Tag Archives: oral history

Stories from the ‘hello girls’

Jen Kavanagh, Audience Engagement Manager for Information Age, explores the stories from telephone exchange operators in the 1960s.

Today when we pick up the telephone, the automated system makes connecting a call quick and simple. But before this automatic system was introduced in the 1960s, telephone exchange operators had to help us on our way.

Young ladies worked across the country, connecting calls and helping people get in touch with one another. The work required concentration, patience and an excellent manner, but the community created within these exchanges was fun and social once shifts had ended.

Telephone operators busy at work at Enfield Telephone Exchange in 1960

Telephone operators busy at work at Enfield Telephone Exchange in 1960

The last manual telephone exchange was situated in Enfield, north London, marking the end of an era in communication history. A section of the Enfield Exchange forms a part of the Science Museum’s collection, and will be put on display in the Information Age gallery.

To bring this amazing piece of history to life, the Museum has been speaking to ladies who worked as telephone exchange operators in the 1950s and early 1960s, recording their stories through oral history interviews.

These former ‘hello girls’ have given their insight into how the exchanged worked and what the job of an operator involved, but have also shared some wonderful stories about the friends they made and the social life they experience once they’d clocked off.

One of these former operators, Jean Singleton, shared her thoughts on what made a good telephone operator, even if she didn’t feel she was one!

“How do I know? [Laughs] I wasn’t a good telephone operator, I was a naughty telephone operator! Well, first of all, you had to have a nice speaking voice, you couldn’t go there if you were a Cockney, speaking in a Cockney way, or a Northern way, you had to speak the Queens English, or Kings English as it was then.  Which, I suppose I had a decent enough voice. You had to be polite, and the customer sort of was always right, more or less, you know, you didn’t swear back at somebody if they swore at you, you weren’t allowed to do that sort of thing.  If you found you were in trouble with a person on the telephone, you just passed them over to your supervisor, and they would deal with it.”

Another former operator, Rose Young, talks about some of the kit that was used whilst working on the exchange.

“The first headsets were very heavy, you’d have a mouthpiece that came up in front of you on a plastic piece that had a tape on that you hung round your neck.  And then the headpiece was like a metal band with a very heavy earpiece, you had one ear free so that you could hear what was going on around you and one that you covered, that covered your ear, but they were very heavy.”

Visitors to Information Age will have the opportunity to hear more from these amazing ladies through an interactive audio experience which will sit alongside the original section of the Enfield Exchange. We’ll just have to make sure we edit the cheeky bits!

Discover more of these stories in Information Age, an exciting new gallery about the last 200 years of communication that will open in 2014.

Hidden Histories of Information

Tilly Blyth, Keeper of Technologies and Engineering, writes about the hidden histories of information. Information Age, a new £15.6m communication gallery, will reveal how our lives have been transformed by communication innovations over the last 200 years.

Our new gallery on information and communications technologies, Information Age, will open in Autumn 2014. It will look at the development of our information networks, from the growth of the worldwide electric telegraph network in the 19th century, to the influence of mobile phones on our lives today.

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

Artists impression of the GPS Satellite model

One of the challenges of exhibiting the complex, and mostly intangible, world of information in a museum context is how you bring together the technology with the people involved and the information shared. The history of information is not just a neat history of devices. The telegraph instruments, radio and televisions, computers and mobile phones all reflect the material culture of information, but the history and future of information is much more complex.

One approach for dealing with this complexity is to look at how users, as well as innovators, have developed information and communications networks. Through personal stories we can connect visitors to the lived experience of technological change and reveal the significance of these networks to our ancestors’ lives.

As part of this approach we are conducting some new oral histories. We have recorded Gulf War veterans discussing their experience in 1991 of navigating around the desert both with, and without GPS. We have talked to the original engineers who set up Britain’s first commercial mobile phone networks for Vodafone and Cellnet in 1985. We will be talking to those who created and used the world’s first computer for commercial applications, the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO 1) in 1951. We have also interviewed some of the women who worked at the last last manual telephone exchange in Greater London, the Enfield Exchange in North London.

Women operators at the Enfield telephone exchange, October 1960.

Women operators at the Enfield telephone exchange, October 1960.

A lovely example of one account if this interview with Jean Singleton, a telephone operator who worked at a few different telephone exchanges, including Enfield when it was still a manual exchange. Jean left school at 15 when she started working for the GPO. Here she describes what made a good telephone operator.

We hope that detailed personal accounts like these will enthuse our audiences, reveal histories that are often not formally documented and show how centuries of ‘new’ information and communication devices have changed people’s lives.