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My sister the GPO telephonist

by Harold Pollins

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Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
Harold Pollins
People in story: 
Sylvia Pollins
Location of story: 
Leytonstone and Clerkenwell
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
18 August 2005

My sister, the GPO telephonist.

Of my two sisters the younger one, still happily with us, left her school in Leyton in 1936 and applied to join the General Post Office for training as a telephonist. Our mother accompanied her to the interview and medical where she had great difficulty in providing a specimen. She drank lots of water but was still unsuccessful, and they went over to a teashop, drank lots of tea, returned and, as my sister described it, ‘filled the lavatory’. The GPO was then part of the Civil Service and, I understand, in those days both parents had to be British-born. My mother was actually born in what is now Belarus but had lived in London since she was about 4 or 5 but there was the awkward question about her parents‘ nationality. My mother advised my sister to say that she had been born while crossing the Channel. For some reason this proved acceptable and my sister became a trainee telephonist and then was trained as such. It was a rigorous training, among other things they had to learn by heart a number of standard responses to questions and other matters which might come their way from telephone users. The girl trainees each had booklet in which were listed the various responses and from time to time amendments had to be pasted in. Both in training and afterwards, at the telephone exchanges, discipline was strict, undertaken by a dragon-like supervisor.
She remained a telephonist until she married in 1947 and so was in that position during the war and therefore during the blitz on London where she took her turn on night duty, just in time for the nightly air raids. One of the telephonists’ duties was to receive from the relevant authorities the information that an air raid was imminent and they then had to warn the police who activated the air raid sirens. On the day the London blitz began, in the afternoon of 7 September 1940, she was on duty at the Leytonstone telephone exchange. The telephone operators put on their issued tin hats and went on the roof to observe the blitz on the East End which was just a short distance away. They watched the planes flying over and even see them dropping bombs. She remained on duty until 8 o’clock and my brother drove the car to collect her and bring her home where they joined the rest of the family in the cellar.
Because my sister was often late for work she was punished by being sent to a different
telephone exchange, at Clerkenwell in the City of London. The operators’ place of work was on the top floor and after giving the police the requisite warning they had to put on their tin hats. It was when the planes were getting near that they had to take shelter and repair to the basement where there was an auxiliary exchange unit. There they continued their work, accompanied by cockroaches, other bugs, and rats, possibly disturbed by the bombing, or possibly because it was a very old building. The telephone operators slept there for the rest of the night and in the morning would start the day shift.

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