enquiries and see if there is anything that can be done so I will let you know if I gat any where

        Christine
        Keep your fingers crossed

        Reply

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