Wren House
...in the shadow of St. Pauls.
Wren House
Originally constructed in 1933, the former carpet/textile warehouse was leased by the GPO in 1963 to become a new international operator centre.

The switchrooms were officially opened by the Postmaster General, the Rt. Honourable Anthony Wedgwood Benn on 29 June 1964. In 1964/1965 bookings were being taken for transatlantic calls (intercontinental) to North America.

Wren House was solely an English speaking centre, which also made it easier to recruit and train staff as the need arose.

Photo: Wren House, London © Light Straw Archive Feb 2012.
| EXIT | 107/108 Service | Ticket Despatch Office | Switchrooms | Operating Procedures | DQ | Staff | The End |

The Building

Foundation stone laid 2 November 1933 by Ralph Montagu Cook JP. 

Upon transfer to the GPO, Wren House adopted the name of its earlier building at 27-30 St. Paul's Churchyard, which had been demolished during the creation of Carter Lane Gardens.

Wren House at 15 Carter Lane, London, comprised of seven floors:
  • Basement - equipment.
  • Ground floor - equipment, traffic office, locker room, first aid room and a small kitchen catering for the reception suite.
  • 1st  floor - switchrooms and SCSRs office.
  • 2nd floor - switchrooms.
  • 3rd floor - locker rooms and games room.
  • 4th floor - exchange clerical and training room.
  • 5th floor - canteen. Supplies of suitable switching equipment.
Like most buildings occupied by the GPO, the use of the floor space changed over the years and at one time, the exchange clerical, ticket despatch office, and training rooms were all located on the 3rd floor. Moves took place for various reasons, such as asbestos removal and refurbishment.

Ian Cairns [Tpst/N in Wren House 1965-1979] explains, "On the 3rd floor the Ticket Dispatch Office was relocated away from the Building and other departments to the 4th floor. The 3rd floor was then used for Locker Rooms and the Games Room. The 4th floor was used for the Exchange Clerical Office and the Training Department."

Malcolm Knight [STS in Wren House 1981-1984] concludes, "The Ticket Office was relocated to Wren House during my tenure, but why it had been housed elsewhere and how we squeezed it back in I no longer remember. It was a large room, possibly half the size of a switchroom, dealing not only with Wren's own tickets but also the constant flow of billing information for all of the UK's international transfer charge calls. Because of the revenue implications of any loss or delay the unit was frequently the subject of management interest which may explain why I recall a somewhat mixed reaction from the staff when calling in there on my last day. Karen W excepted of course, who was as friendly and conscientious as usual."

107/108 Service

The 'on-demand' service to North America was launched on 8th July 1968 and allowed London subscribers to dial an international operator without having to go via their local operator. And the call no longer had to be reverted back. [Link to delay working].

Subscribers dialled 107 for ordinary calls and were connected directly with an international operator in Wren House who completed the call, 'on-demand' - no booking or calling back was required.

Subscribers dialled 108 for personal and miscellaneous calls and the operator rang back once the called person was on the line.

Ticket Despatch Office

The Exchange Manager (1981-1984) recalls...

"The ticket despatch office, situated on the west side of the building, was the biggest part of the third floor, but not because of the number of tickets produced by the Wren House operators. The unit was responsible for processing the data from all 'collect' (transfer-charge) calls from every country worldwide. Consequently, the data for all incoming collect (transfer-charge) calls from abroad to UK chargeable numbers ended up in Wren House. The details were transcoded onto ISOCC tickets, which were later despatched to a ticket reading centre, to be passed through the UK billing system to raise charges. Collect calls from the USA to the UK accounted for a large proportion of this traffic, and thus from about 1987 the process was computerised. No more tickets; the USA fed our billing systems directly and vice versa."

The Switchrooms

Wren House dealt only with Inter-continental calls from four switchrooms located on the first and second floors:-

  • Wren 1E
  • Wren 1W
  • Wren 2E
  • Wren 2W
The Switchrooms
The switchrooms ran from the front (i.e.. looking at St Paul's) right through to the back. Apart from the toilets and stairs, the whole of the first and second floor was 100% switchroom.

Photo: Wren House Switchroom, London © Light Straw Archive.
The Canteen  
Wren House Canteen
With over 1000 operating & clerical staff, food and refreshments were an important part of the working environment.

Photo: Wren House Canteen before refurbishment © 1982/3 Light Straw Archive.
Operating Procedures  
Operating Procedures
A look at the keyshelf, jackfields and operating procedures.

Photo: Switchboard keyshelf and jackfield © Light Straw Archive.
International DQ  
International DQ
The Wren House International DQ library contained over 500 directories covering most parts of the world including... Republic of Kiribati - Urban Tarawa 1980-81 - This example, rescued from the DQ on its closure in 1983, consisted of a mere 28 type-written pages over half of which were for numbers within government offices. The preface makes interesting reading too.

"The telephone system is now so large that our operators cannot remember all names and numbers and are often too busy to look them up for you."

Photo: Urban Tarawa telephone directory 1980-81 © Light Straw Archive.
The Managers & Staff

Wren had very few managers. It started with Peter Glanville, John Brown and Roy Potter, then Brian Hordle, usually called Major Hurdle because of his Territorial Army connections, Graham McCubbin, Malcolm Knight from 1981 to 1984 and finally Gerry McGarrity from 1984 until closure in 1988 . During his term, Brian Hordle was manager of both Wren and Faraday 2A.

The Management Team (1982)

Malcolm Knight is shown (below) with some of his team who tried to run the exchange efficiently and give as good a service to the customers as possible. Not an easy job, as industrial relations were only just beginning to show signs of improvement after the troublesome seventies and IDD had not yet made its mark on any 'third world' country. Route congestion and delay was the norm.

The Management Team (1982)
Times were changing and the era of the large sleeve control boards which had begun fifty years earlier was nearing its end. Office tasks were being streamlined and Malcolm's team was at the forefront of a computing initiative at a time when desktop computers were still totally unknown elsewhere in International Telephones.

Photo: Wren House Management Team © Light Straw Archive 1982.
The End

The lease on Wren House was due to expire in 1992, but the landlord offered British Telecom a large sum to vacate the building early so that it could be developed. It therefore closed in 1988. The equipment was quickly stripped out and complete refurbishment took place soon after. It is thought that a planning requirement (or adjoining buildings) prevented demolition, so the interior was gutted leaving only the shell. It was then rebuilt by its new owner and leased to companies such as BANCA SAN PAOLO IMI SPA.

By the end of the Eighties, a more modern call centre had opened in Kelvin House, Judd Street.

Fred Dowry
The Wren House pages are dedicated to the memory of Fred Dowry, who died (at the tragically young age of 49) en-route to see his beloved Tottenham Hotspur play away on 25 January 2004.

The story would not be complete without a mention of the 'Cybermen Invasion' which marched down the steps of Peter's Hill (opposite St. Paul's) around September 1968. Perhaps they were simply off-duty telephonists? The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe knew better.
Design, images and text compiled by © Light-Straw. Page last updated 26 Nov 2018.
With thanks to Malcolm Knight.
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