Working in Wartime

by Doreen Crowder

During the long summer holiday from school in 1942, I continually plagued my mother to let me leave school and get a job. I had completed four years at Halesowen Grammar School, but my best friend, Trixie Robins had left at the end of the Easter Term, as her Mum had found her a job at the Sub Post Office on Bearwood Road, near to the King’s Head, and I was feeling rather lost and alone. Finally I got my way and as mother was an agent for the Prudential Assurance Company, she was able to get me started at the Pru’s Head Office in Colmore Row, next to St. Philip’s Cathedral Church.

I was put to work in the Motor and Accident Department, the head of which was a Mr. Taylor, sent from the London Office to help out in Birmingham. All the younger men had been called up to the forces or other more urgent War Work, and now the younger women were also about to be called up. There was a Mrs. Payton-Smith in the department. She was an elegant lady with great style and glamour and had to work as she had no children and everyone had to do their bit. She had a massive and lovely Bull Mastiff dog, called Moses, which she brought in to the office one Saturday for us to see. He sat down on my foot, I remember, and was a great weight. She also bred Staffordshire Bull Terriers and showed them at Bingley Hall and did quite well I believe. A younger woman, a Miss Webb, worked in the Department for some months, until she went to serve in the Fire Service. There were also two other junior girls already at work there, Hilda and Kathleen Thornton. Hilda was only just fifteen, Kathleen also. Hilda worked for both the Motor and the Fire Departments and Kathleen manned the three line PBX, telephone.

I soon got immersed in my work, not just the common or garden filing and menial tasks, but opening the post, working out clients’ ‘No Claims Bonus’, writing letters, and answering queries on the telephone. I enjoyed the work, as did another girl, Beryl Warmington, who had started on the same day as I, in the Fire department. We had both been told when we started, that after twelve months we would be moved to another department to learn different skills, but, unfortunately this did not come about and I had become a little disenchanted.

Often in the lunch break, Kathleen and I would sit on a bench in the Church yard to eat our sandwiches, and one day, Kathleen confessed to me that what she really yearned to do was to become a GPO Telephonist and work at Telephone House. She was so enthusiastic that I became quite interested also, and shortly afterwards there was an advert saying interviews for prospective trainee telephonists would be held. Kathleen got all the necessary information and in our dinner hour one day we went to a room in an office building at the back of the Town Hall to try our luck. We had a hearing test, a voice test, both on and off the telephone, a test to see how we wrote, how quickly we could look up information in a special file, besides many other searching questions. This all took place in early May, 1944. We both passed and were told when we could start; all that remained was to give in our notice at the Pru. This we did. We saw a Mr. Elphick, the office manager, a man almost the twin of Uriah Heep of Dickens’ fame. He spoke kindly to Kathleen but tore a strip off me, said that as I was the elder, I had put undue influence on Kathleen and almost led her astray. The net result was; Kathleen stayed, with a rise in pay and I was allowed to leave. I may say that Mr. Elphick was the only person not to wish me well, and on the day I did leave one of the managers came out of his office to shake my hand and wish me well!

This career move was for me one of the best things in my life and the next six years, working at Telephone House were some of the happiest of my life.

Life at T.H. was busy. I was with about six other girls and we had a Supervisor Instructor, to tutor us for the next few weeks. Telephonists were not then allowed to just talk to subscribers ad lib; there were special phrases and words for every possible situation, every type of call, and you were expected to know these and stick to them. Also, as it would take too long to write out in full the names of the exchanges required, we had to learn literally hundreds of codes to use instead. Then Birmingham had more than thirty different exchanges, all using the first three letters of their names and each could dial the other without resorting to an operator. If a call was required to, say, Wolverhampton, Walsall or Dudley, or any other place outside Birmingham, the subscriber had to call either the Toll Operator or the Trunk Operator. We were first trained for work in the Toll exchange, and on our first day we were taken up to the switch room, situated on the top floor of T.H. You reached this by ascending a stone staircase leading from the cloakroom, passing on the first small landing the female toilets and then at the top, entered a small square room, the walls of which held framed charts of numbers indicating the different duties of each operator for the coming weeks.

From this ante- room, through double doors you entered the Switch room. What a shock! The noise, the lights, the vastness of the room; and all those girls. Literally hundreds. There was room and switch boards for 600 operators. At first you felt drowned by the noise but as we were shown around you became a little more accustomed to it. The switch boards were all around the sides of this vast room, nearly 100 yards long with at either end smaller extensions, making the whole rather like a giant E without the middle bar. To the left of the entrance were the Toll boards and these extended down and around the end extension and a little way along the back of the long room. Down that far side were the Trunk boards for long distance calls. The extension at the far end, and to the right of the entrance doors, were all the switch boards that were used for incoming exchanges to have us re-route calls to other places in the country to which they had no direct lines. Birmingham being in the centre of the country, these were very, very busy. We concentrated on the Toll boards. Each position had 2 double rows of plugs for connecting calls, 2 double rows of small lights set in the boards to indicate when a call had finished, and 4 or five had a red timing key, for calls that were charged by the minute. Facing the operator were the outgoing lines to the different exchanges. There was a label showing the name, underneath which were holes, or jacks, into which the plug was inserted to connect the call. A little light ran across the label to tell the operator which was the first free line that could be used. At the base of the board were the jacks and labels of the incoming calls from subscribers wanting a call to somewhere they could not dial themselves. Nowadays, when we can call almost anywhere in the world from our own home phone or mobile, it is hard to think that if your exchange was WOOdgate you would need to dial TOL and ask the operator if you wanted a call to Walsall. The operator would then write on a small paper ticket WL (code for Walsall) 26013; ask the subscriber, ‘What is your number please’ and write down WOO 2548. She would then take up a plug, insert it into the first free line for Walsall and dial, on the slightly raised dial, 26013 and when the ringing tone was heard left the subscriber to wait for her number to answer.

I was very bewildered, but stuck at my training, learning all the codes and expressions, passing my tests and hopefully was going to be accepted as a fully trained operator. During my last weeks’ training, the news broke that it was D-Day, June 6th 1944. I think everyone who had a phone picked up their receiver and called someone else with a phone. The exchange was a blaze with lights and we trainees that were able were put on the boards to help out. It was very exciting.

My training finished, I was allotted my duty, given a number 203 to sign any tickets made out for calls, and the number to look up on the charts to find out the next weeks work times. We had to clock in as we came into the switchroom at one of three large time clocks. These were large heavy metal circles with numbers painted beside holes and you had to take a long metal arm, move it around the circle to your current duty number, maybe 124, for a 9.00 to 5.30 duty, and punch in. Your time was registered on a paper on a cylinder inside the clock. Not only did you have to clock on duty, but you had to clock out for your tea break, all of 10 minutes, in which you had to leave the switch room, hang up your head set, go down a floor to the canteen and get your tea, drink it, return to collect your headset, re-enter the switch room, clock back in and get back to your position. You did get a leeway of 2 minutes but if you took that too often it was frowned upon. You clocked out to your lunch, 30 minutes, your afternoon tea break, 10 minutes, and again at off duty. If you desperately needed the loo, you had to ask the Supervisor for a ‘casual’ and were allowed 2 minutes and ‘woe betide you’ if you abused this.

Duties varied, 8.00 to 4.15, 8.30 till 4.30. 11.0 till 7.00 and Long and Shorts or Short and Longs. These were either 9 till 7 and 8 till 1, or 9.30 till 7.30 or 10 till 8 for the longs, the shorts always bring 8 till 1. A good variety. There were some duties that were later, 2.00 till 10.00, and we had to hurry to get our buses home. We had to have a green pass to identify us and had to show this on entering T.H. and we were told if we had any difficulty getting on a bus home after late duty, we could go to the front of the queue, show our pass and we would be let on the bus. I, fortunately never had to do this on the Quinton No. 9 bus, which I caught just back of the Town Hall, but I knew some girls who did.

I got on well, and loved my job, and trained also as a Trunk Call Operator, Toll Enquiry and Directory Enquiry, where the service we gave was far superior to that which you get from automated voices today. We had to work Saturdays then and also had some Sunday duties, about one in three, but these were usually only 4 or 5 hours. Bank Holidays also had to be covered and as I was fairly new, I was given Christmas day duty that year, 8 till 1. No buses ran, so those of us on the early duty, (Night men operated the boards through the nights after 10.00pm, till 8.00am. and some girls did night duty also) and was told I would have transport from the Holly Bush and was to be at the bus stop there by 7.00am. At that time, there was a Christmas day post so there were men sorters who also had to get in to the sorting office in Birmingham.

I got up early, had my breakfast and wrapped up warmly, set off on foot with my torch, as the blackout was still in operation, and walked from my home in Barston Road to the Holly Bush. Not a soul was about and all was quiet. My footsteps seemed to echo very loudly. It was rather misty I recall and as I neared the bus stop I made out the shapes of one or two men also waiting. We greeted each other and soon our transport arrived, a small red post Office van. No windows, and a door on the back through which we passed to travel, standing up. As I was the smallest I had to stand on the raised wheel arch. We made our way down the Hagley Road stopping occasionally to pick up more sorters and more telephonists. We were crammed in like sardines, and, reaching the Hall of Memory, we girls were very glad to be able to get out. We then hurried down to Newhall Street and to T.H. and our Christmas duty. It was a very busy morning; it seemed everyone was calling everyone to give them the Seasons Greetings. Most subscribers wished us Merry Christmas, but there were one or two miserable souls who had had to wait for their call to be answered as we were so busy, and were rather sarcastic and would ask, ‘Doing your knitting are you?’ or ‘Busy drinking your tea?’ but they were the few.

One o’clock came and our reliefs arrived and we were off duty. My parents had walked to Bearwood to have dinner with my grandparents and I would get transport there to join them. We were to stay the night, and I had Boxing Day free. Some Corporation buses had been chartered to take us home, the buses that had brought in our reliefs. We found that the early mist had turned to quite a thick fog and the bus had to make its way very slowly. We went down Spring Hill, past Dudley Road Hospital, to Cape Hill, along Waterloo Road, then Bearwood Road. By this time the driver was having great difficulty in finding his way and we bumped up the curb once or twice. I was to get off just before the old Windsor Picture House, as my grandparents lived nearby in Richmond Road. There were a row of shops that ran near the top of their road, along Bearwood Road, and the bus mounted the pavement there and knocked over some metal advertisement signs. I was very glad to get off, and got to my Gran’s late but had a good Christmas dinner. I found out later that the girls who had come on duty to relieve us at 1 o’clock, found, when they came off duty at 6pm, that their transport had not turned up and it was by then, very, very foggy. They set off to walk back to Quinton, when along the Hagley Road near Fountain Road they saw a glimmer of light ahead, then a voice out of the fog calling out, ‘Is this still the Hagley Road?’ It was the conductress, walking in front of the relief bus, trying to guide the driver, and they hadn’t a clue where they had got to, the girls continued home but got their Christmas Dinner about 10.00pm!

By the end of March, the next year, 1945, I and my friends Edna Harrington and Madge Powell, were scheduled for 6 weeks of night duty, which, as we quite liked it, signed up for a further 6 weeks. We had varied duties, one or two short duties of 6.30pm till 10.30pm and then three or four long nights of 7.00 or 7.30pm until 8.00am, followed by two or three days free. Each weeks’ duty was different. The female telephonists were only operating on the switchboards until midnight when the exchange was left in the hands of the night men. We girls then went down one flight of stairs to the Directory Enquiry room, in the middle of which was a long table that we sat around and proceeded to sort out all the toll tickets that had been made out during the day. There were thousands. These tickets were originally on a small pad held together by glue, rather like a miniature writing pad. Each of the Birmingham exchanges had to be put into their own piles. Later, these would be taken to the Accounts Department where the subscribers’ bills would be compiled and later sent out for payment. We sat either side of this long table, about twenty of us, and we laughed and talked and even sang during our rather boring sorting out of the tickets. The supervisor in charge sat at the top end of the table but it was all a lot more informal than work during the day. I remember one night, it was very warm, and we had the large, wide swing windows open; I was sitting next to Madge, when, in flew the biggest ‘Bob Owler’ moth I had ever seen. As one, Madge and I screamed, jumped up, covered our faces and generally scared the rest of the girls out of their wits. We were both terrified of flying furry things. The poor Supervisor was frightened to death by our screams of terror. Eventually peace and calm was restored. The windows were shut firmly so no further mayhem could occur.

The night of 7th May, 1945, it was announced that the next day, 8th may was to be the official ending of World War II. We became inundated with calls; the boards were ablaze with people wanting to call friends and relatives to talk over the great news. Celebrations had already started in the city, and we got many calls to try and get taxis for people who had missed their last buses. It was so busy, we were working full out on the boards ‘till about 3.00 in the morning, and when we came off duty at 8.00am we were all exhausted. I caught my bus home, thinking only of having a quick bite of breakfast and then falling into my awaiting bed. Ha! I did get home, I did have my breakfast and I did get into bed – BUT – outside all the street were preparing to celebrate; there was laughter, shouting, singing, sounds of tables being put up, chairs and stools brought out. I tossed and turned, grumbled and groaned, complained to my mother ‘that some of us have to work; and can’t they celebrate more quietly?’

Preparing for celebtaions

Apparently not. I got up later, in a not very good mood and set off about 6.00pm to take myself off to T.H, for another night’s work. Arriving there, I complained to Madge, and found that she also was really not in the celebrating mood. Her mother had gone out, and Madge had got to bed alright and was just nicely asleep when she was awakened by loud knocking on her door. Reluctantly getting up to answer it she found three of her friends on the door step, wanting her to go into Birmingham and to celebrate. She was NOT amused, and told them in no uncertain terms that, ‘no she would not be going into town to celebrate as she needed some sleep before working another long night.’

All that must sound awful; that we were so discontented, when six long years of war, so horrific for so many had at last come to an end. We continued our tour of night duty, and soon got over our tiredness and grumpiness and joined in the celebrations, and those of you that have read Issue 31, Summer 2006, will know that our street held a great Celebration Party in November 1945 to combine VE Day, VJ Day and Bonfire Night in one, Ah! Happy Days!

Ed’s Comment-Thanks Doreen for another lovely article. Any more of these terrific memories out there please?

Click here to go back to the Oracle page.