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Working conditions

Team of Post Office engineers, 1870s

A way of life : from the cradle to the grave

For most of its history in Britain, telecommunications service was provided by the Post Office. It's easy to forget just how big this operation was. At its peak The GPO was the country's largest employer, providing work for one in 50 of all British employees - more than 300,000 people in all.

For these people, working for the Post Office was a lifetime career from apprenticeship to retirement - a job that also became a way of life.

Electric Telegraph Company's Great Telegraphic room, 1859

Telegraphic regime : don't talk, don't touch!

Working for a telegraph company was demanding, but it did provide women with an opportunity for respectable employment when such positions were rare.

Women could expect to be paid a maximum of 10 shillings a week while their male counterparts earned up to 30 shillings. The work was not too strenuous and women were allowed to read, knit or do needlework between messages. However, the working week was 60 hours over 6 days.

Not everyone was supportive and some critics complained that: 'women tended to lower the tone of the service...the whole tendency is to lightness and flippancy', although you might be forgiven for thinking that, with that attitude, it was exactly what was needed. Nevertheless, as was common practice of the time, men and women were kept strictly separate and the male clerks were forbidden to speak to the female trainees under threat of instant dismissal.

National Telephone Co switch room rules and regulations

1905 Operator's manual (1905) : toeing the line

The Operator's Manual was the bible of the exchange room, which governed an operator's behaviour, conduct and activities. The booklet had to be read and understood, with all regulations strictly observed, because - as it stated - 'Any breach of the rules will be severely dealt with and will render an operator liable to dismissal. Ignorance of these rules will not be accepted as an excuse.'

The rules served as a form of contract in the days before individual agreements were generally signed. The contents were divided into five main areas:

General - Attendance - Conduct - Secrecy - Operating Instructions.

Operators were coached how to be polite and business-like, what terms to use for subscribers' call instructions and the pricing structure. They were also warned that divulging the contents of any message or call might result in a hefty fine, prison and possibly hard labour! Aside from pay, the only benefits were a paltry two weeks holiday each year.

Telegraph Room Ear-trumpet Headset

Telegraph room Ear-trumpet Headset : horny answer to a thorny problem

This curious artefact was worn like a pair of inverted goat horns on the heads of unfortunate telegraph operators.

Telegraph rooms were busy places with lots of bustle and noise, which made it difficult for operators to concentrate on listening to incoming messages. To help focus their attention these ear-trumpets were designed for them.

They were made of a light plastic, mounted on a band like a pair of headphones, but there were no electrics inside the cones. The thin end wedged into the ear and the fat end pointed towards the sound of the messages that were amplified down the funnel.

Unsurprisingly they didn't catch on and were only used by a few people or possibly never made it beyond the test phase. Some sacrifices were too great for even the most dedicated employee and looking that undignified was probably a step too far.

Telephone operator - (rules of the switch room) : Dorothy Belsham

Dorothy Belsham, joined the Post Office as a Telephonist in 1928 where she worked until 1937. She thoroughly enjoyed her career despite some of the rules and regulations.

She recalls the strict rules laid down on timekeeping and private calls, which she sometimes failed to keep to her own cost.

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Well I went in at the back because I used to run up wardrobe steps every morning thinking I'd be late and you had to clock in with one of those big round clocks, and sometimes I was late. Once I did have my yearly rise stopped because I'd been late two or three days. You shouldn't make any private calls; they were very strict on that and you'd have a supervisor listening in at a local desk somewhere and you wouldn't know (if) she was listening and she'd see how you were working. If you made a private call then you were in trouble.

Engineer - (caught out on shift) : Peter Newman

Peter Newman is a retired ex-Post Office and BT engineer who worked for the Post Office from 1946 until 1986, mainly on the long distance area working in Faraday building, London and then latterly the international network

Feeling hungry whilst working on a weekend shift, he remembers being caught by the boss trying to cook his own food in the staff canteen.

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The restaurant wasn't available at weekends and we decided that perhaps we'd try and cook our meals in a rota system. I can well remember one Sunday morning peeling the parsnips on the console when the area engineer decided to visit and we said 'good morning, sir' and he said to carry on. You know, I said there were no problems.

Engineer - (erecting poles) : Peter Wareham

Peter Wareham, originally worked in aircraft manufacture at Vickers Armstrong before being made redundant in 1958. Two years after an initial enquiry he joined the Post Office when new vacancies finally arose digging in cables.

He became an engineer and worked with the GPO for thirty years. Peter enjoyed the life and made the most of being outdoors in Dorset, however, as he recalls, occasionally things did go slightly awry.

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At this time or just after this time then pole erection units were brought in where a route of poles went across country, especially to serve farms. This would require the manhandling the poles across fields, not very easy if the field was ploughed; also of course on occasions they had to be renewed. This would help boost the tea kitty as the farmer usually bought the old pole for fence or gate posts and it saved us lumbering it all back again across, but on one occasion when renewing a pole across a couple of fields the fields appeared empty of cattle so we left a couple of gates open. It was only after completing the work carrying tools etcetera back to our vehicle that we found cows in the field, not that any got out onto the road, but the two fields belonged to different farmers, not that we were aware of it at the time, but next day we had to go back to the farms and apologise for getting the cattle mixed up.

Engineer - (domestic faults) : Alec Bonsall

Alec Bonsall was attracted to telecoms as a schoolboy during the Second World War, when he drove around in his uncle's van, who was a maintenance engineer for the PO Telephones.

His interest was spurred on by his hobby as a radio pirate working with RAF surplus equipment sold off cheaply after the war. He joined The GPO as a Special Faults Investigation Officer during the late 1940s.

Some of the faults he was called out to investigate were far from routine and he remembers a curious incident involving a feather duster.

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One incident I can draw on was when we had our first telephone set had liquid crystal display which displayed the time when the phone was not in use and when you lifted the receiver and dialled the number of it displayed the number you had dialled in the liquid crystal display. Well a lady rang in and said that her phone the clock on her phone kept on stopping at nine fifty nine so they immediately said that's a job for the special faults chap so I went to see her and sure enough it had stopped at nine fifty nine so we reset it and checked it over and I gave her my number and I said I'd ring her the following morning unless I heard from her in the meantime. Well I didn't hear anything from her so I rang her and no it was all OK. About two days later she rang me and she said it's done it again. So I went back to see the lady and asked her if anybody, any children, played with the phone and she said no nobody played with the phone at all she said the only person who touches it is me she said and it's not very often used and the only time I touch it is to dust and then it was discovered that she inadvertently when she dusted the phone put her fingers on the clock button and the ordinary button and wiped in a fictitious time.

Technical Officer testing trunk lines : Pat Hastings

Pat Hastings joined the GPO in October 1946 where he worked for forty three years, becoming a Technical Officer.

Pat has been involved with many of the modern developments in telecommunications, from transatlantic telephone cables to satellite communications.

He was responsible for maintaining the trunk network earlier in his career and he remembers the vulnerability of overhead cabling in 1950s.

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Communication trunk-wise was really done through an operator and working in trunk test of course the main concern was that we were testing and maintaining these long distance lines, some of which, in those days and I'm talking about the early 1950s, were still serviced by overhead cabling routes, which when you think about it it's only fifty years ago. That was the only means of communication in certain areas of the country these cables suspended on poles and bending in the wind usually.

Engineer - (overbearing customers) : Alec Bonsall

Alec Bonsall was attracted to telecommunications as a schoolboy during the Second World War, when he drove around in his uncle's van, who was a maintenance engineer for the PO Telephones.

His interest was spurred on by his hobby as a radio pirate working on RAF surplus equipment sold off cheaply after the war. He joined The GPO as a Special Faults Investigation Officer during the late 1940s.

He remembers some of the customers could be rather awkward but it sometimes paid not to argue.

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One lady we can call into mind is a house in the depths of Partridge Green and you'd go there and the door would be opened and there would be the butler and you would hear a deep lady's voice come from the depths saying 'who is it?' 'It's the telephone engineer madam' and 'what's his name?' And he would ask you a name and you'd say 'Bonsall, it's Bonsall madam'. 'Well tell Bonsall to come in and he's to take his shoes off and put the plimsolls on'. So you would go into the porchway take your shoes off and put the plimsolls on and then you would go in and you would clear the fault or make a start on the fault and then she'd come in and she said 'You're Bonsall'. 'Yes madam'. 'Well Bonsall, stop what you're doing and go in the kitchen and get your dinner'. And you didn't say 'no madam'. You went into the kitchen and there the cook had prepared you a dinner and you sat down and ate it and then when you'd finished you went back and carried on with the fault.

GPO worker - (forging relationships) : Pat Hastings

Pat Hastings joined the GPO in October 1946 where he worked for forty three years. He found it was hard in the early years to get on in his career and there was a high level of rivalry between the ex-servicemen who were being integrated back into post-war society and the new recruits, however he found that beside the work there were some extra-curricular fringe benefits.

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Joining the Post Office in 1946 meant that you were competing with ex-servicemen. The Post Office gave an undertaking to the government that they would employ a large number of ex-servicemen immediately they came out of the army and many of these people got accelerated promotion into technical grades, skilled workmen grades, and so for apprentices it was really quite hard going. I then did a period in the army in 1949 and when I returned from the army I went to work at Woolwich telephone exchange as then a married man because I married a lady I met at New Cross telephone exchange in my early days and indeed am still married to her. So you see telecommunications has some value in other ways rather than just speaking to one another.

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