Palace of Winged Words

By David Thompson, Royal Historical Society

A 19th century three-storey redbrick building in Wills St in the CBD hardly rates a glance from most passers-by who are unaware that this building was once Melbourne’s first purpose-built telephone exchange. 

Although now surmounted by a multi-storey apartment block, externally the lower three storeys still retain many of their original features.

1877 saw the installation of the first telephones in Victoria. Initially, each telephone was connected directly to another but soon the connection was made instead to a central exchange, via which any two subscribers could communicate.

In 1880, Australia’s first telephone exchange opened in Melbourne with 23 subscribers. The Melbourne Telephone Exchange Company Ltd managed by H. Byron Moore, began operations in the old Stock Exchange Building in Collins St.

In 1881 The Australasian Sketcher named that first exchange “The Palace of Winged Words”.

The company became the Victorian Telephone Exchange Company, and in 1884 moved to the much larger, purpose-built building in Wills St.

In 1887 the Town and Country Journal described the exchange and its operations. At that time the building had two storeys.

“One of the features of the front of the building is the wide and high balcony through which overhead wires are brought into the operating room,” it said.

The outline of this balcony is still visible today. The ground floor housed offices, while the first floor was occupied by the operating room, described as “not only a spacious apartment, it is splendidly ventilated and well lighted; and a capacious stove is provided for the cold weather.”

The 24 female operators worked in two shifts and performed their tasks while standing at the switchboard. However, chairs were “provided for the leisure moments of the fair and nimble-fingered battalion of operators”.

The Town and Country Journal went on to describe the scene in the operating room thus: “Place yourself in the middle of the room and gaze upon the delicate hands in magic confusion playing as it were upon metal switches, plugs and switching cords.”

“There is no shouting or even excitement … There is a soft sighing murmur in the room … that little pouting delicate mouth is wrestling with the pangs, groans and tempers of 100 subscribers, that number being attended by one lady operator …”

In 1887 the Victorian Government bought the Victorian Telephone Exchange Company and took over the Wills St Exchange. At the time there were 887 subscribers. Within a year this number had risen to 1462.

At some stage a third storey was added to the building to accommodate connections to Melbourne’s suburban exchanges.

The Wills St Exchange finally closed in 1910 when it could no longer accommodate the ever expanding number of subscribers. It is regrettable that this building, classified by the National Trust, bears little outward mark to indicate its significance in Melbourne’s communications history.

For nearly 30 years most of the telephone conversations in the CBD passed through this building – it was indeed a “Palace of Winged Words”. Today, the cafe on the ground floor, Operator 25, pays homage to the past with its witty take on telephone exchanges.

Images: Wills St Exchange in 1887
Interior of Wills St Exchange in 1886
Wills St Exchange today

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