During the summer months I find it difficult to find time to write posts here, so you can imagine how pleased I was to receive a story about Walton Telephone Exchange from Alan Beales, who was the engineer trusted to keep the old exchange working back in the 1960s.
Alan’s story follows with some interesting additions by Rita Griggs, one of the telephonists.
Here are a couple of photographs from my Archive which I took in 1968 just before the exchange closed for good
WALTON TELEPHONE EXCHANGE 1965 – 1968 (by Alan Beales)
In November of 1961 I joined the GPO on a two year apprenticeship. When this was completed, I was posted to Clacton and trained up to maintain the Exchange Manual Board. My supervisor was called Ted, who spent most of his time in the rest room, handing me endless lists of repairs to sort out.
At this time I was only 18 and easy fodder for the practical jokes that were played on me by the operators.
I swiftly became bored with this job (and the endless banter) and requested a transfer to become a Linesman, which was my goal in life.
In 1964, I was then teamed up with various Linesmen in Clacton to learn the trade of repairing the phone network from the exchange to the subscribers’ phones.
My ambition was now on track.
By 1965, I was considered fit enough to be let loose on the unsuspecting public on my own. I was informed that because of the increasing demand for telephones, there was a new position at Frinton and Walton as a fully-fledged Linesman.
However, there was one snag, I couldn’t drive.
I was told that if I took an intensive weeks driving instruction and passed my test on the following Friday afternoon, I could take up the offer of the job on the following Monday.
There were three of us taking this driving course but I had the biggest advantage of us all
The Driving Instructor on the first morning out, commented on how unusual it was to find someone who had mastered the art of gear changing, braking etc. so quickly.
I pointed out that I have been driving Tractors since I was 13, the Instructors attitude immediately change to being quite hostile, “well we will soon get you out of those bad habits”.
I was successful and on the Monday morning I was given a Morris Minor Van and told to report to Bob Stone, Senior Linesman who covered Frinton and Walton.
Bob maintained Frinton exchange and I was to look after the subscribers and exchange at Walton.
At this time I was only 20 and on my first morning, Bob immediately took me on a conducted tour of Frinton and Walton exchanges.
It’s a good job he was with me, as I was shaking with nerves as he introduced me to the Supervisors, Alice at Frinton and Winnie Moss at Walton.
However, they soon put me at ease and made me feel very welcome.
Walton Telephone exchange was located in a private three storey house, to the right of the Head Post Office in the High Street.
However, my first visit into the Exchange, I was very relieved to find Rita Griggs who was a youngster like me, as the other ladies present were of a more senior age.
My senior area manager back at Clacton obviously didn`t trust me with a decent van so I was allocated the oldest vehicle in the fleet which had rubber front wings. Nice and flexible if you were to hit anything.
I think it was only on my second day at Walton, I had parked in the road outside the Telephone Exchange.
Looking out of the exchange window, I saw a Police Car parked behind the van with two policemen gesticulating at these wings. I hurriedly went out and made my presence known, to which they immediately remarked “are these wings legal?”
Having the vehicle only two days I had no idea, but I assured them that the GPO would never allow illegal vehicle on the road. They seemed convinced and left.
The Switch room at Walton was located in the front room of the house, with the kitchen and rest room in the lounge at the rear. The exchange Power Room was in the cellar, directly underneath where the operators were working.
Power for these small exchanges was supplied by a bank of lead acid batteries at 50v. These were invariably made of glass with exposed terminals and continuously trickle charged from the mains supply.
50v Direct Current was distributed out to the customer’s telephone, at this low voltage it posed no danger to the engineers who were working on exposed live wires.
In the event of a mains failure, these batteries would continue to supply power to the exchange hopefully for at least 24 hours.
Today the same system is used, but now with the addition of a standby Diesel Generator which immediately takes over on the loss of the mains supply.
The exchange day staff would work split shifts possibly 8 – 1 pm, 1 pm-6 pm then 6 pm until 10 pm. After 10 pm, the day shift finished and the night staff took over until 8 am the next morning.
The Night staff were permanent residents in the two floors above the exchange.
If anyone in Walton required the services of the operator, a bell would sound in the corridor or the switch room to alert the staff on duty.
I think Mrs Drinkwater, the Night Operator had some kind of bed or easy chair in the switch room.
After Mrs Drinkwater’s retirement, Marie Seaman took over until the exchange finally closed down.
I can only assume the house was owned by the GPO and eventually sold after closure.
The Switch room was very compact with three switchboards, a very small table for the supervisor and a Main Cable Frame where the underground cables terminated from the outside.
Each switchboard was designed to handle 100 subscribers.
At the time of writing this text, Rita Griggs informed me these were extended with the 3 boards eventually serving 400 Walton subscribers.
When the subscriber lifted their handset at home, this would cause a dolls-eye (flap) to drop on the switchboard which was labelled underneath with the relevant number.
The switchboard had a row of 24 paired cords each with an associated lever switch.
To answer the calling request, the operator would plug a cord into the jack associated with this line, operate the lever switch forward and speak to the calling subscriber.
If they required another local number, the other half of the paired cord was pushed into the switchboard jack associated with that number. Again with the lever, she would pull this back to send a ringing current to the other parties telephone.
This would complete the connection and the operator withdrew to answer the next call.
One of the most common practical jokes played by the operators on engineers was the use of the “ring” lever on the switchboard. The switchboards cords didn’t have a very long life span and frequently required changing.
Even on Walton’s three position suite, it was a daily task to change defective cords
I would go to the rear of the switchboard, take off the wooden cover to reveal the wiring inside and find the terminating position of the faulty cord.
I would proceed to undo the exposed brass connection terminals at the end of the cord and release it, ready to be replaced.
Normally there would be a small battery voltage on these terminals which was quite harmless.
However, if the operator knew what cord you were working on, they would permanently pull back hard on the associated switchboard key into the “ring position” and then sit and wait.
The normal harmless battery voltage was now changed to a much larger 70 – 90 volts AC voltage on the cord terminals.
Now when I touched the exposed terminals with my bare fingers, I would receive a nasty shock.
It was far from lethal, but usually gained the desired response from the back of the switchboard with “ouch” and a sudden reflex movement.
Switchboard plugs were manufactured with brass sleeve connectors and it didn’t take long for them to tarnish, which resulted in a very noisy connection. The cure, a rag and a tin of Brasso brought them back to new.
That would be a normal weekly routine, to take a board out of service during a quiet period and clean these plugs, with the “whiff” of Brasso in the air.
I recall one instance, it had been pouring with rain for hours, when Winnie Moss the Supervisor reported strange noises and smell from the cellar.
I was in Lower Kirby at the time and I raced as fast as I could through a torrential downpour to the exchange.
When I opened the door to the cellar, I was confronted with water nearly two feet deep, only a couple of inches from the top of a bank of lead acid batteries.
I hurriedly found a bucket in the kitchen and started to bail out the water, at the same time I asked Winnie to put out an urgent call for another engineer to come to my aid.
Eventually Bob Stone from Frinton arrived and between the two of us we gradually reduced the water level with copious buckets of water being thrown out the front door.
GPO batteries were not like car batteries; they weren’t sealed but had exposed terminals. If the water had ever reached the stage of short circuiting these terminals, the resulting damage could have been catastrophic.
I was also informed by Rita Griggs; the exchange had previously suffered a catastrophic failure, where the entire system shut down.
“Winnie Moss despatched Joyce West off in her car up the Walton Road until she came to the first call box that was connected to the Frinton board. They would then pass on her urgent request for assistance.
We had various people coming round to the front door to see why they were not getting an answer”
The most likely cause would be a power failure in the cellar.
Rita also recalled “Winnie used to send me across to Osborne’s for ice cream and going over to the library on a Saturday afternoon how free and easy life seemed to be then. Marie Seaman used to send Ron I think that was her husband’s name across to Osborne’s for sweets during the evening shift. I think Osborne’s did well out of us.”
Each morning I would visit the exchange, where the Supervisor would give me a list of problems in the exchange and the telephone lines that required attention. The exchange was always given the highest priority for any repairs.
Winnie Moss would often say, “It`s no good going to such and such a house, the lady has gone out and won’t be back until after lunch”.
This avoided many wasted visits, when access was required to a property.
Winnie appeared to know most things that were going on in Walton.
All customer faults were usually resolved within a few hours of being reported, unlike today.
When I was there, some of the operators were Winnie Moss, Rita Griggs, Marie Seaman (night op), Doris Brice, Mrs Boon, Jackie Markham, and Joyce West.
I was very well looked after by these ladies, whenever I arrived if it coincided with a tea break a cup of tea was always waiting for me in the rest room. This was always welcome after being outside in the cold and wet weather.
My other duties were associated with the Head post Office next door. You must remember back in the 1960s the GPO was responsible for the Royal Mail and the Telephone network.
One of the most tedious tasks was to wind all the clocks once a week in both buildings.
In the front office of the HPO there was one large clock facing the road and another behind the counter.
I would emerge from a side door carrying an enormous step ladder, I then had to negotiate a path through the queue, erect the steps so I could reach the clock by the window.
Amazingly someone in the queue always held the steps steady for me, no Health and Safety in those days.
With a 7 day spring it took ages to fully wind up, I always took it very easy as I always dreaded the sound of a spring breaking
I also had to maintain all the machinery at the rear, in the Sorting Office.
There was no official training; you just had to figure out most things by yourself.
One very messy task once a week, was to clean and thoroughly overhaul the automated stamp cancelling machine. The main problem was the build-up of indelible ink on the rollers and the guides of the machine. These had to be removed and thoroughly cleaned in special fluid, then reassembled in addition to topping up the large ink reservoir.
With no Latex gloves in those days, the only way to get your hands reasonably clean afterwards was the copious use of Vim and a scrubbing brush.
I must have removed a layer of my skin each week undertaking this task, no wonder I had smooth skin!
Another task was a monthly check on the Counter Scales. I had a wooden box which contained a variety of given weights; these would be placed on the scales if they gave an accurate reading. If there was any discrepancy the scales were adjusted.
One of most interesting customers was a visit to the farm on Horsey Island owned by the Backhouse family.
The only drawback, being it was only accessible by a causeway during low tide, I think I had 2 hours leeway either side.
The owners were keen horse breeders, who relied heavily on a working telephone.
It was too hazardous to use a heavily laden small van to traverse the causeway and so I would arrange for a large Bedford 4 wheel drive truck and a driver from the Colchester Depot to get me across to the island.
I can recall sitting on the seawall on numerous occasions at 5 am or 6 am, waiting for dawn to break, the lorry and the scheduled early morning low tide.
I had to take over every conceivable piece of equipment to effect a repair, the option of a return visit the next day was not on.
Over the years it must have cost the GPO a fortune in repairs, it seemed like I was over there at least once a month, but I never did get trapped there by an incoming tide.
However, in 1969 the GPO was divided into the Royal Mail and Post Office Telephones, so our partnership with the Postal side came to an abrupt end.
I was at Walton and Frinton until they both closed down in 1968 when they were taken over by the automated telephone exchange in Old Parsonage Way.
When the exchange finally closed down Winnie Moss, Doris Brice and Rita Griggs moved to the Colchester manual board.
Joyce West moved to Telephone House, working in the Administration Centre next door.
Rita Griggs joined as a telephonist when she was only 16, working at several manual boards in the Colchester area. Her final posting was to Walton until its closure, she subsequently transferred to Colchester finally retiring in 1973
Rita currently lives at Wix.
The day after closure, I was transferred back to Clacton until 1973 when I was transferred to Colchester.
Alan Beales: – Engineer
Rita Griggs: – Telephonist