Gordon talks about his background in telecommunications after World War II and working for the GPO mainly in Norfolk. He tells of good and bad colleagues and how he enjoyed his career.
Childhood during WWII
I was born in Beccles on the Norfolk/Suffolk border in 1935. My parents were paupers!
My father was a labourer who worked in a gravel pit and had to shovel the sand and gravel into lorries by hand. He was only 23 when I was born. He was strong and fit Mother had been a skivvy at a posh house somewhere in the county and she found herself pregnant with me. They lived in a two up and two down for some considerable time. I grew up with my younger brother until my sister’s arrival sometime later. So I was nearly five when World War II started and then things got very difficult. Everything was rationed, sometimes in winter there was not enough coal for the fire. Times were hard during the war. Fortunately my mother and father were able to rent a two up two down cottage from my uncle for a very small rent, uncle being a generous man, and we lived like that for the whole of the war.
Father was called up in 1939. He was one of the first to join the army for the war effort and he didn’t come out of the army until February 1946. He was in a volunteer regiment, the Long Range Desert Group. During the few times that he was able to come home in the war he taught me (my younger brother tried to follow but he was probably a bit young for that) a bit of army discipline and how to survive. I was ten years old when the war ended in 1945. We had a fairly big garden which was too heavy for mother to dig but my brother and I used to dig it as best we could as six, seven, eight year olds. The neighbours showed us how to put seeds and potatoes in and fortunately we lived off whatever we could get from the countryside – all the fruits of the forest from the hedgerows plus a few that we scrumped from somebody’s orchard.
These two old ladies used to sell quite large bags of apples for a penny a bag, so that was useful. We were invited to have a look at their orchard which to us was vast and pick up any windfalls. Instead of disturbing the two old sisters we used to go in under the hedge at the back of the premises a hundred yards from the house and fill our shirts up with windfalls and sneak one off the tree if they looked ripe enough. Mother would curse that we shouldn’t be doing that but she was only too pleased to either bottle them, or preserve them – even dried apple rings, and that sustained us through the winter. Mother got seven and sixpence in old money from the War Office because father was at war – thirty-seven and a half pence in today’s terms. Somehow she survived to pay the tiny rent and provide food.
I went to Sir John Leman school in Beccles. Sir John Leman was an ancient French nobleman who came here and set up a school for the sons of gentlemen. I hardly qualified as that, but I did go to that school as the eleven plus came into being around about that time. I’m glad I went there because being a grammar school it meant I was streets ahead of the kids I used to play with. My brother stayed at the Secondary Modern school, which didn’t go as far as the grammar school. They didn’t learn a language or go deeply into mathematics. I don’t think they taught English grammar and they certainly didn’t teach the sort of general science which included physics which stood me in good stead later on.
Starting at the GPO
I was very pleased with my education. I left school in 1952 when I was nearly 18 and the headmaster begged my father for me to stay on and go to sixth form and hopefully to university. My father said, `No. He’s got to get up and earn some money, bring some money in. We can’t afford it.’ In those days of course you had to pay heavily to attend university, with no government grants as far as I know. The youth employment officer of Suffolk found a job for me. I was quite interested in all things electric, and I had the choice of either going into heavy engineering in Ipswich which was a long way away or Post Office telephones for the GPO which was centred in Norwich for that area. I took the Post Office job. You had to have five GCE O’ Levels to qualify as an engineer, and I had six so I qualified okay. I loved the job. It was just hands on, wonderful electromechanical stuff. It wasn’t called an apprenticeship, it was a two-year training course which taught me how to instal telephones in people’s houses, larger systems in office blocks and how to mend and repair the outside lines and cables.
I also learned how to install the equipment inside the telephone exchange which I found really most interesting, apart from the fact that it kept you out in the cold; it was highly technical as you can imagine. There I learned all about how a telephone exchange works, from the batteries in the basement to, in those days, the telephone girls in the upper floor, who when you picked the phone up would say, `Number please.’ And the rest is history. But of course, they disappeared over time in various areas and now if you dial 100 for the operator you get an exchange somewhere in England. Because the telephone system in the 50s, was by today’s standard extremely crude. It was Alexander Bell and that sort of thing. So, it was quite crude. You couldn’t dial out unless you were on certain types of exchange mainly in the cities, and the telephone girls would do it for you. You had to book an overseas call if you wanted to call America or Australia and they would call you back and say, `Your long-distance call is waiting.’ Now you can pick the phone up and dial the number yourself – that’s how quickly in sixty odd years the system has changed, and technology’s taken over.
The Norwich exchanges
There was a main exchange in Exchange Street, in Norwich. It was a large Strowger type exchange which is electromechanical. The parts of the exchange actually moved to find the number and connect you when you wound the dial around or let the dial go. Incidentally the exchange that I first worked in in Norwich had 8,000 lines which was considered enough for the city but quickly got extended to something like 20,000 and then it ran out of space and a new exchange was built on the opposite side of the road, still in Exchange Street. That was a more modern affair able to expand almost without any more work having to be done.
National Service in the Royal Signals Regiment
I was called up into the army, national service, in 1954 for two years. I was very fortunate that I was able to serve in the Royal Signals Regiment which was an extension of telephone work but went even further technically. I was in charge of and had to maintain and repair teleprinters which in those days were the quickest way of sending a message. They used the Murray Code which is five noughts or five ones or a combination of five noughts and ones. It had been designed long before the war and was used in its early days on semaphore masts along the coast in line of sight. Black and white were the noughts and ones and the teleprinter used an electric code which was then translated by the machine into readable English.
In the army I served on a station at Pirbright near Guildford and had control of all the teleprinters for what was called the Southern Command in the British army and it was a wonderful job. It didn’t give me any rank on my shoulder, but it allowed me to play with these beautiful machines. I was in my absolute ideal there and I could always be busy on that when there was some mundane thing, like posh parades I should have gone to [laughs].
Post Office Telephones
I loved the army. It was a good life for a young man of 19-21. I went in for the two years and I was sorely tempted to stay. But I decided to come out and get married. The marriage lasted for 13 years and resulted in one daughter, but it failed. The daughter was lovely, and we are still father and daughter, but life moves on, and I returned to work. Because of my position by this time with Post Office telephones I could more or less decide where I went to work. The major places I worked in were Edinburgh, Cambridge, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff.
I did have fortunate paid-for trips to see the wonders of the London telephone system including the Telephone Tower, the Post Office Tower with the Rotunda restaurant at the top (which didn’t last very long because the wheels ground to a halt and it became unsafe – so if you wanted a cup of tea or posh meal in there it didn’t go round any more). I also saw the deepest tunnels in London that our Post Office used. Between the Post Office Tower and many other places were underground railways going to various sorting offices and to the Houses of Parliament, so it was all underground. That probably included Number 10 Downing Street – there’s a tunnel from Downing Street to the Houses of Parliament which is also used by the Post Office, but I didn’t go in that one. I did go down under the Post Office Tower 190 feet under London, and I think at some point went under the river. So, I found that extremely interesting. It also allowed me to find out things which under the Official Secrets Act I can’t talk about but believe me there are more wonders under the ground than you would ever believe. It’s all to do with communications, safety and WWII developed this for security reasons. I’ve been in many of these places where my security clearance allowed me to go but only to do the work that I had to do there. I was not allowed to look at anything else and it is quite amazing how many places there are out of sight that we pass every day on our normal daily routine. It’s all to do with security.
I managed to climb the ranks in the Post Office from the basic grade of technician to foreman. To start off with they gave me seven people to look after. I then became super-foreman where I had about 30 people to look after, and that particular stage was called controller, so I controlled the work for these 30 people and I had to take responsibility for that. After some years I became what was then called mid inspector and was responsible for about 100 people of the various grades that I had climbed. I enjoyed that tremendously and ended up back in Suffolk in Bury St Edmunds, even though I was promoted from Norwich. The whole of the East of England was one telephone area; the telephone area borders are different from the geographical borders of, say, Suffolk/Norfolk/Cambridge. They cross over because of the types of exchange and because of where the cables run.
I retired early at 50. In all of that, I got married again and have two children. My son is now grown up and married; two grandchildren. My daughter by my first wife has two children both of whom have children, so I ended up at the tender age of 80-something with four grandchildren and three great grandchildren so far.
Fun times in telephone exchanges!
I enjoyed working with a lot of the people. They were the salt of the earth – they knew their job. One guy, we’ll call him Albert, who was in charge of the party that I worked with at one time installing the equipment of mainly smaller urban exchanges which were called urban auxiliary exchanges. You were doing something really useful to instal the equipment that the general public are going to be able to use for their benefit. (Alright, they also paid for it.) Albert used to build his own television sets in the days when they were great big boxes and had loads of valves in. He had difficulty with his language in that half of his vocabulary was in raw ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and many a time he slipped up saying what for him was normal. He didn’t mean any nastiness to anybody. Albert just spoke that way, with a broad Norfolk accent. He used to love to fool around and be a bit of a comedian. On one occasion we were shifting some heavy equipment and Albert deliberately dropped a huge iron lever that we used to shift the equipment onto the concrete floor which made a loud clanging sound. Albert immediately started to hop on one foot and say, `Oh my ‘…. foot!’ Just as the boss man came in who rushed over and said, `Oh, my dear Albert, my dear Albert, what can I do for you? You must be more careful.’ And course everybody else was hiding up round the back of the equipment giggling with laughter that we could hardly control.
On another occasion when we were out in the street Albert allowed his glove which was loose on his hand to apparently be trapped underneath a heavy piece of equipment that wouldn’t move. He said `Oh my Anglo-Saxon finger!’ just as a dear mature lady, who was extremely well turned out, walked past. We all said, `Morning ma’am, morning ma’am.’ To which Albert replied when she’d gone far enough away, `You rotten so-and-sos. You could have told me!’ [laughs]. So, Albert got himself into his own trouble. But nothing worse you know. The man was a genius really and he led us. I loved working with him, you used to learn so much from him.
Some people just happened to be bosses because they were promoted in wartime when most of the adequate engineers were in the forces doing something else. One guy was scared of his own shadow. He wouldn’t climb a pole and he wouldn’t climb a ladder and he wore spectacles that were war-time issue, looked like two round rings of milk bottles. Whatever you were doing he found fault. But when you asked how can I do it better, he’d got no answer. We’d say, `Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir.’ And then carried on doing it our way anyhow. He visited the town hall which was having an extension built at the back and I was doing the phones there. Chalky walked in through the doorway which as yet hadn’t been glazed so there was no glass in it. He didn’t bother to come through the doors but walked through what was a static window of this rather large grand entrance. It had big opening doors but the rest of it was fixed glass. On his way out from this particular job the glaziers had been and put the glass in and polished it all nicely and when Chalky tried to go out the same gap it wasn’t there anymore and he practically knocked himself out. Broke his glasses! We’re not laughing because of any injury that may have been caused it’s the fact that he didn’t use the door, which by this time was open and was obvious.
On another occasion I was working a stately home with a lord of the realm. I got to know this gentleman by approaching down a beautiful white gravel driveway when all of a sudden there was a clearance which was the place where you’d get out of your van and leave it. I slammed the brakes on and turned the wheel and did a large four-wheeled skid in this white gravel leaving great big marks in it. There was a scruffy looking guy stacking logs up under a roof and I jumped out of the van and said, `Hello mate, is there anybody about?’ To which the person said, `Well, I’m Lord whatever. Will I do?’ `I do beg your pardon your Lordship, if you’ll have somebody bring me a rake, I’ll repair your drive.’ To which he replied, `That’s quite alright, I’ll get my gardener to do it. He hasn’t much else to do. We’ve only got 5,000 acres to look after here.’
In the event there was a lot of work in this stately home which I was only too pleased to do. It was a real privilege and I did work in there several days and met the lady of the house. They had every right to be superior to me, but they were not. They were very ordinary and understanding and offered me every help that I could possibly wish for.
One day it was filthy weather outside – absolutely falling down with rain and his Lordship asked the butler (who I just happened to know before I’d gone to that hall) to ask me to join him for lunch. I looked at my somewhat dusty clothes and thought, `No I can’t. I can’t go and have lunch with a Lord.’ The butler said, You must come, you know you don’t refuse.’ Right, so I walked in and excused my dress, ‘ ‘I quite understand. Please be seated.’ So, there am I at this great long dining table which must have been 15 metres long in this huge dining room with beautiful trappings, beautiful furniture, sitting on the right-hand side of the peer of the realm! We had, as he explained, estate-reared pheasant cooked in estate-bottled wine. He later explained they used to buy a hogshead of wine every year from France where he had other business interests and had his own bottling department somewhere in the country. While we were seated and enjoying this lunch which was superbly cooked, the butler came in and said, `Excuse me your Lordship but there is a Mr. Chalky to see Mr. Payne.’ And so, I said, `Excuse me your Lordship.’ He said `That is quite alright. You finish your lunch. Would you tell Mr. Chalky to wait in the orangery and Mr. Payne will join him in due course.’ I finished my lunch somewhat hurriedly which was helped down by a couple of glasses of the estate bottled wine [laughs] which was extremely nice, and I excused myself and went to see Chalky. Chalky said, `I am fed up. Why did you not come when I summoned you? When I told the man here to fetch you?’ So, I said, `Well I was otherwise engaged.’ I didn’t like to say I was having lunch because I knew what Chalky was like. So, the conversation went on further, he said, `I do not like to be kept waiting for you in the cold damp leaky greenhouse (as he called it) while you hobnob with the hoi polloi!’ So, I replied `I understand that ,Mr. Chalky. Would you like to tell his Lordship, or shall I?’ [laughs] To which he gathered up his long coat and scarpered out to climb into his car, `I’ll see you back in the office.’ The Lordship said to me afterwards, `If you have any problems let me know. I know people who will make things alright for you.’ I did get a bit of a telling off when I went back but I think Chalky realised that he was not going to get anywhere with it.
Many a time I was able to get one over on people who were above me who I realised that, in my opinion, had total ignorance about the subject matter. One flim-flam type guy had changed his name by deed poll to a rather posh sounding upper crust family’s name. His original surname from his parents was the name now used for a certain type of creepy crawly! He was showing off to the youngest recruit, a girl just out of school who came from a high school education to do clerical work involving a certain amount of mathematics using calculators and so on. He was showing off in front of this young lady, who was very personable, and speaking in a plum in the mouth sort of silver spoon voice, `Oh yeees, when I was at the university …’ He went on to explain that if she had any problems he was absolutely at the pinnacle of knowledge about these things – just come and see me. I told her the full truth later because she was going to work for me in my little department and I said, `You can ignore him. He may be in charge of the whole show here, but he doesn’t know anything so ignore him.’ The way that I tricked him was to say, `If you need different words when you’re writing a letter you never put the same word in the one sentence twice – you find an alternative, and to do that you use Roget’s [pronounced Rogget’s] Theosauri-arse.’ Which of course is Roget’s Thesaurus. He then in front of me and this young lady said, `Oh, well of course I always refer to Rogget’s Theosaur-iarse,’ showing his total ignorance of even what that book was.
At that man’s retirement do, I told the story about the youngest and newest recruit who’d come out of the army as a young man and joined the Post Office telephones. The first job he was given, he was the base grade labourer grade, was to dig a long trench alongside a busy road and the ground in the grass bank was typical heavy duty Norfolk clay. It had to be three feet deep and one foot wide which is very difficult to dig.
When a person retires someone usually goes round with the hat saying, `Would you like to subscribe to their retirement fund?’ Which most people gladly do. This young man digging the trench was sweating and cursing the hard ground and not very happy with the situation. He was asked, `Would you like to subscribe to Mr. Boss Man’s retirement fund as he’s retiring?’ The guy pulled out his wallet and threw a five-pound note in the collection box. `Oh thank you very much.’ The inspector went back to the office and told this story to his colleagues who were also inspectors and said, `That new guy’s very generous he put five pounds in for Mr. Boss Man’s retirement.’ The others said, `No you can’t accept that off him he’s only just started, you’ll have to return and give him some money back, tell him a pound is most acceptable.’ Most people would put a pound in, and if you have fifty people putting a pound in, there’s fifty pounds. So, the inspector went out to see him he was still only halfway along this huge trench. He said, `I must apologise for allowing you to give as much money for Mr. Boss Man’s retirement. We considered that perhaps you misunderstood the situation and would like to give you change. A pound is more than acceptable especially in your case.’ The labourer said, `Well, I see. What exactly, who is he this boss man?’ `Well, he is the boss at the top of this part of the organisation.’ `Well I tell you what, you keep the four pound and retire four more of the bastards!’ [laughs] and I actually told that at his retirement do. Much to the laughter of the audience but Mr. Boss Man sat there like a stewed prune looking absolutely disgusted that anybody should even take the mickey in that manner. He was a Walter Mitty and thought he’d more qualifications than anyone.
Courses paid for by the Post Office
In comparison, I was more qualified with the City & Guilds which you take after school which are directly orientated on the subject of that job. I learned the management, underground stuff, and I had enough exams about it. I got an intermediate City & Guilds, which was six quite difficult exams which I enjoyed, including maths at A level which I didn’t do at school. I was quite pleased about that as the Post Office paid for your attendance at technical college (Norwich City College) where the courses were available for that subject.
Also, the Post Office paid for the government management courses which are six of the best courses that the government were able to offer. They were general attitude type courses of how to be a manager, not specifically about the subject that you were in charge of, or how you would manage it and people. Some of my colleagues took the attitude that to be a good boss you had to be nasty. I cannot be like that. I was always empathetic with the staff that were under my charge and treated them as equals with the understanding that we all have families and have problems. In return I felt that they gave me great service. After all, the captain of any team is only as good as the team. You cannot do wonders without the backing of the people in your team, and I felt I had that.
Christmas time was a good example. The rules at work were no drinking on duty. You’re not allowed to drink if you were in charge of a Crown vehicle. On Christmas Eve, if that happened to be a working day or the Saturday or Sunday the day before was the last day before Christmas, I suggested that they all take a half a day’s leave within their allowance, and they’d bring the vans back at twelve o’ clock mid-day. We’d take the rotor arm out of the van so they couldn’t be easily stolen, and we would all go off to the pub. The idea was to all be together to help meld the team so everybody knew each other, up to a hundred people. There would be a good gathering and I arranged with the lady who ran the pub, one of my favourites, to allow us to stay and hire the pub for the afternoon as a private party. (Licensing laws then were close at two o’clock.) We’d have our lunch there and a bite to eat buffet style and then it was buy your own beer sort of thing and we all had a merry time. There was a bit of music the lady would put on. Then of course the pub opened again at seven in the evening I think seven till 11 but her doors were open a bit earlier and then we’d all filter away. You know, everybody enjoyed it and appreciated it because nobody else did it.
The pub was in Bury St. Edmunds. I did try that in Norwich but the Norwich people had their own arrangements and I was not able to organise at that level, but I used to meet a few people when I worked in Norwich and the Norwich area. I’d find out where everybody’s working and those closest to that pub would come in for lunch and there.
I found it occasionally leaving off work and going for a drink with work colleagues bearing in that mind that the post office telephones is a multi-facet type of job. We had people who were salespeople. ‘Traffic’ people does not mean four wheels but telephone traffic. You can’t just have loads and loads of people wanting to use the telephone without you provide the necessary number of cables and the cable capacity. It was a bit like water through a pipe. A small pipe and you can pour a certain amount of water through it. If you’ve got hundreds of gallons extra trying to get through that’s not going to go through any quicker than a small number of gallons. It’s the same with telephones – you can get a small number of telephones going through this cable you’ve got a lot more trying to go though, hence you have a traffic division that keeps an eye on cable capacity. Then we had a group of people who were cable engineers who would pull the cables in through the pipes under the ground which sounds simple but believe me it isn’t. The pipes get clogged up with sand and sometimes you got awful stuff soaking through from farmers soakaways into the pipes, but we had ways and means of dealing with it.
Innovation in installing cables in City Hall
So, we had external people dealing with cables, internal people dealing with installations which became more and more technical as time went on and certainly in places like Norwich City Hall which had installed about between 150 and 500 phones. It had a foreign exchange in the basement. Phillips (the Dutch international company) installed the exchange equipment and yours truly with my team installed all the telephones so I can remember even now [laughs] where every cable in that place is. I got the job was because the Norwich fitters who in those days they were senior to me in terms of their length of service and should have had the top jobs wouldn’t touch the City Hall because the steel pipes under the floors which the cables were supposed to go through were clogged with lead covered cables and lead does not slide easily.
I gladly took the job and I made new ways of getting the cables through all the hundreds of rooms in the City Hall. On one occasion because of the immensity of the job we were working overtime seven days a week, and this was one Sunday, and the bells of Peter Mancroft church were going ding dong, ding dong and we were drilling a hole through the mayor’s parlour floor to get a cable between the lower floor and the outer floors with something called a thermic lance. A thermic lance will burn through concrete, metal, anything. It’s a very simple tool but fearsome and we just happened to burn through a water pipe which flooded the mayor’s parlour. It was the only place in the City Hall that had a carpet. It was a large oriental style rug and a posh old desk, fitting for the Lord Mayor of Norwich. We managed to stem the flood with some stuff we used a bit like plasticine, that we used to pack underground pipes and shovelled the water out of the window to the trench below. So on a Sunday morning with the bells going ding dong, ding dong and there were several floods of water going out while we telephoned the emergency crew because nobody knew where the stopcock was for this particular pipe.
So, we got the city engineers to come out with their maps. I had detailed plans of the City Hall which were the architects’ plan from 1934 when it was built, and I was given a key to open any door in the City Hall. The engineers out who managed to find the stopcock and we were only going to have a hole about that big. In order to repair the pipe they had to dig a hole which was about two feet by two feet in concrete that was also two feet thick. Fortunately, the City Hall had thermic lances ,otherwise we’d have been there all day trying to get one hole through the concrete about that thick.
Development of telephone exchanges and some misunderstandings
When I started in 1952 telephone exchanges were quite small and most of them were manually operated. Probably in London they had a dial, but most other ones were manual where you asked the operator to connect you to Mrs. Brown down the street. They got more and more technical as time went on and part of the job that I had from the time of starting was to instal extra equipment in telephone exchanges that were already working and then to alter them in such a way that meant that the telephones in people’s houses and the office had to be changed for ones with a dial. Relatively simple, not highly technical. The exchange part of it was interesting and it gradually got so more and more of this went on the government, bearing in mind that Post Office Telephones was government owned (hence the crown on the side of the vehicles) put the rental of the telephone up from two pounds fifty to five pounds and most people said, `I don’t want a phone.’ And we spent weeks taking phones out of people’s houses. You didn’t have time to deal with these recovered phones quick enough. My van was three quarters full of telephones.
One amusing episode: I was accused of stealing money from someone’s house. In those days telephones had a little drawer at the front you could pull out. The intention was to keep the dialling codes in there for the new exchanges that were dotted about. In this particular case I’d recovered the phone, replaced it with one with a dial on, and I didn’t bother to look in the drawer of this thing but in the drawer were two ten-shilling notes and about three or four half-crowns which were also in there. When the drawer was shut that was quite compact, so they didn’t rattle about. There was no indication there was anything in there and I wouldn’t have bothered to look. So, Chalky accused me of stealing the money. What the customer had said is, `He’s taken the phone and we had some money in it.’ So I looked through all these recovered phones and found the one, yes, because it still had the number in the little section in the middle of the dial or the front part of the telephone. Looked in the drawer and sure enough there it was. So, I gave it to Chalky who threw his hands up in horror and said, ` I went back and explained to the customer, and they apologised and said, `We’re sorry. We didn’t want to get you into trouble. We realise that’s our own problem. The people who come in and borrow the phone have left money in there because I’d either refused or didn’t want them to, you know.’ So, that was OK the people were very nice to me.
I had to attend a job at a vicarage, and I’ve never liked vicars. I’ve only ever met one I felt was truly an honest God-fearing man. This man was a people’s vicar, and he would help people in whatever way he could even if it was just being there with them like in times of sadness, you know. So, I appreciated him. I was great friends with him, and I did a lot of work for him in his chapel. I’d gone to the vicarage to instal an additional bell because he couldn’t hear the phone in this great big rambling sort of vicarage out in the countryside of Norfolk. So Chalky told me that I hadn’t done the job properly because the bell didn’t work that I’d installed. I said, `I beg your pardon. I tested that thoroughly and it worked perfectly and the gentleman there agreed with me that that was just what he needed.’ `Well he says it doesn’t work.’ So, back to the vicarage I went. The vicar let me in. I picked the phone up and made it ring with the special code that we had, and I said, `So, it’s satisfactory then.’ And he, looking quite peeved, pointed to a bell and said, `That doesn’t work.’ I said, `Well, I didn’t instal that one, did I? But I can make it work for you.’ I went to the front door and opened it and pressed the bell push outside on the doorpost and the bell rang. So, I said, `Is that satisfactory?’ He looked totally out of his depth and said, `Well I just thought,’ I said, ‘No you didn’t think. You with your accusation got me wrong with my boss who thinks that I don’t do the job right. The job I did here is perfect. Do you agree with that?’ `Well, yes, I suppose I do.’ `Well then, you ring my boss and tell him that you made the mistake cos he won’t believe me?’
At one time we had staggered starting times so that we also had staggered leaving the depot times, so we didn’t all go out at once. My starting time was a quarter past eight. In those days there was no such thing as to clock in, mechanical clock. You signed a book according to the time of an accurate clock above it. It worked off the telephone system so it’s the equivalent of the speaking clock type of thing its accurate to the second almost. I walked in at ten past eight and Chalky was there with his red pen to draw a line through anybody who was late. At that time, I was a foreman. Chalky looked at me in total disgust and amazement when I signed on a ten past eight. `You have the audacity,’ he said, `to come in here you’re a foreman you should be setting an example to these people who are younger and these young lads coming in here and signing on at ten past eight. What have you got to say to that?’ I said, `Well, I don’t know quite what to say but I’m entitled to sign on at quarter past eight.’ He said, `I don’t want to hear excuses!’ and stormed out of the room. Out of his depth again. I love those stories about it because Chalky was the exception I suppose. Most people had far more savvy than Chalky. Chalky got a new car, a Morris Oxford as I recall (he got paid for mileage) we thought we’d have a laugh when we found an old paint can with a handle on got a piece of bent wire and hooked it underneath on to the exhaust out of sight. So Chalky gets in his car to drive home and course this thing is rattling about under a brand spanking new car [laughs]. Chalky didn’t come and tell any of us any of the engineers he went and found the cleaner man who was about the yard somewhere and made him crawl underneath the car to find out what was wrong [laughs]. His new car.
Retirement – the breakup of BT
I retired at 50. The job had changed from Post Office Telephones to British Telecommunications to BT. It was still BT when I retired but it was then a commercial company. At the time when it was Post Office Telecoms, Post Office Telephones had a total of a quarter of a million employees in the whole of the British Isles. Northern Scotland, Northern Ireland even in the Shetlands and the only place it was different was Hull! Hull Telephone System – it was decried by the government that Post Office Telephones was not a monopoly because there was one city that was a private telephone company. All the telephone kiosks in the British Isles are red except for in Hull where they were painted cream colour.
BT decided we were top heavy. They were looking to slim down the whole organisation. Too many chiefs and not enough Indians as they said, so they were looking to retire people at my level, beginning management. If you were something like 59 you were going to retire next year anyhow but people like me were put on offer. At 50 you are in the pension scheme so even if you retired you would have got a pension. Early voluntary retirement offered you six and two-thirds years – it was six years and eight months extra – on your existing service. I’d already done 33 years so that took me up to 40 years which is the maximum that you can do and get a pension. Anything above that you didn’t get extra pension you just got the salary for that. You were offered redundancy money and for each year of service that was paid got a lump sum retirement amount for the actual service. I did 33 years but the pension was payable as if you had done 40 years which meant half pay. So, say if you were on £20,000 a year you got £10,000 a year on your pension. So, I took the opportunity. Otherwise I and others like me would have to revert to a grade lower and get involved in other work. You would not have supervisory powers. They were cutting out the in-between grades and I was not prepared to do that. They couldn’t reduce your salary, but it would have stood still until that particular lower grade that you were being paid for caught up in terms of salary and only then would it advance.
The effort by British Telecoms or BT to get rid of people I thought was unnecessary. if they had come to your office and asked you had you considered a voluntary retirement you probably would have given it a great deal of thought and thought, `Yes, I can go.’ Instead of that they used scare tactics to say, `You’ll have to work in Peterborough.’ which is a place I certainly didn’t want to go. It was too far away so we’d have to move and to add insult to injury they even suggested you wouldn’t even get paid for moving. So, I decided the writing was on the wall. In the month that I retired there were 37 other people from what was the Cambridge area, the headquarters of even Norwich was in that area – came under Cambridge. Thirty seven people went so I was not alone. The following month they suddenly caught on people realised that you got a handsome payment you got a pension if you were over 50 and you could retire happily and so it caught on and gathered impetus and I think there were about 50 people the next month and it continued like that until it got down to enough.
Working life after the Post Office
I had the opportunity of another job and I also fancied working for myself and I was warned, warned mind you, by the bosses that I was not allowed to use my knowledge of the Post Office in any guise or form to earn a living. Because we were multifunctional, that would have been almost impossible to stick to the letter of the law on that so I chose painting and decorating to work for myself. Although there were some people who did painting, like the red kiosks, I didn’t think that would get round the official secrets act. It just happened that way and I was quite happy.
I also took on installing kitchens mainly for friends and family to start off with but the word spread and I did quite a few kitchens for people who I arranged with to buy kitchen flatpacks; Texas Homecare I think it was called at the time, was a favourite one, and I’d put them together and instal them. I was trained as a plumber to plumb using wet lead paint, lead candles paint but also copper, copper pipes with modern plumbing bits is easy. You know how to use a blowlamp and bit of solder and drill holes in the walls successfully. I could do that no problem. So, I had several jobs like that.
I also worked as a porter at the geriatric hospital between here and Attleborough. That was quite interesting but very low pay but in fact I did it to help a friend out who was chief porter. I had to sign on, be registered as a worker and one week’s work with overtime I earned less after tax because they immediately put you on emergency tax. We earned less in one week with overtime than I earned in one day when I was working but that was a good feeling.
You were there with people who needed help and many a comical thing happened. There was one poor old boy in a wheelchair who for some reason had lost both legs and he used to wheel himself around the corridors calling out. `Audrey! Where are you, Audrey?’ After many hours of this, another guy would say, `For God’s sake answer him, Audrey!’ [laughs] `He’s driving us up the wall!’ We used to have a few laughs like that. I won’t tell you the other things that I saw in there. You don’t dream of these things. You cannot believe it until you see it. We were asked to help in the operating room. You were the one who lifted people on and off the table and took them back on the trolley to their bed and put them in when they’re still semi-conscious from the anaesthetic. You were still helping people – but you had to do it. Like being in the army if somebody is killed or injured in action, you have to be almost cruel and not even think about it otherwise you get pulled under and it was the same in the hospital. I even helped people to put them in the freezer, along with another guy. I’d only been talking to the man the day before, checking his oxygen levels and so on and he died overnight from natural causes. They helped him at last. Somehow, I enjoyed it.
I do feel looking at my working life that I had a job I really enjoyed, every part of it. Obviously there were some that were better than others and some of the people I met were doing a job way beyond their intelligence. But others were absolutely brilliant, and I learned from them, so glad to meet them.
The Post Office had a scheme, this throughout the government, where if you could come up with a better way of doing things that saved money you got a financial award. One guy in Norwich telephone exchange when I first started offered an advancement in the technology. He also wrote papers for the technical magazine Electrical Engineering, It was a thick glossy magazine and he was a columnist He devised a piece of equipment in the old fashioned exchange which was there for trunk calls, long distance calls. That’s a huge piece of equipment, took two men to lift it in and out of the bracket that held it in place and connected it to the exchange. It would only deal with one call at a time but by altering some of the wiring he found out it could deal with two so in one fell swoop he doubled the capacity of this bank of equipment. He doubled the capacity for trunk calls so you could have 40 at any one time and for that he got paid whatever the going rate was at that time about £100 I think but everybody loved him. He used to make the Christmas lights in the canteen at Norwich exchange work from the telephone exchange itself. He used the little light bulbs on the equipment temporarily for the Christmas lights and he made them all blinking, which in that time in the 50s was very unusual. You had Christmas tree lights and you’d swich them on and they’d stay on. He used the marvellous equipment in the telephone exchange. I met interesting people like that and I’m really thankful that I’ve been allowed to have that job so I will never grumble about having to work for a living.
Gordon and wife Gay 2023Gordon Payne (b. 1935) talking to WISEArchive on 31st July 2023 in Hingham.