January 8, 2011

Thomas Brennan - his life as a messenger boy, 1910

My previous post talked about the sarcastic instructions for telephone subscribers written in a Judy article of 1898.  In the 1890s the network was sparse and few people had a telephone at home, even among those that could afford one. 

By the eve of the First World War, this situation had not changed that much.  Other technologies (electric lighting, motor cars, cinema, etc.) were prevalent but I get the impression that for many, the telephone was still a bit of a novelty.

Thomas Patrick Brennan was born in 1896 in Liverpool, two years before the Judy article.  He spent his entire working life employed by the Post Office.  His very first job (at the tender age of 14) was as a telegraph messenger boy.  He had six hundred other boys as colleagues working in Liverpool then and he remembers that they were all exceptionally busy because "the telephone wasn't as efficient as it is today."  He recalls that the telegraph was used extensively by the business people in the town. 

Thomas's life as a messenger boy was more akin to that of a soldier's than working for the civil service.  One hour every morning was devoted to drill exercises, marching, presenting arms, target practice and saluting.  The boys had to salute senior officials of the Post Office whenever they saw them, so I can understand the logic of practising this.  And the drills and marching would help keep them fit.  I'm not sure, though, where the rifle practice comes in!

To complete the military lifestyle, the boys had to make sure their uniforms were spotless and that hair and fingernails were clean.  Boots and buttons were to be polished and shiny.  Since boys had a unique number on the collar of their jacket, identifying a culprit with muddy shoes was not a problem.  Any boy that didn't pass muster during the daily inspection was sent home to get clean.  I recall the discipline problems the telephone companies had with telegraph messenger boys working as the first switchboard operators.  Did the Post Office have this in mind?  Perhaps this explains the rigid routines imposed on these young boys: the Post Office didn't want the boys getting out of hand and they were, after all, delivering important telegrams at times.

In 1913 Thomas was sent to work in the engineering branch and it was here that he had his first experience with the telephone.  Naturally, he needed to know how the telephone worked and, more importantly, how to use it.  He was completely in the dark about these things.  An engineer in the office asked him, "Have you ever used the telephone, sonny?"  When Thomas replied in the negative, he was told, "Well, you'd better get onto it."  He then had to crank the handle on the side of the telephone and ring the Edgworth station (which was always engaged) and other places that he knew.  And what did he say when someone answered the telephone at the other end?  "Just ask a silly question just to get into the idea of answering the telephone."  This was one of his new duties!

Thomas wouldn't be alive today, so we can't go and ask him more pointed questions about his early working life.  This is just a tiny extract from his life story which has been recorded by historians (the written transcript runs to eighty-eight pages).  It is precisely this wealth of detail that adds social colour to the dry and sterile (to me) history emanating from company accounts and parliamentary reports.

Citation: see earlier post from November 2010 for details of the oral history project in which Mr Brennan participated.

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