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The Telephone Exchange and Duplicating Office

As exemplified by the transmitting station, communications were at the heart of the BBC. Telephones and duplicating machines were similarly emblematic of this and were also a symbol of the modern twentieth-century office. At the BBC it was women who operated these technologies, in line with the convention which saw routine office work as an appropriate female occupation.[1] The telephone and duplicating machine feature in the recollections of BBC staff. Even at Magnet House, Cecil Lewis marvelled how they never stopped.[2] Ruth Cockerton, looking back to Savoy Hill in the mid-1920s, recalled the Roneo machine ‘which ground out memos and things in a room where people hung their hats and coats’.[3] The operator of this lone machine was a ‘girl’. By 1938, the Duplicating Section at Broadcasting House employed 27 female operatives.[4] The BBC telephone exchange witnessed a similar expansion. From one operator in 1923, by 1938 it had a staff of 25. Since the first exchanges had begun operating in the 1880s, telephonists had been women. By 1921, the Post Office employed 26,000 female telephonists and the GPO would become the main recruiting ground for the BBC.[5]

Amongst Reith’s first appointments in 1923 was Olive May, recruited specifically to operate the Private Branch Exchange. She was personally interviewed by Reith who stressed to her the importance of the job. The switchboard was the first point of contact between the outsider and the BBC he emphasised, and as such, it was vital that all callers were dealt with intelligently, efficiently and courteously.[6] However, the space was cramped, the hours of work long (including weekends), with no overtime pay. Miss May was soon joined by a second switchboard operator and together they covered extensive shifts, starting at 9 am and finishing late, often not until 10.30 pm. Despite the intensity of the work, May relished her time at Savoy Hill, especially the amity that developed between her and Reith. In 1928 she married a BBC engineer from Leeds, whom she had met over the phone, and she subsequently resigned. However in 1931, now Mrs Bottle, she returned to the BBC for twelve months, to oversee the development of the telephone exchange at Broadcasting House.

The new switchboard, when it opened in 1932, had six telephonist positions. By 1938, this had been extended to 12.[7] Not only did the 23 operators, working in shifts, deal with an average of 11,000 calls each day but their job also entailed memorising the details of 650 internal extensions and the frequent movements of staff. A photograph from this time shows a row of women telephonists dressed in neat white blouses and dark skirts, their female supervisor, in a smart floral dress, standing over them.[8] Reith maintained a close relationship with the switchboard. Dorothy Torry, who worked in his office from 1936, remembered how a senior telephonist was employed to deal personally with Reith and how he made a friend of her. ‘They knew each other and their wants and dislikes and the way they spoke. He felt he couldn’t really manage with someone different’, she explained.[9] This sense of a personal connection with the BBC’s telephonists extended to other senior staff. In 1946,

Roger Eckersley looked back nostalgically to earlier days when ‘the girls in our telephone exchange used to know us all—I still feel hurt when a girl asks me to repeat my name’.[10] At first the telephone exchange epitomised the familial ethos of the early BBC. Later it became its corporate voice.

According to Radio Pictorial in September 1939, the ‘Hello Girls’ of the BBC needed long-term experience in a Post Office exchange before they could be considered for a position with the Corporation.[11] As with other secretarial and clerical staff, the BBC expected telephonists to arrive already trained. Four years’ London Telephone Service (LTS) experience was required and while languages were not essential, they were an asset. The average starting age for a BBC telephonist was 24 on a rate of ?3 a week, a rate that compared favourably with other employers such as Harrods, Midland Bank and Selfridges.[12] However, it was not only the pay that made the BBC an attractive place to work, it was the prestige of the job. As Reith had originally told Miss May, switchboard operators dealt with people from all walks of life and the nature of BBC work would have entailed daily contact with dignitaries and celebrities as well as the public at large.

For those who worked in the Duplicating Section, daily life was less glamorous, but the busy office was a vital hub of the BBC. Wilfred Goatman, writing about the office in his 1938 guidebook about the BBC, joked that the duplication of forms was a major function of the Section, listing with relish the thousands of specially formulated index cards, internal memorandum sheets and analytical record pro formas that were printed every day. The Section Supervisor had even designed a form for the requisitioning of forms, he smirked.[13] While this may seem trivial, a large bureaucracy, such as the BBC, needed a uniformity of paperwork to function efficiently. The Duplicating Section not only produced forms, it was also responsible for numerous other tasks that included the copying of play-scripts, minutes of meetings, press releases and announcer’s duty sheets along with daily menus and studio allocations, all of which might be subject to last minute change.[14] Mary Lewis, who joined the Duplicating Section as a checking clerk in 1938, described an atmosphere of friendship within the office, this despite the rigid discipline that was enforced by the Supervisor, Miss Hills.[15] [16] [17]

Duplicating is not a job singled out in studies of women’s work in the interwar years, so it is difficult to compare the BBC’s duplicating staff with others doing similar work. However, conditions of service were in line with all BBC weekly paid secretarial and clerical posts with operatives placed in two grades earning up to ?3.10s a week.1 02 According to the 1937 Staff List, under the management of a Supervisor and Assistant Supervisor, were two clerks, seven stencil typists, fourteen operators, two office girls and three ‘boys’. 1 03 Duplicating, like telephony, was a specialist job and there is no indication that any women who worked in these sections were ever considered for promotion or transference to other areas of work. Mrs Rouse, the PBX supervisor, Miss Hills, the Duplicating Supervisor and Miss Armstrong, the Assistant Duplicating Supervisor (all salaried positions by 1939), had risen through the ranks of their particular section which was the norm in the interwar years, particularly for manual jobs.[18] [19]

  • [1] Anderson, The White Blouse Revolution, pp. 17-18.
  • [2] Cecil Lewis (1924) Broadcasting from Within (London: George Newnes) p. 27.
  • [3] Ariel, June 1938.
  • [4] Goatman, By-Ways of the BBC, p. 29.
  • [5] McNally, Women for Hire, p. 5. The use of women as GPO telephonists was a legacy oftelegraphy, where the experiment of employing female staff had first taken place. Martindale,Women Servants of the State, pp. 16-17.
  • [6] Sound Archive No: 87181, ‘Reith Remembered’, broadcast 21 June 1989.
  • [7] Goatman, By-Ways of the BBC, pp. 32-3.
  • [8] Goatman, p. 33.
  • [9] Dorothy Torry interview.
  • [10] Eckersley, The BBC and All That, p. 66.
  • [11] Radio Pictorial, 8 September 1939.
  • [12] BBC/WAC:R49/237/1: Grades and Salaries: Telephonists, Freeman to Wade, 22March 1937. Freeman believed telephonists should be graded BW rather than CW.
  • [13] Goatman, By-Ways of the BBC, p. 28.
  • [14] Everywoman, February 1935.
  • [15] Mary Lewis interview.
  • [16] Roneo and Multigraph operators were graded ‘C3W’ earning up to ?3.10s weekly,Junior Duplicating Machine Operators were graded ‘DW’ earning up to ?3 a week.
  • [17] BBC Staff List, 1937.
  • [18] Female factory workers could become charge-hands, forewomen or supervisorsalthough most stayed in the same grade for their entire working life. Glucksmann, WomenAssemble, pp. 111, 202-3.
  • [19] BBC/WAC:R13/305: Programme Contracts, Crutwell to Eckersley, 31 January 1927.
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