“Number Please?”

Average Small town telephone operator

Average Small town telephone operator

Operating the lines in the 20th Century.  Published in Co. Magazine (May 2010)

You may have caught a Pulse article last year seeking out some of our former telephone operators. Led by Megan Hutching, an Oral Historian at Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT), the project involves interviewing past NZPO telephone operators about their days, and nights, on the switchboards. Co. magazine writer Tim Gruar decided to find out more and made a few connections of his own along the way.

On line from Auckland Megan explains that she was inspired by the stories from her two sisters and brother in-law, all former exchange staff. “Operators were essential in maintaining personal and business communication in this country, and yet were seldom seen. The role no longer really exists so I wanted to record their experiences while I could”. She plans to use her recordings to enhance a working manual 100 line Ericsson Drop shutter board model, originally from Tuakau Exchange (1914-76), now on show at MOTAT. “People will pick up the lines, make connections and hear the stories over the receiver.”

I’d heard a few old operators were still at Telecom so I tentatively put out a call through the company’s new ‘party line’: Yammer. The response was overwhelming.

Telephone Operators have been part of our Telecommunications DNA from the get go. 11 years after the first exchange opened in Christchurch in 1918, an initial influx of ‘cadettes’ took up 12 assignations at the main exchanges around the country. Special measures were required for these young ladies as they entered into a new, predominantly male work environment with the Secretary of the Post Office Department instructing his officers to “take every care to prevent undue (social) intercourse and familiarity between the men and the women.” And to prevent any shenanigans he insisted there was a Senior Exchange Clerk attendant at all operator shifts right up until closing time at 10PM.

Those early operator roles were hotly contested. In the following year there were 484 applicants for the 80 advertised roles. It paid to have not only the backing of a local MP as well as school teachers and clergy, too. In fact, according to the 1870-1899 edition of Return Officers Appointed, the majority of newly appointed ‘telephone girls’ were sponsored by Cabinet Ministers.

On an Exchange visit for the 1901 Christmas Number of the Daily Mail a somewhat stunned male journalist talked of the “perfect babble of tongues. Did you ever hear three women trying to talk at once?” he quipped, “Well, multiply that by five and you have the effect. Behind the ‘cadettes’ stands a lady very much on the alert and who looks as although she could deal firmly but kindly with any girl neglecting her duty. Each girl is released every hour for a few minutes and on her return takes up a new section taking down the shutters (at the back of a switchboard) disclosing thousands of covered wires of various colours, the whole not unlike a fisherman’s net. As each connection requires six wires and there are 1630 (subscriber) numbers in use, the arithmetician may figure this (total) out for himself.”

Former operator Helen Harrington agrees that scenario was still common during her time (1970’s). “It sounded like a gaggle of geese. All these women talking at the same time. “Number please”. “Through”. “Sorry Engaged.” We also had a supervisor who would sit at a desk behind us and get up to walk (menacingly) up and down the line. On his console he could monitor any of us to make sure we weren’t doing anything naughty like having private calls or listening in.””

The first automatic exchange was introduced in 1912 at Fort St. Auckland. However, the rurals were not fully automated until 1976, nearly 60 years later. The predominant small town hardware was the Ericsson Drop Shutter Exchange. Linda Cromie (Rakaia, 1968-72) remembers “if there was a thunder storm just off the coast it was not unusual to get an electric shock of the plug when it was inserted whilst connecting a line.”. Also, party lines in the country were common. “When we connected the cable we used a ‘Morse’ code of rings so the right household would answer the phone.”

And not all small towns had 24/7 exchanges, either. Until the late 50’s Tuakau closed at midnight, reminds Megan Hutching. “If it was a real emergency, you would have to wake the (local) postmaster and use his phone to ring through to Warkworth, which had a 24-hour service.”

In many cases the local post office was the hub of the town. Linda remembers local sportsmen gathering in the foyer of the exchange at the beginning of each hunt. It was also common for the local constabulary to ring the operators in search of their. “In fact many times the Operators know whereabouts of the local townsfolk were, what they were up to and when they’d be home!” Molly Erueti, who was at Waimana in the late 60’s, also remembers “we had this shop owner ring the exchange 8am every day and go through a list of his 25 customers… to get their daily shopping list for delivery later that day.” “Local kuia would (arrogantly) ring in, demanding the ‘butcher’, ‘garage’ or ‘shop’ and expect to ring through.” Local station agents would also ask the operators to forewarn customers of upcoming appointments.

Helen Harrington, who started her career in Taihape before heading to Hamilton, notes she still refers to some of the townsfolk as numbers: “Oh you mean Mr 956?. And things were a lot friendlier then,” she claims. The local cops would often hang out with the operators in the exchange – “which was handy if any emergency calls came in they were right there.”

Not long after local rural operators vanished a flood of letters to the editor came in praising the ‘magnificent’ personal service they provided. Even the Chief of Police praised the efficiency alerting potential flood victims. But the media weren’t always kind though. Their stories ranged from claims of ‘Headset Baldness” to slow connectivity times and operators listening in on calls. Scan the papers through the middle of the century and the common paranoia of exchange staff losses due to marriage will emerge with great regularity. “I was proposed to after someone fell head over heels with my voice,” recalls Helen Harrington,” A month after we met he bought me an engagement ring…Then I got caught up with another man whose stalking ex-wife maintained I split them up. She tried to have me fired. In the end she was told she was a liar and marched out of the Post Masters Office.”

For the small exchanges the work was varied and included sorting mail and office duties but the metro exchanges were more production line.  For most operators the work was manual, no computers. Several former operators working in Tolls recall the manual process of writing up a call. In the tiny two person exchange at Waimana, Molly Erueti would draft the ticket up to be sent to Palmerston North where the subscriber’s bill was prepared. And toll calls were not only costly but labour intensive too. “It could sometimes take days to make a person-to-person toll call, because if the person you wanted was not available when the operator first rang,” says Molly. Helen agrees “…you had to make another time with the called person to try and get them together.” Helen even remembers the coding: “CLT for Collect; TC for Transfer Charge; PP for Person to Person”. However, Helen remembers some unusual tasks like the timing earthquakes. “When someone had a fire they would ring the exchange and an operator would yell ‘FIRE”, push the fire alarm and plug into the fire brigades number where we’d pass on the details of the fire. That gave us such a rushAlthough Subscriber Toll Dialling (STD) had been available in limited exchanges since the mid 60’s it was not until March 1976 that a National upgrade occurred in earnest. By 1977 more than a third of the network (357,000 subscribers) could now ‘Phone Home’ (UK) or any other country without the aid of an operator. Yet, despite this, operators remained in service for some time to come. Former staff all agreed: “it was the personal touch that made the difference. People love to speak to a real person, in New Zealand, or better still in their actual community”. And it is that sentiment which, despite all our advances in technology, still reverberates through Call Centre discussions today.

For more information, anecdotes, photos, etc visit http://nzpotelephoneoperators.blogspot.com

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