November 11, 2010

Living London

“[Voices] … flow over our heads, around us, and under our feet in a ceaseless silent chorus.”
Castells’ “space of flows” – these voices are sealed inside the system and no one hears them when passing by; the only ones to hear are “those for whom they are intended.”

Content of the conversations
  • A City trader’s instructions
  • Party invitation [were invitations delivered by phone socially acceptable by now, compared to written ones?]
  • Household order to a tradesman

Traffic flow lessens during the night; calls are made for emergencies:
  • Call for a doctor
  • Fire
  • Police
Author gives extensive description of telephone use at the Stock Exchange, IMMEDIATELY following an account of the death-defying engineers and linesmen who repair and maintain the wires.  The hidden reading seems to be saying: 'the telephone is primarily for business use.'

National Telephone Company
  • Operators are recruited from well-to-do, respectable families (doctors, lawyers, etc.)
  • They need to be literate, numerate
  • Training given on full pay
  •  No night work, this is done by male colleagues
  • Women wear gloves while working to protect hands (!) – was it such rough work?  These ladies would not want to have hands that looked as if they belonged to working-class girls or washerwomen.
  •  The “kindly” NTC provided overalls for the girls to wear over their own dresses.  Otherwise a poorly dressed girl would be “distracted” by the fineries worn by her neighbour.  Socialist uniformity, or schoolroom discipline?

More space of flows
Telephone traffic has peaks and troughs, according to the business being conducted around London. 
  • The City stops its activities at 7.00pm
  • West End is busy 10.00pm till midnight
  • Holborn wakes up early – residents here have dealings with Smithfield Meat Market
The exchange as a temporal microcosm of all of London life

Operators’ dining facilities
Much is made (here, and elsewhere) of the sumptuous and generous catering facilities available to the operators.  Scant reference is made to the girls’ actual duties, general working conditions, relationships with supervisors/other operators, the public’s perception of their job.  I don’t think we have any first-hand accounts from operators themselves about their job?  Why this imbalance in reporting?
  • Need to present the job in favourable light in order to attract new recruits: high turnover (?) – girls left upon marriage and had to be replaced.
  • This was a menial job performed by single girls whose job prospects in these years were seriously circumscribed.  But their participation was VITAL for the running of the telephone system – if the girls decided to down tools and strike, the whole telephone network would be useless.  By emphasising the fringe benefits, perhaps we are pampering to the operators to keep them satisfied (and not pack in their jobs)?  And perhaps by emphasising these benefits, the general public is left with the impression that the telephone company holds its operators in high esteem and appreciates the part the girls play in keeping the system up and running every day?

Henry Thompson.  “Telephone London.”  In Living London.  Vol. III., ed. George R. Sims.  London, 1903; p.115-119.

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