Telephones from the Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company (they were renamed Western Electric in 1882) factories in Europe are usually known in Australia as British Western Electric.
In 1882 Bell opened a factory in Antwerp in Belgium and built two- and three-box wall phones from imported parts. They soon found that local firms like Ericssons and Siemens Halske were making better, smaller phones in styles that were preferred by the public. For instance, the handset was introduced by Ericssons in 1892. LME built transmitters and receivers small enough for a handset because of their superior magnets. The equivalent Bell units, especially the Blake transmitter, were too bulky to be used in a handset.
The Bell factories quickly evolved a range of European phones to compete. To some extent they were quite successful. In the earliest models, they used some parts bought in from other manufacturers until they could design their own versions. In others, they copied local styles. Most of these never got back to the U.S., and are uncommon. In particular, they developed their own desk sets long before the U.S.A. brought them into use. Their first desk handset phone (known in Australia as the Eiffel Tower, a name applied to Ericssons Skeletal phone in the U.S.) sold widely through Britain and its colonies and some European countries, but is practically unknown in the United States. It was most likely only produced in the Antwerp factory, and briefly at that, athough it appears in a later British catalogue.
Other factories were set up in Britain, Germany and France. In the highly nationalistic times, a local manufacturing presence was essential if you wanted to gain local contracts. For some time the factories were merely assembly points, using parts sourced from Antwerp or the United States or subcontracted out to other local manufacturers. This multiple factory arrangement was the opposite of what Western Electric experienced in the United States. In the U.S., Western Electric concentrated their manufacturing into one huge factory to gain the maximum efficiencies from mass production.
In Britain, The Telephone Company in London represented Bells interests. In 1880 it amalgamated with another company representing rival inventor Thomas Edison, and formed the United Telephone Company. United formed a new company, Consolidated Telephone Construction and Maintenance Ltd, to produce Bell-type phones for United, and Gower-Bell phones for overseas and British Post Office sales. This company also produced a small range of modified Bell phones for local use. These phones are usually identified as Western Electric because of their internal parts. Documentation is poor and few of their phones have survived, so it is difficult to assign a phone to Antwerp, Consolidated, or Western Electrics British factory. The United eventually became the National Telephone Company, and still bought Bell and Consolidated phones.
In 1903 the National Telephone Company stopped buying WE phones and signed contracts with L M Ericsson instead. The Bell patents had expired so they were now free to do so. The new Western Electric factory at Woolwich, bought on 1st January 1898, concentrated on supplying phones, cable and switchboards to the British Post Office, but they also supplied switchboards to the National.
After the First World War, the BPO looked at automation of the telephone network. Western Electrics Rotary system was a strong contender but the company made the fatal mistake of proposing to build the equipment in Antwerp instead of Britain. The BPO would have none of this, so the contract went to the Strowger system sold by Automatic Telephone Manufacturing. Western Electric was limited to producing phones and parts for the system.
The listing of known European Western Electric phones that follows is neither complete nor, probably, accurate. Where possible the information is from catalog fragments or from photos of specimens. In the case of the catalogs some of the parts shown look like L M Ericsson parts and were probably replaced with WE parts as soon as manufacturing facilities could be set up. Existing phones may have undergone modification through their working life. Details and dates are uncertain, but the listing represents a starting point for future research. A complete unmodified original European phone is uncommon. As the parts failed in use they were often replaced with Ericsson parts. Ericsson designed two transmitters specifically to replace the Blake transmitters used in Western Electric's early wall telephones.
Western Electric seems to have been more inclined to experiment than their U.S. parent. Some early phones use cast aluminium cradles and transmitter and receiver shells as an alternative to the more expensive machined and plated brass used by other makers. They introduced steel cased phones long before the U.S., and their early handsets have already been mentioned. Their styling was a departure from the U.S. boxy wallsets, although their designs were always less elaborate than, say, L M Ericssons. As in the U.S., their emphasis seems to have been on improving the reliability of the components. WE components are known to have been produced, either directly for WE or under license, by Sterling, GEC and Peel Conner in Britain. When some Western Electric pattern phones were adopted by the British Post Office as their standard models, many other companies started production of lookalike parts and phones.
In 1925 the Bell company divested itself of its foreign operations. The Western Electric factories were sold to Sosthenes Behns company ITT, and were renamed Standard Telephones and Cables. In Belgium the Antwerp factory was sold but some of the staff set up a new manufacturing company, ATEA. Details of this company are available at Jan Verhelst's detailed website at http://home.scarlet.be/jan.verhelst/atea/atea_english.htm
Bell Desk Phones
Bell 3-box Wall Phones
Western Electric Wall Phones
Early Bell & Western Electric Phones
Bell Wall Phones
Early Bell and Western Electric Phones