Tag Archives: telephone exchange

They came to do a job and they did it

Head Postmaster of Dover AWB Mowbray kept a typed account of the Blitz years in what became known as ‘Hell’s Corner’, recounted here by BPMA Curator Vyki Sparkes.

Mowbray wrote with pride when a member of his staff, Miss W N Scanlan, was awarded the British Empire Medal in October 1941. This was announced in the London Gazette alongside a notice that the same award was awarded to two other female supervisors in charge of Post Office telephone exchanges.

Medal awarded to Miss W Scanlan during World War II for bravery during bombing raids on the Telephone Exchange at Dover. (2004-0024/01)

Medal awarded to Miss W Scanlan during World War II for bravery during bombing raids on the Telephone Exchange at Dover. (2004-0024/01)

Little more is known of these women’s particular acts of bravery, aside from what is written in the newspaper:

These three Supervisors of Women Telephone Operators have, by their courage and devotion to duty, set a fine example to their staffs. Throughout the air raids in the areas where they work, they have maintained an efficient telephone service during periods of constant danger.

According to the General Post Office press release, eight other female supervisors and telephonists had previously received awards and commendations.

Over 100,000 women had been employed by the GPO by November 1941 – more than one-third of the total staff. Due to the shortage of manpower, women worked a range of duties including some previously considered ‘male’ occupations – such as telephone engineers and the first ever female motorised van driver.

Mowbray describes how, in Christmas 1941…

… the kaleidoscopic effect of the multi-coloured jumpers and overalls of the women temporary sorters who fluttered about like so many butterflies was unmarred even by 2½ hours of shelling in one evening…they came to do a job and they did it regardless of the large quantity of roof glass.

Additionally, one-third of the Sub Post Offices in the country were controlled by women. It is clear that without them, the vital communication networks cared for by the Post Office could not have been maintained.

In addition to these examples there are many other notable tales of bravery by postal staff during the Blitz. A total of 27 post office staff died on duty in 1941. By the end of that year, over 100 men and women had received commendations and awards from the King, while on Civil Defence or Post Office Duty. These ranged from 38 British Empire Medals to eight George Medals.

Mowbray himself was to be included in the New Years Honours list in 1942, as a Member of the Order of the British Empire. In 1941, 117 staff were also commended by the Postmaster General for their work on the home front. For every Post Office worker who won an award, there were countless others behind them who received no official recognition. Miss Scanlan announced the award to her staff by flourishing the letter and saying ‘Girls we’ve got the British Empire Medal’. And, as Mowbray himself readily acknowledges, it was the co-operation of the police, fire, transport and military services, and the cheeriness of the population that helped his staff cope with the strain of war.

We do not like the phrase “We can take it”. It would be more honest to say “It’s forced on us”, but the Dover people and Dover Post Office staff do their utmost to make the best of decidedly unpleasant circumstances.

Vyki Sparkes’ podcast The Post Office and the Blitz can be downloaded for free from the BPMA website, iTunes or SoundCloud.

See Shells Over the White Cliffs and Harder times in Hell’s Corner for more from the AWB Mowbray accounts.

The first drive-in post office in the United Kingdom

On 11 December 1959, the United Kingdom’s first drive-in post office opened. It was situated at the new Wharf Street Branch Post Office under the centre archway of the Wharf Street Telephone Exchange building in Leicester, which had a private road running through it.

Customer makes a purchase from drive-in post office, 1960 (P 7183 from POST 122/3954)

Customer makes a purchase from drive-in post office, 1960 (P 7183 from POST 122/3954)

The drive-in post office was to handle straightforward transactions, such as the sale of stamps and postal orders. Drivers would be served from the comfort of their cars via a drive-in counter adjacent to the covered roadway. The intention was that as a car drew up to the drive-in counter, the counter clerk would hear a bell ring. The counter clerk and driver would communicate via microphones and loudspeakers. When the driver had told the counter clerk what was required, a tray was to be extended to the driver upon which money would be placed. The counter clerk would withdraw the tray and exchange the money for whatever had been requested. Letters etc. could be returned by tray but packets and parcels were to be passed to the counter clerk through a hatch.

Despite being announced in a burst of fanfare, the drive-in post office was ultimately considered to be a failure. From the initial 60 to 70 customers a day, this fell to 20 to 25 a day and, by 1963, the number of customers had tailed off to three per day and even this was not always maintained.

Customer collects purchase from Drive-In Post Office, 1960 (P7182 from POST 122/3954)

Customer collects purchase from Drive-In Post Office, 1960 (P7182 from POST 122/3954)

Its location was not ideal. Although adjacent to a public car park, it was situated at a branch and not a head post office, was not on a main road and was away from the main businesses and shopping area of the city.

The drive-in post office suffered from design flaws. The signs directing customers, for example, were too small. Most drivers stopped too far away from the drive-in counter so it was rarely possible to use the tray as had been originally intended. In fact, the tray was rarely used because the unsatisfactory nature of the microphones and loudspeaker equipment. Clerks found that it was easier to raise the glass screen and lean out of the window in order to conduct transactions. The archway also formed a wind tunnel. The wind had sometimes torn paper money, stamps or postal orders from customers so that some had had to leave their cars in order to chase after them.

In fact, there had been scepticism about the viability of such a venture right from the start. A number of the Regional Directors felt that post office counter business did not readily lend itself to this form of service, whilst the United States postal administration reported that such facilities were expensive to provide.

Customer collects purchase (P7185 from POST 122/3954)

Customer collects purchase (P7185 from POST 122/3954)

Although the drive-in post office was considered to be a failure, it did not stop the Post Office from trying out other innovative ideas at this time, including the opening of a self service post office suite in Luton on 4 July 1960 where motorists could buy stamps and post their mail.

- Louise Todd, Archivist

This blog was researched at the Royal Mail Archive, located at BPMA’s headquarters in Clerkenwell, London. There are millions of stories to uncover at the Royal Mail Archive, see our website for Archive opening hours and visitor information.

A pleasing tone always…

Sometimes I find items in the archives that just ‘speak’ to me, and two posters, designed by Pieter Huveneers, certainly do. In my opinion, the vivid colours and benign faces of the ladies featured, with their outsize (and even technicolour!) eyelashes, have a particular charm. However, items that are now archive records can be viewed very differently by archivists than they were by those at whom they were originally directed.

Speak Clearly Always! 1958. (POST 109/23)

Speak Clearly Always! 1958. (POST 109/23)

Indeed, the subjects of these posters by Huveneers were not so happy with their aesthetic portrayal. Female telephonists at Liverpool Telephone Exchange believed the ‘Speak clearly’ illustration gave ‘such a strong impression of a vacuous mind’ that ‘it reflected adversely on their attitude to their jobs’. Despite the posters only being intended for display on staff notice-boards in telephone exchanges, and were therefore not visible to the public, the level of objection to the ‘Speak clearly’ poster was strong enough for it to be withdrawn.

A pleasing tone - always! November 1957 (POST 110/1636)

A pleasing tone - always! November 1957 (POST 110/1636)

Although the posters achieved their fundamental aims of being striking and capturing attention, it is difficult to see a clear link between the message and the accompanying illustration. It’s understandable that some telephonists felt attention was being directed more towards their appearance than the intended subject of ‘business efficiency’.

According to the Chairman of the Post Office Internal Relations Panel/Joint Production Council Huveneers was ‘trying to illustrate an idealised notion of the impression made by a telephonist who speaks clearly’. This implies that the purpose of the well-spoken telephonist was to conjure up an image of being easy on the eye!

Although the young telephonists at Liverpool Telephone Exchange didn’t want to be seen as doll-like caricatures, neither did they want to be seen as drab and old-fashioned. In 1958 some 53% of permanent female telephonists in London and the provinces were aged 25 and under compared to 3.5% aged 51-55.

An attempt to introduce a different style in the form of the ‘All depend on you’ poster also received an unenthusiastic response. The general feeling being that if a women of her more mature years (she looks fairly young to me!) had been any good ‘she would have been promoted long since and not still be sitting at a position’.

All depend on you! August 1954 (POST 110/1626)

All depend on you! August 1954 (POST 110/1626)

Perhaps if the men in charge at the GPO had not mistakenly thought that female telephonists were vying to be the pin-up voice of the telephone service they would have found them less ‘hard to please’. Thankfully for us they did, as otherwise we wouldn’t have these two wonderful posters!

Source: Internal Relations Panel/Joint Production Council (IRP/JPC): Comments on IRP posters IRP 127, 128, 131, 132, 135 and 136 ‘A Pleasing Tone Always’, ‘Speak Clearly Always’ and ‘They Depend on You’. Complaints from staff at Head Post Office, Liverpool (POST 122/2937)

- Anna Flood, Archivist (Cataloguing)

New podcast goes online: The Post Office during the Second World War

by Alison Bean, Website Officer

Peace and Freedom stamp, 1995

Peace and Freedom stamp, 1995

Earlier this year several talks were given at the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms to tie-in with the exhibition Last Post – Remembering the First World War. These covered various wartime and postal history topics, including talks on the Post Office during the First and Second World Wars. The talk The Post Office during the Second World War, given by Mark Crowley, is now available to download as a podcast.

Mark Crowley is a PhD student conducting research at the BPMA, who has previously written for this blog on The Post Office Home Guard. His talk presented a number of interesting insights into Post Office operations during World War 2.

The bomb damage suffered by Greenwich Post Office in 1945

The bomb damage suffered by Greenwich Post Office in 1945

The Post Office played a vital communications role during the War, providing both postal and telegram deliveries, and telephone services. With many Post Office workers now in the forces, women were employed in large numbers to deliver and sort mail, drive Royal Mail vans and maintain the telephone network. Mark’s talk is peppered with stories of the bravery of some of these workers, who managed to keep telephone exchanges and sorting offices running even as the enemy bombs rained down.

Vital infrastructure such as post offices, sorting offices and telephone exchanges were often targets for enemy bombers, and many suffered bomb damage. Mobile Post Offices, offering telephone and counter services were set up in effected areas.

A Mobile Post Office in a bombed area, 1941

A Mobile Post Office in a bombed area, 1941

Unfortunately, many of the archive images referred to in the talk cannot be included with the podcast due to copyright reasons, but we hope to make some of these available in the future.

The British Postal Museum & Archive Podcast can be downloaded through iTunes or from our website. Last Post – Remembering the First World War is currently on a national tour.

Colossus and D-Day

65 years ago today General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff met to discuss the Normandy landings, or D-Day. The landings had been planned for some time and their success depended on good weather for the crossing and landing, and minimal resistance from German troops so that the Allies could gain a foothold.

Weather conditions had been too poor for a landing in early June 1944, but chief meteorologist James Martin Stagg forecast an improvement on 6th June. This weather forecast is usually cited as the deciding factor in Eisenhower’s decision to set D-Day for 6th June. However, Eisenhower is said to have received another piece of information during that meeting which was just as crucial, and he had the skill and inventiveness of the Post Office Research Station, Dollis Hill to thank for it.

Post Office engineers re-wire a telephone exchange after an air raid. Post Office telephone engineers developed the first programmable electronic computer during the 2nd World War.

Post Office engineers re-wire a telephone exchange after an air raid. Post Office telephone engineers developed the first programmable electronic computer during the 2nd World War.

Before the war Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers and his team at Dollis Hill had worked in switching electronics, exploring the possibilities for electronic telephone exchanges. But by the early 1940s they were helping the British code-breaking team at Bletchley Park. Colossus, later recognised as the world’s first programmable electronic computer, was their greatest achievement.

Colossus was primarily developed to decipher the Nazi Lorenz codes, high-level encryptions used by senior personnel, rather than the more famous Enigma codes used by field units. Computer technology was in its infancy in the 1940s and when in early 1943 Flowers proposed the machine, which would run on 1800 valves (vacuum tubes), there was great scepticism that it would work as until that point the most complicated electronic device had used about 150 valves.

But by December 1943 Colossus Mark 1 was working and it was soon moved to Bletchley Park, where it was able to break German codes within hours. An improved version, Colossus Mark 2, using 2400 valves, was unveiled on 1st June 1944, four days before Eisenhower made his decision about D-Day.

An essay by Flowers published in Colossus: The Secrets of Bletchley Park’s Code-breaking Computers describes the crucial meeting between General Eisenhower and his staff held on 5th June 1944. During that meeting a note summarising a recent Colossus decryption was handed to Eisenhower. It confirmed that Hitler was aware of troop build-ups in southern England, but would not be sending extra troops to Normandy as he was certain that Allied preparations were a hoax. This information was said to have convinced Eisenhower that the Normandy landings should take place the next day.

But whether it was the weather forecast or the Colossus decryption which tipped the balance in favour of 6th June, Flowers and the Post Office Research Station team made a remarkable advance in computer technology. By the end of the war 10 Colossus Mark 2 computers were in use at Bletchley Park, providing vital information to Allies forces, which certainly reduced the length of the war. After the war Flowers and his team returned to their work in switching, later pioneering all-electronic telephone exchanges. Their ingenuity was only recognised in the 1970s when restrictions on the Colossus project under the Official Secrets Act were lifted.

The Post Office Home Guard in the Second World War

To mark VE Day Ph.D Research Student Mark J Crowley looks at The Post Office Home Guard.

The Post Office Home Guard was created in 1939 under the instruction of the Postmaster General. Its purpose was to defend the Post Office from enemy attack. Whilst its initial membership predominantly comprised men, it also accepted women, but their roles initially were confined to duties such as fire-watching. This was to change by the end of 1940, when women performed all of the duties previously undertaken by men. Considerable enthusiasm was expressed by Post Office staff for this initiative. They could volunteer their services to the Post Office Home Guard provided that they did not spend more than 40 hours per month performing these duties.

Post Office Home Guard

Post Office Home Guard

The Post Office Home Guard formed part of what became known as the ‘Factory Home Guard’. They were created as a ‘spin off’ to the National Home Guard. For the Post Office, and for the nation, the defence of communications, essential services and industry were covered by this group. The best defence would be achieved with cooperation between the Factory Home Guard units and the national Home Guard.[1]

Five major roles and responsibilities were identified for the Post Office Home Guard.[2] First, they would work to defend their local Post Office. A small proportion of Telephonists in the exchanges classified as ‘vulnerable’ by a government-appointed Vulnerable Points Officer would then be recruited to the Post Office Home Guard, and trained to operate selected exchanges in the event of an invasion. Second, the Post Office Home Guard would be responsible for providing telecommunications for the Army, Navy, air force as well as civil defence, government and industry. Its main task was to protect vital communications. Third, the POHG members would be exempt from the fire watching duties covered under separate arrangements within the Essential Work Order. Fourth, there were three classifications to Post Office premises, and members of the POHG were expected to defend all three, but the priorities attached to all three were different. Buildings were classified as: key points of national importance; important centres; and finally, premises of lesser importance. Also the POHG were given points in which a constant presence should be maintained. Areas with large sorting offices and telephone exchanges (major cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester) were afforded the highest level of protection by both the National Home Guard and the Post Office Home Guard, in the interest of protecting and maintaining their services in the event of an enemy attack. 

Towards the end of the war, senior Post Office managers and Treasury officials claimed that men over 60 were not fit for Home Guard duties, and neither should they be expected to perform these or any other duties involving defending the country.[3] Others on the committee argued that the biggest problem for the Post Office was that it had its own Home Guard. They believed that if its staff joined the outside Home Guard, then their claims of irksome duties and hours would receive more attention from the government. However, the Post Office Management assured the staff that if there was evidence that their duties in the Post Office Home Guard was detrimentally affecting their Post Office duties, then they would be relieved of this.[4] This possibly explains why all Post Office Home Guard sections had been disbanded by 1946.


[1] BPMA, Post 56/108, Letter from P J Grigg, War Office, July 1941

[2] BPMA, Post 56/108,  F Reid POHG commander to regional directors, 18 April, 1941

[3] Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick (hereafter MRC), MSS.148/UCW/2/1/28, Quarterly Meeting the Executive Council, 12-14 July, 1944, p. 34.

[4] Ibid, p. 34.