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Telephonist on the 'Queen Mary'

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Unique ID:19468
Description:A female describes working as a telephonist on board the 'Queen Mary' and what her job entailed. 
Copyright:Southampton City Council
Partner:SCC Oral History Unit
Partner ID:M0083


Question:  Back then to 1955, when you joined the Queen Mary. What did you join as?

As a telephonist, yes.  The telephonist, I found out years later were ranked as Petty Officers on the ship.  I think the first day I joined the ship was rather a frightening experience.  My sister and her husband took me down to the ship with their two little girls.  I hear later they sat on the quayside for two hours expecting me to walk back off.  But it was a frightening experience.  I'd never seen a ship that big before and to suddenly stand at the bottom of a gangway looking up and thinking, well this is it, and how many people would be around, and not knowing a soul, it was a frightening experience.  Got directed to the telephone exchange and I took one look in there and I thought, oh I don't know if I've done the right thing, and this lady just glared at me and said, 'you must be the new telephonist' (laughs) and gave me the once over from head to toe.  She was the chief telephonist.

Question:  What was your job then, what exactly would you do?

Well, for anyone who hasn't seen a switchboard, when you see a ship's switchboard and its like you'd see in a GPO which had four positions.  Every extension would come up with a light and in port you usually were quite busy when a ship first docked and all these lights would be flashing up and down, and you had a cord, which you lifted up and pushed into the little hole where the light flashed.  Quite often you'd go in the wrong hole quite easily thinking it was the one below and it would be the one above, and it had the little switches that you pushed forward to speak, and you'd plug the cord into where they wanted to go and pull the other one back.  You could listen in (laughs) to some things but it was very naughty to do that you know and a very bad thing.  But all in all I think it was a quite relaxing job.  At sea, it's all internal calls, passengers calling one another, officers calling one another, departments calling one another.  They had the call come through the switchboard, they couldn't dial anything themselves.  And of course you had these awful big headphones that you had to sit with on your head.  When you weren't busy and the telephonist wasn't around we used to sit with them hanging around our necks and just lift up one piece at a time.  I think all in all it was very interesting. You met very interesting people, you know passengers and that because we were on B Deck which we had passengers right opposite the door so in the evenings you could see them all going out dressed and that which was rather nice.

Question:  How many of you?

Four of us altogether.

Question:  You would take shifts?

We worked in shifts. We had a man that used to do a regular night duty and then we worked from 7 in the morning until 11, and then we changed shifts at 11 and it went 11 till 3 and then change again, 3 till 7 in the evening.  When you were off duty, the cinema was open. So with the chief telephonist’s permission you could go and see a film, but it was according (laughs) to sort of how the day was going whether you went or not.  But the pay was quite good I thought. It used to work out to about £100 a month, which at that time was jolly good pay.  You bought your own uniforms which when I first went we wore a sharkskin cloth material.


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