November 12, 2010

Lady telephone operators

Under new organisation at the Post Office, girls no longer have to cover themselves with an overall.

There are health stipulations:
  • She mustn't be shorter than 5ft 2in.
  • She has to undergo a medical (by a woman doctor, of course) and her eyesight is tested
  • Teeth are examined and problems put right (so that having a toothache can't be used an excuse for time off work)
 Girls enjoy a "sumptuous" dinner in their decorated-with-fresh-flowers-brought-from-home dining room.  They themselves decide what kind of meat they will eat tomorrow and the cooks prepare it on the spot (no contract caterers).  Cost to the operator: 5 pence.

Initially, operators had to find what they could from the street during their lunch break; tea and cake at a teashop (the Victorian Kamps or Starbucks).  They would rush back and faint at their switchboards from malnourishment (!)  

Cynically, I wonder at the company's generosity in providing lavish catering facilities on site.  The author talks of the operators that "rush" out in all weathers and "hurry" to finish a cup of tea.  Yet photographs show us the operators, first taking lunch in their dining rooms and then relaxing in their sitting room/rest room, reading or taking tea.  Perhaps (in the early years, at least) it was considered more seemly for the operators to stay on the premises and not rush about the streets looking for somewhere to stop and eat.  Telephone work was certainly a respectable occupation for young ladies: they were not exposed to the public (Occomore, Number Please, 69).

Switchboards were first operated by young boys, with disastrous results.  They fought all day and were rude to callers.  If boys had managed to keep these jobs for themselves, I have a hard time imagining them having lunch in flower-strewn dining rooms.  

Henry Thompson.  “Telephone London.”  In Living London.  Vol. III., ed. George R. Sims.  London, 1903; p.115-119.
David Occomore.  "Number, Please!"  a history of the early London telephone exchanges from 1880 to 1912.  Romford, Ian Henry Publ., 1995.

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.