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Women in telecomms

Recruitment leaflet titled "Yes The Telephonist's Job Is A Good Job!" - from the BT Archives

Marriage or career? : exploiting the gender gap

Women represented an ideal prospect for the Victorian telegraph employer, as they had a high aptitude for the work, but could be paid a lower rate than men.

It was noted by the Post Office that women possessed a quickness of eye and ear, and delicacy of touch that were essential qualifications for a good operator. Also, due to the scarcity of other respectable professions, the job attracted women of a better class and education than their male counterparts.

Women were paid up to a third less than men. They were also forced to leave their jobs when they married. This lack of career prospects enabled the company to exploit the wage difference, keep wages low from the high intake of new recruits and avoid paying pensions to the overwhelming majority. Instead women received a gratuity on their wedding day and a firm good-bye. The practice was finally stopped in 1946.

CB1 switchboard - now at the Amberley Museum

CB1 switchboard (1900s) : switching the load

The CB1 switchboard was a hefty piece of kit designed to deal with the heaviest traffic from major town and city centres. The first switchboard arrived in the UK at the beginning of the 20th century and incredibly the system was used up until 1976 when the last one closed.

CB1 (standing for Central Battery, type 1) switchboards could handle up to 14,000 subscriber lines on a single exchange. Any more lines, and it was time to open another exchange.

Exchanges of this sort of size needed a lot of operators to deal with all the calls. This board came from the Potters Bar exchange in Hertfordshire. The operators sat in front of it in a long line, side-by-side, fielding calls for the whole of the local area.

Telephone operator - (social life) : Dorothy Belsham

Dorothy Belsham, joined the Post Office as a Telephonist in 1928 where she worked until 1937. She thoroughly enjoyed her career especially the social side of the job and the people she met through it.

She remembers some of the social events laid on and how she met her husband at one of them.

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We used to have a monthly dance and of course we were all girls in this exchange, or in that building really, except for a few engineers, and so they had to get some men to come. So they used to ring round to the local City police stations and say 'would your men like to come to a local dance'? And they used to come along. I met my husband that way.

Telephone operator - (employment restrictions) : Jill Goldsmith

Jill Goldsmith started working for the Post Office as telephonist in 1954, attracted by the decent wages. She grew up near Worthing on the south coast

She wasn't sure she would get the job when she first applied, there were a number of restrictions placed on employees, and the odds were stacked up against her. Here she remembers the ordeal.

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When I went for my interview they said that I was too short at five foot two and a half, and being left handed would have been a handicap, so they didn't think that I would probably get the job but I heard finally, you know, after the tests and everything that they give you that I'd got the job. You were answerable to the head post master and that misdemeanour would then get fed back to a supervisor because once a week we all had to have what they were called refreshers where we would be allowed off the board for about an hour and we were refreshed, in other words on all our codes, our expressions and our misdemeanours and what we should do and what we shouldn't do. Once a week we had a refresher.

Telephone operator - (handling phone calls) : Annette Cooper

Annette Cooper is a 55 year old GPO supervisor. She grew up in Didcott near Oxford, but moved to Dorset as a girl.

Although she used public call boxes her first regular contact with the phone was working as a telephone operator for the GPO, in the 1960s.

There was a great spirit amongst the staff, and she remembers the little jokes they made as well as the more serious business of dealing with emergency calls.

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'Number please', although we used to sometimes say 'rubber knees' fast because it was just a silly thing we used to do. As soon as you got an emergency call the supervisor used to plug in because she'd have to listen as well so that two of you listened to it. When you put it through you'd also listen to the call throughout while they were relaying their message to whoever they were ringing, just in case there was a problem. I suppose and they wanted verification of what had been said.

World War Two telephonist : Mrs Polly Shakeshaft

Mrs Polly Shakeshaft is 82 years old. She first came in contact with a phone working at head office of C&A Mauge, when it was thrust into her hand by a busy colleague. Unused to the device she ended up with the mouthpiece against here ear and couldn't hear a thing

During the Second World War she was a Ministry of War Transport Worker, when certain phone calls had to be encrypted, but remembers being puzzled by the command to scramble.

audio clip


I was working during the preparations for the invasion of France. We had to use a special equipment, I don't know how it worked, though it was just an ordinary phone but it had a little red button, I think it was, on it. I remember my boss on several occasions had phone call from somewhere and I heard him say 'shall we scramble?' Which puzzled me, and I thought, he's not talking about eggs, perhaps it's one of these motorcycle things, but of course they didn't have them much in those days. But I did learn afterwards that there was something in the phone connected so that conversations between two lines couldn't be overhead. It was to prevent the enemy listening in.

fun and games

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what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

featured story

100 years of automatic switching!
In 1912 the GPO installed Britain's first automatic telephone exchange in Epsom.

Discover the early days of the telephone...