Betty Monica Still
In an interview a couple of years ago with Betty Still, Betty recounted her early life in Leamington and her work as a telephonist up to and through WW2, in Leamington and Coventry. She was born at 4 Victoria Road Leamington Spa. When she was five, the family moved to 42 Willes Road, her home until she was married.
When Betty left the grammar school aged 16 she went to train as a telephonist at the G P O. She finished school one Friday at the end of July 1937, and started work the following Tuesday (Monday was a Bank Holiday). There was a six-week training course, and in her words, “I hated it”. She enrolled in an evening class for shorthand and typing lessons and then on completion realised that she had little choice but to go on to work at the telephone exchange, which was then on the first floor of the old Post Office. There were a few surprises, – the minimum height requirement of 5’ 4”, (to enable operators to reach the bank of switches, as in the photograph above), working to the 24-hour clock, only girls from Leamington College were accepted, and the curious “split duties”, whereby the eight-hour working day was split into two shifts, 8 am – 12 noon and 1600 – 2000, with the afternoon off. Although Betty didn’t care much for her original training, she got on well with the job and with her colleagues. Until only a few years ago, a group of these wartime telephonists still met up regularly. At the time of the interview, Betty was the only one left.
At the outbreak of World War II, Betty became a trainee supervisor at the age of 19. She also carried out some training in a “school room” set aside on the upper floor at the post office. The war brought Leamington and District a great influx of government departments and their officials who took over the big houses on Kenilworth Road and Newbold Terrace. Officers from Canada, Czechoslovakia and Poland, Government Officials and the Camouflage Unit billeted in the town meant a huge increase in the volume of work. As the GPO exchange could barely cope, another exchange was built on the floor above, so that there were 20 positions on each floor. No-one working there could really understand why, when there was the constant threat of bombing, something as vital to communications as a telephone exchange should be built in such a vulnerable spot at the top of a building.
This odd thinking was not confined to Leamington: although it was not widely known, the Ministry of Supply, based at Warwick Castle, had an exchange built at the top of Caesar’s Tower (the only tower with electricity). Again, to the workforce, it did seem strange to build a telephone exchange at the top of the tallest tower for miles around. The work there was highly secret and so the government brought its own operators and supervisors from London. However, when they were on leave, Warwick commandeered Leamington supervisors to cover: ‘ordinary’ operators wouldn’t do because of the secret nature of the work.
Betty worked throughout the war. She was interviewed for the senior post at Nuneaton telephone exchange but was not appointed, as she was engaged to be married. As in many other professions, regulations at that time forbade the appointment of married women to senior posts. Betty’s “demotion” on her marriage in 1944 caused some embarrassment when she began work as an ordinary operator in Coventry amongst colleagues who had known her earlier as a supervisor.
During the war telephone exchanges had become more automated to cope with the volume of traffic and were being constantly updated. When a new post-war exchange was being planned for Wise Street in Leamington, those who had been employed during the war received a letter from the government asking them to “volunteer” to return to the old exchange whilst the new one was being built, enabling current staff to be trained in the latest equipment. There was also an exchange on Spencer Street built in about 1959, just off a little cobbled road to the right behind Spencer Street itself. By this stage Betty’s children were teenagers at secondary school and she went back to work as one of the so-called “volunteers”, working for two hours a day either in the mornings or in the afternoons.
(This article originally appeared in the Leamington History Group Newsletter, in 2019)