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Madeleine Sturgen (nee Cox), 2005
Memories of a

at the Rushden Telephone Exchange

The old Post offcie The old exchange
The door, centre - left side of the building, to the staircase
1952 Telephone Exchange on the corner of Victoria Road  

Nowadays almost everyone seems to have a mobile phone. They are a part of our way of life, and communications have improved by strides in the few years. All so different from 50 or more years ago.

That was when I applied for the post as a G.P.O. Telephonist at the telephone exchange at Rushden. I went for an interview with the Rushden Post Master, and Miss Gilbert, the telephone supervisor. After answering a few questions I went into another room with Miss Gilbert and when the telephone rang, I had to pick up the receiver and ask 'number please?', then repeat the number required, and write it down, and to say 'trying to connect you or ‘I’m sorry caller there's no reply' and other phrases like that.

I also had to have a medical examination by the local doctor, and was surprised that my height had to recorded as part of the examination.

Eventually my application was successful, and I started work on Monday morning. The exchange was in the High Street, right above the Midland Bank (now H.S.B.C.), where the clock is now.  I left my bike leaning on the bank wall with all the other bikes, and walked up two flights of dusty wooden stairs, where Miss Gilbert and the senior staff met me.

First of all I had to listen to and sign the official secrets act, and promise that if I overheard any official secrets, I would not divulge them. I also had to declare that I would not leave my post in time of war. This was in 1947 and the 2nd World War was still fresh in our memories.

I was given a head set to put on. They were great heavy clumsy things which hurt your ears, nothing like the flimsy things they have nowadays. I sat on the switchboard next to a girl called Norma; my headset was plugged in with hers on her switchboard, and I had to watch and listen to everything she said and did. l remember looking at the switchboard, and thinking I shall never do it. There were about 10 or12 positions on the switchboard and we all sat in a long line. Miss Gilbert and the senior staff sat at a desk behind us. All the procedures were manual, When the caller picked up his 'phone a bulb lit on the switchboard, the operator picked up a plug and pushed into a hole beneath the light, pushed forward the corresponding key, and asked 'number please?', repeated the number requested, Rushden 281 or Wellingborough 2332. We had to say each number separately not double three that could cause confusion. Then the operator picked up the corresponding plug, and connected into the switchboard at the number required. The switchboard looked like a honeycomb of black holes. Once you got the hang of it, it was quite easy.

Sometimes people would want out of town calls Irthlingborough or Raunds. We would go through to that exchange and ask the operator there to connect us. Wellingborough and Kettering were already on the dialling system and we had special lines to dial those numbers on, for this task we were issued with special dialling pens.

The girls worked in shifts 8-30 a.m. to 7-30 p.m. on Mondays to Saturdays, Sundays and Bank holidays were different we worked from 8-00 a.m. to 1-00 p.m. The night shifts and other times were taken over by the male operators.

Our first job in the morning was to test the emergency lines, i.e. Doctors, Ambulance, Fire stations and the Police stations. The operator would have to say 'Good morning I'm testing your telephone'; if the 'phone was out of order it would have to be reported to the telephone engineers. There weren't any ‘999 calls’ as emergency telephones didn't have a dial. If there was an emergency the caller would ask for the police or whoever they wanted, after putting them through, the operator had to listen in to the conversation, and to write down all the details. We also had to check the speaking clock (TIM) and check that our exchange clock was correct, because lots of subscribers would pick up their 'phone and ask the time. We would answer the time by the exchange clock is 9 o'clock, or whatever the time was. That was the standard answer that we had to give.

I never minded working shifts. On a Saturday evening when I was working The Salvation Army Band would stand outside The Rose and Crown, playing hymns to passers-by and people going to the Ritz.

Their tunes used to come floating up to our upstairs window; it was lovely. A lovely memory... I would finish work about 7-30 and then Cyril (now my husband) would meet me out and we would go to the pictures 2nd house.

On Sunday mornings there were usually just two girls on duty, and the one thing I dreaded was if anyone asked for directory enquires. That meant one of us girls had to look the number in an ordinary directory; it always seemed to take me ages to find the number and I would get hot and bothered, luckily it didn't happen too often.

As part of the shift work, the operators who started early, would be due to leave off at 4-30, and if we weren't too busy Miss Gilbert would pick a name out of a hat, and ask the lucky girl if she would like to go home early. 'Yes please Miss Gilbert’. It was all very polite and genteel. Miss Gilbert was quite strict but very nice. If anyone telephoned or if one wanted to make a call, we would ask permission, if you needed to go to the toilet or due to go home one always asked permission of the board.

We weren't allowed to knit whilst on duty; anyway we were far too busy, but during the night when on duty we used to peg rugs, and we made a stair carpet among other things. The early evenings were very busy for the night staff (usually two men). People would be ringing their husbands or boyfriends, who were away in the forces at that time.... Conscription hadn't finished then; there were still lots of men in the forces. Later on at night things weren't so busy; only a few urgent calls. The duty police would do his rounds checking that all the shops in the High Street were security locked, and perhaps call in at the exchange and have a cup of tea, and then go along to the bakers and the ambulance room, perhaps Birch's coach station; he would see most other people that were working night duty. I'm sure that very little escaped his notice.

Sometimes I listen to the radio during the night, and I marvel at the hundreds and thousands of people that ring in the early hours of the morning on any subject under the sun.

But to go back to the 1940's: there were about 850 subscribers in Rushden and Higham Ferrers, certainly no more. I can remember a few telephone numbers, 29 the police, 49 the fishmongers, and 704 the bookmakers. One lady used to ring the bookmakers 4 or 5 times a day; I don't know if she made or lost a lot of money.

If a subscriber didn't pay the bill for any reason, one of the telephone engineers would insert an orange bulb into the call light. When the caller asked for a number we would say 'I will put you through to the supervisor.’ Miss Gilbert would very tactfully ask if they had forgotten to pay the bill, which was usually the case. As soon as the bill was paid, the bulb was changed and normal service was resumed. No Charge.

The County Cricket would take place at the Rushden cricket ground, every year. Iit was quite an occasion, sometimes lasting 3 or 4 days, but there was only one telephone line connected. So if anyone wanted to 'the score' (shopkeepers or office workers) they would just pick up the phone and ask 'What's the score' and we would tell them free of charge.

At Christmas time we would get quite a few presents from the local shopkeepers. A pork pie each from Saxby's, 200 cigarettes from Mr Neville the tobacconist, as well as sweets and chocolates from other shopkeepers. Most of the shops in the High Street were family businesses; it was a close-knit community. After we had finished work or were not on duty we were allowed to go to the post office sorting office to sort the Christmas mail. The extra cash was always handy.

Occasionally we might have to go to other exchanges to cover for holiday times. Northampton Bedford, Irthlingborough or Raunds. Irthlingborough and Raunds were only small exchanges situated in the front room of  the house. The proprietor looked after the exchange during the night and two girls were employed during the day. I remember working at Irthlingborough one cold day. It was so cold, and there was only a little bit of fire just about smoking in a black fireplace, no warmth at all, and the lady of the house came in and put some potato peelings on which didn't help much. Coal was still rationed at that time, and had to be made to eek out as much as possible. But then she made up for it by bringing in a nice cup of hot cocoa to warm us up.

The most memorable time was when I went to Raunds. I turned up one lunch time, and I was going to be there on my own. The girl told me what was what, and then said I'd better tell you what to do if there's a fire. Well she hadn't been gone for more than ½ an hour, when someone said 'there's a fire at Little Addington'. According to instructions I wrote all the details down, and in the comer of the room  there was a chain which I had to pull, this was the siren that sounded all over Raunds. Next the Fire Officer rang me to find out where the fire was and I gave him all the details. The next thing I heard was the fire engine clanging down Raunds High Street. After that just about everyone in Raunds picked up the 'phone and asked where's the fire?

There used to be telephone boxes on the corners of many streets, because so few people were on the 'phone. This was the only way they could speak to their relatives and loved ones; a telephone call was a luxury. We mustn't forget the Telegram service which was used widely. I remember being taught at school how to send a telegram. They were used for urgent messages, and it was the telegram boy’s sad duty to deliver a telegram to a parent or wife saying that a serviceman was missing or killed in action. On a happier note there were greetings telegrams, written on paper with coloured patterns around the edges.

The Rushden Telephone Exchange changed to the dialling system in 1952. I had already left by then, and the Rushden exchange was no more.

It was a good service really, you could have a local call for tuppence [2d], and speak as long as you liked. Toll calls like London or Leicester were timed and the 'pips' went when your three minutes were up. Trunk calls like Cornwall or Scotland were put through to the Trunk operator and it used to sound as if she was deep in the centre of the earth.

Best of all NO nuisance calls, NO double glazing or hard selling, NO anonymous calls or heavy breathing.

Now where do we go from here?  Every day there is something new: Faxes, e-mails, Internet, Photographs. I have just about learned to send a text message. Cyril bought me a mobile phone in the year 2000, now it is so old fashioned, it is almost a collector's item.

Rhyme by Reg Norman about the GPO Telelphonists

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