The Telephone Tomb of Prosen

The Telephone Tomb of Prosen

Gleprosen exchange in the summer of 2004

My first encounter with the old A type exchange building in Glen Prosen was during our summer holiday in 2004. At that time I was still busy collecting photos of every such building I could find in the UK, and this part of Scotland was a new rich hunting ground. The building is situated many miles up the glen and virtually isolated in a field some way from the village. I use the term village loosely. Here is a small church and a few cottages, a car park for walkers but little else. There was a house overlooking not too far away which seemed to be home to loud barking dogs so on this occasion I did not feel inclined to venture over the barbed wire and around the back to try the door. I assumed it was just one of many long empty and abandoned such buildings around the UK, probably containing a few bales of hay and a shelter for sheep. The Glen of Prosen is one of a few little known Angus glens running north up into the Cairngorm mountains, accessed from the relatively tourist free areas north of Dundee and the Carse of Gowrie. Any errant visitors are likely to visit the more widely known adjacent glen of Clova. There is nothing habitable north of here until you hit the royal estate of Balmoral. The nearest town is Kirriemuir, birthplace of James Barrie, some 12 miles south.

During subsequent years on holiday in the area I passed the building frequently when visiting the glen but never gave it much more attention. On discovering a very pleasantly isolated holiday cottage called the Gardenerís Bothy, in the woods on the Balnaboth estate, some 2 miles beyond the village, we chose to holiday there both in 2007 and the year after. Still we kept passing daily without further attention. On one of the few days during that September not spoilt by driving rain, we decided to venture on a modest walk up one side of the glen and back down the road to the village. On passing the Prosen exchange building yet again but on foot this time, I felt more brave and tried to ignore the barking dogs. I scaled the barbed wire and ventured round the back to see if there was a door to try or a letter box to peer through. What I found was something of a shock.

There was no locked door. No door at all. But this building was not what I would call vacant. Inside, standing in a sea of broken glass lead acid cells, were 3 racks of a GPO UAX12 exchange, and the original charging panel, an example of which I have never seen in the flesh. My immediate thoughts were of acid everywhere. But there was no evidence of acid. About half the 24 cells were sort of intact and clearly had been drained ready for recovery. Our subsequent deduction of events is that this exchange had been prepared for recovery but never collected. At some point, a long time ago, someone stole the door. Subsequently someone had probably broken up some of the cells to take the lead. Maybe they were interupted. But there was no evidence of any other real vandalism. The charging panel had fallen over, but this is a very unstable rack and could have been pushed over by sheep. Among the rubbish on the floor were several mummified hares and a dead sheep. The wooden battery rack was later found to be outside overgrown with grass. The racks were apparently complete, although condensation has caused rusting of the outside casing, the rack and relay set covers had protected the relays and the selectors very well. There was a birds nest, probably that of a Robin, by the test panel of the C rack. The A rack had a full compliment of selectors, and the nest of another robin. The B rack, one selector, and the nest of another robin. There were 5 junction relay sets stacked on the floor along with a spare selector. The doors were still on the back of the racks and I did not at this stage think to check the back of the racks, especially as I am not particularly familiar with the U12. I already have a U13, which is very different. The racks were clearly ready to collect as the interconnections had been cut. There was a small cable from the cable trench running into the bottom of the MDF in the C rack. Apparently, C racks are very scarce. Here was the complete exchange of Glenprosen. There appears never to have been an engine, but the layout was otherwise exactly as the textbook of Atkinson.

There was not a great deal else in the building of interest. No spares cabinet, no diary or paperwork. No kettle boiling on the ring, gas, No 1A. But there were a number of swallows nests around the inside of the building at ceiling level, and the bulk of the electric light fittings were present, although without power.

David surveys the plunder on offer

The door had clearly been gone for many years. It is a very interesting fact to behold that such a setup could sit there without security and not be further vandalised for so long. Clearly the sub human types who vandalise every empty building and everything in it had never reached here. That the GPO of the day should have left all this is a mystery, given that they normally cleared everything out of redundant buildings with super efficiency. Maybe they left it for the local scrapman to collect. We will probably never know. The road to here is good although long. I have heard of exchanges being abandoned on islands but Glen Prosen seems not to have quite the same excuses.

You can imagine what was going through my mind. I wanted to take it home with me. This is a pre STD U12. It cannot be left to rot here! Many U12s were heavily modified and extended to accommodate the changes for STD working. This was original. I needed to find out who owned it now. As I had my video camera with me I took a comprehensive video of everything and then made our way back to the bothy. The next day I took my still camera to take some digital pictures, but first the dead sheep had to go. At the very least I wanted to tidy it up and clear out the rubbish on the floor, but I felt uneasy about doing anything until I contacted the owner. My wife encouraged me to carry on regardless, reckoning no one will care, but I felt unable to do that. The obvious person to ask about ownership was our landlord, but he wasnít back from Edinburgh until the weekend. I had to wait until the last day of the holiday before I could hope to find the owner. Meanwhile I was pondering how to deal with the issue once I had permission. Coming all the way back from Oxfordshire to collect it would be extremely expensive so I was wondering about buying a secondhand trailer locally, but it was all too unpractical in the time left.

On Friday night I managed to catch the landlord just before his party out that night. The answer about ownership was obvious. He is the Laird. He owns the Balnaboth estate, about 4000 acres. He owns all the holiday cottages, most of the properties in the village and the local farms, and just about everything else for miles around. The exchange was on his land. He was in a hurry, but agreed I might have it for a price to be agreed, and that I could make it secure until I come back for it. He had to admit he had not looked round the back of it for about 10 years and never knew the door was missing. But he knew there were "3 racks in there".

So the last day as we were due to go home, I had to drive all the 20 miles to Forfar to find a builders merchant that could sell me a sheet of one inch plywood, and then come all the way back again. My idea was to tidy it up and then board it up securely until I could come back for the equipment. Bearing in mind that we were supposed to drive back home as far as Darlington for that night, time was short. I started to clear the floor and sort out the better cells from the rubbish. I managed to get the power panel upright again but at this point I felt doubts setting in and decided it was time to run. In fact I had begun to think maybe it was better that I didnít get involved with this and it might be best to forget it. I boarded it up very securely, so that I was sure no one would get in easily, and left for home.

During the following months it didnít leave my mind for long. I did some investigations about Prosen and U12s generally (thanks Andy) and tried to negotiate with the Laird. Using information from the Red Books to hand, it transpired that Glenprosen as an exchange ceased to exist after 1972. Clearly it had been superceded by Cortachy some 5 miles nearer to town and covering a larger subscriber group, no doubt also providing STD. Hence the pre STD Glenprosen exchange was redundant in type and location. It would never have grown much. It only had 16 subs when closed. The B rack extension was a little optimistic. So Glenprosen exchange has probably sat idle for well over 30 years.

During negotiations with the Laird I managed to convince him that with the huge costs of fuel and accommodation to come back for recovery, and the need to probably pay for hired hands, donation of the equipment at no charge was the right thing to do! Now it just remained to find the money, arrange transport and accommodation, find helpful affordable labour, and bring it all together during a time of tolerable weather! No mean task.

After revealing the news of the find on the emailing lists, fortunately there were some very helpful offers of assistance. I was concerned that I felt unable to drive that far from home in one day and that the cost of extra accommodation was going to escalate. So the very kind offer of help with driving and labour from David Williams was very reassuring. David was also willing to treat the expedition as a holiday and share some of the costs. I could not refuse such a kind and wonderful offer of help. After many weeks of planning and a few false starts, we finally set a date and at last it was all going to happen. Monday evening came in mid January and David drove the 62 miles from Southampton to stay at our house ready for a 450 mile trip the next day. David was going to drive all the way from Oxford, towing my trailer.

The equipment after tidying up the mess

On the first day we left Oxfordshire around 6:45AM. The trip up the M40, M6 and M74 was so easy it didnít seem true. No roadworks, no jams. With David driving it was a pleasure to be a passenger for a change! The world turned white at Shap Fell and as we pulled into Crawford to sample lunch at the excellent truckers cafť, it was difficult to pick out what was once the white B1 building of the official last Strowger exchange in the UK. Onwards through the snow storms towards Perth and we arrived at our lodgings by Lintrathen just as dark fell. A very smooth and speedy journey. A quick phone call to the Thrums hotel in Kirriemuir confirmed a table was booked for our supper. I was advised to book because they had another party in at that time. However, while we were there, we were the only couple eating with a booked table, the place was otherwise empty. All very strange.

Taking a break for thought after arrival on day 2

Day 2 dawned cold but dry with no more overnight snow. The nearest town of Kirriemuir is 5 miles from the lodgings and Prosen village is another 11 miles further on from there. We wanted an early start as there was a lot to do. Arriving at the lonely building in the glen seemed very different to how I left it some 4 months ago. There had been a lot of snow which turned the whole valley white, although the road was more or less clear. Here was this brick box sealed tight with a massively thick piece of plywood, nailed up in a fashion that was intended to keep anyone out. Inside we hoped was still the Prosen exchange of 35 years ago. Because of the door being inset to the masonry, getting a crowbar in wasnít going to be possible. It all felt very reminiscent of a tomb, untouched since time began, about to be plundered of whatever was within.

However, David proved that with the right tool it wasnít really that difficult at all. Once the wood was off I could refresh my mind of the reality of what we had to do. I rigged up the floodlighting and got the generator running. Now we could see properly David concentrated on clearing up the mess, sorting out the glass from the droppings, collecting up the lead, and stacking the whole cells outside the building. David was also entrusted with the task of unbolting the selectors from the banks, ready for removal. Also we stacked up the loose relay sets, and generally tidied up. One of the Lairdís conditions was that we must remove all the rubbish. At the end of day one we had loaded all the cells and the rubbish onto the trailer. Half the cells had been destroyed by the

The cells and other scrap stacked up ready for disposal

vandals, and the remaining 12 were mostly beyond redemption. In any case, we could not carry any extra weight. This was a load in itself nearing half a ton, and we had to dump all this rubbish before anything else could be loaded. I say "we" but I have to admit David did most of the work of carrying this heavy stuff. Fortunately the ground was frozen and we were able to back the trailer into the field without getting bogged down. David had also loaded all the relay sets into the back of his car ready to take home. As dark fell we noted that we had been there all day and not one soul had stopped to enquire what we were doing. One the whole, hardly anyone passed except a few vehicles on the school run and a delivery from Jewsons. Oh, and three sheep followed by a man on a motorised trike.

 An interesting evening was spent over supper in the Thrums pouring over the drawings of the charging panel, trying to understand why it was so complicated and getting to grips with how it works, and why so many jam-jar sized mercury switches were needed. I think the mercury weighed more than the rest of the panel! We had wondered why there were a few cells smaller than the rest, until we realised that these would have been the Counter EMF cells for reducing the battery voltage applied to the exchange, when charging the cells. One other thing which was on the back of our minds was the real problem of what to do with the rubbish. It had to go. The local tips might charge or refuse to take such a lot of waste. In any case, I wanted to find a scrap dealer that might take the batteries and scrap metal. A previous call made earlier in the day, to the only dealer we knew this side of Dundee, raised doubt since he really didnít know what the hell we were talking about. He had only ever heard of car batteries, which they didnít process. Our cells were easy to break up, and had no acid to deal with.

Day 3 dawned very wet, but the rain had stopped by the time breakfast was over. We had planned our day divided into two halves. We had allowed the morning to get rid of the scrap and the afternoon to load what we came for, conveniently passing through Kirriemuir at lunchtime for one of the excellent fry ups available in the Vischotti Tea Rooms. First we located the scrap dealer in Forfar. They conceded that our lead acid batteries were indeed worth having, especially as we had already separated out some loads of lead plates. Once on the weighbridge for the tare, again after the complete batteries were offloaded, and then our buckets of metal were weighed on a scale. The total weight was not far short of half a ton. The proceeds were very acceptable and paid for a slap up meal for two in the Thrums that night with change to spare! Next we called at the "recycling" depot in Forfar. Instead of descending on us with complaints of too much or the wrong sort of rubbish, the two attendants disappeared for coffee break just as we arrived. We had to seek them out to ask about the broken glass. Apparently everything was to go into "general" waste anyway.

The rubbish disposal was so much easier than we thought it might be, so there was time left to park up and visit Forfar town centre for a coffee. There is an original and proper Ironmongers in the town centre with a very old traditional look about it. An Aladdinís cave in fact, especially for David who bought tools he had been finding hard to get. I didnít need any Clootie Dumpling cloths and the drawer labelled "mantles" was nearly empty, but fork handles and hoes were certainly available.

Preparing to shift the racks across the boggy field

After our planned lunch in "Kerry" we drove back up to Glen Prosen to complete the intended job in hand. The ground was now thawed and very wet, so Davidís idea to spread straw about under foot proved very useful between the exchange and around the trailer. Fortunately, as we were lodging at a farm, we were able to obtain the bales locally without charge. They seem to grow millions of tons of the stuff in this part of Scotland. Its essential to the Whiskey you know. The boards I brought also were essential underfoot to allow the racks to be effortlessly wheeled out of the building and into the trailer, using my 4 wheel bogie. This is the best tool I ever found for moving big objects almost single handed. By the time dark was falling just about everything was loaded and the remaining job was to fasten the tarpaulin sufficiently well to keep it down when travelling at speed on the motorway. At this point, when we no longer needed any help with any lifting, the first and only contact with the locals occurred! The lairds handyman came by to check all was ok!

Finally loading the racks

Our remaining task for the day was to return to the Thrums in "Kerry" for the meal "on the scrap".

An early start in the morning of Day 4 got us well down the motorway towards home, and another chance to sample the cafť in Crawford. With a loaded trailer we expected a longer journey, but it wasnít too much longer in reality. But after 3 long days it felt like it went on forever! The ĺ hour jam caused by an incident near Warrington spoilt an otherwise trouble free trip home.


All tied down and going home

There is a lot of work to do to restore the equipment. Hopefully one day I shall have the whole exchange working again, all 3 racks and the charging panel. Some of the batteries were saved, enough to use as counter EMF cells with the charging panel No 31. The racks have been cleaned of the remains of bird excrement and nests. The paintwork of all external panels has a new coat of battleship grey paint, and some internal parts have been de-rusted. The linefinders will need fully overhauling. For dealing with the rust a product called Metal Rescue has proved to be very useful, as it can remove rust without damaging paint or legends etc, and does not have the corrosive problems associated with acid type removers. Its a water based chelation agent which strips the rust molecules away, plus other oxide coatings too so one needs to be careful. The very rare charging panel is in the process of being completely rebuilt. I even managed to find a replacement for the broken mercury switch, which turned up like a miracle at a vintage wireless fair. Amazing too we discovered that a small box screwed to the rack and held together itself by screws turned out to contain a set of spare mercury switches, except the broken one!

The exchange part restored and bolted together.

Red oxide paint was used where required on the rusty metalwork

My research in the Red books tells us that Glenprosen existed in 1961 with 14 subs. I donít have any earlier books to tell when it was installed. But in 1972 it had 16 subs, and is no longer listed by 1975, when the adjacent glen of Clova is still listed as U12. It appears that the Cortachy STD SAX exchange replaced it, in the village of Dykehead, 5 miles nearer to town. That also in turn was replacing another U12, so there were two U12s on the route from Kirriemuir to Prosen. The B unit that was installed in Glenprosen could only have been needed to extend the number of simultaneous junction calls.

However I am grateful for some further painstaking research by Brian Clancy, as the result of which I now know a lot more about the history of Glenprosen telephones and the numbering. He found the first appearance of Glenprosen in the directories was the post office in 1909 on Glenprosen 1. The blacksmith was the second person to be listed in 1920, but on the same number, so still only one phone! This continued until my generous friendly local lairdís ancestor installed a phone, Glenprosen 2, into the big house at Balnaboth by 1935. Other properties on his estate began to be connected in the following year until by 1940 there were nearly 10 subs. By 1945 a call office was being listed in the post office on Glenprosen 1.

Nothing else exceptional happened until 1950 when we suddenly see the number Glenprosen 204 listed among all the other manual numbers, which had reached 12. Why is not clear. If they were anticipating the new 3 figure exchange coming, why was Glenprosen 4 also still listed to a different address? Something odd was happening. Yes, the U12 was being installed, and by 1952 all Glenprosen numbers were 3 digit, except the Post Office! The Call office became 201, but the Post Office itself was Glenprosen 1. The sub on Glenprosen 4 had been moved to Glenprosen 205. I wonder why?

Over the next 20 odd years Glenprosen U12 served the community presumably as it should. By 1972 the kiosk is listed on 216, but its not clear when this was installed. The total number of subs reached about 16 according to the 1972 Red Book. In 1973 something strange happens. One subscriber is listed as Cortachy 285. Now Cortachy was another U12 further down the Glen towards Dundee. About this time we believe Cortachy was converted to an STD SAX and Glenprosen numbers all became Cortachy numbers with the 2 replaced by 3, in about 1975, thus ending nearly 25 years service.

I also have reliable information suggesting that subs could dial out as far as Forfar on 917. Otherwise dialling 0 reached the manual board in Dundee. Also, the STD code 05757 enabled some subscribers with STD to dial Glenprosen numbers.

The dates of manufacture, by STC, on the cabinets, are 1947, 1939 and 1947 respectively for the C, A and B units, so it seems reasonable to assume that at least the A unit had seen service elsewhere and then probably been refurbished before being re-deployed at Glenprosen.

I have made a replacement for the one missing rack cover,(which actually simply disintegrated into rust having been on the floor by the door) but if anyone has any spares I could use any spare multi metering relay sets to drawings (AT3663 and AT3667).

Hopefully one day you will be able to dial calls into the Glenprosen exchange again, on code 05757, but via CNET.

Finally, I would like to once more thank THG member David Williams, for all his help and support, without whom I could not have completed this mission.

Update 2017

The entire exchange has been refurbished and is working again very well considering its age and past history. The exchange is level  97 off the Honeybottom MNDX, and can be reached over CNET on 05757, which we are presuming to be the original code. The entire Forfar GSC has been recreated on CNET. Again David Williams assisted with doing much of the painstaking and tedious work of making the selectors and the banks reliable again. The age and circumstances had taken their toll on the Uniselectors too. These were the main problems  and sometimes  files and wire wool were needed to make contacts reliable again. Also much thanks are due to Andy Greening for being able to supply the missing common service relay sets and an example multi metering set. The whole job been done over the course of about 8 years.

The Panel Charging has been refurbished and the broken mercury switches replaced. The panel is functional but not currently in use. In due course new wiring would be a good idea before prolonged use.

One of the mystery problems was caused by what seemed to be a batch of bad springs on the MDF blocks type 40. About 30 of these had to be replaced. They all failed by breaking off at one of the bends stamped in at manufacture, probably caused by a bad batch of metal.

Restored Racks
restored racks

Restored A rack Panel charging No 31

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