A historic moment in time passed quietly in Gunnedah last Saturday when former telephonists and technicians along with post office staff gathered to mark 50 years since the manual telephone exchange cut over to automatic on April 6, 1974.

Gallery: Trip down memory lane for telephone exchange as former staff mark 50-year anniversary – Gunnedah Times

The former work mates gathered in the function room at the Railway Hotel for a trip down memory lane as they browsed through photo albums and scrap books and reminisced about the many memorable moments that come with working closely for so many years.

They travelled from far and wide to join locals for an event to remember, including Boyd Gordon, a former linesman who now lives on the coast. Born in Gunnedah in 1931, Boyd has great memories of his working years and with his son Len was pleased to catch up with former technical staff and telephonists.

As the senior telephonist at the gathering, Fay Brown was given the honour of cutting the celebratory cake.

Fay Brown cutting the cake for the 50-year telephone exchange reunion in Gunnedah.

A blast from the past was provided by David Finlay who displayed items from his antique collection, including a mini shutter board, a foot warmer, wall telephones and other memorabilia.

Through fire, flood and drought the telephonists and technicians kept the town and villages connected through the central battery switchboards operated in six-to-eight-hour shifts, weekends and public holidays included. At 11pm the ‘night boy’ came on duty but during floods and times of emergency, the telephonists stayed on to help keep the communication lines open for subscribers.

In today’s modern, fast-paced world the thought of having to wait for a telephonist to connect a call would be hard to imagine to a generation used to instant results.

The former work colleagues also remembered their former travelling supervisor Miss Phyllis Bylund who died on March 17, at the age of 106. Overseeing the closure of the manual telephone exchange was part of her role as the telephone lines cut over to automatic in 1974.

Technicians on duty the day of the cut-over recalled the method known as ‘biting’ where street cables at the front of the new exchange were arranged to duplicate lines on both the old and the new exchange main distributing frames. On the Friday afternoon hundreds of links were inserted on the new exchange distributing frame and the new equipment isolated at the actual entry point of an incoming call. On Saturday, April 6, 1974, final checks were made and at 6.25am the telephonists were told not to accept further calls as all registers were blocked.

A blast from the past was provided by David Finlay who displayed items from his antique collection, including a mini shutter board, a foot warmer, wall telephones and other memorabilia.

A newspaper report of the day described the moment the sash chord was ripped and the old telephone exchange was isolated. At the same time, technicians were pressing home 120 plugs which connected the new exchange to the street cables and the subscribers. The moment all plugs were inserted the plugs were homed, all registers were freed to traffic and as the new exchange came to life, the old exchange fell silent. This moment was described by telephonists as ‘akin to losing an old friend’. At the time of the cut-over 33 switchboard operators lost their jobs, with eight telephonists and supervisors accepting transfers to Tamworth, while another six were transferred to nearby towns. Many of the remaining telephonists were unable to leave Gunnedah for personal reasons and were able to find other positions or retire.

Known affectionately as ‘hello girls, bitchy switchies’ and even ‘call girls’ the telephonists provided a personal and professional service to the many subscribers who relied on their local exchange for business and family connections, in Gunnedah and beyond.

Housed in a little green building between the post office and the new brick premises, the telephone exchange provided great employment opportunities for young women and great friendships were formed as the telephonists shared the good times and the tough times in a career that is being lost in the mists of time.

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