Gunnedah Telephone Exchange: 40-year reunion

IT has been more than 40 years since the Gunnedah Telephone Exchange cut over to automatic but the telephonists who ran this efficient and personal communications network have never forgotten the friendships forged during those busy years.

Those still living in the local area gathered recently at Gunnedah Services and Bowling Club for a trip down memory lane over lunch.

Situated in a small pale green building, between the post office and the courthouse, the telephone exchange was the hub of the town and a great employer for women.

The telephonists worked in shifts from 6am to 11pm and then handed the switchboards over to a “night boy” who kept Gunnedah residents connected during the night.

There was an art to operating the central battery (CB) switchboards, with telephonists starting out under supervision on a “not so busy” board and progressing to the fast-paced world of trunk calls. These calls to other centres were sometimes passed through a number of exchanges before being connected. Overseas calls were placed through Sydney.

During emergency periods like floods or other disasters, the telephonists would stay on during the night to help the night attendant with emergency services and calls from concerned subscribers.

Tuesday night after the sheep and cattle sales was always busy as local agents contacted buyers and sellers. They always showed their gratitude for the extra support at Christmas time with festive cheer delivered to the exchange.

The telephonists also ran the directory assistance line (information) and helped out over the lunch break in the telegram department.

Party lines to outlying properties were always a challenge with a number of subscribers on the same line. Telephonists used Morse code rings to contact each one individually but invariably more than one would answer. The lines often “went down” in a storm or after an over abundance of rain and the farmers would have to go out and investigate.

Public telephones were also used frequently in an era long before home phones became commonplace and mobiles were only a pipe dream.

The telephone boxes at the front of the post office were very popular and people waiting for trunk calls would be notified through a speaker system.

The telephonists were supervised by a monitor who also handled inquiries and the very rare complaint of a dis-satisfied customer. The presence of a supervisor during the day shifts also took the pressure off telephonists. Every three months or so a travelling supervisor would arrive to ensure telephonists were working at a high level of efficiency.

The telephonists shared many memorable moments as they worked together and supported each other through relationships, marriages, childbirth and sometimes bereavements.

They were called “hello girls”, “switchies” and occasionally a tongue-in-cheek title of “call girls”.

It was like “losing an old friend” when the old manual exchange died forever on April 6, 1974, and 33 telephonists lost their jobs.

It was the end of the line for a loyal and personal service provided to subscribers since the opening of the first telephone exchange in December 1906.

At the luncheon, it was decided to plan a bigger reunion for October next year with moves to contact telephonists who have moved away from the area.

Anyone interested can contact Val Sweeney on 6742 1677.