Tag Archives: telephonists

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not visible to the public, the level of objection to the ‘Speak clearly’ poster was strong enough for it to be withdrawn.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)

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.