A to Z April Challenge

During the month of April I will be doing a different spin on my memoir posts. It starts with a song. Each song will be followed by a brief essay that is evoked or inspired by that song. You might want to click on the YouTube link to hear the song as you read the piece I've written. Or you can listen to the song lyrics first and then read. Whichever way you choose, I mostly hope you'll read and leave a comment with your thoughts about my post. Thank you for visiting and please follow the blog if you are not doing so already.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Susan Clow on the Phone--Telephonists That Is

          Today's post comes to us from Susan Clow.  Her blog is Getting a Word In.


All the lines are engaged at the moment

So many jobs exist only in the memories of people and in the stories they tell to future generations. This blog takes us back to 1942 and the North Wales seaside town of Rhyl. Fourteen year old Eve had moved there at the start of World War Two2 with her family when her father was relocated with his government post and it was time to find a job.

Eve’s  domestic science teacher recommended Eve to her sister who was a supervisor in Post Office Telegraphs and she went along for two interviews to secure the job ... first to see the Postmaster and then she had to go back on the following Monday to be told that there were concerns about her height as she would be finally working in a telephone exchange at 16 and she needed to be 5 foot tall to reach the various plugs and holes on the switchboard. Eve told him that her brother had had a growth spurt at 14 and he was normal size for a man and they decided to take a chance. They tested her memory on both interviews for telephone numbers. Bear in mind that Eve had never used a phone up until then and knew no one who had one. It was all strange.

At the start Eve was a GP or Girl Probationer, in charge of the messenger boys – allocating telegrams as they came in on the teleprinter. Eve earned 11/6 for a week's work [about £23 at today’s rate]. The only concession to the under 16s was the compulsory drink called NAMCO a national milk cocoa drink that was fortified with vitamins, at break times. Gradually Eve moved to using the little switchboard that took incoming calls from subscribers who wanted to send a telegram to someone without a phone.
Telegram


                                                                           
At this time the army was very much a presence in the town – signals and tank corps - and one day a telegram came without a name to deliver it to and a message “Sergeant Jones arriving 2.30 please meet” .Assuming they had made a mistake she had it delivered to another  Sergeant Jones’ pigeon hole and of course he was not met!  They took pity on her when they saw how young she was.

At 16, now fully grown Eve was given the choice of becoming a counter clerk in the Post Office or work in the telephone exchange but she loved the phone work and hated dealing with money and so she moved to a proper telephone exchange, albeit quite a small one. 12 girls sat in a row all talking at once to people at the other end of their phones. Here they had what were called dolls eyes due the way they seemed to blink like the early china dolls, when connections were made. This is a small version of the equipment now in a museum.
Doll’s eye switchboard


Eve was aware of some of the men around her being called up and some having to go in the North Wales mines. She learnt quite a lot about life and of course there was always lots of intrigue with relationships.

In 1946 Eve’s father was recalled to London and the whole family moved back. Eve managed to transfer her job to Faraday House quite close to St Paul's Cathedral. This was completely different – it felt like starting again. She started out in “Trunks” - long distance calls that had to be obtained via an operator. This six storey building had 100 girls on every floor all vying for spots that were available for them to connect their calls. Eve was on Northampton delay and could have at least six people waiting for their connection...”all the lines are engaged at the moment”.  A year later Eve moved into what was essentially an elite, closed unit. The “International Exchange” connected with every country outside Europe. Women applied for this in large numbers as it was more money and more kudos and only Eve and one other got through. The work was much more complex – and they had to have an additional training course and sit in with someone else to see how it worked. After three weeks they started the new recruits on a quieter country– somewhere like Egypt. Some of the girls had pen pals from some of their connections. Most calls were about £1 a minute [equivalent to a massive £32 now] with a minimum three minute length. A lot of calls involved girls who had moved to the USA with a soldier. The big boss was an absolute matriarch and everyone was terrified of her. If there was anything at all amiss she would come along and find something to pick them up on in their work box. Sometimes she would swoop on someone just on the off chance – she ran the place like clockwork. This could be her in this evocative picture painted in 1937 which captures the scene very well if not the fashions a decade later.
©John Cooper 1937 Telephone Exchange


When Eve was about 21 the Exchange moved to Wood St off Cheapside in the city of London in an area surrounded by bombed out buildings. This photo was taken for the Daily Star and related to charitable table tennis team the telephonists set up to play severely injured servicemen.

Telephonists – Eve is right back row


          Thank you Susan Clow for this look back to a past that many younger people find strange.  The was something nice about getting a live person on the phone and not a series of recorded messages.  Don't forget to drop by Susan's blog Getting a word in and let her know you saw her post.






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16 comments:

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Thanks for this interesting aspect of the telephone service. How well I remember the old switchboard I used as a teenager.

Yvonne.

Mary Aalgaard, Play off the Page said...

Love that glimpse into history. It sounds like an interesting job. I wonder if side conversations happened between the operators and the person trying to make a connection.

Journaling Woman said...

Love the content of this post. Life was much stricter back then.

I think all the ladies in the picture look so glamorous.

Thanks for a look back.

Teresa

Sue H said...

Boy, oh boy - I could tell you tales about working in a GPO telephone exchange! ;-p

This took me back! Although it was the 1970's, our local telephone exchange equipment was several decades earlier. I remember teasing the 'new girls' (as I myself had been teased!) by knocking the 'coupling left' key and transferring my calls onto their switchboard - watching the 'newbie' throw her hands up in horror as she heard multiple conversations through her headset! ;-p

And always the watchful supervisor 'patrolling' behind us, waiting to pounce on someone not using the proscribed salutations!

And the 'loo' line........!

(Thank you for a stroll down memory lane!)

Heather said...

Absolutely fascinating. It's so easy to dismiss the wonderful tales our parents have to tell because we heard them first as children or bored teenagers. It's only as adults we can really appreciate them.

Dee Ready said...

Dear Susan,
Your story fascinated me. My Aunt Dorothy was a telephone operator in the '30s here in the United States. Later, she became the manager of one of the divisions of the WWII quartermasters' building here.
A very responsible job.

Eve seems to have all the native ability and motivation to have become a manager of wherever she worked.

Thanks for this history lesson. I so enjoyed it.

Peace.

Arlee Bird said...

Susan, thank you for sharing your story on my blog. Yesterday after my mother had read it she told me that her mother had worked as a telephone operator in her teens and that was how she met my grandfather. I can remember those days of speaking with the operator for phone assistance. Now the communication is almost all automated.

Lee

susan said...

Yvonne - Me too. I had holiday jobs on small automated switchboards when I was at college and loved it! Thanks for commenting.

Mary - Sounds like it was pretty busy most of the time but they still seemed to have fun! Welcome to my blogs!

Teresa - yes they all look like films stars don' they?

Sue - great insights here - Eve will enjoy this! Thanks!

Heather - I know what you mean but actually until I did this blog I didn't know much about those days so go out and gather those stories is my message!!

Dee - glad you liked the history lesson. I enjoyed doing it. Welcome to my blogs!

Arlee - great to have triggered a recounting. Makes it all worthwhile!

I have another blog on the work of my mother in law who was a potteries caster at the same time

http://susanclow.blogspot.com/2011_11_01_archive.html

Melissa Ann Goodwin said...

I am fascinated with Wales. My mom was evacuated to Beaumaris from Liverpool in 1939 at the start of the war. So fun to hear about and see pictures from these times gone by

Lucy said...

I worked a switch board for a short time. It brings back old memories. Having 5 children to care for I could not get a good sitter that would switch with my hours, so I was not there very long. Wonderful story.

susan said...

Melissa Ann - great place Beaumaris..has an interesting castle and we go there a lot as we love Anglesey!

Lucy - so glad to have triggered some memories. I loved doing the blog too!

Ron Easton for Dads UnLimited said...

I wanted to make a smart comment about what's a switchboard, or that people actually used land lines...but I won't... :)
I really loved to read this, truth be told, not because it reminds me of anyone in particular, but of a time when things were subtler, stricter, saner, and you could still listen into your neighbour's calls! Thanks for writing this.

SherryE said...

This is a fascinating post. Thank you for sharing this bit of history.

Ann Best said...

This is SO interesting, I'm printing it to read later!
Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror & Other Memoirs

susan said...

Ron - yes agree about the qualities of those times!

Sherry - thanks for reading and commenting!

Ann - chuffed that you want to print it..thanks!

KyleMayday said...

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I follow everyone back!!